A husband and wife team pulling a stepdeck loaded with a small truck pulled up beside us on the gravel parking lot at the Livingston, Montana truck stop.
“We watched the load board every morning and by the time we left home we were willing to take anything to get out,” she told me. “I’m worried freight is dropping off earlier this year.”
Full of optimism we moved up the trucking ladder in July, dropping our 53 foot dry box trailer and picking up a stepdeck or dropdeck, platform trailer. Expecting to run hard into the fall, we were stopped dead. Freight fell off a cliff for us in Denver, Colorado on Monday, August 13th, the day we delivered our load-from-hell, a load we mothered for an entire week.
“I hate to get into politics,” she said. “But I think businesses are just waiting now, to see what happens (with the presidential election in November.) We’re not considering buying a new truck until we feel it’s right.”
Truck drivers are the economy’s canary in the coal mines. The Dow Jones Transportation Average (DJT) is well below it’s May high of 5,390. Truckers see things coming, it’s written large on the load boards.
My gut in September 2008 told me something was happening, changing. A year of shouting LIAR at the TV every time Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a Goldman Sachs boy, and US Federal Reserve President Ben Bernanke, an Ivory Tower boy, appeared to assure Americans that the subprime mortgage fiasco was “contained” prepared me for bad news.
My feeling is that big changes have happened, under our noses, to the landscape since the Great Financial Crisis began. Despite the business-media, and its all-sports-all-the-time reporting style continually pumping recovery-around-the-corner, fundamentals have changed.
Technology has eliminated jobs. Un-and under-employment continues high. Corporations are sitting on mountains of cash. They don’t need to invest it in jobs to make money. Banks are not lending to small businesses, who are the job creators. If their customers, us in the middle class have money to spare, jobs are created.
The “Fiscal Cliff” is looming for January 1, 2013, tax increases and benefit cuts. Everyone has an opinion on the fall-out, including the Congressional Budget Office, which is predicting a weaker economy in 2013.
And maybe there’s something else going on. Next year is 2013. A dreaded number 13. Just this morning friends told us their daughter is pushing her wedding off to 2014 to avoid a lifelong attachment to a 13. Can a 13 effect reach deep into the economy, for better or worse?
Who wants to buy a 2013 model car, big truck or trailer? Even MacGyver, who shakes his head at such nonsense, is trying not to let it affect his judgment as he builds his list of must-haves for a new trailer.
We need a new trailer because the Landstar trailer we are renting at $170 a week is costing us twice, in rental and in lost freight. We decided to become platform haulers -- requiring us to secure cargo with chains, straps and tarps -- because of the continued erosion of drybox freight to the major carriers and the railroads. We’ve been working on the change ever since we signed onto Landstar. Building the box for the Vespa was a major component because there should be no work without play. It’s a MacGyver rule.
The first four loads unfolded as anticipated. The rates matched our investment in time, skill and equipment. Our first load, North Carolina to Utah, beams for a rock crusher. Our second load, Idaho to New York, an industrial air conditioner. Our third load,West Virginia to California, a centrifuge and our fourth load California to Florida medical equipment bound for South America.
Load number five paid well, and took us out of the Florida’s freight dead zone, to Colorado. But a nasty combination of the heavy spread axle stepdeck, referred to as LEADdeck by some Landstar agents, because it scales at 15,500 pounds and a load heavier than advertised by the shipper, we found ourselves overweight on one axle.
The forward trailer axle of our spread axle configuration -- the two axles on the trailer are 10 feet one inch apart, unlike a tandem axle on a dry box where the axles are one behind the other -- weighed 1,680 pounds more than the 20,000 pounds most states allow on an individual axle of a spreda axle trailer.
Three times, MacGyver chained and tarped the load in the humidity-laden, oppressive 100 degree temperatures of Central Florida before it was adjusted correctly. Because of this painfully slow, and exhausting start, and the weekend, it was a full week before we delivered the load in Colorado. Ouch!
The trailer creates another problem for us, because it's so heavy, freight over 10,000 pounds makes illegal it most of Canada, eliminating many potential loads for us.
In trucking there are many equations to ensure your truck is making money. There is the posted rate per mile, there is the rate ALL miles to the truck, including deadhead-to-pickup and deadhead-to-layover or deadhead-to-the-next-load, unpaid and paid out of the rate per mile, and then there is the rate per day. Our great rate per mile and ALL miles rate turned into a $550 a day trip for seven days. Ouch!
And there we sat, in Denver, staring at the computer. Not only did the load board have almost 9,000 fewer total loads on it than in July, the posted rates for flatbed and stepdeck trailers pulling legal loads, 8 feet six inches or narrower and 13 feet six inches or lower, were down by $1.00 to $1.50 per mile west of the Mississippi.
One loaded wanted a team to pull a heavy load for $2.18 a mile, we would get 73% of that rate, plus we pay $170 a week to rent the trailer, fuel and often tolls. Not worth moving the truck.
Since there was no freight we decided to use the time productively. We needed a little work on the tractor, we needed to visit my mother -- where MacGyver spent two days with his head under the sink installing a dishwasher -- and visit his mother where he setup her new computer with MAC OS Mountain Lion. We took loads to cover our fuel, trailer rental, weekly deductions for plates and insurances and that left us with $500 a day for the load.
We thought our luck had turned when, on Friday afternoon, August 24, we secured a load out of Portland, Oregon to Hamilton, Ontario. It vanished an hour before loading time on Monday morning, after we had deadhead the 275 miles and paid for the fuel. Suspicious maybe?
The message was clear, go east of the Mississippi as soon as possible, more opportunity. Making the best of the situation we booked a load to Montana and satisfied a four year itch.
We have wondered about the historic town of Livingston on I-90. Although it’s an easy mile walk from the truckstop at exit 330, in the right temperature, we launched the Vespa. Fifty-two miles from Yellowstone National Park, Livingston it's a tourist town, with all the influence that travelers bring, baked onto its quaint architecture. Brick buildings graced with artful neon at the historic Murray Hotel and the local Chinese restaurant, The Wok.
We head south of US 89 toward Yellowstone to see the countryside and were greeted by a fire near Pine Creek in Paradise Valley.
Back in town, we stopped at Gil’s Goods, a pizza and deli that bills itself as “sustainable, organic, local” adopting the Portlandia “put a bird on it” as its graphic element.
The food was indeed delicious, even though the four-kinds of lettuce, green and red, didn’t come from a local garden, but the Sysco food truck. The server said they intend to build a hydroponic garden on the roof for next year.
The roasted-garlic, thin-crust pizza had carmelized garlic cloves the size of my thumb, soft but firm to the bite. Despite my no sugar status of almost 90 days, I was hot and parched, Montana forest fires left grit in the air, the homemade Lemon Ginger Soda brought me back to life.
By the time you read this, we will be moseying across the country, at 55 mph, to save fuel, North Dakota, crossing the Mississippi on Sunday, to reposition within striking distance of Illinois, ready for freight the day after Labor Day.