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How America keeps on trucking
Ray Utterback checks his controls in his truck before making a trek to San Jose for deliveries. Utterback has 30-plus years in the trucking industry. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL
Like anything cool, it starts with a stack of paperwork.

Just fifteen minutes shy of the arrival of my driver for the day – a 20-year Mountain Valley Express wheelman named Ray Utterback – I took in the scene of the driver’s room that reminded me a lot like a high school lockeroom without the references to girls.

And to be completely honest, I was scared to death.

I had absolutely no idea who the man I’d be spending the next 12 hours with would be. Learning about him would be a chore if he wasn’t the talkative time. Lets just stay I hit the jackpot.

The two of us conversed about the day while staffers readied the bill of lading for each of the dozen stops we’d be making in San Jose – a city I only know as the home of the Sharks, technological firms, and a subpar collegiate football team.

To say the least, this was going to be a learning experience.

Now what caught me slightly off guard was when Ray (when you spend that much time with someone a first-name basis is called for) pulled out a three-foot metal bar and started approaching me with it.

Figuring it was too early to end up in the emergency room, I asked about whether that was the “tire thumper” that truck drivers use to make sure that they don’t suffer a blowout on the road. Seems genius enough.

Ray led me through a walk around of the vehicle to check everything from the trailer attachments – we’d be pulling two trailers for the first leg of the journey – to each and every light that lets drivers know that we’re rolling down the road.

It was only a matter of minutes before we were pulling out of the terminal lot and headed to San Jose.

Right now would be a good time to point out that things don’t necessarily seem so much lower when you’re riding in an International big rig – only realizing your height when you scale the two steps and pull yourself into the seats.

Drivers keep their eyes moving
And even though it was Friday, we managed to make it to our destination with almost no traffic whatsoever. It was something that blew my mind and gave me even more time to soak up the surrounding unfamiliar territory.

One of the reassuring things about Ray – who was donning his Driver of the Year Jacket from 1994 – was that he was constantly informing me about the proper ways to navigate such a massive piece of machinery down the Interstate.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes moving to make sure you know everything going on around you at all time, and you can’t keep fixed on a single object because things are moving when you’re on the highway,” Utterback said “You also want to aim high while you’re steering so you can see what’s taking place ahead of – kind of like checkers when you’re thinking three or four moves ahead.

“And the most crucial part is making sure that people can see you – even though you’re in such a big rig, sometime people just aren’t paying attention.”

It was solid advice from somebody who wears his safety pins on both his Mountain Valley Express Hat and on his letterman’s-style jacket – which he dutifully hangs when a delivery or a pickup looks like it might get a little messy.

But when it comes to taking care of his job, Ray is all business. Not a single piece of paperwork was left uncompleted before we’re off to the next stop, and on a day like Friday, there were plenty of things to take care of.

Here’s a brief sampling:

9:20 a.m. – Breezing past the typically congested El Charro exit on I-580.

9:40 p.m. – A brief traffic backup at Hopyard Road as we prepare for our southbound trek on I-680 to San Jose.

11:13 a.m. – Drop 12 pallets at the San Jose Mercury News – taking the time to eye the massive stacks of newsprint and the robotic machines that move the heavy roles.

11:37 a.m. – Dump empty trailer across the street to make surface deliveries easier. A tug-test to determine whether or not we’re properly hooked up is successful, and we’re on our way.

12:15 p.m. – Delivery at a regular stop where Ray is quick to make small talk with the staffers he’s gotten really close with on his route that has spanned nearly 20 years

12:38 p.m. – Two boxes of computer components are dropped off.

1 p.m. – Help hand unload an awkward pallet of blinds to a regular customer.

1:10 p.m. – Another drop off that requires Ray to park on the surface street because of a flooded parking lot and a tight turn to get back to the dock.

1:22 p.m. – Two cases of cigarettes and cigars are dropped off at an industrial wholesaler.

1:35-1:58 p.m. – Lunchtime at Burger King cut short because of a dispatch call that sent us to Straight Line Steering at 2:17 p.m.

2:54 p.m. – Drop off at an aqua purification business.

And as you can see, those are only the deliveries. Before he headed home we made three more pickups that by now are on their way to other parts of the United States.

In the spirit of full foreclosure, I too would get irritated when stuck behind a truck that seems like he could have either taken another route or speed up in order to avoid impeding traffic.

But it wasn’t until Friday that I realized nearly everything we purchase – from food, to electronics, to produce, to clothes – gets there on the back of a tractor-trailer.

And fortunately we have a top-notch outfit like Mountain Valley Express – a business with roots as humble as they get – to call our own.

So the next the time you see a truck with a decal that says “Go Big Green,” navigating surface streets or making its way down the freeway, take the time to wave.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get Ray. I guarantee that he’ll wave back.

Editor’s note: A look at one of the drivers who is responsible for helping deliver everything we consume from apples to zinc vitamins as businesses, households, farmers, and manufacturers will appear Monday.