A Wintry Drive

photo 5(4)
Trusty Penske 26 footer.

I climbed into the Penske truck and the first thing I did was pop in an 8-track tape and sing “On the Road Again” with old one lung Willie.  ….Not!  …8-tracks don’t exist anymore.  Actually, I jumped into the truck, plugged in a GPS guidance system and turned the radio to a classic rock station.  I left Alexandria, Virginia mid-morning and drove north to Pennsylvania just ahead of a February snow storm arriving from Tennessee.  The roads were fine, even with all the news of ice and snow everywhere on the East Coast.  I went a little overboard in the size of the truck, but I decided to get the biggest possible just in case, so I rented a 26 foot 2 axle truck.  It was 13.2” tall and square; not very aerodynamic.   Driving with a GPS is both a blessing and a curse.  You don’t have to think too much, but as a result you end up on the most heavily trafficked corridors.  No driving through small towns in the countryside – just freeways and cement all the way.  I did plan the route, but I didn’t try to second guess the GPS to take more scenic routes.  I just drove.

In August of last year, I started this initiative.  Since I live in Spain and work with factories that produce hand painted garden pots, I decided to start wholesaling to Stateside garden centers.  Nobody is wholesaling Spanish pots in the States to speak of, so I decided to try and start.  Last summer I went to the Independent Garden Center Show (IGC-East) held at National Harbor and there I met many garden center owners that were interested in Spanish pots.  I managed to write 4 orders, which I calculated would be just barely sufficient to cover the cost of production and the delivery trip.   The agreement was that I would deliver the orders between February 15th and March 15th, in plenty of time for the spring garden pot season.

I have some really great friends (Don and Diane) in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and through them, I was able to send a 40 foot container for unloading and storing until I arrived with my truck.  I tried to time my arrival to the States so I could rent a truck and meet the container as it arrived for unloading.  I didn’t meet the container, but I arrived in the afternoon after it was delivered.  Jim, the owner of the warehouse wanted to load me immediately rather than wait for the following morning and coldest part of the day.  So, very quickly I had the pallets in my truck and then I drove over to Don and Diane’s for the night.

The following day, I started my delivery route.  The first stop was Dee’s Nursery and Florist located at Oceanside New York, which meant I had to enter the mess of New York city just a little south of Yonkers (love that name!).  I paid $45 dollars to cross the George Washington Bridge, and was told to be happy because other trucks are charged up to $95.  After my warm welcome, I started south through the Bronx.  My GPS wanted to put me on Expressways and several times at the entry ramps, I learned that no trucks were allowed.  So I drove east while my GPS stubbornly told me to make U-turns.  I knew if I made it across the island, I would hit a major street that would take me to my destination.

At Dee's with Tom.
At Dee’s with Tom.

I arrived at to Dee’s snow plowed parking lot mid-morning.  Dee’s Nursery and Florist is very large.  I would bet there is at least 5 acres under roof?  There I met Tom who is the owner along with his wife Adele.  Tom was really friendly and just a generally happy guy.  He and his crew immediately began to unpack the pallets.  I wandered through the garden center before leaving.  In each section, there were 1 or 2 people prepping for the coming season.  I think I saw maybe 2 customers there.  It was all preparation.

For the past couple of years, I have been working with a large box store retailer which is headquartered a little south of Providence, Rhode Island.  So I decided to drive up and visit the two people I work with.  I put the hammer down so I could make it before 5pm, and just barely succeeded.  I arrived to the headquarters and tried to park in the parking lot.  A suspicious security guide met me and told me where to park my big white Penske truck, which turned out to the the furthest corner of the property.  After a chat and a walk through the warehouse and business, I was back on the road again.

With my next stop being Ithaca, New York and all the press about the bad storms around Boston, I ignored my GPS ‘s suggestion and headed south instead of north.  Also, I was scared about late afternoon traffic around Boston.  I ended up driving through the Catskill Mountains.  I started the drive and by early evening I was looking for a place to stop.  The wind was blowing my truck around a bit and as it grew later, the night truck drivers were hitting the road.  I quickly learned that the night truckers have very little patience for a big white Penske truck on the road.  As I puttered up and down hills, I was pressed to the side of the road as large trucks rushed past me at breakneck speeds.   The trip through the Catskills was demanding – not particular difficult driving but with pots in the back, I could not make any quick stops or turns.  So, I had to keep my eyes peeled and anticipate each turn and stop.

At Ithaca with Derek.
At Ithaca with Derek.

The next day, I pulled out of the Catskill Mountains and started a descent into Ithaca.  A lttle earlier, when I was fueling up the truck I asked a lady if the countryside was a little flatter around Ithaca and south towards Pennsylvania.  She looked at me with big confused eyes and told me there were hills pretty much everywhere.  I felt a little embarrassed at asking such a stupid question but very shortly after that, the country started to open up and smooth out.  Thinking back, maybe the lady had never traveled more than 40 miles from her home?

I grew up in Montana which is wheat, cattle and timber country.  When I pulled into Ithaca, I swear it could have been Missoula, Montana.  The tree cover is little different and the mountains a bit smaller, but the general terrain, valleys, roads and rivers have a similar feel – and there was snow on the ground.  As I drove past a couple of timber cutting plants, I started feeling very much at home.  I pulled into the Ithaca Agway True Value store, jumped out and went in.  The hardware center was kind of dirty and cluttered, with a feel very much of a country store.  I asked the clerk behind the cash register “Is this horse country?”  He looked at me like I was stupid.  So I tried again.  What sort of ag economy do you have around here?  Cattle, horses, hogs?  What do people raise around here?  He still looked at me like I was stupid.  I then asked “What do you sell the most of?”.    “Well”, he said, “We sell mostly shovels and salt”.  …So much for my attempt at a stimulating conversation.

Derek unloaded me and he led me into an office for my check.  I left a can of olives and a block of Spanish manchego cheese for Stephanie (my contact) and then got back on the road south to my next stop near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  I finally did get to drive through some countryside on my way to East Berlin and Cashman’s True Value.  On the way, I was thinking of sharp jokes I could make about visiting East Berlin, but I didn’t get a chance to make a single joke when I arrived.

At East Berlin with Karen.
At East Berlin with Karen.

At Cashman’s I was met by Karen who was super nice.  The unloading went smoothly and after dropping the olives and cheese and collecting my check, I left East Berlin heading south.  It wasn’t 30 minutes before I received a call from Karen about broken pots.  For a pottery delivery man, the scariest sentence that can be uttered is “We have found broken pots!”.  I had a long chat with Karen and assured her that they would be reimbursed for any breakage.  Karen was very patient and provided suggestions based on her 12 years of unpacking pallets.  My Spanish amigos were a little off base with the packing of one pallet of pots.  I am getting to be an expert on broken pots and packing methods.  I won’t bore you here with details, but instead write a post about it sometime.  Sufficient to say that Karen’s concerns were addressed and I kept the hammer down headed south.

At Blue Mount Nursery with Tiffany and my daughter Matilde.
At Blue Mount Nursery with Tiffany and my daughter Matilde.

My last stop was in Sterling, Virginia at the Blue Mount Nursery.   I pulled in to unload and was met by Tiffany.  The nursery was in the preparation stages and Tiffany indicated that the pots would be staged near the entrance.  The unloading went smoothly and as I pulled onto Leesburg Pike headed east, it started to snow.  I dropped the truck back at Alexandria as the snowstorm increased intensity.  My brother-in-law Tim picked me up and we drove to his place in Annandale in very slow beltway traffic.  The following day, there was 8 inches of snow on the ground and icy streets.  I finished the trip at just the right moment.

Overall, the trip went very well.  All the pots got delivered, along with cans of Spanish olives and Manchego cheese.  I learned some lessons and I have a cost baseline to work with for planning future deliveries.  I will continue to look for area wholesalers to work with and go factory direct for them, but also I will continue to explore and develop my own wholesaling business.  I will be at the IGC-East show again this year and hope to be doing a February delivery next year again. Also, I have provided information for interested garden centers at our newly revamped webstore, which you can see at www.cactuscanyonceramics.com.

Thanks for reading.  – Steve

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