Author's warning: adult language
Greetings to all of you and thanks for taking the time to listen to my story. I don’t get to talk to many people and am pleased to be having this conversation. I’m Nick, a long-distance trucker: a disappearing job and way of life. I drive my 18-wheeler coast-to-coast weekly with various kinds of cargo. My rig is actually my home – I don’t have a fixed address. Long-haul trucking is a weekly, boring journey across our highways, passing anonymously through truck stops and chain restaurants. Why do I do it? I don’t have good people skills which limits my other options and it’s the only thing I know how to do well.
Speaking of disappearing, a truck driver is ten times more likely to be killed on the job than an average American worker. Part of this is simply due to the amount of time that he or she puts in behind the wheel under all weather conditions. Oh, and by the way, our unhealthy life style causes major problems for us with obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes in the lead. Seventy per cent of truckers are a major threat to their own bathroom scales.
I own my rig consisting of a Volvo tractor with a 70-inch sleeper and a 53-foot dry van behind. The tractor alone cost me about $150,000. As an owner-driver, I have big-time expenses. My annual fuel cost alone is about $180,000 and rising, particularly now with diesel at more than $6.00 a gallon. I make a good living but I don’t have much of an opportunity to spend it either. Really doesn’t make sense as I think about it, but that’s my life and always will be for now and even later.
Most important to know regarding our future is that most freight now goes by what’s called inter-modally. That means that shipping containers are mainly carried by rail, ship, aircraft. The main job of most truck drivers these days is to carry these containers the short distances from rail yards or docks or what have you to the customer. Also, because of the shortage of long-haul truckers, companies are investing big bucks in autonomous vehicle development. We are the last of the Mohicans in the transportation industry.
But enough about this business and technical stuff. You may be interested in how I keep from going batshit when I’m on the road for long stretches? First of all, there is my fawn-colored chihuahua Juanita. She’s 12 and weighs seven pounds and is cute as a bug. She positions herself between my legs and usually sleeps when I’m on the road. If I am struggling to maintain control of my rig in bad weather, she keeps alert and barks when I get too close to, say, a four-wheeler ahead or a soft shoulder. She also barks when either of us needs to pee, a task that I often put off in order to maximize my driving time. She keeps my bladder in good working order.
You may have questions about my home life. Not much to tell so it won’t take much time. I was married for five years and we teamed up to drive a rig. Spending all that time together in close quarters turned out to be not such a good idea so we split up. No kids. After a long and busy stretch on the road, I often book a room in a cheap motel with a large parking lot. To tell the truth, these rooms are bigger but less comfortable than my sleeping accommodations on the truck but I need a change of scenery, dozing for days, watching TV non-stop, and eating hamburgers and fries.
Let me tell you a little bit about truck stops. The public might view them as oases in the desert but I disagree. My eyes start to water whenever I enter one of these stores. You’re bathed with bright, unforgiving light and shocked with never-ending aisles with shelves stocked with condoms, highly-caffeinated “energy” drinks, and nicotine pouches. These are the places where good health ends.
The entire truck stop industry is dominated by a few firms like Pilot Flying J that runs more than 750 locations, pumping more than seven billion gallons of fuel a year. Trucker food is expensive and unhealthy. Try to buy an apple in one of these stores. And then there are also the lot lizards who approach you when you’re parked, offering $40-60-80 services. Best to steer clear of them – they’re often druggies or want to case your load for high-priced cargo like computer chips.
I had parked my rig at a large truck stop in Colorado one late afternoon in March. Weather conditions were threatening. I would have pushed ahead to get through the Rocky Mountain front but I was forced to rest because of my 14-hour driving limit. I was reclining for a spell in my sleeper cabin which is comfortable – I even had a toilet and shower. There was a sudden tapping on my window. I was surprised but not on high alert because it was still daylight and I could clearly see who was trying to get my attention. To my surprise, it was an older, thin dude with long white hair, carrying an expensive-looking leather attaché case. No overcoat on a windy, near-dark lot in Nowheresville, Colorado. Very strange!
I opened the window and said: “Hey pops, watcha want?”
“I’m Jonas, sir, and I would like to have a short chat with you inside,” he replied. “I’m here to help you. I’m not peddling anything except possibly peace of mind.”
All of this was unusual. Probably some cockamamie scheme by grandpa who should have been rocking on his porch rather than struggling in a cold parking lot. But I was a little bored and thought that a chat might provide some entertainment. I’m also an ex-Marine and Jonas did not seem threatening. I could have knocked him over with a fly swatter.
“OK, buddy,” I shouted through the window. “Let’s have a little talk. I still can’t believe that you’re hanging out in this god-forsaken place on a cold winter evening.”
I opened up the driver-side door and he spryly hoisted himself up and eased into one of the chairs in my sleeper cab. He was wearing a fitted, three-piece suit and brushed off a few snow flakes from his shoulders. He then opened his case and handed me a business card.
He began a short monologue in a soothing, low voice: “I represent the BTA, the Benevolent Truckers Association. We are a trade group funded by the large trucking companies and religious organizations. My job is to talk to long-distance drivers like yourself to make sure that they are relatively trouble-free and with their personal affairs in good order. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions in my pursuit of this goal?”
“No bother. Let’s hear your questions, Mr. Jonas. You and the BTA may be able to help me in some way,” I replied.
“Thanks, Nick,” he then said.
This was somewhat odd, I thought to myself, because I had not told him my name. However, I then noticed that my ID tag was hanging on a hook in the cabin with my name in large, bold letters. He must have picked my name up from that.
He continued: “OK, next question. Do you have a will? This may seem to be prying but many truckers do not have one and I am prepared to help you generate one on the spot if needed. Not having one means that you will pass away intestate and state laws, rather than you will determine how the money you leave will be distributed when you pass.”
“Funny you should ask,” I replied. “I took a week off last year to make sure that all this legal stuff was well covered. No wife, no kids, no close relatives. Hard to believe but I will leave property and savings worth more than a million. I found a couple of non-profits that provide for the children and wives of truckers who pass. I checked them out and they're not scams. All my money will be left to them.”
“Excellent,” Jonas replied and ticked off a box on the questionnaire he was holding in his hand. “One more thing. Do you have any religious beliefs?”
“You’re getting a little personal here, Jonas, but what the hell. In for a penny. I’m not a religious man but I do attend church services when I can. But it’s a little hard to find religion on the road. Some of the large truck stops have chapels and I attend services when I can fit them into my schedule. I find them comforting.”
“Well,” Jonas responded, “I don’t have any more questions. You are in great shape materially and spiritually. It’s time for me to depart.” With that, he closed his case, stood up abruptly, and jumped out of the doorway. He disappeared in the broad expanse of the lot, encased in a whirling column of snowflakes.
I was now outside my rest period. I had let my truck idle during my rest time because of the bitter cold and snow could have caused it to seize up. I was ready to roll. I traveled along the access road and finally onto the main drag. Juanita sensed that we were rolling and crawled, as usual between my legs for the trip. Hello California. I’ll see you tomorrow.
I immediately sensed that something was wrong with my brakes. The pedal seemed to be a less responsive to pressure than normal so I started to pump it. This was not a good turn of events so I began to breathe deeply to calm myself. The brakes were surely in good repair – I never took any shortcuts with truck maintenance. Snow was also starting to build up on the road. Plows had not yet been dispatched to clean up the growing piles of snow. As luck would have it, I was also carrying a very heavy load which would not work in my favor in case of a total brake failure.
To make things worse, I was now beginning to descend one of those steep downward slopes you see in the Rockies. I mumbled to Juanita: "Hold on, Sweetheart. We may be in a spot of trouble."
She sensed that I was nervous and began to whine softly. Luckily, I had been on this part of the road many times before and knew that there was a runaway ramp on the right in a mile or two. This would be our salvation.
I was scanning the right side of the road to find the the ramp so I could turn off quickly and slow down, keep my rig intact. I was now doing more than 90 miles an hour and, suddenly, I had no brakes whatsoever. I frantically looked at the blurring side of the road, now in total panic mode, for the ramp but didn’t spot it. The swirling snow must have been obstructing my vision. Shit! Shit! Shit! We are goners. My truck spun off the road, tipped over, and burst into flames. That’s all she wrote.
I felt woozy and started to rub my eyes as I woke up. I looked around and did not see Juanita. Where could she have gone? Could I be in a hospital? Nope. It was a large room furnished in an old-fashioned way with thick but worn carpets and what looked like old-time furniture. I was sitting in an upholstered chair. Perhaps I was in an old hotel lobby. I tried to massage my arms to get my circulation going but could not seem to find them.
My vision cleared and I immediately noticed that there was a man sitting in front of me, holding a clipboard. He began to speak without introducing himself: “Greetings, Nick. I am pleased to welcome you. I was just going over your CV and noticed that you are a long-distance trucker.”
“Yep,” I replied. The reason for my short answer was that, first, I felt a little woozy and, second, I didn’t know where the fuck I was.
“Who are you?”
“Very, very good,” he ignored my question and continued to speak softly while glancing at an open folder in his lap. “We are seeing fewer and fewer of you long-distance truckers these days.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I replied rather somewhat curtly.
“Well, you will be pleased to learn that we have a great job assignment for you. We like to keep everyone busy. Yes, indeed! You will start immediately as a long-distance freight hauler for St. Peter’s Trucking. You will be transporting mainly boxes of religious literature. The distances are pretty long – we measure them in light years. However, you will have some company.”
With that, Juanita, panting slightly, trotted into the room and jumped onto my lap. She had her usual crooked smile on her face. I was pleased that she will accompany me in my new, celestial trucking job. Talk about long distance driving. This was the ultimate gig and the company will even provide the rig.