Long-haul literary: Former owner-operator’s memoir of the life
It is seventy-hour workweeks without overtime. Piecework, but you’re not paid for every piece. Driving without sleep, sometimes. Unpaid time at loading docks. Going without a shower for a few days. Truck-stop crimes committed in the names of food and coffee. Heavy traffic and threats by the minute to your life, your truck, and your customer’s freight. An occupation of noise, vibration, health risks, and hearing loss. It is the best of jobs, it is the worst of jobs — Grand Tour, sweatshop, sweet dream, recurring nighmare.
Pay isn’t always what recruiters promise. Your home-time is at a dispatcher’s convenience, Tuesday and Wednesday one month, Sunday and Monday the next, Saturday afternoon to Sunday evening the next — your company will tell you that’s a weekend. Drivers quit, sign on at other carriers, and quit again and again. Annual employee turnover at most trucking companies exceeds 100 percent, and with good reason — trucking isn’t for everyone.
You arrive on time for a 5:30 a.m. loading appointment, open the trailer doors, and back in. The shipping clerk says, “I’ll come out to your truck when the paperwork’s ready,” and he does, at 4 p.m. You’ve been up since 5 a.m. Your delivery is set for 4 o’clock the next morning 768 non-stop miles away and you don’t dare show up late, but that’s not the clerk’s problem. Have a nice night…
People often wanted to know if I drove the same route all the time.
“No,” I’d say. “I drive irregular linehaul. I’m all over the map.”
“You’re a Teamster, aren’t you?”
“No. These days, most truck drivers aren’t union members.”
Non-union, irregular-route trucking isn’t eight daily hours on the job then a commute home to the family, five days and 40 hours looking forward to another weekend, week following predictable week, and paid holidays. It is camping out two, three, four, or five weeks in your truck. Maybe a load gets you home for an evening, maybe not. Think of day shift, swing shift, or graveyard and of working any one, two, or three of them — or split parts of them — in the same 24-hour period, then other parts in the next 24, no two days ever alike, day after day. You take your time off 500, 1,600 or 2,500 miles from home….
They could have called it “unpredictable” or “sporadic” — it is both of those — but “irregular” is the preferred shorthand because no single, regular route is followed and no two routes are exactly alike. Truckload after truckload, year after year, you hardly ever see the same dock twice. You haul whatever to wherever, whenever….
Your pathways on the content cross and cross again, like scribbles on a blackboard. You see the country coming and going.
You earn extra pay for multiple stops, so you run Genuine American Oak tables (made in China) from Fife, Wa., to Lee’s Summit, Sedalia and Jefferson City, Mo., Louisville, Ky., and Norfolk, Va. Refrigerators from Denver to Helena, Great Falls and Havre, Mont. Paper towels from Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, Commerce, Pacoima, Pomona and Lancaster, Calif.
Many of your loads are expedited: they emphatically cannot deliver late. They’re “hot.” A receiver’s dock is 2,400 miles away and you have to arrive between 1:45 a.m. and 2 a.m. three-and-a-half days after your pickup. You’re an hour early. Or your load is due at a consignee 10 hours after you leave the shipper. You driver every minute of the 10 hours to get it there on time — freight couldn’t be hotter than that…
Most of the truck drivers I met out there were intelligent, hardworking men and women, some with formal educations far beyond high school, many with the common sense no college degree ever conferred. Everyday people. The usual assortment of human and political persuasions. Rednecks. Liberals. Rush Limbaugh devotees. Some were openly gay and some were probably lesbians.
Straight or not, a woman in the driver’s seat scared some guys and they gave it up on the CB.
“Ain’t you got a husband to do the work?”
“Why don’t you get back in the bedroom, where you belong?”…
Crap, all of it. Trucking takes all kinds and if you stay out here long enough you’ll meet them. Drivers who talk to themselves in parking lots. Hyper-social types who can’t shut up in restaurants and truckers’ lounges. Quiet, self-assured old hands. Cowboys who can’t see past big hoods and chewing tobacco. Arrogant newcomers from white-collar fields who think they’re smarter and better, who are nervous about getting down with the rest of us, who don’t learn to truck faster than anyone else….
You turn on your CB — part tool, part toy — and click through the channels: 15 on the Grapevine, 17 up and down I-5 in California and Oregon, 21 between Southern California and Phoenix, 19 just about everywhere else. Truckers key up to ask about road conditions and the weather, give each other Smokey Bear reports, tell lies and true-life tales. Everyone talks shop. Tell me about your company, I’ll tell you about mine. When a carrier has trouble keeping drivers, when a fleet manager has trouble keeping promises, when a dispatcher is a habitual liar, truckers name names. Then they talk about four-wheelers, hunting, fishing, freight, trucks, truck stops, fuel prices, sports, politics, religion, food. Men talk about women and women talk about men. Sometimes you hear whole conversations. Sometimes you catch a few words before the voices fade and the drivers are out of range.
“What do they call you?”
“They call me Basket Case.”
“Do you know the difference between a billboard and a patrol car?”
“Good deal. You’re front door.”
“Peterbilt is the only truck I’d take to a desert island.”…