When the road is home
Living full-time in the truck can be a way to find freedom and financial success.
Expedited team drivers Phil and Diane Madsen from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota woke up one day and realized that while they owned plenty of things, their things owned them, too.
They decided that they could build wealth, clear debt and experience real freedom if they got rid of the material possessions anchoring them to a home they seldom had time to enjoy. Much to the shock of their friends and family, they sold their cars, furniture and household goods, put a few keepsakes in storage and hit the road with a much lighter load.
The notion of what the Madsens call “property-free” trucking describes a subculture of truckers who live the majority of their lives on the road. Home-free truckers are also in hot demand with fleets trying to operate under the pressure of catering to the home-time-happy majority of drivers. A trucker who wants to run hard without the conflict of scheduling home time is a recruiter’s dream. A team like the Madsens, willing to stay out on the road, more than doubles their value to their company. But why would someone give up the comforts of a home base in exchange for a seemingly rootless life on the road?
Truckers reside full-time in their trucks for all kinds of reasons. Some choose the life. Others have it chosen for them. For a few, it’s a last resort before the repo man comes knocking. It’s the hard-luck stories of truckers “forced” to live in their trucks that generate many of the negative trucker stereotypes out there. Some truckers themselves use mildly derisive labels like “wanderer” or “gypsy” to describe the “mobile-homeless” trucker. But for the Madsens, there’s nothing negative about it. Their decision to sell their possessions and hit the road full-time gave them the means to extract money, adventure and joy from their trucking profession, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The couple came to trucking after successful earlier careers. Diane Madsen is an attorney and was general counsel for Gov. Jesse Ventura’s administration. Phil Madsen is a financial consultant and well-known computer guru who helped propel Ventura into political superstardom. They met on the campaign and decided to seek second careers where they could start over together. In August 2003 they launched their expedited business driving team for FedEx, and a year later, they sold their cars, home and possessions to further simplify their trucking life.
“Sure, most couples say they’d go nuts being together 24/7, but we love it, and sometimes we have to argue over who gets to drive. It’s always an adventure,” Phil Madsen says. His enthusiasm for their way of life is contagious, and they find new friends wherever they go. “We have an expanding network of close trucking friends all over the country. There are a lot of great people out here who are doing what they love to do. Sure, like any industry, there’s going to be the negative, bad apples. But we are attracted to those like us, who love what they do.”
The Madsens specialize in critical-shipment freight. Loads include items like museum art, space shuttle components, medical equipment and otherwise “hot freight,” which must be moved immediately. They drove company trucks for three years before purchasing a 2006 Volvo VNL with an ARI Legacy custom sleeper for more than $250,000. They paid it off in 2006 and have begun saving now to buy their next truck – with cash. The interior resembles a tricked-out motor home more than a typical big rig, with conveniences like a microwave, convection oven and full bath with a shower (and, coming soon, a washer/dryer).
While they don’t have children, they have family scattered around the country and say they get to see them more now than when they had to rush home to mow the lawn or trim the trees. It helped that Phil Madsen had an extensive financial planning background as he mapped out their new plan, but they both agree it’s the opportunity to be together that most drove them to the arrangement. “We really enjoy our life on the road, and this is such a great adventure without the distractions and burdens of owning a lot of stuff,” Phil Madsen says. In their free time, they go to museums, state parks, libraries and bookstores or take long walks on nearby beaches. “Instead of rushing home, we enjoy wherever we are at the moment,” he says.
This enthusiasm is one shared by Steve Brosnan, an owner-operator from Las Vegas who hauls oversize loads for ATS Specialized out of St. Cloud, Minn. He’s been a long-haul trucker since he was 19 years old and has tried a variety of ways to make it in trucking over the last 30 years, including extended time away from home and less lucrative but more family-oriented short-haul gigs. While he was able to spend more time with his wife and children when he ran local, it became clear over time that it wasn’t working out for any of them. One day, his family conducted an “intervention” around the kitchen table and told him he ought to go back out on the road full-time.
“I guess it’s just better this way. I’m more suited to stay out here than I am to be home,” Brosnan says. He stays in phone and e-mail touch with his two children and takes his son out on the road during the summer months. He and his wife remain cordial, and he keeps their home his official base of operations. She handles his mail, and he keeps up his end of the finances. But for all practical purposes, he lives on the road.
Brosnan doesn’t see much downside to his chosen profession, and the freedom gives him the time and finances to indulge in his other passion: flying small aircraft. Known by his handle, “FlyBoy,” Brosnan lives for the times he exchanges asphalt for altitude. “I have more time and financial freedom to fly,” says the certified pilot. He’s rented planes in small airports all around the country. He also has the opportunity to pick and choose loads. “I don’t have to accept a low-paying load just because I’m trying to get home,” he says. “I chase the money, and it works out for me.”
Brosnan says he’s part of a trucking subculture that’s not well understood and likely rooted in the psyches of the drifters of a bygone era. “I live a solitary lifestyle that’s more like the old-time cowboys, explorers and seamen. I’m most comfortable behind the wheel or in my rig. I don’t really feel the need for much personal social contact,” he says. While he’s connected via e-mail and cell phone, he says he can go for weeks without actually talking to a human being in person other than ordering a meal from a truckstop waitress. “But it’s OK. I like my life,” he says, “and it’s my choice to stay out here. It’s a way of life that gets in your blood and makes you unsuited for other occupations.”