Fish on the Highway

By John Latta
Executive Editor
[email protected]

Throughout the election campaign and in its aftermath, I kept hearing about a divided America. It kept cropping up in discussions/debates/arguments/fights about who had the best “vision” of America. From the biggest election battlegrounds to the smallest, we heard about the inevitable division between “our vision of America” and “their vision of America.”

What about your vision of America? It seems to me truckers have a unique vision of America. I don’t mean your political vision, but the America you see every day out the windshield. Perhaps truckers see the country the way no other group of people does. Who but truckers, as a group, go to places all over America every day, every week, every month, all year long, “at work” virtually every minute of that time?

You see America as locals see it. For the OTR trucker the entire country, or at least very big chunks of it, is your workplace. You see America much the way local delivery drivers see their hometown. America is where you work just as other people work in offices or factories. It’s a place you feel at home in, that you know well, wherever you are in it.

Business executives and salespeople who travel the country fly to most places they visit. So do sports teams, visiting bigwigs and most people on vacation. Their introduction to a city is via an airport, a cab or rental car and a hotel, none of which have any real local feel. They are welcomed by fellow executives or tourist handlers and given a little special treatment. Then they retrace their steps to leave town.

They get a sort of Potemkin Village view of America. Grigori Potemkin allegedly built elaborate fake villages to disguise misery, so Catherine the Great would be impressed when she toured Southern Russia. She wasn’t seeing reality, and the traveling businesswoman, sales rep or tourist in America, whether they are from India or Indiana, don’t see everyday reality either. They are strangers picking out the things that spike their interest – not watching everyday lives pass them by.

When New Yorkers who rarely leave Manhattan visit Kansas wheat fields or Chicago suburbs, what are they thinking and feeling? Surely not the thoughts of someone who considers the area home, or, like truckers, their workplace. Truckers do not ooh and ahh at every haystack in Michigan. You are not strangers in any part of America, and you are not wandering around out of touch with locality.

Locals don’t change their ways for you, roll out the red carpet for you or tidy everything up and hide stuff under sofa cushions, then freshen up to meet you and pretend they’re like that all the time. Consider how many places in America you are really a “local,” fitting in, running into friends and people you work with all the time.

There’s a scientific principle that says it’s hard to observe something as it really is because the very act of observing it changes it. But for drivers, maybe that doesn’t apply. You do observe America, and you see Americans as they work and eat and sleep. Mao Zedong, the Chinese leader, once said, “The people are like water, and the army is like fish.” Of course, he was propagandizing, but I think of drivers like this, moving through any place in mainstream America, fitting in so well they go virtually unnoticed, and, in turn, seeing an America few of us see. America doesn’t change when you pass by because you are an ordinary part of the working day. If you rode through town in a motorcade shilling for votes, perhaps Mao would have said, “The people are like water, and the army is like a giraffe.”

A lot of people see a divided America. Politicians isolate blocks of people and try to win their votes, dividing the American people up like pieces of pie and squabbling over them. Manufacturers and marketers look to “retired America” or “Asian America” or “rural America” to make their profits, and music industry entrepreneurs take aim at a thin slice of America’s youth. It’s their job. But out of your windows you see your workplace and all the people in it sharing the day with you. I think you see one America where too many people see divisions.