Driving by Design

“A Prairie Home Companion” driver and principal researcher Russ Ringsak ditched office life for life on the road in 1977.

A high-powered, suit-wearing architect put his career to the side to become a trucker, because he was restless and wanted to get out of an office building and back into the world.

That man is Russ Ringsak, now a driver, columnist and researcher for the once-weekly National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Ringsak, 68, says he enjoyed his original career in architecture, but “Office life was just kind of confining for me. At a drafting board I’d have to get up every 20 minutes for a cup of coffee. It was kind of just a permanent antsiness that finally got to me.”

Ringsak, of Stillwater, Minn., turned to trucking. As a college student at North Dakota State University, he had worked in construction, and he says he always enjoyed driving trucks and heavy equipment.

“I liked operating machinery. I just kind of wanted to get back outside,” he says.

In 1977, he sold all of his assets and bought a powder blue R-model Mack for $38,000. He rented a flatbed semi trailer and taught himself how to drive before signing on as an owner-operator. He hauled steel – his favorite – but later got laid off. He continued hauling potatoes, glass, paper, gravel, farm chemicals and auto parts, and he says he even got talked into hauling a reefer once.

Ringsak met Garrison Keillor, the host of “Prairie Home,” on a softball team in the early 1970s. They kept in touch, and in the early 1980s, “Prairie Home” went national. Ringsak suggested they could save shipping charges when they went on the road for shows by hiring him to drive a rental truck. The show took Ringsak on as a part-time tour contractor, and by 1990, he was a full-time driver for the show as well as its principal researcher.

In his 20 years hauling stage equipment for the show, Ringsak has regularly written columns for its website. Some of these columns were selected for his new book, Semi True: Seasons on the Road with A Prairie Home Companion’s Resident Writer and Truck Driver. The book highlights Ringsak’s adventures on the road from 1998 to 2001.

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“[Globe Pequot Press] found me, and they thought, ‘Why don’t we do a book of your website articles?'” Ringsak says. “We kind of tried to give [the book] some direction and arbitrarily picked three seasons.”

Ringsak says he and Globe Pequot are working on getting the book into truckstops as well. His first book, Minnesota Curiosities, is available nationwide.

Semi True highlights many of Ringsak’s adventures on the road with “Prairie Home.”

“One of my high points was doing a show in the auditorium theater in Chicago designed by Louis Sullivan, who in my opinion was one of the best American architects,” he says. “He and his partner really invented the skyscraper. He had such a great sense of style.

“The various FOX theaters are great. We’ve been to the FOX in Atlanta, the FOX in St. Louis. They’re all high points.”

He fondly recalls the time he was able to go to the CAT factory and drive a D8 cab right out of the assembly line. “I had to wait while they put the decals on it,” he says.

He says he also enjoys running the mountains. “I had a good time driving the 50 in Nevada,” he says, the highway that is known as “The Loneliest Road in America.”

He says he also enjoys traveling to the music cities of the South – Austin, Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans. “I think the nation forgets the debt is owes to the South for its music,” he says.

Ringsak says he is grateful for the opportunities “Prairie Home” has given him as a writer and driver.

“I will have to say that I really lucked out here, because driving a truck can be a lot of fun if you only have to do it once a week,” he says. “I understand how lucky it is because I’ve done a lot of hauling.

“It’s a tough go for a person to own their own truck, and it’s a tough go to get hired. It’s sort of underappreciated in our society – people that have to do actual work.”

Trucker Tales
Truckers hear a dozen stories a day out on the road, but retired driver Stephen D. Shearer didn’t want to let them go in one ear and out the other. He wanted to capture them on paper.

Shearer formed the collection of stories he gathered into his first book, Road Stories: Short Stories from America’s Highways.

“All of the stories were grown from a seed of truth that I found while I was driving,” says Shearer, 51. “They are the stories that are told at the coffee counter waiting for a shower, driving down the road listening to the CB, watching the sun rise on a new day. These are stories you know, because you told them to me.”

Available through Publish America’s Web site [www.publishamerica.com], Road Stories was released in May.

Shearer, a former trucker, Marine, master plumber, ordained minister and journalist, was inspired to write Road Stories after winning an honorable mention for his story “MTC” in the Truckers News Mark Twain Essay Contest. Shearer says “MTC” came to him on the road, parked at a Pilot truckstop.

“I pulled out the little steering wheel desk that I did my logs on, got a pad of paper and started writing before I forgot the story,” he says. “Instead of sleeping, I spent the next three hours writing out the story ‘MTC’ in long hand. I had gone to driving school at MTC and had a somewhat juvenile fantasy of doing something to show the school how much I had learned there and how much I had admired the retired truckers that taught me.”

Over the course of the next year, Shearer wrote about a dozen more short stories.

“MTC” is only one of many stories in Shearer’s collection. Other titles such as “Signs,” “Exit 187,” “Frontier Freight” and “Siege at the Truck Stop” are included, the last of which is being produced as an independent film in Springfield, Mo.

Shearer has turned another story included in the collection, “Lassiter,” into a novel he hopes to eventually publish as well.

“A first-time author is a nervous creature,” Shearer says. “Almost all of my stories have a truck orientation of one kind or another; it is my signature.”

Shearer, of Everton, Mo., was raised by his mother, a hard-news journalist, something Shearer says was a “rarity in the late ’50s and early ’60s.” They moved from town to town, sometimes as often as four times a year, Shearer said.

Shearer joined the Marines, “dealt with the late ’60s” and settled into plumbing. During that time, he traveled the country on his motorcycle, “going whichever way the wind blew,” he says. He eventually settled in Atlanta.

But Shearer missed the open road, missed traveling, seeing new places and meeting new and different people. After marrying late and subsequently separating from his wife, Shearer decided he needed a complete change of pace.

“I needed to change my life and its focus,” he says. “I recalled the pleasure of travel and said ‘Why not?’ when I saw a TV add for MTC in St. Louis.

“I remember when we traveled when I was young, that we always seemed to be in cars that could be considered to be geriatric, one step away from the auto graveyard. We broke down frequently. Invariably, the first person to stop and offer assistance would be a truck driver. During that era, they were truly the ‘Knights of the Road.’ I wanted to be one.”

So in 1993, Shearer joined a major carrier and pulled a reefer around the country, hauling mostly produce and groceries with occasionally dry loads.

But in 1996, due to health problems and a lack of money, Shearer had to retire from the road. In 2000 he retired completely to concentrate on his writing.

“I saw the abuse truckers must constantly suffer and learned how truckers very often prey on each other,” he says. “Any romantic ideals I had were soon shattered. I found how tough it is to make a living out there. I ended my three-year lease

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