‘Why I wanna drive’ — rookie CDL holder braces for new journey pulling tank

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We’ve gone four-wheelin’ up to Louisville today for the Mid-America Trucking Show. Meantime, a window into the motivations and aspirations of a new over-the-road specialist you might see running out of a Superior Carriers terminal South of Chicago to various points around the region. Robin Toepp of South Bend, Ind., sent along this guest post before she accepted that offer and her time out of that terminal started. As of last week she was still learning to ropes at the company with a trainer. 

This isn’t her first lap around the track, though, as it were. Before this, she was in a straight truck, though under 26,001 lbs., as she writes, and that follows work long in the past as a radio and print journalist before she became a mom. She wanted to get the word out about her somewhat unique place in trucking, one of among just around 6-9 percent (depending on who you ask) of truckers who are female. She says her current carrier does seem “genuinely interested in meeting the needs of incoming women drivers. In fact, of the last four trainees at this terminal, three of us have been women.” One complication in her case dealing with all that comes with pulling tank? She’s only five feet tall, she adds. 

But she deals, for a variety of reasons explored in her story below. 

Interestingly, too, she has a family connection to trucking radio. Her father had a trucking-famous cousin in “Road Gang” legend Charlie Douglas, whose WWL New Orleans AM show was among the pioneering programs of a particular sort of overnight trucking radio. Other, perhaps more well-known names in trucking radio also found their voices there after Douglas. 

Robin ToeppRobin Toepp

If you’re headed to MATS, what are you most looking forward to in that veritable city of trucking inside another, as it were? Drop us a note here. Here’s Toepp’s piece:

Why I wanna drive, by Robin Toepp
It was dark. The early morning sky was just beginning to show deep shades of blue and rain was beginning to hit the windshield. The force of the wind was turning my truck into a sail, despite carrying a good-size load of products, and my grip on the steering wheel was firm. Lightning lit up the sky while I drove east down the central Illinois interstate.

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How did I get here?

At 45 years old I abandoned my previous lines of work as a journalist and stay-at-home mom to become a truck driver. No more cushy office chairs or business suits with pantyhose. No more wiping drippy noses, filling sippy cups, making trips to library story-times and mediating rowdy little boys who while away long stretches of winter shut-in time having lightsaber “penis wars.”

I can’t even believe I just wrote that last sentence, because I was raised to speak and act with a sense of decorum. The phrase no doubt will make my mother slightly cringe that her well-spoken daughter – a daughter put in ballet classes because she was a tomboy who preferred to play outside in the woods, and thus had dirty knees and didn’t stand up straight; a daughter who was sent to cotillion classes on Friday evenings as a 13-year-old, where dresses and white gloves were a requirement and Coca Cola was sipped from a straw in a small glass bottle; a daughter who better act like a lady and not embarrass her family – is now a bad-ass truck driver.

The pantyhose and pajamas have been traded in for blue jeans with permanent grease stains. Sippy cups are gone in favor of a hot coffee-filled thermos, and the words that come out of my mouth when a car cuts me off … Let’s just say the country-club set would probably look so far down their noses they would see … well, I don’t actually know what they would see because I think truck drivers are gaining such respect these days that they aren’t viewed with the same preconceptions as they were 20 years ago.

I have met some amazing, intelligent, articulate men out here on the road. I have seen a few women, but not many. You have to be smart out here. You have to know your stuff. We crunch numbers when negotiating the weird pay structures and benefits packages trucking companies offer. We constantly run calculations for fuel miles, taking into consideration speed and payload. We are mindful of wind and weather and drivers racing around us.

My dad was an executive in advertising. He is creative, intelligent and business savvy, and opts for khakis even at a casual restaurant. My ex-husband grew up much like me — college educated, siblings who attended college and pursued professional careers. I read that most women who get into trucking do so because there is a major male figure in their lives who is a truck driver. Not me. Although my brother was a self-taught mechanic, my dad dialed service phone numbers rather than engage in home repair himself.

I know next to nothing about engines. I own jumper cables, but I’ve never used them. I have never changed a flat tire.

At least once a week, when someone finds out what I do, the inevitable question comes up (especially when they see an older, five-foot-tall, slim woman manhandle such a large vehicle): how did you get to be a truck driver? I usually respond with “Just lucky, I guess.”

It is not easy. Days can be monotonous. Customers can be jerks. Other drivers hate us and cut us off. We end up stuck in traffic jams or waiting excessively at a customer to pick up or drop off a load. We see horrible things on the road, such as the mom smoking in her car while driving and texting, windows barely cracked and the baby not even strapped in. We see women giving blow jobs while their companion is driving. We see recklessness, carelessness, and bad manners. We see drivers lose control and barrel through medians. We see emergency people cover bodies in white sheets on the side of the road.

In a famous baseball movie Tom Hanks’ character says of the sport, “The hard is what makes it great.”  The same can be said for truck driving.

In the summer, my days were long. I say were because I am in transition from one job to another but I’ll get into that later.

A typical week in my last job began on Sunday in a straight truck, 24 feet, filled with aftermarket recreational vehicle parts to be delivered to regular customers – RV sales and service repair shops through the Midwest. By Sunday evening, I usually had driven nearly 600 miles making about 7 or 8 stops through Indiana and Illinois. By Thursday afternoon, when I “pulled the plug” (parking brake) I had driven about 2,500 miles for the week running through Ohio, Pennsylvania, back to Indiana and sometimes Michigan, making around 40 stops, with several trips back to my main terminal to reload. I would manhandle large tubes for rubber roofs, gallons of antifreeze, toilets, sewer hoses, you name it. Since I am short, I used a lot of creative leverage to unload products safely.

Some days, my back and shoulders would ache so badly I didn’t care how gross the hotel tub was, I was having a hot bath.

I didn’t need a special license or training since my truck was under 26,001 pounds. I had no idea how to use a daily log book. I had no idea what a pretrip inspection was. And man, did I have a lot to learn. In retrospect, I was dangerous.

This last antifreeze season really hurt. I was a few years older. I could feel the wear and tear on my body get worse every day. I had to climb in and out of a box truck to get to the products since none of my customers had a loading dock. And although I made decent money, I had topped out professionally in this size vehicle.

So I made a huge decision in December to quit my job, a good paying job I really enjoyed, to take things a step further. It was time for the next challenge, CDL school. Time to drive the big trucks with the big boys, and potentially double my income and hopefully endure less physical stress to my body.

School was grueling. Diagnosed with ADHD, it took me twice as long to get through school work. Studying manuals and prepping for written quizzes and tests was a nightmare. I would read a sentence, forget what I read, re-read it, look up words I didn’t know, then re-read the material. I would close my eyes to remember what I just read. Take practice tests online.

This is why I left a desk job — the paperwork kills me. I focus best first thing in the morning, so that’s when I would study, while the apartment was quiet and my now teenage boys were sleeping.

So I still don’t know how to use jumper cables but I can tell you where a manifold is. I don’t know what it does. I can tell you where the steering gear box is, and I can break down the parts of the suspension quickly. But I don’t know how to change a tire. If smoke came out of the engine, I don’t know that I’d know it’s steam or smoke.

But I can drive, backwards and forwards. I can double clutch. I can safely maneuver through intersections and around corners.

I passed my CDL skills test and now I am applying for truck driving jobs. One of the school’s trainers, Bob, called me shortly after the test and said, “Girl, you out-drove them boys.” I was so excited to pass I didn’t even ask about my test scores. Like golf, you want a low score. So on the actual skills, I nailed it with zero points, and only six points on the road test. Hell yeah! The two male students both passed, also, but they racked up a few more points. Not that I am competitive or anything, or that I think I am better, but come on, it’s an awesome feeling to know you did well.

Money is running out, bills need to be paid and I am terrified. Yet optimistic. I passed all of my endorsements and I am applying for a couple of different tanker driver positions. Both have excellent training programs and would provide the next challenge to keep my brain engaged. People think I am nuts because of the added challenge of tanker surge, but that’s how I roll — go big or go home.

I still don’t know how I got here. What would make me go after such a career? Partly the money. Partly the challenge. I have never felt so challenged in my life, not even squeezing out three children – two of them naturally.

I don’t know if I could put into words why I want to do this. Being behind the steering wheel makes me happy. I see beautiful landscapes. Fog rising off of a field and a family of deer nibbling. I see extraordinary weather, rainbows and cloud formations. I see American flags draped along overpasses, political signs and a rebirth of mural painting on the sides of barns. Maybe being in a big truck when I am so little makes me feel bigger and more important.

Whatever it is, at the end of the day I feel like I have accomplished something. The constant challenge of focusing on the road and other drivers keeps my mind active. I meet a lot of interesting people from all walks of life. I keep learning. And did I mention the paycheck? I have never earned this kind of money using my bachelor’s degree. After I graduated college I worked for a radio station for about four years. After just three years in trucking, I earn twice as much as I ever did at the radio station. How ’bout them apples! –Robin Toepp

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