March 2, 2022, Monrovia, Indiana
I stopped for the serious-looking flag lady with the orange vest just as soon as she raised her hand. We were about to enter the spacious confines of Ted Everett Farm Equipment in Monrovia, Indiana, a town of around 1,100, about 20 minutes west of Indianapolis.
Her tone was grave, her demeanor stern, belied only by her Indiana twang: "The speed limit is now one half mile an hour! We've had two or three people get nudged just today."
I nodded gravely. We eased in. She was right. The place was a madhouse. I tried to keep it below five. It was around one in the afternoon. There were people milling about, kids running everywhere. An orgy of flags greeted us to our left, commending our current president to the copulative act in more ways than 20th-century literary provocateur Henry Miller himself could conjure. There were around 850 or more cars, campers and vans. I'd never seen so many bumper stickers in one place, anywhere.
We finally found a parking space and began walking the rows, counting the cars. I should have worn my Merrells. It took a while before we started seeing the trucks. The place was part county fair, part tailgate party, replete with food trucks, traveling evangelists and buskers playing for tips.
Finally, we found the pavilion, then the trucks. There were the remnants of the old USTA, who we covered here in the Over the Road podcast coproduction with PRX’s Radiotopia, among other places. Mike Landis was there, his 1999 Peterbilt cabover hooked to a flatbed which would serve as a stage for a rally later that evening. Brian Brase, former communications director for that organization, bullhorn in hand, was leading an air-horn choir, whose decibels would put AC/DC to shame.
Ruben Carrion's tricked-out 379, captioned above, was there now freshly festooned with banners. One banner stood in relief against a “Black Smoke Matters” decal on the back of his sleeper.
These were veterans of various groups that, in relatively short order, had seen their ascendancy and relative decline on social media. They had been dismissed by established organizations during the run-up to the electronic-logging-device mandate as amateur advocates. Now, flush with a donations base their fund-raiser now claims to be in the seven figures, had they gained a populist purchase in a national debate?
The energy in the air, in any case, was palpable.
At first blush, these were salt-of-the-earth, hard-working Americans who had simply had enough. And, in a very real sense, these were my people.
We wandered the truck portion of the grounds, now. While this was by no means a small gathering, the big-truck contingent of the convoy gathering was outnumbered by the four-wheelers by several orders of magnitude. My best count, which, in full disclosure, was interrupted by multiple conversations, stood at around 125 rigs.
Catching bits and pieces of convoy shares from folks on social media over the preceding week, my mind had run along this way: So just what was all this? Had the Canadian convoy effort been co-opted and corrupted by U.S. political grifters? Had this rebooted version of the convoy morphed into a medium for collective grievance, with social media the new CB, and that grievance gaining currency in the collective consciousness through Facebook algorithms juicing content, lighting up the amygdala …
There were too many armchair commentators on the sharing platforms, and, yes, I had basically been one of them. I just needed to find out for myself.
I needed a good face-to-face conversation with a true believer, someone whose talking points weren't locked, loaded and waiting in the chamber.
That's when I met Jennifer Wahrman, retired business teacher, grandmother of four and co-owner of D&J Trucking out of Pratt, Kansas.
"I was raised in small-town Kansas. We talk to our neighbors. It's all about community. I'm a retired business teacher with 21 years in education. My husband and I run two trucking companies. We raised our boys to love the Lord and to love this country. Our oldest son has 13 years in the military. He's served in two branches. He was in the Marines. Now he's in the Kansas National Guard. In June, they're going to boot him out because of a medical decision that he's chosen not to believe in."
The story she told had to do with the COVID-19 vaccine. “Kansas decided to command-direct the COVID-19 vaccination, and since it's been command-directed he will be disobeying a direct order, so they're going to give him a dishonorable discharge,” Jennifer said, though the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, passed in 2021, expressly forbids such an adverse action against military service members who refuse vaccination. Kansas Guard public affairs didn’t respond to Overdrive’s queries about whether state-directed Guard corps would benefit from this particular measure.
“Thirteen years in the military,” Jennifer said. “That's a lot to throw away. He could retire in seven years."
We wandered the truck side some more. As I was fumbling around, trying to fire up the recorder, three nice ladies – Lisa, Kathy and Pam – approached, giving out homemade cards of encouragement to all the truckers. They had driven up from Southern Indiana.
All three had been to Washington for the January 6, 2021, rally. You know: the one that turned into an insurrection. They had even gotten tear-gassed, they said, which conferred upon them instant notoriety among some of the assembled.
"We were at the sixth,” Kathy said. “We showed up for a rally, OK? Then there were these other people there. We had just come to pray."
These were my people, but was this my cause?
Midterms were just around the corner. Doubtless team Landis and all the old familiar hands had comported themselves with dignity on numerous previous envoys to D.C., but they had some colorful friends riding in the rocking chair this time -- like a couple thousand, if I had to guess.
While three nice ladies from Southern Indiana doubtless do not speak for convoy leadership, who have stressed they will not be going into Washington, D.C., proper when they arrive in the area tomorrow, Saturday, March 5, I couldn't help but wonder just how many here might have had other plans. Among some, there was talk of making Biden resign.
I thought of the people we'd known who had passed, both vaccinated and unvaccinated. Another friend, just two weeks ago, had to sleep in the hall of our hospital as there were no open rooms due to COVID overflow.
I was triple-vaxxed, and had just recently lived through the virus myself. Still, I didn't want Jennifer's son to be dishonorably discharged, nor anyone to join the ranks of the however many thousands of Canadian or U.S. cross-border truckers who lost their lanes over the border vaccine mandate.
[Related: On the 'Freedom Convoy' protest, with a Canadian cross-border owner-operator]
But something that tear-gassed Kathy said struck me: these other people. Who were all these other people? How did they get here? Specifically, all those four-wheelers with the Trump won F____ Biden bumper stickers? Did they think they were riding to D.C. on some kind of Trojan horse to stage a re-enactment?
But about the time Kathy put this thought in my head, we were basically on the way out. I had to load up and head for Fort Worth the next morning, and we were a hundred miles from home.
When we made it back to the shanty, a text came in from an RN friend who worked at the free vaccine clinic in Richmond, Indiana, not far from where I live. She was being laid off. The pandemic was winding down.
Here's to a peaceful protest.
[Related: Will the national emergency declaration's COVID hours of service waiver extend again?]