Trucking in recent years has been a difficult enough business when everything is going right, given high fuel and maintenance costs, lower rates and plenty other challenges.
Add in a near-fatal bout of COVID-19 that puts you out of the truck for more than a year, and the challenges become nearly insurmountable. But if you’re Leslie Bitterman, the owner-operator of Bitterman Trucking out of Wenatchee, Washington, it’s merely a hurdle.
Bitterman has been in the trucking business since 1994 when she and her late husband, Dale, started Bitterman Trucking with a dump truck. After five years working locally doing construction jobs, the Bittermans transitioned to long-haul work and went over-the-road, first as team drivers, then with each driving their own truck.
Dale had previous driving experience hauling asphalt, which Leslie said is “where he got the love of driving and wanted to get his own truck.” She got her CDL when they started the business and jumped right in, even with three children under the age of 5 at the time.
Dale passed in 2010, but she decided to keep the business going and has since carved her own niche mostly hauling fruit in and around Washington.
Leslie’s persistence through the years, overcoming the passing of her husband and business partner and persevering through illness, led to her nomination for Overdrive’s 2024 Trucker of the Year program by her daughter, Ashley Bitterman. Owner-operator Leslie Bitterman is Overdrive's Trucker of the Month for January, putting her in the running for the 2024 award.
“My mom is the spirit of Bitterman Trucking,” Ashley said in nominating Leslie. “Her grit and determination to take care of business makes her a success. She is our hero!”
‘I had to do what I knew how to do and get in that truck’
The fact that Leslie Bitterman is still behind the wheel of a truck today is a testament to her work ethic and determination to keep the business running.
At the end of January 2022, she contracted COVID-19. A week after testing positive for the virus, she came down with pneumonia, which caused sepsis, a bacterial infection in the blood stream.
“To be honest, I died in the ambulance, and they brought me back,” she said.
She spent two weeks in intensive care, and Ashley said “it was uncertain" if she would even survive, much less drive again.
Bitterman spent the rest of 2022 recovering. She suffered from memory loss, she said, and was on oxygen, which prevented her from being able to drive at all.
“I kept working every day on my memory and my strength to be able to get back in the truck and haul some loads,” she said, because she needed to make a living for herself. She had remarried after Dale passed away, but she and her husband separated two years ago, leaving herself as the only source of income.
“I had to do what I knew how to do and get in that truck and go trucking,” she said, determined to come back from her illness.
By the summer of 2023, Leslie was off of oxygen and passed her DOT physical to get back behind the wheel, hauling apples and other fruits dedicated to Northern Fruit Company, based in Wenatchee, during harvest.
Ashley rode with her during her first season back in the truck, helping throw straps and tighten down loads as owner-operator Bitterman continued to build strength. Ashley’s 9-year-old daughter, Hartley, was even in the rig with them during the summer learning the basics of trucking and apple harvesting.
Ashley, according to Leslie, “has been my backer telling me, ‘Mom, you can do this, just get back in the truck, get your confidence back.’ So that’s what I did, and it was great she went along to help me.”
Through the years, Leslie has always been “a go-getter,” according to Michael Downes, the retired owner of MGD Orchard Services, for whom the Bittermans hauled for a number of years. “When I first started [in trucking], I bit off more than I could chew, and I needed help." The Bittermans were available at the time and “wanted to do the job, wanted to work. They never let me down.”
Leslie hauled a variety of freight for Downes, though it was mostly produce. “I never had an issue where their truck was down and they couldn’t work,” he noted. Any time he needed a job done right, Bitterman Trucking was his first call. "She's one of the nicest ladies I know. She's always got a smile on her face and is happy to do the work."
Leslie worked about half the year in 2023 and is taking the winter off, which she has traditionally done, then it's back to “haul some more fruit and keep the truck rolling,” she said. Before her bout with COVID, she also ran over-the-road part of the year, working the load boards.
A family affair
While Leslie is the only employee of Bitterman Trucking, her children remain an integral part of the business.
Throughout the 30-year history of Bitterman Trucking, Leslie has managed the books and kept track of revenue and expenses. She continues to do that today with the help of Ashley.
Leslie does all of her hauling today in the 2007 Peterbilt 379 (pictured up top) she and Dale bought in 2008. The truck, nicknamed “Plum Perfect,” was Dale’s dream truck, Ashley said. It's not the only rig in owner-operator Bitterman's stable, though. Two other 379s -- a 1995 and a '96 model -- have been sidelined for some time. She sold another, a 2007 Kenworth, just last year, too.
On the maintenance front, Leslie's son, Dale Bitterman Jr., is a veteran, having worked for 17 years at Doug’s Diesel Repair in Wenatchee. He keeps the rig in tip-top shape, performing the routine and other needed maintenance. “That’s helped save a big expense,” Leslie said.
“My brother and I look up to our parents’ fierce determination and grit,” Ashley said. “Though I’m an elementary school teacher, spending this time with her in the truck is nostalgic of trips we took throughout our childhood.”
There's more to it for Ashley, though. She's inherited that grit and is clearly applying it, working toward getting her own CDL. If all goes according to plan, owner-operator Leslie Bitterman's one-truck business will grow in the near future. She hopes to put Ashley in one of those sidelined Petes when she gets her CDL.
You can enter your own owner-operator business or nominate another for Overdrive's 2024 Trucker of the Year competition via this link. Nominations will be accepted throughout the year. Hear last year's Trucker of the Month contenders' and 2023 winner Jay Hosty's stories in their own words via the playlist below.