On the Road: The Life and Times of an American Trucker

Life as a truck driver isn’t easy or clean, and it often includes challenges that we in the general public don’t realize. Take, for instance, a fictional driver named “Hailee Reagan,” whose opinions and outlook stem from the firsthand accounts of several drivers I know and from various written accounts of drivers I don’t know. Hailee’s day starts early, at 5 or 6 in the morning, depending on how much she has to do, and begins with several unique rituals designed to help her prep for the road. Her daybreak habits include basics like coffee, truck inspection, and route planning, but they also expand to include more personal things like a short meditation session and a “good morning” text to her parents. Although every day varies slightly, the morning rhythm usually remains consistent.

After Hailee gets all her prep work finished, she gets on the highway. The best days are the ones in which she spends most of her time driving to and from shippers and receivers. She only earns money when her wheels are rolling, so her favorite days involve quick pickups and drop-offs (called “drop and hooks”) instead of pickups and drop-offs where she has to actually load and unload the truck.

mel's

Over the long term, truck driving can become a paradise or a hell, depending on the personality and unique needs of each driver. One thing that many truckers dislike, such as the seediness of select truck stops, might be a blessing to other drivers. Hailee enjoys the experience of spending the night in a broken-down, dinghy parking lot. She’s fascinated by thinking about the past of each new place. If she had to put it into her own words, she would say, “When I get to my bunk after a day of driving, the first thing I think about is how wherever I stay the night might have ended up that way. I wonder how it looked when the first owners built it, all shiny and new. After that, I think about what happened that caused it to fall apart, and if the people who stayed here since then left their random personal items on purpose or forgot them accidentally.” For Reagan, seeing new places, even if those places feel somewhat repulsive, is a valuable part of her work experience.

Another aspect of trucking that can develop into something wonderful or awful is the isolation of driving cross-country for weeks. Hailee knows many drivers who hate separation from their families, especially because after they get home, the separation doesn’t really end. Their family and friends are always excited to see them again and hear some of their stories, but the lives of truckers’ relations have continued moving despite their absence, and they get left out of the loop. Kids go to their own events, friends grow closer to other people, and the semi-absent driver loses the depth of connection he or she once had. Hailee’s friends tell her all the time that they can no longer function as an integrated part of their family’s lives. That’s often as hard as spending time without face-to-face contact with them on the road.

For those drivers, the isolation is a hardship. Hailee knows this, but for her it’s relaxing. She’s introverted, and while she enjoys having occasional contact with other people, talking to family and friends for any length of time exhausts her. Spending her life on the road gives her an excuse to communicate minimally, at the level she’s most comfortable with. As a single driver, she also doesn’t have a romantic relationship to maintain, and she feels free to indulge her desire to move around without an obligation to return to one place for a lover. She enjoys not having intensely personal ties. She’s free to enjoy each casual acquaintance and new challenge on the road.

One side of trucking that does bother Hailee is the cramped quarters. Before she took a job trucking, she used to surround herself with her favorite books, but the small space available in her bunk only allows her to bring along a few novels and small mementos. She can’t create a personal space, which is something she craves. As much as she loves several facets of trucking that other people find distasteful, the job still has facets that make it hard for her sometimes.

sleeper

Joining the ranks of big-rig drivers almost always comes with some surprises, and Hailee isn’t any different. The CB radio shocked her when she first started. The language that comes over the grainy intercom is unique and special. It’s a mix of established lingo and slang that has developed between the drivers as they speak to each other. Much of the discourse the drivers use began with slang from the Southern states, and growing up in the Midwest U.S. means that Hailee didn’t know much of it when she started driving. Because of this, she only uses the CB to communicate with other truckers about traffic, weather, cops, and road hazards. The banter between drivers is rough and harsh, but she learned early that she shouldn’t take any insults seriously. The crude language bothered her when she first started driving, but she acclimated quickly. Although she doesn’t have a problem with the way the other drivers communicate, it’s not something she enjoys engaging in. She has picked up on a lot of it the six years she has driven a truck, but it still doesn’t roll off her tongue easily. The CB also acts as a hub for a great deal of crass jokes. Many of the drivers get lonely on the road, and talking to one another about fantasy can help dull the boredom, so Hailee takes it all with a grain of salt.

Hailee prefers to listen to the radio rather than banter with other truckers. While at least somewhat familiar with most of the radio stations from coast to coast, she knows all of the classic rock stations by heart. Classic rock and wheels on the pavement make up the soundtrack to her life, and that’s a huge part of her enjoyment of trucking. She loves the feel of the pavement slipping away underneath her, the rhythm of the traffic paired with the rhythm of Bad Company on the radio. The pattern of loading, driving, stopping, sleeping, driving, unloading, and starting all over again relaxes her with its familiarity. She can work past issues with pay and health care because she loves the simplicity of rolling down the highway and feeling like part of a small community.

Personal feelings aside, many things about living on the road and driving with a timer are uncomfortable no matter who’s behind the wheel. One of these is the lack of showers. When Hailee has multiple delays during a delivery, she often won’t have enough service hours left to find a good truck stop and will have to sleep in the parking lot of wherever she’s at. Sleeping in a parking lot rather than a truck stops means that she will not only have to go without a shower, but also without a real meal and often without any access to restrooms. At the end of a long day, when Hailee finishes driving and gets ready to catch some sleep, the inability to wash the day’s grime away can be a real challenge.

truck stop

This illustration of the trucking lifestyle serves two purposes. Number one, it educates anyone interested in some of the things that a life on the road involves, especially elements not commonly represented, and provides another view of a career that’s often portrayed in a negative light. The second, less obvious, purpose is to show the many negative or positive aspects of trucking. The discomfort level of any part of trucking often depends on the the viewer’s outlook. This applies not only to trucking, but to any career. Any job can be awful or awesome, sometimes even both. Having a positive attitude can be important to employment happiness as the physical job itself.