Joanna shares her experiences of two years on the road as a trucker – witnessing fistfights, stabbings, tornados, exhibitionists – and catching punk and metal shows in the downtime
All text and photos by Joanna Johnston
“Hey, wanna quit your job and be a trucker with me?”
That question, asked by my boyfriend while on a short road trip two years ago, was the beginning of a totally unexpected chapter of my life. Up until that day, becoming a professional truck driver had not been on my radar as a career choice. This is partly due to the many trucker stereotypes out there that involve being smelly, greasy, uneducated, a serial killer, or conjure up scenes from cheesy movies like Smokey and the Bandit. That’s not to say those things don’t exist in the world of professional drivers (looking at you, Happy Face Killer), just that they don’t make up the majority of truckers.
I’ve been on the road for nearly two years and have encountered mostly really nice, normal, non-smelly folks who went into driving for a slew of different reasons. For my partner and myself, the big draws were the money (the pay slaps the shit out of our previous construction and retail work), the freedom (beyond some basic requirements regarding time spent on the road each month, we make our own schedules and decide where we go and what freight we are willing to haul), and the ability to get out and explore the United States on another person’s dime.
Here are some basics of what my life on the road looks like: My partner and I run expedited freight that requires various levels of care, and we cover the lower 48 US states. We each put in an average of 50-60 hours of work per week and generally have to be prepared to move in under an hour. We almost never know where we will be more than a day or two in advance. We have control over which jobs we accept as independent contractors, so we can decide where we go, but we usually follow where the best paying loads take us.
Under normal circumstances, we are able to cover 1,200 miles in 24 hours and can drive from New York City to Los Angeles over a weekend. Our schedule has us out on the road 8 to 10 weeks at a time, followed by 10-14 days at home. We get hotel rooms once or twice a month, but for all driving and most downtime, it’s two adults and one dog sharing a space smaller than a jail cell. Our sleeper is 7.5 by 7.5 feet, which includes the space for our double bed, a sink, a small refrigerator and freezer, a microwave, and storage cabinets. We have running water, but no toilet or shower. Access to those require a truck stop or hotel room.
It takes a lot to handle such close quarters… Every mood swing, smell and snore is shared. I’ve seen my share of fistfights between drivers in truck stop parking lots, even a stabbing in Alabama over dirty laundry. Fortunately, my partner and I are both laid back people. The worst thing to ever come out of one of our arguments is when my dog pooped on the floor (and into my boyfriend’s flip-flop) and he wanted to claim my pup as a cucumber at an agriculture checkpoint and have her thrown out of the truck.
Prior to this job, I had never really left my home in New Mexico. I had a brief stint as a teenage runaway selling merch for a small-time punk band, but I only made it as far as Beaumont, TX before I was outed as being 15 instead of the 19 I claimed, and sent home. I remember the feeling of getting to see new local bands, and thinking that this was the life.
When we have time off, I look for local punk and metal shows. I’ve managed to catch local shows in Indianapolis, Nashville, and Reno, as well as national acts. It’s cool because I get to check out different venues. This last year I have seen Depeche Mode, Pat Benatar, Toto, Eyehategod, Gojira, Opeth, Behemoth, Lamb of God, Slayer, and Goatwhore while out on the road, and was able to take two weeks off to go to (and then recover) from Psychofest in Vegas. That’s one of the best things about this job – if you want to try to head to Denver for a show, you get as close as you can. And then you go off duty for a few days and enjoy yourself.
The one thing that really gets me is just how many people are picking their nose as they drive. I’m beginning to think that is actually the truest American pastime.
For the first couple of months, I was excited about everything. Getting a chance to see so much of this country has been an incredible experience, and I take advantage of this as often as I can. My boyfriend has found me standing outside in the middle of a truck stop parking lot in torrential rain and wind, trying to take pictures of a tornado forming in Missouri. I’d never seen one before and the sky was bright emerald green and lightning flashed constantly overhead. I was utterly captivated. I’ve seen lightning hit the ground in Texas. There was a storm in the distance, but it was dry where we were and it hit right in front of us. I was looking right at it—it actually blinded me for a moment—and I remember thinking it looked like a melted Terminator arm reaching up from the ground right before everything went black.
During our first trip through the Midwest, I looked out the window and mistook a part of the Des Moines river as a flooded street. Where I’m from, rivers are EVENTS. You don’t just find them all willy-nilly in the middle of a town. When a cab driver in Sioux Falls, South Dakota told me that the falls for which the place was named were located inside the city limits, I insisted on being taken there immediately, despite it being 13 degrees out. The cabbie warned me it would be too cold, the falls would be frozen, and the park empty. I spent an hour and a half there because the frozen falls were gorgeous.
Because we crisscross the US for months at a time and usually get 2-4 days off per week, we get a chance to play tourist in places all over the country. Our off days can be anything from being stranded in the middle of corn country while surrounded by farm equipment and restaurants that close at 5 p.m. to visiting the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, going to Niagara Falls, sitting on a beach in Florida, visiting the Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline museums in Nashville, going to a concert at Red Rocks outside Denver, walking the Truckee River in Reno… We just never know.
We can see just about everything from our vantage point high in the sky. I’ve seen people doing drugs and drinking beers. I’ve seen a surprising amount of pants-less individuals, as well as people getting down, solo or with someone else, on the road. I guess I always underestimated the popularity of exhibitionism.
One of the more surprising things I’ve found is that a lot of those so-called “boring” little towns are actually chock-full of awesome. Amazing food, unique thrift and book stores, and camping and hiking opportunities are things I am always on the lookout for. We found the best honey biscuits in the world at a little fried chicken place with truck parking in a tiny town in south Georgia. My favorite bookstore is in Winnemucca, NV. My two favorite taco stands are in North Las Vegas and Laredo, TX. Abandoned amusement parks can be found in a dozen states. My favorite, so far, is in Kentucky. I’ve heard there’s a Christmas-themed park in Arizona and that’s next on the list. And the space-alien-themed brothel/50’s diner in Nevada? That place is a national treasure as far as I’m concerned. Among the kinkier things I’ve witnessed was a porn film shoot at a crappy little motel in Alabama. Well, I didn’t actually see it being filmed, but as I went up to my room with my ice bucket, I walked past a room with its door propped open. There were easily a dozen people inside, including several lingerie-clad ladies and a naked man, along with lights and a camera on a tripod.
On that same kinky note, we can see just about everything from our vantage point high in the sky. I’ve seen people doing drugs and drinking beers. I’ve seen a surprising amount of pants-less individuals, as well as people getting down, solo or with someone else, on the road. I guess I always underestimated the popularity of exhibitionism. I’ve seen people change entire wardrobes while driving at 80 mph. I’ve even seen a person take off their glasses, take out a contact lens case and put their contacts in while driving down the road. People watch movies, read books, write lists, do homework, eat spaghetti (I’ve seen it, with a fork and a spoon and everything); it’s incredibly sad that these folks don’t realize how dangerous this is, but it’s even more incredible that humanity has survived with these people on the road.
I’ve called the police on more than one drunk driver, the most recent being a person unable to not just maintain their lane, but all three eastbound lanes. They were lucky the median between them and oncoming traffic was so wide, because they were definitely in the grass. We followed them as far as we were able to in order to make sure nothing happened until the police arrived. The one thing that really gets me is just how many people are picking their nose as they drive. I’m beginning to think that is actually the truest American pastime. I genuinely love my job. For the first time in my life, I am actually excited when my alarm goes off because even if it’s going to be a crazy and hectic day, it’s worth it. However, one of the things that took some getting used to was living out of truck stops and rest areas. I live out of a truck and it’s pretty sweet for what it is; I knew what I was getting into with that. I have everything I need in order to cook and sleep in here. I have unlimited data on my phone plan so as long as we are in an area that has coverage, I’m good. I have yet to miss an episode of Game of Thrones or American Gods. I read a lot, listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts, things like that. Sometimes I marvel at the fact that I get paid to drive (while focused and safely, obviously) and listen to music all day. Who doesn’t love going for a drive and rocking out? I have hundreds of hours of playlists set up. Crust and grind for when the coffee wears off and I need to keep going a little more. Doom, stoner, and sludge I can listen to at any time, but I might go more doomy on a rainy day. Thrash and punk are always an excellent way to start the day.
For the times when we are not moving, we need to have to have a safe-ish place to park and truck stops or rest areas are usually our only options. You get used to the noise of a hundred trucks rumbling beside you and the smell of diesel, but it’s still weird having to walk into a public place before you get a chance to shower and have some coffee. My home in New Mexico doubles as a rehearsal space for local bands, so the noise doesn’t bother me – I can fall asleep to blast beats and screaming.
Truckers are by nature a very non-social group, which for me is made even worse by the fact that I spend so much time either alone or with the same person. My boyfriend and I can go 4-5 weeks without saying more than a dozen sentences to other people and we have practically developed our own secret language.
At Iowa 80, the largest truck stop in the world, there is space for 900 trucks to park. I spent a week there while our truck was being repaired, and got a haircut, watched several movies in a truckers-only movie theater, visited a trucker museum, grocery shopped (for some reason they had a ghillie suit for sale there), and got a root canal and a tooth extraction at a truck stop dentist, all without leaving the place. It is actually so big you can call them and they will send someone out to pick you up at your truck in a golf cart if you are at the far end of the lot. Now imagine hundreds of truckers in varying states of exhaustion and who have been given access to an unending supply of coffee, energy drinks, and corn dogs. It can get pretty weird. If you enjoy people watching, go to the largest truck stop you can find. You will not be disappointed.
The job itself can be pretty awesome. We have gotten to go on small tours of several NASA Space Centers and see the mock-up for the James Webb Space Telescope as well as the room where they simulate space by cooling it to around minus-300 degrees using helium and nitrogen and suck out all of the atmosphere. The room itself shrinks and expands depends on the atmosphere level and the temperature. It was absolutely badass, and the guys we delivered to were so excited to show us what they were doing. We’ve been given 3-D printer demonstrations and seen an abbreviated presentation of a brand new surgical robot that is capable of doing incredibly precise movements during spinal surgeries.
I think my all-time favorite was in the middle of Ohio. We pulled into a 24-hour facility at 4 am, after driving for several days straight and right on time for our delivery, and I was exhausted and irritated. The guy working the dock had an attitude and we immediately bumped heads. After our initial confrontation where he told me to back up into dock A and I pointed out my only options were numbered docks, he realized that he had forgotten his phone and his warehouse keys inside the building and that he was locked out and had no way of contacting his coworkers to let him back in. We sat there for three hours while he tried to figure out how to get back in. I was so tired I could barely see straight, but I knew if I went to sleep they would never be able to get me back up to unload the freight. Every 15 or 20 minutes, we exchanged glares or rude comments, until he was finally able to be let inside. He came up to the side of the truck and yelled, “Hey, bring in your paperwork! I know you’ve been waiting, but it might still be awhile before we can unload you!”
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He caught me off guard and I thought I saw him throw something at me so I instinctively made eye contact with him and stuck my hand out the window to catch whatever he’d lobbed at me. As it turned out, he hadn’t thrown anything. Instead I caught a GIGANTIC flying insect that had been flying towards me and crushed it in my hands. It was gooey and crunchy and liquid dripped out between my fingers. Due to the gross-out factor and the shock, I groaned and made a face. When I looked back over at him, fear had crossed his face. I realized that to him, it looked as if my response to having to wait longer was to reach out, grab a bug mid-air, squash it in my hands, then bare my teeth and growl out at him. We were unloaded and on our way within ten minutes. He even called me ma’am as we left.
I have never felt like more of a trucker chick badass in my life and it has made every day before and since totally worth it.