The female trucker you never saw coming

I used to schmooze clients and drive a fancy car. But when I lost my sales job -- I embraced my true calling

Topics: My Brilliant Second Career, Life stories,

The female trucker you never saw coming (Credit: Image courtesy of the author)
This is the second in a series about people who stared down the Great Recession -- and reinvented themselves along the way. Do you have a great Plan B success story? Post it on Open Salon, tag it "My Brilliant Second Career," and we might publish it on Salon -- and pay you for it. A version of this story first appeared on Tiffany Brubeck's Open Salon blog.

It’s four o’clock in the morning. I’m slumped in a corner booth at Klein’s truck stop. It’s been a heck of a night, but I have a wad of cash in my purse and the coffee’s hot. Joint’s empty, with the exception of a couple old-timers chatting up the counter waitress. All three sneak glances in my direction, uncertain what to make of me. “Too pretty for a lot lizard,” one says, shoveling spoonfuls of gravy into his leathered face. “Why in tarnation a young gal would be out here alone at this hour,” mumbles his buddy between bites of toast. Their gossip is muffled by a deep rumble that rattles the windows. In the darkness, illuminated by hundreds of tiny diesel lights strung along the side of cabs like it’s Christmas — another long, shadowy 18-wheeler slides out onto the interstate.

I’ve been coming to places like this for long as I can remember. When I was a six-year-old kid growing up in the Ozark mountains, only one thing was more wonderful than Grandpa, and her name was “Betsy,” his ’79 Kenworth K100. Climbing up into Betsy’s cab the grownup world outside seemed to shrink. I became the Invincible Girl. I’d maneuver the wheel of the motionless truck, imagining the steel beast under my command. I wish I’d held tighter to that six year old — cultivated her priceless imagination and guarded her innocence with ferocity. But something shifted. Maybe it was jerky school kids who snickered when I boasted Gramps was a trucker, or nasty ankle biters who argued I should be playing with Barbie, not Hot Wheels. Perhaps it was Cliff Huxtable and Jason Seaver, TV dads of the 80s, who arrived home every night before dinner in cable-knit sweaters and never made mommies cry. Whatever it was, by the time I turned eight, I’d determined life as a long-hauler wasn’t something to brag about.

After graduating, I moved out west to work in sales. I mingled on the scenes, networking, and schmoozing clients. I chowed down at swanky restaurants, charged designer clothes, and even leased a fancy convertible. I walked and talked with left-coast confidence, but inside I felt phony. This is California, I assured myself. Everybody assimilates. I soaked up la-la-land like a soppy biscuit. I had no idea what a bellyache it would give me.

One morning in November 2008, the fantasy stopped. I’d fallen behind on my quota for signing up customers to open lines of credit. And when the axe started swinging, I was the first to go. I went home and cried hysterically, partly because I was stuck in debt quicksand with no tree branch in sight, but also because in my gut, I’d known the danger all along. I’d seen the quicksand — and told myself it was a hot tub. I certainly couldn’t ask my folks for help. My grandparents toiled for every dime they ever earned; they wanted a better life for me — which did not include my sacrificing health insurance so I could afford bigger car payments. After years of dismissing their penny-pinching values as old-fashioned and hokey, I was too humiliated to confess that living high on the hog had eaten me alive.

For the next few months, I wore my pajamas all day long. The streets were tomb quiet while the rest of the world went to work. The mid-afternoon sunlight pouring through the windows was bright enough to cause headaches. And on TV, every commercial peddled the snake oil that will catapult you off your couch and back to success. During that slump of unemployment, I entertained the idea of becoming everything from a court reporter to pastry chef, all while devising a no-fail formula for winning both showcases on “The Price Is Right.” But after I waded through all the GET RICH! CHANGE YOUR LIFE! DIAL NOW!” boob-tube malarkey, I realized sometimes the right path out is to turn your heels and head back the way you came. So I sucked in a deep breath, picked up the phone  – and made a call about becoming a long-haul trucker.

It didn’t make sense that trucking was something I should want. That image of a trucker was so different from me — the flannel clothes and John Deere caps, the greasy fast food gobbled while driving, the conservative, red-state values — all of that stood in stark contrast to the adult I had become. But then I realized what almost destroyed me was buying into stereotypes — trying to play a role I thought I needed to play, to be the very picture of what the world deems successful. Heck with that! The truth is that the dream of being a hauler had always been with me, like a soft, faded blanket you tuck in the closet until you’re cold. I sailed through my Commercial Driver’s License written exam. I’ve never been my best under pressure — my skin prickles, and I overthink the simplest questions — but sitting in that exam room, I had that magical feeling you get when you something you’ve dreamed about is something you’re finally doing.  

Outside Klein’s Truck Stop, a pale periwinkle sky foretells of the breaking dawn. The old men at the counter have moved on to politics and complaining about the weather. I knock back the last swig of coffee — truck stop gold, we call it — and stand to stretch my creaky bones. On my way out, I breeze past the counter, making sure I’m close enough for the menfolk to get a whiff of my perfume.

The chilled morning air feels fresh as I stroll across the parking lot. A disheveled woman approaches to ask if I can spare any change. She’s made some bad choices, she says, but she’s trying to find her way back home. I tell her I can relate, place 10 bucks in her palm, and wish her good luck. I check the air pressure in the tires and do a quick pre-trip inspection. I climb into the cab of my semi, and then fire up the engine. I’m on a turnaround to Shaky Town — got a five-hour drive ahead of me, but I should make it to Los Angeles this side of lunchtime.

The old men swagger outside toward their pickups. Rubbing their bloated stomachs, they cast eyes over the packed lot, taking in the next generation: a convoy of the most diverse truckers in American history. When they spot me warming up, they hoot and whistle, elbowing one another in the ribs. Old leather face removes his cap and makes an exaggerated bow before me, the other shoots me a thumbs up. I smile back, giving them a long bellowing honk before I disappear out onto the highway again.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>