Posted on 08/11/2015 at 11:45 AM by Dena Boelter
My first day riding with Gunnar in his semi, we heard another trucker sing a verse of a gospel song over the CB, and just like that I was hooked and fascinated with the communication of drivers. I immediately began thinking of a “handle” for myself, but Gunnar told me that handles weren't really used anymore. When he was in truck driving school, his classmates called him “Snowman” because he has pale skin and is from Minnesota, but he's never been one for anything campy like that. Since I am someone who always embraces the experience, I dubbed myself “Snow Angel”, a nod to my snowy upbringing in Iowa and love of winter, as well as a compliment to his nickname. So, it is as Snow Angel that I relate Gunnar and I's trip on the road together, from Iowa to New York.
Gunnar became a driver with Hummer a year ago in June, and for about six months he has been over the road. During that time I've picked up on some lingo--jake breaks, bobtailing and skateboards, live unloads, reefers, and 'bears' to watch out for. It's like a whole other language on the road, and one I'm not fluent in yet!
Beyond the vocabulary, I've been impressed by the camaraderie that exists between truckers. It's so often a solitary job, yet I get the sense that you would never feel alone on the highway. There's even a certain wave that truckers have that is reminiscent of a farmer's. Spending a lot of time out at my grandparents' farm growing up and out on the gravel kicking dust, I am familiar with the slight twist of the wrist and the knowing head nod that communicates a whole lot more than you would think. Trucking is that way too. Being in the rig, it's as if I'm a part of a larger community of drivers, even as a passenger. It's amazing to think about the lives and loads you pass every single day and mile. So far I've seen a whole flat bed of onions, cradled in their red mesh sacks, an oversized load of military vehicles, a long and rather majestic looking blade from a wind turbine, and the cattle haulers with wet noses poking out of their sides.
I have a great deal of appreciation for truckers that I didn't have before because I was just unaware. Now I realize that everything I use or consume truly does come on a truck. Our load from Iowa contained peanut butter of all kinds, Dinty Moore Soup, mac and cheese, raspberry jam and bacon bits. Gunnar and I joked that it would be the jackpot trailer to find if we were ever in a zombie apocalypse! For me, I now think about all the people who will go into stores to buy these products, and all the hands that loaded and unloaded those boxes. It is a real, visceral, hard working process, and it is a process that more should stop to think about. When I started drinking wine it was the same way. I liked to think about the people harvesting grapes, the feel of the vine, the delicate art of fermenting, and all of the countless nuances to wine making. Thinking of those elements creates pause and a sweeter glass as a result, just like the experience of trucking makes for better peanut butter toast in the morning. Being privy to the story behind most things is to truly understand, to be compassionate, to increase patience, and to love more.
These past few days we've rolled by beautiful scenery. The Appalachian Mountains a dark shadow in the distance, the lush green hills of upstate New York, bridges over babbling brooks along the roadside, the rock bluffs in Pennsylvania.
To be honest, I've never been a fan of road trips. I was one of those kids who could rarely be pacified in the car. Loaded up in the back of my parents' wood paneled station wagon headed for a family vacation in North Dakota, I squirmed and shifted and asked the dreaded “Are we there yet?” question every thirty miles at least. I thought it may be the same way in a semi, but a semi is a total departure from a car, thankfully. You sit up higher, the windshield is wide and inviting, and it feels more like an RV than anything else. Perched as a passenger, I have the luxury of just being. How few moments we have where we can just be, live in the moment, and merely observe and take in what's around you. The sunlight decorating the trees, the many cloud shapes in the sky. Truckers have a rare view of the world, through all weather and seasons, and sometimes through a bug splattered windshield, but still a rare view.
There's a soundtrack to trucking too—the steady idling, gravely and low, at truckstops overnight, the hiss of the air brakes, the rumbling of acceleration, the rhythm of the broom as the trailer is swept out in the morning, the chatter and static of the CB, the floating, disembodied voice of the Qualcomm counting down the hours of remaining drive time, the background of an audio book filling the cab. All these sounds together play the song of moving, and it seems to me as a passenger that there is an undercurrent of constant motion in a trucker's life, even when stopped. There's a vibration that is felt through your whole body, like when you've been rollerskating for hours and you still feel like you're skating when you finally take them off. It's a rumble that settles in your gut, like strength and zeal to keep on going. It's that vibration that now lulls Gunnar to sleep, and for which he finds strange to not have at home. For me though, I find the rattling unsettling at times, as everything in the truck needs to be strapped down and secured, with even a lock on the fridge door so nothing spills out. I found out that Greek yogurt, if kept in a semi fridge, will separate and require much stirring to restore consistency because of the vibration! Even the bunks have seatbelts on them. This is definitely a life that has to fall into rhythm and one must swallow the motion to be in harmony, which isn't something I've been able to do in only five days. I imagine the motion gradually settles into your bones over time until you become inextricably tied to the road, your preference for stillness worn away like tread on tires.
Ultimately I am struck with how hard professional drivers work, often using the full fourteen hours of drive time every day. It requires a certain mindset to do this, to push on despite all the unavoidable things that happen, from weather, to construction, to repairing trailers, to scaling loads and moving tandems. It takes time, and the acceptance of all the inevitable is a kind of life lesson. It reminds me of when I supervise outdoor education canoe trips with my high school students. It's a lesson of acceptance at its core. If it rains, it rains. If it's windy, you paddle harder, just like in life.
Another truth I've come to realize in this job, is that time is a guiding force in trucking. I have never felt time more acutely than when in this semi. Every rest stop visit, every delay waiting for a shower, every single lane road that pops up on the journey erodes the clock, and even as a passenger it is stressful. When you are up against time, every minute seems more finite. Those conditions lend to a type of urgency on the road. When you are hauling, really hauling, you can pass through several states in a day. Breakfast in Pennsylvania, lunch in Ohio, and dinner back home in Iowa. It's enough to give a person jet lag, but of course a new term would need to be coined to express this kind of travel weariness!
As I finish my day five and the landscape becomes more familiar nearer to home, I feel very grateful for this perspective and reflection. As the proverb goes, “Do not judge a man until you walk two moons in their moccasins”. This holds true in a semi as well. To ride 1,500 miles in another man's rig, is to understand him better. And I do.
To all the professional drivers out there I say, you are the unsung of the road and the backbone of the highway, moving all of us forward, one load at a time.
This is Snow Angel, over and out.
Submission to Don Hummer Trucking Blog
Mary Vizecky, wife of Gunnar Vizecky, 2015