Monday, December 08, 2014

The American Trucker

I developed an appreciation of the North American trucker's life while I did my 3000 mile road trip from California to Virginia in October this year.

I saw them up close, ate meals with them and talked to them about their lives.  Since I was driving a truck myself, had a first-hand understanding that while their life looks romantic to an outsider, it is literally a backbreaking one for the trucker himself. (On the third day of my road trip I had to work out the physiology of my lumbar region, and engineer special cushions and postures to make the pain go away!)

It's a hard, harsh life. Bad food, rest while in motion, homelessness, cheap motels, gas station showers, caffeine shots, pride in one's shiny truck, the distractions of Indian (native American) casinos and roadside "spas", a strange relationship with highway patrol, a condescending but caring view of cars on the road, ...

Eighteen wheelers are a quintessential part of Americana. Long distances, the interstate highway system and the American consumer culture is the paradigm which pushes these hundreds of thousands of behemoths on the country's freeways. They fascinate young boys (in the same way trains, planes and other big engines do), they impress fresh immigrants with their carrying of eight or more large cars in a weirdly angled manner, and with a reputation of blind spots, wide turns, and their sheer momentum, they scare regular commuters and tourists on the road.

I saw so many trucks and truck stops during my trip that the names "Wabash National", "Freightliner", "Peterbilt", "Knight, "Love's", "Pilot Travel Center", "TA", became as familiar as those of friends or siblings.

The truckers lead lonely lives. Some travel with their spouses but most travel alone, driving all day and sometimes even through the night. They commune with other truckers via their CB radios and use calling cards to keep in touch with their families which in many cases are still in their home countries.

Such a life requires extraordinary stamina and willpower and many can only do it for so long before they become zombie-like and hardened. From one rest stop to the next, from one member gas station to the next, from one "trucks welcome" travel center to the next, it is just an unending, monotonous journey of metal.

Truckers in poor countries are well known to numb their exhaustion with cheap liquor but in USA, the drug of choice is caffeine. Heavy doses of black coffee, extra shots, caffeine pills, large volume containers of coke and sprite are provided by gas stations as a norm.

Truckers can't go inside the cities for healthy food because there isn't any place on city roads to park their big rigs. Parking only in travel centers, they subsist on a diet of fried, cheap fast food, and chemically-flavored juices and sodas. The juicing film 'Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead' presents the hopeful journey of a trucker suffering from years of dietary abuse, toward fitness and normalcy.

Truckers are doing a job on the road and the road is their workplace.  They view road-trippers and others who are driving for pleasure with barely concealed amusement. "This is fun for them? Being on the road, minding the speed limits, the deer warnings, the bad drivers, the cops?". But people genuinely enjoy being on the road, as an escape from their suburban lives.  It is the truckers who have become desensitized to exploration. The journey has become a chore for them, and the well-known destination is the relief they long for. And that too, not for long.

Driving a truck pays well, considering that no expensive education is required. Many are trained on the job. They can "easily" (heh) earn $60k a year. For many, the promise of this kind of money is enough to tear them away from their families, and from their homes and native countries. And once addicted to this flow of dollars, to move away from the road seems comforting but a difficult choice.  They are addicts to this pain which pays.

Many retire only when their bodies give up.

I love their spirit. But I also feel sad about them. They are sacrificing themselves for their children, for their old parents, and in some way, for the hedonistic consumers of the first world.

They are the Atlases of today.


VENKAT said...

Very insightful! We only think of perhaps policemen, firemen and soldiers leaving a 'difficult' lives but even lives that appear comfortable to the outside world are difficult. I also like that your piece neither glorifies nor dismisses their hardships.

p said...

This is one of the best pieces i have read here.

Anonymous said...

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Unknown said...

Brilliant piece!