Travels with Charci

From Indianapolis, one of the nation’s biggest trucking cities, comes Charci Thomas, one of its most improbable drivers. Having driven almost 1 million miles in her career, this petite pedal-pusher has hauled everything from cat food to caviar. Who better to take me on an eight-day, 5,000-mile, 18-wheel odyssey across America?

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charci-openerSomewhere in the San Joaquin Valley of California, I remember that dipping sauces brought us here.

Charci Thomas is next to me, piloting her 70-foot-long Peterbilt truck through the rolling hills and vineyards. As the sun sets, the grapevined landscape at this hour is a postcard. It’s so at odds with the plastic tubs of barbecue sauce and honey mustard we just hauled from Indiana that I laugh to myself. We have already traveled 2,500 miles in the truck this week, passing through the Rockies of Colorado, the neon lights of Las Vegas, and the red canyons of Utah. But this stretch of Highway 101 along the Pacific coast puts them all to shame. Admiring the view from the driver’s side, Charci breaks the awe-inspired silence. “You don’t get this with an office job,” she says.

Although she is one of 238,000 truckers living in Indiana, a state with more drivers than almost any other, Charci is easy to pick out at a crowded truck stop. Only 5 percent of drivers are women. Even fewer own their own customized truck and trailer, as she does. Almost none are attractive 32-year-olds bouncing around in tank tops, skirts, and sandals.

“Once you have diesel in your blood,” Charci tells me, “you’ll never be happy doing anything else.” But it’s clearly more than truck-driving that she loves. It’s seeing America, a place that is almost as surprising as she is. Over the past eight days and 12 states, we have driven through towns such as Zzyzx and No Name. We’ve had breakfast at the world’s largest truck stop and discovered a modern gold rush in the desert. I’ve not only changed the way I think about semis, I’ve reconnected with this loud, super-sized, high-speed country—and in the process gotten to know one of the city’s unlikeliest gearjammers.

 

Travels with Charci
Charci’s trailer

Photo by Tony Valainis

From the front, the Peterbilt 379 looks like an angry pig. Its snout sticks straight out, and metal visors over the windshield point down toward the center. As most trucks have been streamlined to be more aerodynamic and save fuel, Peterbilts have stubbornly retained this classic styling. Not surprisingly, truckers who can afford a “Pete” love them. Charci’s is an 18-gear, 80,000-pound monster. Although it is only six years old, it has 736,000 miles on the odometer. When she bought it for $57,000 in 2004, it had about 500,000 miles. With a little tender loving care, a Pete can reach 2 million miles. On the hood and under the cab are seven trumpet-sized horns that, when blown, mimic the wail of a train. Inside the cab is an airplane-like dashboard: 16 gauges, 27 polished chrome switches, and a hanging CB radio. The gearshift is the size and shape of a baseball bat. Essentially a traveling apartment, the cab also contains an XM satellite radio, a TV and DVD player, a small refrigerator, and a twin bed.

As nicely appointed as the truck is, however, what really catches
people’s eyes is the trailer. The previous owner airbrushed the metal canvas with a mural of an eagle soaring over a moonlit bay. Charci remembers thinking it was a little tacky when she bought it, but she’s come to appreciate her enormous piece of Americana as “distinctive.” Because it’s a refrigerated trailer, commonly called a reefer, she can haul more lucrative produce loads that “dry” trailer haulers can’t. On this particular load, we have a few pallets of sauces—which were picked up in Ohio—and a few pallets of batter, which we picked up at a food warehouse in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Most of it is expected in Los Angeles in just a few days.

Charci is almost as excited as I am to be headed to California. Although she’s driven in all of the lower 48 states—approaching 1 million miles in her six-year career as a trucker—it’s been months since she has seen the American West. As we are making our noon departure from her Fountain Square home, where the street is barely wide enough for the truck to pass, I ask her if I need to navigate and she quickly rattles off the entire trip from memory: “I-65 South to 265, 265 to 64, 64 to 70, 70 to 15.” I try to stump her with other hypothetical trips (St. Louis to Seattle, New York to Sarasota), hut she knows those too.

Aside from the fact that she is 5-foot-3 and 120 pounds, Charci seems predetermined for this job. She remembers sneaking out as a 12-year-old and driving her mom’s car around the block in Carmel. As a young adult, she would drive aimlessly for as much as four hours a day after work. When a friend suggested that she might want to consider truck-driving, the idea initially seemed outrageous, hut it grew on her. “I thought about trucking every day for a year and a half after that,” she says. “I even had a CB in my car.”

In 2000, she decided to take the leap and enroll in a three-week training program run by Rocket Express in Wolcott, Indiana. After just a few classroom sessions, it was time to put one of the behemoths in gear. “I thought I was going to get to practice in the parking lot,” she says. “My instructor said, ‘Okay, let’s get this thing out on the road.’ I was terrified.”

Like many drivers, Charci has spent most of her career with an animal on board. She knows of one driver who rides with a pet goat that must be hoisted into the rig. But small, puffy dogs are the pet of choice, and at truck stops, they’re a sight to see. “It’s pretty funny to see a burly guy walking a Pomeranian,” Charci says. Photos of Lucy, her black-and-white Shih Tzu, are pasted all over the inside of her cab. When Lucy developed cancer earlier this year, Charci made the difficult decision to put her to sleep. “It was hard getting back in the truck without her,” she says. “It’s such a lonely business.” Because she hasn’t had the heart to clean them, the dog’s noseprints still speckle the passenger-side window in an otherwise spotless truck.

Charci passes most of the first day of our trip talking on an earpiece cell phone to her husband, Robert Thomas, or to one of her five sisters. Her telephone conversations are epic—she had one last year with Robert that lasted eight hours.

Understandably, he is less than thrilled about a male writer being alone with her in the cab for a week—trucking destroys relationships. She misses him when she’s on the road for weeks at a time, and she misses the road when she’s at home. As we make our way west through Illinois and Missouri, Robert calls every two hours.

Drivers like Charci are referred to on the CB as “damn-it girls,” as in, “damn it, girl, you look good.”

In the brief spaces between calls, Charci talks on the CB radio. What comes hissing back is slang so thick it is nearly indecipherable. Truckers speak of “chicken coops” (weigh stations), “pickle parks” (rest stops), “deadheading” (driving an empty trailer), “fourwheelers” (cars), “lot lizards” (truck-stop prostitutes), and always, everywhere, “bears”—”smoky bears” (state troopers), “she bears” (female cops), and “bears in the air” (helicopters). “This thing is the best radar detector there is,” Charci says, pointing to the device.

Drivers like Charci are referred to on the CB as “damn-it girls,” as in, “damn it, girl, you look good.” She does not seem offended. In fact, that’s about the cleanest thing we hear on Channel 19, the frequency for general conversation. “You’ll see male drivers looking out for women in a patriarchal way,” says Stephen Viscelli, a trucker-turned–Ph.D. candidate at IU who is finishing his dissertation on the industry. “On the other hand, you hear sexual harassment on the CB constantly. Channel 19 takes all comers.”

Throughout our first day, more than a few drivers inquire about Charci’s marital status and try to convince her to go to one of the private stations (“Meet me at Channel 15”) for a more intimate conversation. She is too focused to bother. We have been given an impossible load: When we picked it up in Jeffersonville on Tuesday at 1 p.m., the paperwork said the first drop was due in Denver 26 hours later. That’s a distance of 1,000 miles—almost 20 hours of driving. Department of Transportation regulations state that drivers can only drive 11 hours straight, at which time they must take a 10-hour break. Every driver I spoke with said that log books, which can be checked by a DOT bear at any point on the road, are works of fiction. Drivers are expected to log every stop and how long they’ve been on the road. Magically, it always adds up to 11 hours a day, despite the fact that shippers routinely schedule loads that can’t be legally delivered in the time allotted. “The trucking industry is based on a 70-hour workweek,” Charci says, “but almost every driver does more than that.”

It is now 8 p.m. We will push toward Denver the rest of the night, and will probably still be late.

 

Five interstates (I-65, I-69, I-70, I-74, I-465) and eight state highways (US 31, US 36, US 40, US 52, US 136, SR 37, SR 67, SR 135) converge in Indianapolis, making the “Crossroads of America” one enormous truck stop. About 40,000 semis travel Indy’s freeways daily. According to Viscelli, the Flying J at the intersection of I-465 and SR 37 is one of the busiest truck stops in the Midwest. In terms of total truck shipments, only five states beat Indiana—two of them being the colossal California and Texas. I-65 and 1-70 already are among the busiest interstates in the country. The extension of I-69 all the way to Canada and Mexico is likely to multiply local truck traffic.

And it’s not just truckers from the coasts using Indianapolis as a bathroom break. Plenty of the nation’s 3 million drivers live here on the four or five days each month they manage to rest. Celadon Trucking, based in Indy and employing 3,000 people, is America’s largest international carrier. But it is independent drivers like Charci who dominate the business. Eighty-two percent of trucking companies operate six trucks or fewer, many of them owning a single rig and struggling to keep up with expenses. “Most company drivers think independents are cowboys,” Viscelli says.

Earnings for a company driver start at 30 or 40 cents a mile, which works out to a safe $35,000 a year. A hard-working independent can earn $1.70 a mile but will bear enormous expenses. Charci grossed $200,000 last year but spent $60,000 in fuel, $14,000 in truck payments, $11,000 in insurance, and $18,000 in repairs. The new set of 16 tires she put on the truck this spring cost $5,500 alone. But the truck is hers, and she is vain about it. Anywhere you see a shabby, unwashed truck, you can bet there’s a company driver inside. Independents tend to polish every inch of chrome on their rigs, and customize them in ways that border on the absurd—hardwood floors, gas fireplaces, and 12-inch swan hood ornaments. Charci’s Peterbilt is, without question, one of the nicest-looking trucks on the road. I find myself puffing out my chest at the truck stop as I climb from the cab. Occasionally another driver compliments me on the shape I keep it in. “Thank you,” I lie.

Our shiny truck has hauled hot tubs and auto parts, cat food and caviar. At the dock, drivers are sometimes given a few samples of whatever is being shipped. Charci has 26 cases of fruit dip at her house and enough salad dressing to smother an acre of lettuce. When people concerned about the environmental effects of trucks hassle her about her career, she reminds them that there wouldn’t be much to buy without them. We see bumper stickers that read, “If you bought it, a truck brought it.” About 90 percent of freight transported in and out of Indiana travels in a rig. Like it or not, almost everything you purchase spends time in one—including this magazine, its ink and paper, the pieces of the press that printed it, and now, even the writer.

 

We arrive at the foothills of Denver on time Wednesday, having slept only three hours the previous evening. I am grumpy and exhausted, but Charci seems used to it. (She has stayed up 48 consecutive hours on previous runs.) The cab is full of empty Red Bull energy drinks and Starbucks coffee cups. By my count, she is on her third pack of cigarettes. We both have a Slim Jim for breakfast. After quickly dropping off two pallets at a food warehouse, we head west on I-70, and the scenery begins to improve dramatically. As the Rocky Mountains rise out of the foothills, the truck reminds us that it weighs 75,000 pounds. Five-percent inclines give way to 7 percents, and the Pete can only muster 30 mph. But it is on a steep slope down that I first start to worry. Charci takes her foot completely off the brake, and we begin to plunge to what I am sure will be our doom in the canyon. Instead, she flips the “Jake Brake” switch and we glide slowly down the mountain. It’s a trick invented by Jacobs Vehicle Systems (thus “Jake Brakes”) in which the engine cylinders become compressors and slow the axles. The effect is closer to an airplane reversing its jets than it is to a car downshifting. Without it, the brakes of many trucks would be on fire at the bottom of a grade like the one we are driving. As four-wheelers blow by us, I ask if we’re moving almost too slowly through the mountains, and Charci points out that “you can go down a hill in a truck too slow many times, but you only get to go down a hill too fast once.”

Robert calls Charci as we leave Colorado, and he is in a foul mood. In the two months since their honeymoon, he has seen her only a handful of times. Robert is training to be a trucker himself and plans on teaming with his wife in a few months once he has a little experience. At that point, they will see each other 24 hours a day, taking turns at the wheel and sleeping in the cab. But try telling that to a man who hasn’t seen his wife in two weeks. Charci explains that they’ll be working together soon, that I am just a magazine writer doing my job, but the conversation quickly escalates into a screaming match. I squirm in my seat.

Trucking is hard on families—it has one of the highest divorce rates of any profession. An organization called L.O.A.D.S. (Loved Ones And Driver Support) gives rules like “No arguments over the phone,” “Before the driver leaves, be sure the party at home feels secure,” and “[Accept that] massed special occasions will happen from time to time.” In the course of a half-hour, Charci and Robert have broken nearly all of them.

As we enter the desert, the July heat also becomes a problem. The road signs along the interstate have been cracked and bleached by the sun, and there’s a single wispy cloud in the sky that looks lost. The temperature is 116 degrees. We are passing through a stretch of Utah and Nevada with no services for 150 miles. It is the worst possible place in the country for a truck to break down. The truck’s water-temperature gauge has passed 200 degrees and is now beeping an alert signal. At the last truck stop, we saw on CNN that wildfires near the interstate await us in California. Charci is in a touchy mood after Robert’s phone call. But at the moment, all I can think about is the red danger zone on the water gauge; the scorched, deserted landscape; and that incessant beeping.

 

Of the nation’s 3 million truckers, only 150,000 are women. When Charci walks into a truck stop, stares come from all directions. Drivers ask if she would like them to keep her warm for the night (a great pick-up line in this heat). One was more direct: “Do you fool around?”

It’s precisely this environment that has kept women out of trucking, although there are some signs that it’s changing. Most trucking magazines, such as Road King, now publish covers of pioneering women in the business. At truck stops, vending machines carry a product called “Lady Trucker Hormone Enhancing Anti-Aging Formula,” which promises to cure PMS. They also now sell work gloves in women’s sizes. And in light of a few recent lawsuits (a female driver in New Jersey was awarded $250,000 after supervisors harassed her and tampered with her brakes), most large trucking companies at least pay lip service to the idea of sensitivity training.

None of it is out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. Trucking faces a crisis. A 2005 study by the American Trucking Association concluded that there is currently a 20,000-driver shortage in the industry, one that will balloon into a 600,000-driver shortage by 2010 as demand increases. It seems young white men just aren’t interested in the long, lonely hours and weeks away from home anymore. The industry is trying to close the gap by recruiting minorities and women to be drivers. There’s even a free Spanish-language magazine at some of the truck stops titled Hispanic Woman Trucker—“the minority of the minority,” Charci says.

Most women are introduced to the profession through the team-trucking Charci and Robert plan to try, though she is an anomaly in that she was a trucker before her husband. In the parking lots, we see many truck doors painted with signs like “Tom & Vicki Goodman.” In addition to the social benefit of spending time with a spouse, there is an enormous economic advantage to teaming up. Once one driver has used his or her 11 allotted hours on the road, the other takes the wheel. It becomes possible to drive all day and all night legally. A team can run from the Atlantic to the Pacific in two days, doubling their billings without doubling all their costs. If they choose, a couple can live on the road for months. (Charci once lived in her truck for 8 months as a single woman and does not recommend it.)

When Robert completes his training, he and his wife plan on attaching bikes to the truck, exercising together and stopping for long weekends on the road. First, however, they’ll have to survive the next two months.

 

We arrive at a TA truck stop outside Los Angeles at 1 a.m., lucky that both the temperature and the engine have cooled. Beginning at 4 a.m., we have several drops to make in the city. But it will be a long three hours. Charci’s friend Chad King—a 300-pound driver with a teardrop tattoo on his cheek from prison—called us yesterday from the road to warn us about this place. It’s one of the only truck stops on I-15 on the way into L.A. and, as such, draws all elements of truck-stop life. Prostitutes stagger around the lot near the fuel pumps, and men are exchanging money for something unseen on the dark side street. The Roadway Motel is just 100 feet away, and I desperately need sleep, but now I am entertaining a vision of staying safely in the locked truck. Charci gives me a look that says, “I am a married woman, and you are headed across the street to that motel.” I gather my suitcase and laptop computer and begin to walk as quickly as possible without drawing attention to myself. One of the lot lizards spots me and moves in my direction. I run. If ever there was a question about me not being tough enough for this profession, running from a truck-stop prostitute answers it. When I reach the motel, I triple-lock the door.

Charci and I rendezvous at 4 a.m. and drive through the smoggy dawn to Temecula on the east side of Los Angeles. Warehouse men called lumpers pull the pallets from our truck, and we depart for City of Industry 30 miles away. At 5:30 a.m., traffic is already at a standstill. L.A. is living up to every horrible thing I ever imagined about it, but Charci likes it here. “Cars work with trucks in Los Angeles,” she says. I am stunned to see she is right. Even in a traffic jam, cars are giving all 70 feet of us space to merge in front of them. In Chicago or New York, she says, this would never happen.

At a food warehouse in City of Industry, we wait for four hours as a mere 10 pallets are pulled off the truck. The lumpers take a morning break, then a lunch. We are late for our next drop, and missing an appointment time can mean waiting a whole day for another one, but there’s nothing we can do to hurry them. “The only person not getting paid at the dock is the driver,” says Viscelli, the Ph.D. candidate writing his dissertation on trucking. “Drivers absorb the inefficiencies of the system.”

Perhaps the most bothersome of those inefficiencies is “deadheading.” Once we have made our final drop in Los Angeles, our truck is empty. To pick up a load that will take us back to the Midwest, we will have to deadhead 300 miles north to Salinas. Charci pays for that fuel out-of-pocket, and a fill-up can easily exceed $700. On this particular trip, however, it is worth it. The drive on Highway 101 through the San Joaquin Valley is the prettiest of the journey, and at the end of it lie produce loads that are among the most lucrative in the business—as much as $5,000 per trailer. Everyone wants to haul produce out of California. But at this time of year, not everyone is lucky enough to find a load out to California to get it. Our $3,500 dipping-sauce load makes this an $8,300 round trip, not bad for a week’s work.

So we have one 2,500-mile job behind us, and one 2,500-mile job ahead of us. We are late for our pick-up in Salinas, and Charci is concerned about the cleanliness of the truck and trailer. After four days of hauling, both have a light layer of dust inside and out. Produce-shippers such as the Dole warehouse we are headed toward are picky about loading into a clean truck. But at the only truck wash on the road to Salinas, lines circle around the block. As usual, there is simply not enough time.

 

When Charci calls her broker, Brian Jeffries, for a load, the background on his end sounds like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Jeffries, who works for Triple T Transport in Columbus, Ohio, is talking on both of the phones on his desk, and his cell phone is ringing. The 20 other brokers in the office are doing the same. “It gets a little hectic in here,” he says.

Jeffries is the middleman. Warehouses contact him when they have a load to ship, and he finds a driver in their area. On an average day, he handles 100 incoming calls. He’s also constantly phoning drivers to see how close they are to their destination—a tracking system of sorts. When he goes home at night, the calls continue. Brokers at Triple T are frequently contacted at 3 a.m. by stranded truckers.

Charci has been running loads for Jeffries for about two years, and, so far, he’s been very reliable. (A previous broker mistakenly led her halfway across the country to a warehouse where there was nothing to ship.) If she’s in the mood to see the Pacific Northwest, she just asks her broker for a load to Seattle. If she’s in the mood for lobster, she’ll ask for a shipment to Maine. Jeffries is also helpful in arranging a return-trip load, although he rarely knows what it will be until 24 hours in advance. Trucking is the ultimate hurry-up-and-wait business. It’s impossible to know how quickly a load of produce will be brought in from the field, but once it has been, it has to go fast. “The guy on the other end is selling that product while it’s on the road,” Jeffries says.

The load we will be shipping back to the Midwest is a particularly valuable one to Triple T—Dole is one of their biggest customers. Even before we arrive at the first pick-up, Charci is fielding hourly calls from the broker. The question coming from the other end is always the same: “Where are you now?”

 

The trucking world has descended on the little town of Salinas, California. It is the birthplace of author John Steinbeck, and looking out at the migrant fruit pickers hunched over in the fields, it is impossible not to think of him. Throughout the year, there are trucking rushes in various parts of the country—Florida in winter to haul oranges, Idaho in fall to haul potatoes—but Salinas in July is the grand-daddy of them all. Everything grows here. We are driving past fields of apples, lemons, lettuce, broccoli, garlic, grapes, cherries, celery, and peaches. But it is the smell of strawberries that overwhelms the air.

Often called the “salad bowl” of the nation, Salinas is humming with semis this morning. Each is labeled with its home town: Salem, Oregon; Lincoln, Nebraska; Washington, Indiana; New York, New York; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Often, the driver’s CB handle is also on the side of the truck: Pig Pen; Mattress Monkey; Brain Damage; Pork Chop. Charci is “Little Shark,” a nickname she acquired at her last “regular” job.

After picking up a half-load of lettuce, we head to a Dole warehouse to fill the rest of the truck with pallets of strawberries. There is a list of rules posted on the side of the receiving shack with warnings such as “Keep the trailer at 33 degrees,” and “Don’t eat the strawberries.” Our trailer is judged to be clean enough, and the lumper throws a Temp Tale on top of the load, which looks like a digital alarm clock and will record any change in temperature along the ride. Receivers will check the Temp Tale on the other end to determine if the trailer exceeded 33 degrees at any point. “Some drivers say, ‘I’ve got a babysitter on board,’” Charci says of the device.

Once we’re fully loaded, the truck again weighs the federally mandated limit of 80,000 pounds. Charci can tell the difference between 75,000 pounds and 80,000 pounds in the subtle ways the truck feels on the road. The radio is blaring, the CB is hissing, the engine is roaring, and she tells me to lock my door because the lock is producing an almost inaudible rattle. She knows this truck.

At the end of the fifth day, only 300 miles into the long journey across I-80 back to Indiana, we pull the truck to the side of the road at nightfall. The Nevada sky is a planetarium. I have lived in rural Brown County and seen stars away from the city before, but the desert does something new with them entirely. There are layers of stars, thick clouds of them. We crane our necks upward for half an hour in awe, cursing the occasional driver’s headlights that obscure our view.

When we stop to sleep late that night in dusty Elko, Nevada, I am surprised to find almost every hotel in town booked. There are two lackluster casinos, and about as many stoplights, begging the question, “Who on Earth would vacation in Elko?” In fact, one desk clerk informs me, a large vein of gold has just been discovered under the town. The hotels are filled with miners living there until the good times run dry. That gold rushes still exist out here renews the romantic notions I had when I began this trip, some of which have faded with 16-hour days and truck-stop buffet after truck-stop buffet. Although I have crossed the country many times and traveled through this area just days before, America never fails to surprise.

 

Today, almost all truck stops are owned by one of four chains: Petro, Flying J, Pilot, and TA, lovingly referred to by drivers as the “T & A.” Because they have parking lots big enough to accommodate trucks, they’re the most popular places for drivers to stop. A typical truck stop has 200 engines idling in harmony. Inside, chiropractors, barbers, and masseuses offer their services. For $10, drivers can treat themselves to the private showers, which are surprisingly clean and modern. Some truck stops have an aluminum trailer chapel in front decorated with lights in the shape of a cross and a sign that says “Trucking for Jesus.”

The Iowa 80, a TA in Walcott, proudly claims to be the largest truck stop in the world. It is three stories tall, covers 225 acres, and has more than 800 parking spaces. I have seen fewer storefronts at a shopping mall. In addition to the usual offerings, there is a movie theater, a video-game room, a dentist, an upholstery shop, a music store, a career center, a laundry, and, touchingly, a doll shop. Three full-sized 18-wheelers are displayed inside, and many more classic cars. At the custom shop, you will find the infamous “reclining mudflap girl” in every imaginable size.

Drivers seem to eat only one meal a day at the Iowa 80—dinner—but it is a sizable one. Fried chicken, roast beef, and mashed potatoes are to be served every evening. Beer is not allowed in a commercial vehicle at any time, but I see drivers sneaking off to their trucks at night with six-packs. One thing—perhaps the only thing—I never see at a truck stop is a gym. They exist, but judging by the bellies at the buffet, they are about as popular as the gold-dipped roses being sold in the gift shop.

Truck-stop speed, on the other hand, sells like hotcakes. Often referred to as “California turnarounds” and found near the cash register, over-the-counter stimulants are the only way some drivers get through the grueling “11-hour” days. Particularly those products with ephedrine increase the risk of stroke, heart attacks, and kidney damage. Charci has used them, though she prefers to drink Red Bull and coffee. But as her friend King says, “Sometimes you gotta get on down the road.”

 

Even in the 110-degree heat, the salt flats of Utah along 1-80 look like fields of snow. The landscape is making me thirsty, but I do not want to drink so much that I have to bother Charci for another bathroom break. After six days of driving, both of us are showing signs of wear. My hair is ready for an oil change, and there is a noticeable stubble on Charci’s legs. The ride back is always less fun than the ride out, and through Wyoming and the soul-sucking flatness of Nebraska, we try to keep each other entertained. Charci rapidly recites the states in alphabetical order, a trick she learned from singing “The Fifty Nifty United States” in grade school. She quizzes me on U.S. geography: “Name the six state capitals west of Los Angeles.”

Judging by the windshield, which looks like it has been assaulted with a paintball gun, and the grill, which looks like a butterfly collection, this truck has claimed a few lives. I ask her about the animals she has hit, and she counts three bucks, two dogs, an antelope, and an owl. “I felt like a murderer when I hit that antelope,” she says. “I went to a motel and cried.” As we are having this conversation, we pass a dead horse on the side of the interstate. To her credit, Chard has never hit a four-wheeler. “Most drivers will run off the road and risk their own lives rather than hit a car,” she says. When a Pete hits a car, there is often a funeral involved.

On the last day, our eighth, with just 400 miles on 1-74 left to drive, Charci passes the time listening to trucking shows on her XM satellite radio while I read trucking magazines. On one program, the host of The Trucking Bozo is taking calls about new regulations on trailer lights. Willie Nelson is promoting a new brand of biodiesel called BioWillie on the cover of Trucking News. A school bus passes, and the children give us the sign to blow the horn. Charci obliges by pulling the chrome lever at her side. The kids delight in the startlingly loud blast. “I actually get disappointed if a school bus passes and nobody signals me to blow the horn,” she says.

About 100 miles from Indy, Robert calls and reminds Charci not to waste any time getting home. The two will see each other for only a few hours before he leaves tonight for training and she leaves to drop off this load in Harmony, Pennsylvania. When we finally pull the truck off the interstate and squeeze through the narrow Fountain Square streets, it is already late afternoon.

Robert is waiting for us outside their house, polishing his motorcycle. He kisses his wife and is visibly relieved to have her home, if only for this brief period. I am so tired that I don’t even have the energy to feel awkward. I shake Robert’s hand and get in my car, which after eight days and 5,000 miles in a Pete, feels like sitting on the pavement. Driving back to my Broad Ripple apartment in a dinky Honda, I am disappointed to remember how small the world in which the rest of us live actually is—forgettable little automobiles; short, predictable workweeks; commutes that fall well short of 5,000-mile road trips. I pass a few trucks on College Avenue and feel an instant nostalgia.

In addition to being adventurous and larger-than-life, of course, trucking is also exhausting. It’s 80- and 90-hour workweeks, watching out for bears, protecting four-wheelers, waiting for lumpers, popping California turnarounds, and dodging lot lizards. It’s no wonder the industry has 130 percent turnover. As I collapse on my bed that night, too weary to even remove my clothes, I realize Charci is already hundreds of miles away, barreling down I-70, headed for another load.

 

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