There are more than 1.6 million truck drivers in the U.S., some of whom travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles a week. The industry is growing in response to increased demand for shipping and delivery, but a reputation for long hours and extended time away from home can make it tough to recruit new drivers. Despite pay increases for truck drivers over the last couple of years—the median salary is currently around $40,000 a year—a report from the American Truckers Association, a trade group, predicts a shortage of truck drivers due to the graying of the workforce.
It’s not unusual for a driver to be on the road for a couple days—or even a couple weeks—at a time, making work-life balance a big concern for truckers. Thad Fellows, a commercial truck driver from Iowa, has been doing long-distance hauls for almost 30 years. He describes being away from his family as one of the most difficult parts of the job, as he drives up to 70 hours a week, from the Midwest to places such as Georgia, Texas, and Florida, to deliver shipments. Fortunately, for a year and a half, his wife Dianna—who was recently inspired to get her own commercial driver’s license—drove with him, splitting time at the wheel.
For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Thad and Dianna Fellows about what it’s like driving cross-country together for work, and some of the challenges of spending so much time on the road. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: How did you end up driving trucks together?
Thad Fellows: I was in the Air Force from 1984 to 1988. When I got out, I wanted to work in security but it didn't pay well. I saw a sign that said, "Learn to drive the big rigs." So I filled out an application and sent it in. I went to truck-driving school in Kansas City in 1988, and I've been driving for pretty much the last 30 years.
Dianna Fellows: Thad and I started dating when I was teaching at Head Start, a preschool program for low-income students. On Memorial Day weekend, we ended up playing this silly game at his sister-in-law's house where she asked, "What would be your ideal all-expense-paid vacation?" I said that it would be really awesome to see more of the United States out of the windshield of a semi-trailer truck.
I ended up going on a trip with him to Salt Lake City, Utah, and it was really gorgeous. That August, I told my parents that I was going to be taking a college class for commercial truck-driving school in September so that I could start driving. We were team driving from November until about April of this year when I found out that I was expecting, and had to stop driving the semi.
Green: What was driving together like?
Thad: Oh, it was fun. It was like we were on vacation everywhere we went. I don't stop when I drive alone, but when we drove together, we'd park and go places. When she got in the truck with me, we're stopping at Walmarts going shopping, at the French Quarter in New Orleans, and Key West, Florida.
Green: Is there a particular drive you took that stands out?
Thad: The first trip I took with Dianna, she was just a rider. She rode with me out through Denver, Colorado, over the Rocky Mountains, to Fillmore, Utah. We reloaded in Salt Lake City, and came back to Iowa through Wyoming. That was probably my favorite trip ever.
Dianna: I had been stationed out in Colorado Springs with the Air Force, so I had been through the Colorado area. But it was a really awesome trip. It started that desire to travel more, and be outdoors. In the semi, you're not outdoors all the time but it gives you a little bit more of a chance to see the outside than another job.
Green: What is an average long-distance trip like alone?
Thad: I get up, get in my truck, and do my pre-trip inspection: You don't want to be driving down the road with something wrong with your truck. I go pick up a load at the shipper's, and do a trip plan so I know where I’m going—where to fuel, and what time I’ll get there. We used to take eight-hour breaks, but now you have to take a 10-hour break—which is a little bit long. They don't want guys driving tired. Then you deliver your load, and they unload it. That's it in a nutshell, point A to point B.
Green: What are you transporting usually?
Thad: We haul the shelves that hold refrigerated and hot food in the grocery store, from the factory to stores like Winn Dixie and Buy Low and Food Lion. They could be anywhere from eight-foot-long to 20-foot-long. We go to Florida a lot with those, and then to Georgia to pick up peanuts, and bring the peanuts back to Iowa. In Iowa, they roast them and put them in birdseed.
Green: What other locations do you drive to frequently?
Thad: It varies. You could go to Texas, Florida, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, or all the way out to Colorado sometimes. My boss will send us out with a load, and then get us a job that comes right back home. He doesn't have us go to a bunch of destinations before we get to go home. Then you take 34 hours off and do it again. You're legally allowed 70 hours of driving in an eight-day period.
Green: You must get tired after being behind the wheel for 70 hours at a time.
Thad: Yes. For the last couple of years, I drank Red Bull. I'm not supposed to anymore because the doctor says that I’ve been having trouble with my sugar [levels]. I used to listen to music on the road, but now that I’m 50 years old, I listen to news radio to keep up with what's going on around the world.
The best remedy [for the fatigue] is just to take a nap. I used to take two-hour naps in the afternoon, and it would count towards my break, but now it doesn't. The Department of Transportation changed the rules, and now when I take a nap in the afternoon it doesn't stop the clock. Once you get in your truck and you start driving for the day, the clock starts. Fourteen hours later, you're done no matter what. It doesn't matter if you were waiting to unload, or stuck in traffic, or had a flat tire —once you hit 14 hours, you have to take a 10-hour break before you can drive again.
Green: What are some challenges about being a truck driver and being on the road all the time?
Thad: The hardest part about driving a truck is being gone from home. It'll make you cry. I've been homesick for 30 years. After homesickness, then the next challenge would be driving a semi. You can't just turn around anywhere if you get lost in the city. The GPS that we have now really helps, but every once in a while it'll lead you astray. Being a lost truck driver is not fun: You have to deal with low bridges, one-way streets, low power lines and trees, and you have to be careful.
Dianna: One of the biggest challenges for me was that I did not know the roads. My husband is a wonderful navigator, but I had to really be on the ball. Also, learning to look two football fields ahead of your truck and getting used to backing up a big rig was difficult.
Green: Truck-driving is a male-dominated occupation, and there are lots of stereotypes about the women driving big rigs. Dianna, what has your experience as a female truck driver been like?
Dianna: Thad said I was a natural truck-driver. I'm a farm girl too, so I was used to driving tractors—but it’s definitely a man's world out there. When I first started driving, I could definitely tell that I would have to start being more on my toes because truck-driving is macho. I had to get my skills right away so that I could prove that I could handle it. Once you show everybody that you can do it too, they pretty much leave you alone.
Green: Why do you consider truck-driving macho?
Dianna: Because when you're truck-driving, you can't just get a big rig into any little parking spot. It can be very tricky, and the guys like to show off a lot and say, "I could do that. It looks like you're struggling." They're always watching other truck drivers when they're coming in to unload or load.
Green: What's the longest drive you've ever done?
Thad: Probably 15 or 20 years ago. For that trip, I loaded at 7 a.m. in Gilman, Vermont, to go to Iowa. The next morning, 25 hours later, I was sitting in Davenport, Iowa. I took a shower, and went to bed. I called my dispatcher and told him I was home, and they didn't believe me. I thought I was going to be off for the day sleeping, but they called me back out. We used to be able to get away with stuff like that, but now you can't. It's not worth the risk of fines and possibly your license getting taken.
Green: What motivates you to go to work?
Thad: I wouldn't say money. I mean, it's good money, but that's not my motivation. It's a job where I make enough money that I can support my family comfortably. I can't see myself working in factories or anything like that. I’m sure I'll be in a truck until I retire.
Dianna: I'm pregnant and starting a daycare right now. I will probably work with the daycare kids for a while, and soon we'll have our own child, so I'm pretty much off the road now.
Green: What is the most rewarding part of your job outside of the time that you drove together?
Thad: There are some good places to eat out here. You got to find them, though. The Cowboy Cafe in Lyman, Wyoming, on Exit 41, has the best bacon cheeseburgers in the world. I love food.
Green: How would you say that your job as a truck driver connects to your personal identity?
Thad: I just sit on my butt and turn the steering wheel, but gross over a thousand dollars a week. You can't say I'm lazy, can you? Some people try to. I'm proud to be a worker in America. I pay our taxes, and help make the world go round. I love my country, and being a truck driver is connected to that. When you go to the grocery store and you buy something off the shelf, a truck at some point brought it to that place. Without trucks, America stops.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a taxi driver, a train conductor, and an auto technician.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.