On the Big Road

The life and times of a truck-driving poet

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

THERE'S a drop lot off Ballard Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Proline Carriers used to keep some trailers, and that's where my trainer, Ed Cooney, and I grabbed an empty to run up to Wakefield, where we got a load of cardboard packaging bound for Kettering, Ohio. I had graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, in May of 1995. It was now October 10. In the intervening months I had gone to trucking school, gotten my commercial driver's license, and found a job. I had already completed the two-week orientation in Nashville, Tennessee, and would have been put with a trainer there, but I had to fly home for my niece's christening. I met up with Ed Cooney at a truck stop in Mansfield; we drove trailerless to Worcester to get an empty, and thus the mighty coincidence of beginning my trucking career in the shadow of my alma mater.

It was a beautiful fall day, and Holy Cross shone atop Mount Saint James. I could see the brick academic buildings, and the dorms where some of my friends lived. After ten days with Ed (who suffered from some kind of sleep apnea, and kept me awake every night in the truck) I would get a road test in Nashville and be assigned my own truck. My oft-ridiculed plan, conceived that spring, was falling into place.

Spring semester of senior year I didn't quite have my act together. I wanted to go to graduate school and get a master of fine arts in poetry, but around March I realized that I had missed the deadlines. I figured I could work at some kind of job for a year and then apply, but I wasn't going to move back home, to Scituate, and I didn't want to spend all my money on some ridiculous rent in Boston. Somehow I came up with the idea of driving a truck. Trucking school would cost about $3,800, but that was less than rent somewhere for a year, and I knew that truckers made good money, and I had loans to pay down, and I liked to drive, and I'd have time to think.

IT was March of 1996, and I was in the TV room of a truck stop in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I was the only one in the room, typing out poems on an electric typewriter so that I could send in my application to the M.F.A. program at the University of Alabama. A driver walked in, a black guy in his fifties, and sat down in front of the TV. There was a football game on.

"I hope the typewriter doesn't bother you," I said to him. "I'm about done."

"Naw, it won't bother me. What you typing, anyway?"

I thought about lying, but I told him. "A bunch of poems. I'm applying to graduate school in creative writing."

"You a driver?"

"Yeah, I drive for Proline."

"Graduate school. That means you went to college, got a degree, now you're driving a truck, and you're gonna go back? How can you afford all that?"

"If I get in, they'll have me teach freshman English, but I won't have to pay tuition and I'll get paid enough to live on."

"Well, there you go," he said, laughing. "Beats the hell out of driving a truck, don't it?"

THE trucks are on CB channel 19. When there's a lot of CB traffic, you might be able to hear and be heard for only about a mile or two in each direction. Late at night you'll get a little more range. Most of the talk is about business: eastbounders asking westbounders where the cops are, how the weather is behind them, how traffic is rolling through town. If you want to shoot the breeze with someone about life in general, good form dictates that you take it to another channel after a couple of minutes. But late at night nobody much minds that kind of conversation.

The CB is like weather, each radio putting out a cloud of conversation, or maybe keeping silent like a patch of blue sky. Conversations build like storms, dissipating when the energy is talked out of them. If you're rolling the same way as the conversation, you'll be with it for a while -- hundreds of miles sometimes. But if a bunch of eastbounders are talking and you're westbound, you'll hear only a few minutes of it; then you'll blow through it as if it were a squall line.

A movie like Smokey and the Bandit would have you believe that all truckers talk in numbers, in an obscure code that takes years to master. Not so. There are a few operative numbers, but trucker talk is more thesaural than codified, privileging euphemism over shorthand. To talk like a trucker you need to acquire the art of understatement. You need to have several ways of saying the same thing without using the literal description.

First off, you need to know how to address other drivers. "Driver" is the preferred term. "Hand" is acceptable. "Good buddy" is not. "Good buddy" is an insult, implying that someone is a good buddy. Save that for when a driver gobbles up half your lane while he's trying to pass you around a curve and when you ask him if he's all right, he says, "You just mind yourself, driver." Tell him, "Well, you just keep on truckin' there, good buddy." That'll burn him up.

You can also address a driver by the truck he's driving: "Hey, cabover..." (type of truck); "Peterbilt, you got it on?" (make of truck); "Northbound Averitt..." (name of company); "Hey, parking lot..." (car carrier); "Mr. Chicken Hauler..." (chicken hauler).

You've got to know what to call things. A car is a "four-wheeler" -- usually used pejoratively, often preceded by "damn." An eighteen-wheeler is a "bigtruck." A cop is a "bear," a "smokey," a "smokey-bear," a "full-grown bear," a "plain-wrapper" (unmarked), a "county mountie" (as opposed to a state trooper), or a "bear in the air" (in a helicopter). If he's got his lights going, he's "running the discos." If he's got a car pulled over, he's got a "customer," or a "captured four-wheeler," or simply a "captured." A smokey on an on-ramp with a radar gun is "shooting you in the back." From an overpass he's "shooting you in the face." If he's in the median, he's "in the comedian."

A weigh station is a "chicken coop." If the coops are closed, you can say "The coops are closed," but it's better to say "locked up," or "six letters," or "The big word, driver. Mash your motor." If the scales are open, they're "wide open," or "rolling you across," or "checking your ground pressure."

A tire tread in the road is a "gator." If there's ever a real alligator in the road, I don't know what you say. The left lane is the "hammer lane," the right lane is the "granny." A rest area is a "pickle park," a tollbooth is a "cashbox," an ambulance is a "meat wagon," mile markers are "yardstickers," the interstate is "the big road," a two-lane is a "skinny." An accident is a "wreck," but if you're going to describe the wreck, don't get too creative with adjectives and action verbs. "A bigtruck and a four-wheeler got together." That's enough.

In general, cities and states should be referred to by their nicknames. If you're northbound in Kentucky and trying to tell a southbounder that you haven't seen anything since an accident you passed around Nashville, you say, "You look good back to the Volunteer. There's a wreck before you hit the Guitar, but it might be rolling all right now." New Orleans is "the Mardi Gras"; Birmingham is "Smoke City," or simply "the Smoke"; Chicago is "the Windy"; Fort Wayne is "the Fort."

Sometimes you'll hear a "10-36" (time check) or a "10-33" (accident), but the only numbers you really need are 20, 10-4, and 42. 20 means "location." "20 on the full-grown?"

"He's rolling south, just put the thirty-eight yardsticker in his pocket, discos goin'." A "10-4" would be appropriate here, or "Copy the thirty-eight."

42 is 10-4's first cousin. 10-4 means "I heard what you said," and 42 means "I hear what you're saying."

"Northbound, how's it looking getting through that construction?"

"Clusterfuck, driver. I'd go the bypass around it."

"10-4 on the bypass, 'preciate it."

"There ain't but two seasons out here anymore: winter and construction."

"42 on that."

10-4 can be split up and used as a sort of call and response. "Southbound, you're gonna want to run the bypass around this construction, -4?"

"Yeah, 10-. I was just thinking that. You look good back to the Wolverine. Coops are locked up."

Whatever you do, don't throw in too many truckingisms. Not many guys say "Keep on trucking." "Have a good ride your way" is better. Once you've driven for twenty years, you'll have earned the right to say something hokey like "Keep her between the ditches." But by then you'll know enough not to say it.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

I'VE had one wreck.

February 9, 1996, I was westbound on I-80 in Ohio, headed to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with a load of plastic out of Rumford, Maine. It was a Friday. The load didn't deliver until Monday, lots of extra time, so I could've run it straight up to Wisconsin and maybe dropped it on a lot and grabbed another load, or at least gotten layover pay for sitting in Sheboygan for a couple of days. But instead I had made plans to stop at the University of Notre Dame to visit a friend of mine from Holy Cross who was in the M.F.A. program there. It was worth the lost miles to check out the program, to be on a college campus again, to hang out with people who weren't twice my age and twice my weight.

I woke up around eleven that morning in the last rest area in Pennsylvania before the Ohio line. I'd stopped there the night before because I was out of hours, and I didn't want to cross the Ohio scales until I could catch my logbook up. Those scales were sure to be open (the Buckeye never shuts), and I was afraid that fueling up in Buckhorn, Pennsylvania, had put me a few pounds over on my drive axle. I left a little before noon, rolled through the Buckeye coops, no problem, and figured I could be in South Bend by six or so.

The day was gray but unthreatening, the traffic moderate, the road dry. I knocked off fifty miles of Ohio, making good time. Then I saw a four-wheeler on the eastbound side drive into the median. I figured it was a cop turning around. He had no business with me, but I didn't want to get tangled up with him as he swung onto my side, so I backed it down some and grabbed the CB: "Westbound, look out, we got a bear swapping over" -- but it wasn't a cop. A brown car, a Ford Fairmont maybe, came careening up out of the ditch, flying like a cornerback, coming at me -- "Look out! Fucking look out!" I dropped the mike. I didn't know where to swerve. He had the angle on me. I didn't think I would miss him if I tried to go inside, so I steered hard for the right shoulder.

It didn't sound like much -- hardly more than the noise of running over a full can of beer. If the impact of the Ford slowed the truck down, I didn't feel it. I figured there wouldn't be much damage, but as I tried to stop in the breakdown lane, my brakes locked up from an air leak. I tried to rev the engine to build the air back up, so that I could move the truck farther off the road, but the gauges stayed on zero. I opened the door of the cab and found the steps crunched up, the fuel tank mangled, and diesel leaking all over the place. I jumped out to set my triangles and found that a drive tire was missing -- not flat but gone.

The car was maybe 800 yards behind me. I had rolled a while before coming to a stop, and he had spun off. His car had come to rest in the hammer lane down the road, and was surrounded by people who had stopped. I decided to stay with my truck.

I had been pretty calm to this point, had done the things I was supposed to do: prevent a second accident, warn others, all that. But my next responsibility, checking on the other driver, now terrified me. I climbed back into the cab and heard on the CB "Proline, you okay in there?"

Yes, I was okay. "Anyone down there can tell me about the driver?" I was really scared now. "Is he dead?"

A voice came back: "They got him covered up with a blanket, driver..."

In that moment I knew that for as long as I lived, I would be someone who had killed someone else. And it didn't matter that it had happened in just seconds, that I had been on my side of the road, that it wasn't my fault. My mind was thrumming, circling around and around this new fact.

Then the trucker completed his thought. "But, yeah, he's talking, he's moving. His leg's busted up pretty bad, but he's okay." I looked out at I-80, at the 187-mile marker, at the gray Ohio day, a place that I would never have been able to leave, and I thanked God for sparing that man's life and, yes, for sparing mine.

I was glad my logbook looked good. The troopers and the Department of Transportation officer found no problems. A big wrecker came and pulled the truck and trailer off the pike into a hook-and-drop lot by the cashbox. And there we sat, the wrecker driver and I, for hours, waiting for fifty-five-gallon drums to arrive from the Ohio DOT so that he could offload the fuel from the busted tank. I was freezing. I smoked one cigarette after another, trying to forget the fact that I was hungry. I called my friend at Notre Dame, hoping to tell my story, but I got his answering machine.

The wrecker driver split up the truck and trailer, and another Proline driver bobtailed in to take the trailer to be fixed and have the load reloaded. I don't think the DOT ever showed up with the drums, so the wrecker driver finally said screw it. He towed the truck twenty miles back toward Youngstown, where there was an International dealer shop. It turned out that the truck's frame was damaged -- which is pretty hard for a car to do to a truck without someone's dying.

The bill I signed off on for the tow was $1,400 -- 200 bucks an hour -- out of which the wrecker driver would make fifty dollars.

I got to stay in a hotel that night -- a luxury for someone who lives in a truck. I found a hotel with a bar. I ate dinner, got a room, and took a long hot shower.

The bar looked like it hadn't been refurbished since the fifties. It was full of truck drivers. I mean precisely full. When I walked in, there was one seat at the bar, and for the rest of the night if one person left, one person came in. There was never an extra seat for more than two minutes, and never a seat too few. Blonde fiftyish twins tended the bar. I sat next to an enormous guy from Boston, who was ordering beer by the pitcher. For a while I just drank my beer and listened to an argument that he was having with a guy at the other end of the bar, a trucker from Iowa who was saying that all truckers ought to unionize. Everyone in the bar was in on the argument, but the two main players were Boston and Iowa -- the latter a rather uningratiating guy: sort of a thirtysomething flaxen-haired Ross Perot. "Hey, Boston," Iowa would say, and then he'd go off on some spiel about how truckers could all be home every night if they wanted to.

"Hey, Iowa, what if I don't want to go home? Huh? You're probably not married, a guy like you, so yeah, you probably want to be home."

"Hey, Boston, just so you know, I've got a girlfriend at home, and another..."

They kept going back and forth, not building any sort of consensus, not wanting to. Just trash-talking. In a lull I got talking to Boston, told him I was from Scituate. After a while I got to tell my story. "I'm thinking it's a bear, gonna swap around, so I'm on the CB..."

I didn't pay for many drinks after that. I mean, I had a pretty good story. I had done good. Everyone agreed: if I had swerved left, I might have hit the guy head on, or else missed him but rolled the trailer on top of him, or missed him but hit someone else. I was the youngest person in the bar, so I was the recipient of a lot of "I wish, when I was starting out like you are, somebody had told me..."

After last call I went up to my room and flopped down on the bed. I turned the TV on and then turned it off. I was thinking about the man in the brown car, replaying the scene over and over. I wondered how he was doing, and I knelt down beside the bed and tried to pray. But I couldn't. I was drunk off my ass, a caricature of piety, and I knew it.

FROM the Sigmund Freud file:

Driver #1: "Hey, flatbed, don't miss this girl coming up in this red four-wheeler."

Driver #2: "What's she look like?"

Driver #1: "I just barely got a look at her. Pretty legs on her. Don't miss it."

Driver #2: "You know I won't. Tell you what, I'll grab this hammer lane and slow her up so you can come on and get a look. Then you let me back over so I get a good look at her."

Driver #1: "Now you're talkin'."

Driver #3: "From the sound of it, maybe the two of you oughta get together."

I DROVE for Proline for six months. I wasn't making much money with them. I wasn't getting miles and I wasn't going to run west. I quit in April and drove a cab in Worcester for a couple of weeks. I had been accepted at Alabama for the fall, and I thought about sticking around Worcester, or living at home for a while, but both scenarios struck me as odious, so I got a job with Direct Transit Incorporated and went back on the road for three months.

Esprit de corps was lacking at DTI. So were good trucks, pleasant dispatchers, and competent drivers. Even Direct drivers disliked Direct drivers. I nearly got into a fistfight in Dallas when a receiver told me to back into a dock ahead of another DTI truck. The other driver jumped up onto my running board while I was backing up, opened my door when I stopped, and jumped down into a fighter's crouch.

I still see DTI trailers all over the place, but no DTI trucks: they went bankrupt shortly after I left. I could carry the outfit for only so long.

After DTI it was two years before I drove a bigtruck again. The summer after my first year at Alabama I just did some temp work, driving a straight truck for a while -- a humbling experience, like being sent down to triple-A after making it for a while in the big leagues. Last year I got back into the action. In May I drove a tanker for the first and only time. I took a road test for a company that ran gasoline and asphalt, and I managed to remember how to drive well enough to get the job. But I never worked for them; I have a better job with Holingsworth Trucking, bringing parts down from Battle Creek, Michigan, for the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa County. We run up to Michigan carrying empty racks, run back with full ones. No sitting around at food warehouses, waiting to unload. I drive up there and go to sleep, and when they're ready to load me up, they rap on my door and load me up quick and I'm gone.

YOU'RE going to have to take a leak. There's no way around it. We call it "getting a tirewash," and how a truck driver manages this aspect of the job may determine his success or failure.

First off, pulling into a truck stop just to go to the bathroom is a waste of time. If you need to buy smokes or sodas or whatever, and you go to the bathroom because you're there, that's fine. But don't fool yourself. If you're buying stuff because you had to stop for the restroom anyway, then you're in the truck stop primarily for that reason, which is a shame. That's the kind of thing a four-wheeler would do.

Rest areas would seem to be a good option, but often all the spaces for bigtrucks will be taken, so you wind up stopping on the shoulder of the on-ramp. If you're going to have to do it that way, at least find a ramp of your own, where you get some privacy.

On-ramps are better than off-ramps, because you're less likely to be run over trying to get the truck onto the shoulder. It's best to find an on-ramp that's on a downslope, to help you get back up to speed when you're ready to roll again. Because I run a regular route now, I have a few favorites. Exit 112 on I-65 north in Tennessee is a good one -- wide shoulder, downslope, commanding hilltop view. In Alabama exit 318 on the southbound is a gem. The ramp cuts into a rock face that rises twenty feet above the shoulder, clung to by daring pine trees and vines with orange flowers. Crickets chirp. A cave is notched into the base of the rock. Stopping here is like taking a little camping trip.

I've heard of drivers who rig up a funnel with a tube running out under the truck through the gearbox, and when they need to, they just stand up -- easy in a high-rise cab -- and take care of business while driving down the road.

I find this troubling on several fronts. But my main objection is that those drivers are missing out on what can be a great part of the job. Okay, so maybe America isn't the frontier land that it used to be. Maybe TV and corporate conglomerates have homogenized the hell out of the place, and the interstates have turned travel into an adventureless algorithm. But when you fuel up in Portland, Tennessee, and it's 50° at 10:00 P.M., and you don't stop until you jump off at a ramp in Van Buren, Indiana, in the middle of the night, and you climb out of the truck into air twenty degrees cooler than Tennessee's, and the red clay has been replaced by brown dirt, and the land is flat and the night is dark and the stars are as bright as sparks from a cigarette thrown out the window, and your breath fogs and drifts up and mingles with the exhaust trail from the smokestack, and you walk around the truck and wash a tire next to a drowsy cornfield, and you look up and the night is so black you can see a satellite pinging along in shallow space, and in short sleeves the air feels like real weather, cold like home at this time of year, and you are not home, you are on the road, you climb back into the cab and you feel as if you've been born again.

Matthew Doherty is an M.F.A. student in the creative-writing program at the University of Alabama. His article in this issue won first prize in The Atlantic's 1998 student essay-writing competition.

Illustration by Douglas Fraser.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; On the Big Road - 99.10 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 4; page 24-30.