The aroma of a truck stop restaurant is curiously comforting. The smell of greasy breakfast food and stale cigarettes blends perfectly with the lively conversation of truckers. An overweight woman sits at a counter stool exchanging "son-of-a-blank"-riddled diatribe with a man in a flannel shirt and a CAT ball cap. A balding man with flush cheeks listens intently as he lights up a third or fourth Marlboro light, awaiting the next opportunity to heave a mighty guffaw. Teasing insults flow as easily as genuine kindness among truckers, and most are grateful for a few moments of story swapping and interaction among peers.
Loneliness is usually the immediate response to what makes life as a trucker difficult. While a scenario similar to the previous one can still be found in truck stops, they are becoming increasingly rare.
Truck stops were once the hub of a trucker's business and social network. In the days before cell phones and Qual-Comms, truckers contacted dispatch on a pay phone in the driver's lounge, or simply hung out until it was time to go down the road again. In this environment, business contacts were made, stories were shared, and friendships were developed.
Today, truckers are losing the time to interact with other drivers in the social atmosphere that used to be a staple of the industry. With cell phones, text messaging, refrigerators and microwaves in the trucks, and the gradual disappearance of "Mom & Pop" truck stops, drivers often have limited time to socialize. With the ever-changing Hours of Service rules and expectations of faster deliveries, time management usually wins out over social activity.
Over the road trucking is unlike any other lifestyle. On any given day, it can be the greatest job on earth, and the next day, cracking yourself in the head with a sledgehammer seems a viable alternative. It is often an emotional roller-coaster ride that spawns the desire for simple human interaction. Few other jobs entail as much private thought as trucking. Each day holds between eight and eleven hours of solitary confinement.
The solitary life of a trucker is hard enough for a single man or woman, but it becomes an even greater challenge for someone with a family. Not surprisingly, the divorce rate among truckers is much higher than the national average. In an article by Kevin Bates in the Topeka Capital-Journal, truck driver Dale Hutchens states:
"You gotta be some sort of a nomad, a loner, to do this job. We all want to be around our families, especially during the holidays, but that's the life I chose."
While many people were at home with family, opening gifts beneath the Christmas tree, Hutchens ate lunch at Roost Family Restaurant, a Topeka truck stop, and prepared for a northward trip.
"It's a way of life," says Hutchens, "you either accept it or you don't."
Hutchens still visits his Grandmother when he travels to the east. This make holidays on the road more bearable, but he still has a lot of time to think about his nine year-old daughter, Megan.
"I saw her a little bit yesterday, but I'm not going to be able to see her today. I gave her some Lego sets. I think about her constantly."
For Hutchens, and most other long-haul truckers, driving is a lifelong marriage to the road.
For me, the solitude of the road provides a mixed blessing. Observing a quiet and peaceful West Virginia sunrise while Kitty sleeps in the passenger's seat has a way of making me feel at one with the universe. At other times, I sorely miss the interaction and gossip among co-workers in a "normal" job. The road is a mixture of excitement, serenity, loneliness, and stress. As long-haul truckers, the best we can do is to try and make a home for ourselves on the road.
Most truckers use cell phones to stay in contact with family and friends. Internet broadband services are also available for Internet access. A driver can join mailing lists, chat groups, and develop cyber-friendships. It also helps to bring things from home to make the rig feel closer to home. Familiar music and photos, and a refrigerator stocked with some favorite foods from home offer a consoling diversion. It is also fun to snap pictures on a digital camera and send them to family and friends, allowing them to share in some of your adventures. A web cam and a free video chat service like www.skype.com even allows a driver more personal interaction with family. Some drivers even take online classes on the road. While the rigors of road life would make it extremely difficult to devote proper time and study to a college-level course, I firmly believe that if a person wants something badly enough, they will find a way to make it happen. If all else fails, a driver might consider teaming. Teaming has many pros and cons, but it might be an option worth considering for drivers whom loneliness proves too heavy a cross to bear.
Finally, a pet can be an indispensable companion on the road. For me, Kitty is my Rock of Gibraltar against loneliness. Unfortunately, more companies are eliminating (or already have eliminated) pet policies for company drivers. However, many companies still allow drivers to bring along a furry friend.
I often talk to Kitty almost as if she were human. Sometimes she responds vocally and, at others, my words are met with a blank stare. Most often, I am simply ignored but, on special occasions, Kitty makes her opinion known by licking her butt. Whatever her response, I cannot imagine being on the road without my loyal cat.
Kitty came into my life almost thirteen years ago. As an abandoned and dying stray kitten, I paid the vet to nurse her back to health and then claimed her as my own. Kitty has remained with me through job loss, the death of a loved one, relocation, breakups, career change, and many other trying times. Through it all, she has never expected anything but food and love. Her rotund paunch proves that she gets plenty of the former, and my commitment to my loyal pet gives her plenty of the latter. As long as Kitty is with me, I'll never work for a trucking company with a "No Pets" policy.
Kitty has even offered subtle life lessons on dealing with loneliness on the road. On a beautiful Saturday morning in Tulsa, I watched as Kitty hung her head out the window and sniffed the morning air. The worries and stresses of daily mundane existence shortly evaporated as I watched the twitching nose of a small animal soak in the aroma of life. Loneliness was the farthest thing from my mind as I digested the simple and profound lesson that Kitty taught.