By: James Miller
He says he’ll miss the feeling of the open road. He’ll miss the fresh air. He’ll miss chasing the New Mexico sun on I-10, or running from the West Virginia moon across I-64. To him, it was never a job. To him, it was never a sacrifice - it was a calling.
“Somewhere along the line, I think the world forgot how essential this calling really is,” he says over the dancing smoke of his cigarette and the obsidian black coffee. “They used to know.”
Nearly everything Americans need to make it from one day to the next is hauled on the beds of trucks. The cars we drive, the food we eat, the fuel we use, the medical supplies we depend on, and beds that keep us warm at night; luxuries which are made possible by the determination of the forgotten. By the men and women like Fred Hughes, 78, of Birch River, West Virginia.
He speaks with a slow and aging West Virginian drawl that brings credence to his wise words. Known by the trucking handle “Pawpaw,” he’s an old timer with more than eight million miles under his belt - or the equivalent of driving around the circumference of the earth 321 times.
“The older I get, the more I realize how important we really are, how important our time really is. Make sure whomever you give it to is important, make sure whatever you do…you love it.” Hughes says with misty eyes as “Take it Easy” by the Eagles softly plays over the radio of his aging Peterbilt truck.
He knows his days on the road are limited. His gray beard holds no secrets, nor false hope. Most of his peers have long since hung up their hats.
“My days are numbered, but the world doesn’t stop wanting. They’ll still be waiting. Problem is, who’s gonna be there to deliver? Where are the next generation of truckers?” Hughes laments while shaking his head.
The next generation of truck drivers trickle into the industry with ever decreasing numbers each year. For greenhorn drivers like Thomas Hibbs, 20, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, trucking is not so much a choice as it is a means to an end.
“Some days it sucks, some days it’s awesome.” Hibbs laments while waiting for his cargo to be loaded onto his semi. “If you don’t mind being away from home, which no one really does, then this could be an alright situation.”
Hibbs didn’t grow up wanting to be a truck driver, for him driving was a last resort, outside of oilfield work, which paid a decent salary for a kid without an education.
“Got my girlfriend pregnant our Sophomore year in school, and figured I’d do the right thing and marry her.” Hibbs says laughing. “I love her to death. I wanted to give her the world, you know? But McDonald’s ain’t gonna pay enough for living, so I got my CDL and hired on with this company.”
The quality of life in trucking depends on the mental toughness of the men and women behind the wheel; a toughness that old-timer Hughes says is disappearing.
“Damn shame! But you get what you pay for. I’ve seen a lot of things out here, people used to have respect for ya, but not today. It’s all changed.”
When asked what the difference was between truckers today and those of his generation, Hughes pointed to the lack of modern truckers growing up on the folk hero trucker tales.
Truck driving hit its boom in late ‘60s and ‘70s, when outlaw country songs and blue-collar movies paid homage to the growing industry, turning truckers into folk heroes. Today, much like those long forgotten songs and movies, the drivers feel like they’ve been cast away, to spend their days in the dollar bin of society.
They feel forgotten.
Commercial trucking has always been vital to our nation’s economic prosperity. The industry has long played a significant role in mitigating economic stress during national emergencies. This was evident during the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as supply lines were shut down, and yet somehow truckers continued to arrive.
“I pulled about five thousand miles hauling loads into Houston after Harvey.” Hibbs said. “Those trips ran me dogged, but I know that the people in Houston were grateful.”
Our economy is contingent upon these men and women to deliver an estimated 20 billion tons of commodities daily. A US Department of Transportation study cited that 80 percent of all freight transported annually in the United States, Mexico and Canada owe their arrivals to 18 wheels and a strong cup of coffee.
“If truckers all got up and left tomorrow, there would be martial law within three days,” Hughes says with a pointed finger. “People don’t care about us, until they can’t buy soap, or the food shelves run dry.”
The food industry, healthcare industry, transportation industry, waste removal industry, retail industry, manufacturing industry, banking and finance industries, and many more would collapse without the steady hands and strong backs of truck drivers; drivers who spend, on average, upwards of 330 days a year on the road.
Despite their significant role in society and our national economy, truckers are the unheralded heroes among us. There is no national trucker holiday, no trucker appreciation week, no hearty handshake nor thanks for service extended.
A disenfranchised segment of the population, truckers have no national union of significance or advocacy groups to represent their national interests. In fact, most long haul companies actively suppress union membership. Worse still, over-the-road truckers seldom have the time to voice their concerns at the ballot box.
“Less than 2 percent of licensed CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) drivers are registered to vote, and less than 50 percent of them actually vote. We’ve got no political clout. Nobody up on Capitol Hill working for us. They don’t need to,” he says as he stares out of the front windshield of his 8-by-10-foot cubicle on wheels.
In fact, about the only interaction truckers have with the rest of society comes in the form of frustrating honks or uncourteous lane changes.
“Four wheelers are always cutting us off or passing on the right. I get at least one or two ‘one finger waves’ a day.” Hibbs laughs. “Part of me wants to yell out my window, ‘Hey! How about a ‘thank you’ instead.”
Most Americans take for granted the intricate system that allows them to participate in the seemingly mundane day-to-day they’ve grown accustomed to. When Americans wake each morning, they just assume things will be today, as they were yesterday - the privilege of life in America. Very few have truly pondered and appreciated the sheer logistical complexity underlying the infrastructure which keeps ensuring that our “today” continues to remain like our “yesterday.”
Hibbs said he plans to truck for a few more years, before ultimately moving into real estate.
“Big dreams for a greasy handed kid, huh?” Hibbs says rhetorically. “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll end up out here in my old age wishing things were different.”
When asked how much longer he expects to keep trucking, the wrinkles around Hughes’ smile lift revealing a near toothless grin. Responding in that West Virginia twang, “My excuse for being out here still? I have another friend on the other side of that-there hill that I still need to see.”
The average truck driver will drive between 11 to 14 years, amass 2 million miles over-the-road, deliver an estimated 368 million tons of goods, go through two divorces, and drink an estimated 20,075 cups of coffee.