Some of my earliest childhood memories belong in the front of a truck. My friend’s father ran a local freight delivery service that distributed hardware supplies shipped in from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. The semi-trucks would dock at his small terminal, and my friend and I would help unpack and load it into his dad’s straight truck. Then, we’d ride along and watch him make stops on his delivery route. We were only 6 or 7 years old, so we couldn’t help much, but I loved sitting up high and rolling around town.
As a kid growing up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, I kept chasing that feeling. I spent most days riding my bike around the neighborhood, pretending I was driving a big rig, and though my brother and sister were much older, I remember having a big gravel driveway where my friends and younger cousins would pave roads to race our bikes. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I got hooked with a real taste of the trucking business.
A distant relative, Justin, hauled livestock for a living and asked me to help him pick up cows, pigs and sheep from various local farms. We’d get the animals on Monday and drive to a slaughterhouse in South St. Paul, where we’d unload them and wash the manure out of the straight truck. Then, we’d spend the night and head back to Sauk Centre with freight before repeating the cycle on Thursday. I wasn’t allowed to drive until I got my chauffeur’s license at 16, but sometimes, Justin would let me behind the wheel of his semi and encourage me to back the 40-foot trailer into the docks. In those days, there would be a bunch of older gentlemen watching me—a stressful experience but one that made me feel pretty cool.
Today, at 65, I’m still in the driver’s seat.
Throughout a 37-year career working for Minnesota’s transportation department, I always kept my passion for driving, taking on trucking jobs over weekends and holidays to supplement my income and continue a life on the road. Since retiring in 2010 from that gig, I’ve transitioned to trucking full-time, traversing interstates in a 2007 Peterbilt 386 through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where I haul just about everything. Over the last decade, I’ve tallied over half a million miles.
It’s tough and lonely work, something my wife and I have gotten used to throughout our 47-year marriage. I’ve had some close calls, endured cramped quarters and met plenty of characters along the way, but I love the feeling of taking an adventure each week, rolling down the open road, looking out at the wide-open pastures and feeling a sense of freedom. These days, I’m a dying breed.
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The Written (and Unwritten) Rules of the Road
I never thought about trucking as a career. I graduated from high school in 1973 and a few months later started employment at MnDOT, where my brother worked. I’d put up sign postings and paint messages on the road, eventually graduating to maintenance work patching holes, fixing guardrails, mowing grass and plowing snow. The job didn’t pay much—my starting rate was $3.16 per hour—but it had good vacation and sick leave. In my day, the longer you stayed at one job, the better it got, and I eventually moved into a supervising role in St. Cloud for my last 10 years there.
Still, I needed to get my driving fix, so I hauled freight for my cousin Mary’s trucking company on weekends and holidays. I would even take vacations just to lug around grain, machinery, milk replacer and animal feed with a semi-truck all over the five-state area—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas. After getting married in 1975, I’d also haul milk every other weekend, picking it up from farms and dropping it at a reload center. I would go on to work two jobs—sometimes even driving coach buses—for the majority of my life.
Of course, driving a semi-truck requires lots of training and caution. One of the first things I learned was not to back into anything. A sticker on most truck mirrors says “GOAL,” which stands for “Get Out and Look.” Whether you’re at a truck stop or a docking station, it’s crucial to get out of the vehicle and determine the trailer's angle before proceeding in reverse. Just last week, a trucker was trying to back into a parking space too fast, causing nearby drivers to blow their horns to prevent an accident.
Watching your mirrors is even more important on the highways, where cars always look to pass and sneak around your 18 wheels. Most drivers don’t realize that passing me and leaving minimal room ahead could lead to a rear-ending at the next red light. Why would you want to be in front of an 80,000-pound truck? Nowadays, if you try to pass a car, they’ll intentionally speed up—as soon as you get back behind them, they slow down. That’s produced some close calls in my career, like when I was driving a little too fast in an Illinois snowstorm. I was behind a semi that abruptly slowed down when firemen began directing us to take an off-ramp. As I peeled off to the right, I nearly bumped a car in front of me and slammed on the brakes, narrowly avoiding an accident. I just about had to change my underwear.
Under the rule books, you’re allowed to drive 11 hours in one day and can be on duty for 14 hours a day. The longest I’ve driven without stopping is about seven hours, but in my older age, I usually only last a few hours at one time. Sitting all the time, my legs are getting stiffer, and I’ve learned to be careful exiting my truck so they don’t give out. Often, I’ll find a truck stop or rest area to stay for the night and retire to the back of the sleeper, where I’ve got a cooler to keep sandwiches and drinks and a microwave to heat up canned beans or soups. It’s pretty comfortable. I especially love the spring and fall, when it’s 60 degrees at night and I can open the windows in my bunk to get a nice breeze.
Still, truck stops can be dangerous—and gross—areas. Some cowboys will speed into stations in seventh or eighth gear, and it’s really easy to get run over. The worst drivers will also litter outside their vehicles, leaving garbage on the ground like pigs. Walmart used to let truckers park in their big lots, but too many left behind piss bottles and personal trash by the curb, so the store stopped letting us park there. On occasion, you’ll see prostitutes—colloquially known as “lot lizards”—circling packs of trucks, asking drivers if they’d like a little company, but that practice isn’t as popular anymore. The bigger issue is sex trafficking of minors, and most semi-drivers receive training about what to look for and phone numbers to call in case they see something suspicious. Thankfully, I haven't witnessed anything yet.
After Four-Plus Decades, I Still Love Driving a Semi-Truck
In 1994, my wife and I bought our first truck, a 1987 Kenworth T600, hired a driver and started our own business leasing trucks to local companies. When I bought the T600, it smoked a bit, but the dealer had just overhauled it and believed it would clear. But after five weeks, we discovered the camshaft was shot and the air conditioner was broken. We had maybe gotten one or two checks so far, so I had to get a loan and borrowed $10,000. My wife freaked out, but our driver gave us some good advice: “If you can't take this, you better get out. This is truck driving.”
Eventually, we bought three more trucks and hired a few more drivers to work full time. It’s hard to find good, loyal drivers though. Many of them pivot between companies, chasing better pay rates, but most of the time, those don’t last. Generally, a trucking company will pay drivers based on the percentage or mileage of the freight they’re carrying. A typical freight line might give the truck owner an 80 percent split to carry freight worth a dollar a mile, but some companies split differently if the freight costs more. When it comes to pay, if it's too good, it ain't true. If it's really good, it ain't going to last.
We downsized to just one truck after I retired, and now I’m the only one driving. For most of the last decade, I’ve been dropping off frozen turkeys to Walmart, Cisco and Aldi distribution centers throughout the Midwest and some Southern states. My route usually takes me to six different stops and lasts about three days, and I do my best to make it back home before the weekend. I like routine. I like knowing the same procedures and people I’m working with each trip. Luckily, the truck line I work for has treated me well and ensures I can take off when needed.
I’ve also become very familiar with the best rest stops and restaurants after having been on the road for so long. I try to have at least one good, hot meal a day; sometimes, that means stopping in Mendota, Illinois, a favorite small town with ample parking, but more recently, that means finding a Denny’s off the highway. I’ve been getting the sirloin steak and salad there, and now I get 15 percent off my meals with my AARP card. In between, I scroll through SiriusXM to keep me busy, listening to Classic Vinyl, the ’60s and ’70s channels, and occasionally the trucker's channel, which discusses popular issues in the trucking industry. My CB radio is also crucial to get alerts from other drivers of incoming traffic and weather.
The hardest part is loneliness. While driving, I do my best to call my wife, kids and friends, who have all learned to adjust to my lifestyle and schedule. The average worker comes home around 5 p.m. and will get to spend time with his partner and family, have dinner and watch the news. When truckers come home, however, their limited time is most likely spent fixing and catching up on all the yard and housework they missed throughout the week. It’s easy to miss home when you walk into a bathroom truck stop, try to brush your teeth and there are a couple of guys grunting and farting and shitting. Not everyone is cut out for this life, which is probably why most drivers are my age.
I vowed to drive for 10 years after my retirement, but our truck was recently overhauled, motivating me to keep going for a couple more years. It still gives me joy. I love looking out the window and watching farmers in the fields, crossing into new states and seeing the differences in landscapes and people. And yes, if you ever pass me on the highway and pump your fist up and down, I’ll be sure to honk the horn.