Highway Star

Trucking saved her, she said, but she still got lonely. Solitude became its own source of claustrophobia. “I have blue days,” Jess said. “If I slammed my truck into a mountain, would anyone notice? Does anyone know I’m out here?”

“On the truck, boom, I have energy, I know what I’m doing”

Image via Flickr.

Jess and I arrived at our final destination, Perrysburg, Ohio, hours early for her last delivery, at a Walgreens facility. She drove past grain elevators and skinny cedars, weathered barns and strip malls, under a sky thick with cumulus clouds, and parked at a Love’s Travel Stop at the edge of town. My back ached from three long days in the passenger’s seat; my body felt greasy and swollen from a truck-stop diet of fried chicken sandwiches, chocolate bars, and tepid coffee. Jess pulled out her tablet to do administrative work, and while she typed emails, I went for a walk. I turned down a road hemmed in by wide green fields, heading away from the rumble of heavy metal machines and toward a neighborhood. Following a line of wooden telephone poles, I found a churchyard, lay down at the foot of a maple tree, and closed my eyes. The great roar of the truck’s engine still rang in my ears, even though I was a mile away. The truck, an FLD Freightliner, was born a year before me, in 1994. Jess, who was 39, had named her the Black Widow.

When I returned from the walk, Jess drove us to the facility for her 6 PM appointment. The day before, she’d picked up a load of picture frames from a small warehouse in Elkton, Kentucky, a town whose roads were hardly wide enough for a big rig. “This will be interesting,” she’d said, turning her wheel to the right and careening the truck onto a narrow two-lane road lined with red-brick homes and trim lawns, her fifty-three-foot trailer veering precariously. At the warehouse, a stooping man with shocking blue eyes gave us a tour of the long, mostly empty garage, its walls lined with stacks of boxes and palettes. “I do Lowe’s,” he said. “Also Walmart.” He’d started out working as a janitor for the company, then purchased it himself. A few years ago, he sold it for $3.8 million so he could retire but swiftly bought it back to save twenty-five employees from termination. “It’s a parable,” Jess said when we returned to the Black Widow.

At Walgreens, one hour of waiting to unload turned to two, then three. Jess led me through truck stop yoga: we gripped the Black Widow’s bars and ledges to stretch our arms, shoulders, hips. Back inside, we watched YouTube videos, and an air freshener spritzed “notes of marine and citrus” every few minutes. She told me about her friend Z., who died in an accident on Interstate 81, in Virginia, the year before. “It was surreal,” she said. “A few days earlier, we were sitting in the truck yard eating lentils.” Her boss, also a trucker, had driven from Georgia to collect the body.

At 10 PM, the truck was unloaded. We went to McDonald’s for chicken nuggets and McFlurries, then slept for a few hours and were up again before dawn for our last drive together. The blinking lights of the Toledo airport appeared. “You’ll have to jump out,” Jess told me; she couldn’t drive the truck into passenger drop-off.  I stumbled as I landed on the highway and strapped on my backpack. I looked around. There was no one else on the road.

I met Jess through REAL Women in Trucking, an advocacy group focused on labor rights, particularly for women drivers. I was curious about her life on the road, and we’d spent months trying to arrange for me to join her on a route. She was usually difficult to pin down; her routes shifted frequently through the Midwest and the South and she could be gone for weeks at a time, with little advanced notice. But I knew to find her in Lithonia, Georgia, on a certain afternoon in June 2021 because she had a dentist appointment and had to be in town. Lithonia was where her company, GTO Trucking, was based. It was a small company, four drivers total, and Jess was an independent contractor; she owned the Black Widow but operated under GTO’s permits and registration. The truck was her home in the literal sense. She didn’t rent or own any property in Georgia, so even during her days off she often slept in the cab and showered in nearby hotels. Belongings that didn’t dwell within her truck were either in a nearby storage unit or in Michigan, at her sister’s house.

Getting to Lithonia from the Atlanta airport without a car was tricky. I took a train to the suburbs, then a bus to a shopping mall, and walked half a mile down the highway and stumbled down a grassy slope, at the foot of which the Black Widow sat in a parking lot just within reach of a Panera Bread’s wifi. The Black Widow was detached from its trailer, and was brownish-purple with a pair of exhaust stacks curling behind like horns. I climbed into the passenger seat and took in the interior: a bunk bed in the back—I’d take the top—and tall cubbies repurposed as shelves and closets. Handcrafted bead spiders and a sugar skull with blue feathers clung to the windshield. Eventually, Jess hoped to achieve the atmosphere of a “regal Louisiana brothel” and was on the lookout for a macabre chandelier to hang from the ceiling; she’d decorated in homage to New Orleans, her favorite city. Jess was wearing a floral-patterned tank top, leggings, flip-flops, and a headset, her usual work getup. The dentist, she told me, had needed to make impressions for a new set of dentures; she’d lost her teeth due to a chronic jaw infection from a childhood accident, made worse by the stress of driving and the fact her schedule rarely gave her time for regular checkups.

We’d spend three days on the road, traveling to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio for pickups and deliveries. But first, Jess needed to go to the truck yard where she parked on her days off. She pushed the clutch and the truck jerked forward, barreling from the parking lot onto the highway. A landscape of Baptist churches and Dollar Generals became hardwood forest, and she pulled up to the truck yard, where dozens of other semis were parked in mud. Her friend Peter was crouched underneath a truck. We squatted with him, the air underneath the machine hot and breathy, and the two of them explained the functions of various truck parts. Everything went over my head.

Jess needed to schedule a repair for one of her boss’s trucks, so we walked to the far end of the truck yard, where Scaffy, a playfully sardonic Jamaican mechanic, ran a garage. “Hey Miss Jess, what’s up?” Scaffy greeted us from behind a tangle of parts and tools, oily rag and pliers in hand and a broken crankshaft in front of him. “I like running through here,” Jess said, to both of us. “One time he had a transmission open and he said, this is how your transmission works. And it changed the way I shift. Showing me how the mechanisms worked taught me a lot about driving.”

Scaffy raised his head and inspected our faces. “You’re not sweating?”

Jess removed a washcloth from underneath her shirt, where she’d kept it tucked into her bra. “I learned this in Belize,” she said. “Every Belizean has a washcloth. When you’re not looking, I wipe my face, so I always look beautiful.”

Scaffy smirked and returned to his work. A light drizzle turned into a downpour, and we said goodbye so we could run back to the Black Widow. “You,” Scaffy said to me, as though prognosticating the entire trip, “are going to be the only woman who comes here today.”

That year, Jess’s daughter Halima turned 19, the same age Jess was when she had her. Halima was working that summer in Belize, where Jess’s mother lived and owned a cafe. Jess’s mother once had a publishing business near Detroit. Detroit is where Jess met her ex, Halima’s father, who she left after three years squirrelling away leftover grocery money, the only money her ex had ever allowed her for her independence. Jess kept a secret credit card, she told me, and left their home only with the clothes she was wearing. She went to her stepdad’s, applied for a trucking job, and was on a bus to a training facility in Indiana four days later. Halima spent fifth grade on the road. They solved math problems with dry erase markers on the truck’s windows and played catch in warehouse parking lots. On Halloween, Jess was picking up at a Hershey’s facility in Virginia. Normally security guards give truckers a chocolate bar or two, but when Halima said, “Trick or treat!” the guard dumped his whole basket of chocolates into her pillowcase. That was in 2012.

In Indiana, a few hours south of the facility where Jess had driven her first truck, cornfields gave way to lone motels and fast-food chains. “What’s more American than gas stations and strip malls?” Jess asked. Flecks of rain spattered the windshield, and the sky ahead was fearsome gray. Glancing off the road for a few seconds at a time, Jess scrolled her phone for tornado warnings.

Did I know, she asked, that breweries and soda companies halt all other production to bottle water during national emergencies? Also: Drivers who ship the syrup for Coca-Cola need a HAZMAT license because it contains flammable material. For a few years, Jess shipped mostly produce, which gave her unique and disturbing insight into our nation’s food systems. “These apples,” she said, showing me one she’d had in her truck for two weeks, “are last year’s apples. The onions you buy in a grocery store have been in a warehouse for a year.” Bananas are stored at 56 degrees if they’re green, 57 if they’re yellow. Don’t ask about the chicken in fast food. “Picking up processed pork products, you step out of your truck into what you think is a puddle of water, but it’s pig blood leaking from the trailer. Does that stop me from eating bacon?” she said. “No.”

Outside of Lebanon Junction, Kentucky, Jess stopped to fill her tank—190 gallons of diesel for $589. She opened the hood to reveal a monstrous thicket of pipes and cylinders, and as she tinkered with a screwdriver, trying to stymie a minor gasket leak, a gleaming white semi pulled in next to us, belching hot air. Out stepped a twenty-something man wearing a Barstool baseball cap, a wad of tobacco bulging from his cheek. “Never good when you got the hood up,” he said.

Jess didn’t look up from the engine. “It’s a 27-year-old truck. Sometimes you gotta take care of her.”

“To keep it from leaking real bad, you could try to put an egg on it,” he said. Or she could drive up the road to a salvage truck yard and buy a gasket “cheap as fuck.” “Hell, you wouldn’t happen to be in the market for a new truck, would you?” he asked.

“No,” Jess said.

“In my divorce, I got to keep two of my trucks,” he said. “I’m selling mine for 100K.”

He stepped forward and glanced at the Black Widow’s engine. “This thing is actually really good for its age,” he said.

“It’s got the set forward axle,” Jess replied.

“Holy fuck, it does.” His voice was a pitch higher.

Jess told me later that it was rare to see her model of truck with a set forward axle, which helps pull heavy loads. “It’s a unicorn truck,” she said, grinning. She knew the Black Widow intimately—its brakes and shocks and airlines, all pieces of equipment she’d touched countless times.

The man drove off, and we climbed back into the Black Widow. “You don’t have a 27-year-old truck without knowing a thing or two about it,” Jess said from the driver’s seat.

After one full day in the truck, we stopped noticing each other’s odor; the sweat and stink emanating from our bodies had become a regular fixture of the stale air. I did not, however, forget the existence of my body: I was hungry, and stiff, and my head often hurt. If I had to pee, Jess told me our first night on the road, which we spent at a parking area on the side of the freeway with two dozen other idling big rigs, I should squat under the truck. If I had to shit, ask for a plastic bag. Showers, glorious showers, at a Tennessee truck stop selling prepper magazines and the latest dash cam models, cost $14 each. Our sleep schedule was irregular—one morning, we woke up around 3, another we slept in until 8:30.

“No one says, ‘I’ve always dreamed of being a truck driver,’” Jess told me. Before trucking, she drove taxis and limos for a company she had with Halima’s father, the ex who wouldn’t let her buy anything for herself, not even new clothes, the ex who told her she was dumb, and fat, who made her feel silent and small. She needed to leave, but she had Halima, and what future would Halima have if Jess was broke and trapped?

Trucking saved her, she said, but she still got lonely. Solitude became its own source of claustrophobia. “I have blue days,” Jess said. “If I slammed my truck into a mountain, would anyone notice? Does anyone know I’m out here?”

In Tennessee, she drove us over a mountain. Near the mountain’s base, a truck had veered into the grassy shoulder, and its trailer protruded into the far right lane. Jackknifed, Jess said. “Probably going too fast in the rain.” On the way down, she pointed out the runaway truck ramp, a slat of roadside leading to a mound of dirt. That’s where you steer if your brakes fail, she said.

On blue days, Jess went through her phone’s contact list and called and called. If no one answered, she screamed.

Two months after we met, Jess invited me to Las Vegas, where she and her friends from REAL Women in Trucking were gathering for the organization’s annual “Queen of the Road” ceremony. On a hot August night, we met up at a patio bar in the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, where actual Chilean flamingos lived in a marshy enclosure with catfish and koi. She was sitting, with Halima, at a long wooden table surrounded by women truckers. “This is Idella,” Jess said, introducing me to a silver-haired woman wearing a white button-down patterned with palm fronds. I recognized her name from admiring stories Jess had shared on the road. Idella told me she was based in Arkansas, where she moved high-value goods. “When I sit in the seat, there’s something in the diesel that turns into I’ve got to go,” she told me. “I’m good at what I do. The harder it is, the more challenging it is, the more I like it. Without a challenge, I have no purpose.”

Brita, a German driver who’d initially pursued an acting career in the US, told me something similar. “On the truck, boom, I have energy, I know what I’m doing, but the moment you take me out of the truck, I’m like, what am I going to do?” She pulled down her dress to show me stylized red roses she’d gotten tattooed to her chest after her mastectomy, to commemorate surviving breast cancer. She’d only recently started driving again, and she’d driven to the event that weekend, carrying goods from Washington, where she’d also bought a cheap wedding dress to marry her boyfriend at a casino chapel. The wedding was going to be a surprise, but his flight to Vegas was cancelled.

At the Flamingo bar, a handful of drivers wearing skirts, jeans, and headsets sat in the smoking area, drinking margaritas out of giant plastic tubes and discussing freight. Jess handed everyone pink whistles. “To prevent rape.” It was a joke about the trucking industry’s impotence in responding to systemic issues of sexual violence. Jess was especially vocal online, where in addition to posting about “hidden gems” on the road like the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, whose staff washed, dried, and folded laundry for truckers, she started arguments and probed companies for numbers—of female trainers, of sexual harassment claims filed each year. Desiree, REAL Women in Trucking’s founder, took a whistle and grinned. She’d heard countless stories of women trapped in their trucks and assaulted by their co-drivers, of women coerced into sex by their trainers. When she was just starting out, her co-driver kicked her off the truck at a stop in New Mexico. He sprayed her with bleach and threw her belongings onto the ground. Then he told the security guard that she was a “lot lizard,” trucker slang for a sex worker, and drove away.

I talked briefly with Halima, who was about to begin her second year of college. “I’m proud of my mom and she’s done a lot,” she said, “but it’s been kind of hard for like, nine years. I’ve had to be raised by other people.” After fifth grade, Halima moved between relatives in Washington and Michigan, and she had a shaky sense of home. But, Halima told me, with a mixture of gratitude and resignation, “It’s for the best. It’s the way she makes money, the way she could raise me.” She showed me a lotus tattoo on her left wrist. She’d gotten it done in Vegas, and Jess immediately copied her, Halima said, rolling her eyes. (Jess denied this. “It was a two-tattoo deal, and I was paying.”) Later that weekend, at a banquet hall in the Planet Hollywood casino, Jess received a Trucking Industry Trailblazer award from the organization. “I got into trucking to get out of an abusive relationship,” she said, as Halima took photos and smiled back tears. “It’s allowed me to give a home to my daughter.”

Around 10 PM we were kicked out of the bar; a group had booked our part of the patio for a bar crawl, and they spilled into the space wearing name tags and lanyards and taking shots. As we dispersed several of the rape whistles sounded, and the lady truckers laughed and laughed.

When Jess’s friends knew it was a blue day, they tried to cross paths somewhere on the interstate to share dinner and a hug. When the days were good, though—and there were many good days—there was nothing more free than the road. “I have the freedom of not being stuck in Dearborn, Michigan,” Jess told me. She got to see all of America from the highway.

Every so often Jess pretended to be a regular working person, the kind who got off at 6 PM and dressed up to go to the bar. One evening during our three-day drive, she decided we’d park at Harrah’s Hoosier Casino in Anderson, Indiana, which allowed truckers to stay overnight on its lot.

We walked into a room thick with smoke, both of us wearing leggings and sandals. Neon lights flashed, and casino patrons gazed vacantly into slot machines, winning or losing money with each press of a button. We sat down at a table overlooking a track, where horses were racing just beyond the window. Jess ordered a beer, and a host of sides to share: crab macaroni and cheese, bruschetta, artichokes, lobster bisque, stuffed mushrooms. “It must be nice getting out of the truck,” our waitress told us after Jess mentioned where we were sleeping that night.

We watched the horses sprint past. The winner of the twelfth round was the horse I’d quietly rooted for: Highway Star. Jess returned to the casino to try her luck with the $100 she kept for the rare diversion, sliding into a slot machine chair and tapping her fingers. Gold coins rained across the screen. She posted a Facebook status tagging the location, and a friend from REAL Women in Trucking commented, “Wish I was there!” Jess responded, with a smiley face: “We’ll have Vegas.” By midnight, she’d won $40. Glancing at the time, Jess suggested we go; she had to deliver in Perrysburg that day. She pocketed the money and took a last trip to the bathroom before we were left without toilets for the night. Then we walked together across the dark parking lot, back to her truck.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author