24 Hours With a Trucker

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

I was hungry and sunburnt and stuck at a truck stop metropolis in northwest Indiana when I met Glen. In the two and a half hours prior, a woman going the wrong way offered me a ride, a cop checked if I was a runaway, and a dad and son asked about my story when I ducked into a McDonald’s to use the wi-fi.

It would have been a tolerable day if it been cooler than ninety-plus humid degrees, or if there had been a nearby place to hide a tent, or if I had been closer to my next destination of New Mexico. But as it was, I was unhappy.

So when a semi truck pulled out of the gas station and onto the shoulder, I was more than ready to get in. I placed the trucker in his fifties. Overweight, slightly grungy, friendly without being too friendly.

“I’m going west,” I said.

“I’m going all the way to Kansas City, so hop in.”

“But here’s the thing.” I grimaced. “I’m not using any interstates.”
The trucker laughed. “You picked the right truck. I’m cow pathing it almost all the way there. Name’s Glen.”

It sounded good enough for me.

In our initial introductions, I discovered that Glen used to chair his church council, and he had also served on the school board. He was a father of two, a former farmer, and a backpacker.

“So why are you stickin’ to the cow paths?” he asked.

“Cow paths?”

“One of my buddies calls me a cow pather, because I take all these little roads instead of the big interstates.”

“I guess I’m cow pathing, too.”

“Have you ever seen a cow path? A real one, I mean.”

“I haven’t.”

“I might have to explain it, then. Cows always take the same route, so they wear a path in the grass. But it’s not a straight line–it’ll go this way for a while, then turn, then go over there. Just random bends, all over. And back in the day, these US and state highways were built to go from town to town. An east-to-west road would jump three miles north to hit one town, then go south to run through the next.”

“You actually get to see the country that way.”

“Remind me to show you my map. If you’re a cow pather, you’ll get a kick out of it.”

We drove a good ways into Illinois, sharing our lives and talking abut trucking. Glen’s Kenmore–or rather, his company’s Kenmore–had over a million miles on it, half of the “tractor’s” expected total. Its engine had been rebuilt at 600,000 miles, and would likely be replaced again.

Glen works in two-week runs. On the trip, he left his home in south Texas to haul cargo northeast, and he was now carrying a load of flour back across the country. When he returns to Texas, he will get a few days respite, and will then start another two weeks of driving.

“I’ve gotta stop pretty soon,” Glen said. “It’s getting close to my fourteen hours. Fourteen hours after you start driving, you’ve gotta be parked for the night. And you can only actually drive for eleven.”

We pulled into a truck stop, and Glen bought me dinner at McDonald’s. We claimed a table and talked, and we continued talking well after both of us had finished eating. We discussed racial issues (“Don’t judge a person for what they look like; judge a person for what he does”), environmental conservation (Glen hopes someone can develop orbital solar panels soon), and government regulations (truckers have to cram as many miles as they can into their fourteen hours, driving despite any mid-day exhaustion).

“I’ve got two bunks in my cab,” Glen said. “You can take the top one tonight, if you want. If you’re comfortable with that.”

“That sounds great.”

“I can sleep outside. I’ve got a sleeping bag–”

“I’m not making you sleep outside!”

The view from my bunk. Glenn's company doesn't allow him to carry passengers, so this was the only picture I took of his truck.
The view from my bunk. Glenn’s company doesn’t allow him to carry passengers, so this was the only picture I took of his truck.

The bunk was comfortable, compared to a tent, but nothing like a real bed. Glen kept the truck running, since it had a tendency to not turn on again once shut off, and a steady rumbling soon pushed me into sleep.

I awoke six hours later. Glen was already outside, performing the truck’s daily checkup. We ate breakfast–McDonald’s, again–and I swallowed my morning introversion and tried to be a decent conversationalist.

Truckers, Glen explained over greasy breakfast sandwiches, range widely. As far as intelligence goes, the bell curve sits farther left than it does for the general population. But Glen’s mentor had a Ph.D. and two masters degrees, and Glen himself was a salutatorian and a founder of his college’s economics honor society. Most truckers are overweight, due to long hours sitting and a fast food diet, but some bring resistance bands and take the time to shop for healthier meals. As far as gender goes, Glen guessed women make up five percent–up from point five percent, back when no semi truck had power steering.

Then we finished eating and returned to the road, cow pathing through the rest of Illinois and into “Missoura.” We didn’t stop again until the truck’s two 150-gallon tanks needed filling.

“I don’t mean anything by this,” Glen started, “but when you buy more than fifty gallons, you get free showers. They’ll probably give us two without asking anything, but if they don’t, we’ll say you’re part of the trucking team.”

The truck stop shower
The truck stop shower

Truck stop showers are nice, or at least this one was. Each person gets a private bathroom supplied with fresh towels and soap. At $12 normally–a price set to deter non-truckers–they were clean and roomy.

Not worth $12, but a nice perk for 50 gallons of gas
Not worth $12, but a nice perk for 50 gallons of gas

Before we returned to the road, Glen remembered to show me his atlas. Highlighted routes tracked through almost every state. Glen tries to take a new cow path each time he makes a run, even if only for a few miles. He keeps track of every major road he’s ran end-to-end, too, including half a dozen interstates and almost as many highways.

Farming and crop failure talk kept us busy the rest of the way through Missouri. Near the Kansas-Missouri border, we stopped for a last dinner. Glen again insisted on paying.

“I picked this guy up!” He told the startled Arby’s worker. “He’s a good kid.”

She looked as if she couldn’t decide whether to call the cops on one of us or both of us.

“If you ever make it down to south Texas,” Glen said between bites, “let me know.” He wrote his phone number and address on a scrap of paper. “I’ve got a condo down in South Padre Island, and you’re welcome to stay there whenever you want. I’m usually out trucking, and it’s just sitting empty for six fifty a month. You’re over twenty-one, right?”

I nodded.

“Then you could drive my car, too. I’ve got good insurance, so even if you crash it, I’m not out too much money.”

Talk with someone for more than a few hours, and they are no longer a stranger. Talk with him for sixteen hours–about faith, about politics, about messy divorces and financial troubles and kid problems–and you have a friend.

Glen dropped me off a few miles into Kansas. Exhausted from talking, struggling with too many nights of too little sleep, and overloaded with conservation-inspired thoughts about God and marriage and money, I pushed my way through the woods and set up my tent. I fell asleep at 7:30 and slept eleven hours.

When I awoke, I decided that if I do make it to Texas, I will take Glen up on his offer. But only if I can buy him dinner this time.

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