The Long Haul: One Year of Solitude on America’s Highways
I woke up driving an eighteen-wheeler 60 miles per hour through a field east of Amarillo, Texas. My partner was screaming as he bounced around in the back; he had just woken up, too. Everything in the truck rattled and shook. Baggage rained down on me from the upper bunk. The view a dark blur, I slammed on the brakes, but 80,000 pounds of inertia wasn’t going to stop for air brakes.
My last clear memory was standing outside a rest stop at 3:00 a.m. watching the canvas of white stars meet the glittering orange lights of the nuclear-weapons plant far to the north. It was crisp outside Amarillo, where industry meets the Texas plains, and I considered what I’d left and the world I was delving into. A spiritually paralyzing tower of student debt from four years of college. I’d been a long-haul truck driver for exactly three weeks. This was my test run.
There’s something metaphysical about driving alone through the night. As the world slips into darkness, you enter a free-form self that is post-sleep and incoherent. After a few hours, the parameters that separate you from the prism of night dissolve, and only an elongated tube of light sucks you along. And you begin to hallucinate. Under prolonged sensory deprivation, your brain invents its own visions. Before we reached Amarillo, I’d spent days on an acrobatic sleep schedule, trying to weather my driving partner’s erratic temper and fearing for my own safety.
My partner’s name was Chuck, a fifty-nine-year-old truck driver who dubiously claimed to have once been one of Ford’s top nationwide salesmen, despite a noticeable speech impediment he coolly didn’t acknowledge. I’d met him a week earlier and was sharing the nine-by-seven compartment with him, exploring his temperament, which cycled at random from giddiness to virulent outbursts. That’s part of how you trained long-haulers at Paschall Truck Lines, the company I worked for—put two new hires in a truck and let ’em roll. Never mind the mental-health histories. To live in a box with an unstable man is its own ethereal journey.
But then, Chuck might have a similar impression. As he came to, his head slammed into the wall, and his body jerked with the truck as it skimmed the washboard plains. I hoped the trailer wouldn’t come loose from the kingpin, or that it wouldn’t jackknife and tear us down sideways. Either way, I’d been looking forward to California. It didn’t look like we were going to make it.
I didn’t begrudge Chuck when, after the truck bounced to a stop and the air brakes hissed into the night, he flew out of the sleeper, threatened to ruin my entire life if I blamed any of this on him, and became my corrections officer for the next several days, forbidding me to leave the sleeper cab for anything more than pee breaks. Multiple times a day he called and messaged Paschall’s offices, berating them for having put him in danger.
We arrived back in Murray, Kentucky, where Paschall’s front office was. After a day of waiting on site, I was called in. The man who fires people folded his hands and sighed at me, speaking with a southern tiredness.
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