Out of class, into the drivers seat: driving an 18-wheeler across America

Back in the spring of 2003, I wrote up a profile of a student at Mills College who had taken a leave and embarked on a career as a long-haul truck driver. The film “Nomadland” has got me thinking about wanderers, from the vandwellers in the movie to hobos from the 1930s and others in between. A briefer version of this story was published in the Mills College student newspaper then called Mills Weekly in its April 10 edition. Here’s the longer version I had originally drafted.

Last August, Ali Haynes found herself stranded in Salt Lake City, anxious to get back to the Bay Area for her sister’s wedding. She’d been on the road for five weeks. Another driver offered Ali his load to Fresno, so she hitched his trailer to her 10-ton black Freightliner truck.

            The next morning she edged into a scale house in Kern County. Over the loudspeaker an inspector ordered, “Pull in and park on the side.” She wasn’t worried; the driver who had given her the load was a company trainer. They would check her paperwork and let her go. But not this time.

            The officer directed her to pull into the inspection bay. They said her length was off by three feet and a minor problem on the trailer would have to be repaired.

            Luckily there was a mechanic working on another truck, and he fixed the problem. Ali adjusted the length and drove through the scales again.

            “You’re too heavy on one axle.”

            Ali called her company, but they said she’d have to shift the weight herself. She was pissed. Drivers aren’t supposed to break the seals on the trailer doors. If they do, the company receiving the load can refuse it. By this time the hot afternoon sun was bearing down, her t-shirt and jeans were soaked in sweat, and she’d only eaten crackers all day.

            She went inside the trailer and moved some 400 cases of Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade to even out the cargo. She drove through the scales again.

            Her load was still uneven. Once more she shifted the weight inside the container.

            It was 6:30 p.m. before they allowed her to leave. The two tickets she got would cost her $350, nearly what Ali made in a week.

            By midnight she made it home to her mother’s in Alameda. She had a day to rest before the wedding. In a few more days, Ali was back on the highway.

            In January, Ali Haynes, now 25, returned to Mills after a three-semester leave of absence. She will graduate in May with a B.A. in Studio Art. When you imagine truck drivers, you might have a different picture in your head. Ali will challenge your preconceptions. She’s 5 feet 8 inches tall, a slim woman with short-short curly hair, an easy laugh, and a latte complexion, the result of a palette mixed by her black father and white mother. If her arms are bare, you may notice three tattoos, all boldly-etched Chinese characters. And even though she’s a full-time student and working 30 hours a week, she somehow finds time to read Anna Karenina for pleasure.

            After entering Mills as a transfer in Fall 99, she had completed four semesters. She found her calling in art, especially photography and sculpture. But “a devastating heartbreak” forced her to go on leave right after she finished her senior show. During her time away, Ali returned to an even earlier calling: the romance of the open road.

            Though she didn’t drive a truck the full year she had planned, she feels invigorated by her experience. “I’ve always had a rough side, I’m turned on by the idea of a bitter sweet life. A life involving adventure and struggle where you have to earn your own ruggedness. I don’t know where it came from, but I like it. I like to get my hands dirty to balance my other, scholarly, side.”

            As a teenager, Ali went to summer camp in Quincy, 250 miles northeast of her home in Oakland. At fifteen she fell in love with a boy there. They spent many evenings on a cement bench overlooking a railway track. When freight trains rattled by, they considered hopping on a car. A road trip seemed more realistic, and they planned one for Arizona. The love affair eventually faded away but the notion of a road trip stuck with Ali. It morphed into a desire to drive a truck. A big truck. A train-sized truck.

            She thought it would be fun. “I’d see the country and make some good money at the same time.” She’d heard truckers made good wages.

            Nearly ten years later, while on leave from Mills, Ali seized the chance to pursue her old dream. She discovered Western Pacific Truck School in Alameda, not far from her mom’s. Taking out a $4500 loan for tuition, she spent four weeks there, 9-4, Monday through Friday. There were two women in her class of eight. She easily passed her tests and received her license. Through the school’s connections she got hired by Dick Simon Trucking based in Salt Lake City (later absorbed into Central Refrigerated Service). Their 5-week training “turned out messy,” she says, and she quit. But so close to her dream, she went back. She trained for another three weeks.

            Around noon on a bright June day, she took the truck they gave her, a 2000 model Freightliner, and headed west out of Salt Lake City. It was her first solo run. Pulling into a TA stop in Tooele, Utah, she bought a pack of cigarettes, a bad habit she’d picked up during training. Back in her cab, she pushed Bonnie Raitt’s Silver Lining CD into the player and turned up the volume. “Here I was, just me and this big-ass truck,” she recalls with a grin, “It was kinda surreal. An eternal moment.” She mouthed to the universe, “Look at me, I’m really doing this.”

            Ali Haynes had just become one of the 167,000 women truck drivers in the U.S. That’s about five percent of the people in this occupation. Back in 1929 the first woman to receive a commercial license had been Lillie Elizabeth Drennan in Texas. She defied those who said it was too dangerous for a woman to be on the roads. Lillie Drennan carried a loaded revolver by her side, but she never used it.

            While many women operators drive in pairs, Ali drove solo. She didn’t carry a gun, but she brought along Rudy, a 9-month old Doberman-Shepherd mix. His company – and a lot of common sense – kept Ali safe on the roads. She was surprised not to encounter obstacles as a woman or person of color. “I met people of all ages, ethnicities, and reasons why they went in. Truckers see themselves as a family and look out for one another.” She also found “a good deal of respect for a woman, especially one driving by herself.” Once or twice, there were anxious moments, but Ali managed to avoid hassles.

            She drove a ‘reefer,’ a refrigerated truck, mostly hauling frozen foods, pharmaceuticals, and film. Her trips ranged from 800 to 2500 miles all across the U.S. Her longest haul was from Sacramento to Utica, New York. The company sent directions by satellite to an onboard computer. Off the highways, she was on her own. “There were so many times when I got stuck on back country roads.”

            What was it like to drive a big truck? “You get accustomed to it,” she says, “You’re driving 8-10 hours each day.” The hardest thing physically was adjusting, hooking or unhooking the trailer.

            She drove 3-5 weeks at a time. It was lonely but she talked on her cell phone with friends and family. The seven CDs she had with her she played over and over again. She chose not to get a CB radio. “Perhaps this was one reason why I didn’t attract more attention as a woman. I couldn’t hear what others might have been saying about me.”

            She was impressed by most of the people she met. “We know little of truckers outside of stereotypes. People assume they are trashy, overweight, crass, conservative, white and male. Yes, certainly there is some of that but by no means all of it. I found sensitive, thoughtful people, some very educated.” She came across people from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

            Such encounters inspired Ali to imagine artistic projects. She considered a photo documentary. “These are very lonely people with difficult lives. They’re eager to open up and tell you all about their lives.”

            A year earlier when Ali had composed her senior show, she had put up large portraits of herself, her brother, and three friends. Each picture was reflected into a mirror carrying a self-critical phrase (I am… inadequate… fake… undesirable… cruel… an asshole). “Everything showed up on one mirror, revealing that all of us are subject to such thoughts.”

            Ali had chosen art as her major because she believes that art concerns itself with what is universal in being human, and it would keep her engaged through her whole life. In her compositions she strives to explore “the quiet desperations we humans keep hidden from each other.” She admits that she is “a believer in the sharing of private pain.” But she qualifies that. “Not in an obnoxious, in your face kind of way, but in sweet and subtle ways.”

            She would have liked to capture, in pictures and words, that sensibility among the people in trucking. But she didn’t take any photos. So new to trucking, she feared being turned down.

            Meanwhile her romance with driving got shaky. It was a tough job, sleeping on the truck, taking showers every other day, eating poorly, and constantly hustling to make money. Ali received 23 cents a mile (paid only for driving time), and federal law prohibits driving more than 10 out of 24 hours. A unionized trucker might pull in decent pay. So do those who bend the rules or partner and drive non-stop. She put in nearly 60 hours a week but made less than $500.

            The incident at the Kern County scale house left a scar. “The money was disappointing, and I was tired of fighting with the company over the tiniest things.” At the end of August she delivered her last load to a Bud plant outside Fort Collins, Colorado. She hung around for a while in Denver, then returned to Alameda by Christmas.

            “I don’t regret quitting when I did,” she recalls, “If I had signed up with a different company or hadn’t been a solo driver, perhaps it would have been different.” She remains positive about her journey. “Life doesn’t have to follow a pre-meditated course, there is space to go on tangents and experience something new and different. There are no Have To’s in life.”

            She adds, “I don’t mean it as just a fun little distraction.” She plans to drive again. The next time she will get a partner. And she will bring along her camera.

            “If nothing else looks like it’s about to happen after graduation, I just might go back then.”

            Ali entered Mills with one tattoo on her left shoulder. Two Chinese characters, Strength and Beauty. She had acquired it while training for the AIDS ride to Los Angeles, the summer after she finished high school. “Earlier in life I’d assumed Strength and Beauty were at odds, that strength meant being big and bulky.” The training for the 400-mile bike ride and raising $2500 for the benefit gave Ali another sense of what it means to be strong.

            When she took a leave from Mills, she chose another tattoo. It’s on her right wrist, the character for Grace. “It was a sloppy time in my life. But I realized that even if you feel like hell you can still display a sense of grace. Instead of feeling jilted and bitter, I understood we’re not abandoned, we’re receiving love all the time. The sun comes up in the morning, flowers bloom, there’s food on our table.”

            She’s back at Mills, but she sports no new tattoos. It’s not because trucking silenced that side of her, but because it left her broke. When she gets the money, she will get two more tattoos. On her left arm, she will put the Chinese character for Faith. On her right arm, a box with a hummingbird, cherry blossoms, and the character for Joy.

Letter from America: LIBRARY LOVE

This was published in the Arts & Letters supplement of the Dhaka Tribune, a new English daily in Bangladesh, on September 1, 2013. You can read the Arts & Letters Supplements here.
I work at a college. One morning talking books with a friend, I realize that although I read a lot of crime fiction – set everywhere from Laos to Iceland – I have yet to read Dashiell Hammett, the master of American noir. At lunch, I stop by the library and pick up Hammett’s Complete Novels. Within a week I devour three, including The Maltese Falcon. When the next reading whim arrives, satisfying it might be just as simple.

I appreciate my access to libraries. It’s easy to take for granted. Life reminds otherwise.

Flâneuring around Calcutta

On a recent visit to Calcutta, I learned a new word to describe what I sometimes engage in: flânerie.
     I heard it at the Oxford Bookstore where they launched Memory’s Gold, a new anthology on Calcutta. Amit Chaudhuri, the editor, highlighted a section of the book titled ‘Flânerie’. It includes pieces on adda and the cityscape of puja pandals. Looking up the word later, I discovered that it has no precise English equivalent but suggests aimless strolling through city streets. Balzac insisted, “To stroll is to vegetate, to flâneur is to live.”
     Just the day before the book launch, I had taken another long walk through Calcutta. I had no great purpose in mind as I tramped from Hastings to Howrah, then over to Sealdah. But once I approached Sealdah, my loitering took on a goal: the search for an address from the past.

Brushes with Faith, Sin, and the Weird

I’m in my car, driving. The cell phone pressed against my ear, I’m listening to a funny story about Muslim speed dating in Houston. The next minute, my eyes take over. Just ahead, to my right, is the tallest cross I’ve ever seen, its metal body gleaming in the morning sun. A few dozen people are gathered at the base. Some are praying on their knees.
     I return my attention to the highway, Interstate 40 headed east. On the third day of my drive from Los Angeles, I had just entered Texas. The desert landscapes of New Mexico had given way to ranching land, dotted here and there with trees. The exit sign says Groom. Thinking anything’s possible, I wonder if the next town will be Bride. 
     After my trip is over and I have time to look things up, I will discover that the Groom cross is 19 stories tall, the second highest in the western hemisphere. The tallest — by eight feet — can be found in Effingham, Illinois.

A stormy greeting in Dhaka

The morning I flew into Dhaka after a 10-hour flight from London, rain drenched me as I dragged my bags outside the airport gates. Within hours, the rain would burst into a three-day storm, with wind howling through tree branches and sheets of water that I thought would never end. Though it would shut me in for my first days here, I must confess: I had long missed this kind of rain.
    A cyclone had hit the southern coast and the news was grim. More than a thousand fishermen were lost at sea, and bloated bodies began to float towards the coast. The official death toll hovered near a hundred before the news about the storm largely disappeared from the media. I remember a time when such storms would inspire a storm of human activity, as people mobilized for rescue and relief. What happened to that sort of response. Has the country simply become weary of disasters? Are people just focused on their own lives?

A tale of two cities: New Orleans & Detroit

Two cities, separated by 21 hours of driving and stops in Atlanta and Cincinnati. What comes to your mind when you think of New Orleans? Perhaps jazz and jambalaya. What could you remember of Detroit? Cars and the rhythms of Motown, maybe? Two majority black, chocolate cities. One's a place tourists used to flock to, the other one where tourists go by accident.
    One city displays fresh, raw wounds. The other the scars of slow bloodletting. Though neither is ready to accept death, a pall hangs over both.

On a hazy, humid Saturday afternoon in Detroit, I was lunching with my friend Karen who works as a librarian in a city school. This summer she attended the American Library Association's conference in New Orleans. The librarians held it there as an act of solidarity.
    On my road trip I had stopped in New Orleans just a week earlier. So we compared notes. Karen didn't make it beyond downtown and the French Quarter, while I had a full tour from old friend Kalamu ya Salaam: the 7th, 8th, and 9th wards, St Bernard Parish, New Orleans East and Uptown. And I took time to visit a corner of the Quarter and walk around Audubon Park.
    To Karen I described the neighborhoods where I saw streets and blocks of abandoned houses. On some blocks, I saw a handful of people rebuilding while the rest of the houses were standing vacant.
    Karen and I nodded in a moment of recognition. We both know blocks like this — in the east side of Detroit. The mind tries to relate what the eyes see to what memory remembers. And when I was in New Orleans, it immediately reminded me of Detroit. The destruction was more raw and fresh, more widespread and just one year old, but in time, the city could look like parts of Detroit.
    New Orleans collapsed under the blow of hurricane Katrina. Detroit's death agonies were slower and framed by two major disasters: the 1967 riots and the collapse of the auto industry in the early 80s. In between came white flight, disinvestment by corporate money, organized neglect after the city had elected its first black administration in the early 70s.

Canada, the Atlantic coast and looping back

The great North American road trip is officially over. I started in San Francisco on August 1 and finished in Cincinnati on September 7: thirty-eight days and 7132 miles, passing through some 20 American states and one Canadian province. Someone back in Oakland, listening to me describe my planned stops, had said, oh you're doing a W with a flair. And indeed, though it's a W in the hand of a child, quite zigzaggy, it was a W with a looped flair at the end. Here's photos from the climb up to the northernmost point and the flair.

On a hazy, drizzly Sunday morning, August 27, I crossed the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit into Canada. The Canadian border official asked me why I was so far from California. I said I was traveling across the continent, visiting friends and family, working on a novel. He wanted to know where I had stopped last and where I was headed after Canada. I told him, Detroit, then down to Rochester in New York state. "And all these people support what you're doing?" I assured him they did. He returned me my papers and wished me a safe trip. I was relieved. In present times, relaxed border crossings are no certainty, especially folks like us burdened with names like mine.

From the Gulf to the Canadian border

I've crossed the continent. I went down to the Gulfcoast and drove through the South, into the Midwest, into Canada, and then across the Adirondacks to New England. Right now, I'm resting in Natick, Mass. I've been working on a post about my visit to New Orleans, but until it's done, here are some more photos.


Interstate 10 from Houston to New Orleans passed through 20 miles of the Henderson swamp. A year ago, this highway was the evacuation route from the Gulfcoast for those headed towards Texas.

Down to the flatlands

Here's photos from the trip, driving from Green River, Utah through Oklahoma south towards Texas. I went above 10,000 feet in Colorado down to the flat flat lands of eastern Colorado and Kansas.


Just east of Green River, Utah, I passed by these majestic cliffs that looked like heavily-fortified castles.

God has billboards in Oklahoma!

As I drove south through Oklahoma City, I saw the billboard again. On a stark black background, the message in white letters said "I love you" in English, Spanish, and Chinese. It was signed "God."
         Last month when I'd also been passing through here during a family reunion, I'd seen the same billboard. And another one that said, "One nation under me." It too was signed "God."
         Now Oklahoma is squarely in the middle of America's Bible Belt. When I lived in Tulsa in 1972, I remember you couldn't walk far without running into a church. One I remember had orange flames of hell painted outside, no doubt warning you what lay in store if you strayed or was some sort of heathen.
         Why does God need billboards in such a place?
         And did he go to Clear Channel or CBS or whoever owns the billboards, turn in an application, a design of his own choice, and submit a rental fee? Did he have to show a bank account or a credit card? Was he asked for his SSN? Did he pay month to month or for eternity?
         While he was filling out the forms, did he pause to consider alternative means of getting his message across, such as skywriting? But that would have required him to hire pilots and rent airplanes, and again, there would be pesky forms to fill out. He'd probably need clearance from Homeland Security.
        Would it not have been simpler for God to simply shape some cumulus clouds into letters and words? And if he'd done that, wouldn't people have marveled at it and found it more believable?