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.