EFFINGHAM, Ill. — The vast Petro truck stop here is a neon-lit, blacktop oasis at the crossroads of America. It beckons big-rig drivers with showers, laundry machines, a barber shop, even a knife store. “Professional drivers only,” reads the sign above the tables of the Iron Skillet restaurant, where truckers sit mostly alone, carrying the solitude of their jobs into an otherwise social setting.
Driving a long-haul tractor-trailer is as commonplace as the items that drivers carry, from blue jeans to blueberries, from toilet paper for Walmart to farm machinery bound for export. There are 1.7 million men and women working as long-haul drivers in the country. Yet truckers — high up in their cabs — are literally out of view for most Americans.
At a moment when President Trump has ignited a national discussion of blue-collar labor and even climbed into a truck during a White House event, trucking, which was once among the best-paying such jobs, has become low-wage, grinding, unhealthy work. Turnover at large for-hire fleets hauling freight by the truckload — the backbone of the industry — runs an astonishing 80 percent a year, according to a trade group. Looming over the horizon is a future in which self-driving trucks threaten to eliminate many drivers’ livelihoods.
Still, trucking continues to draw plenty of newcomers, reflecting the lack of good alternatives for workers without a higher education (one survey found that 17 percent of truckers had less than a high school diploma). Some have lost better-paying manufacturing jobs in the continuing deindustrialization of America. Others have spent years knocking on the door of the middle class in minimum-wage jobs in fast food or retail. To them, trucking is a step up.
Over two days recently, The New York Times spoke to truckers at the Petro stop, which sits at the intersection of Interstate 57, between Chicago and Memphis, and Interstate 70, between Indianapolis and St. Louis. These interviews were edited and condensed. The maps show drivers’ routes in picking up and delivering their loads.
(The Times also wants to hear what long-haul truckers wish car drivers knew and see how they have made the inside of their cabs into a home. Share your stories.)
‘The Clock’s Ticking, the Clock’s Ticking’
Greg Simmons, 54, Hastings, Fla. Driving 27 years.
We’re throwaway people. Nobody cares about us. Everybody’s perception of a truck driver is we clog up traffic, we get in the way, we pollute the environment.
We’re just like cops. Everybody needs us, but nobody wants us.
Before trucking, I did electronics, but there was no pay in it. What I did not know is, when you do this for a living, you can’t go to night school and train for something else. This sucks up so much of your time.
Truckers are paid mostly by the mile, not the hour. Federal rules say they can drive 11 hours within a 14-hour window, and then they must stop for a 10-hour break. Many resent the 14-hour rule.
Everybody’s constantly looking at the clock. If you get caught in a traffic jam for four hours, that’s four hours of your productivity gone. Or if you go to pick up a load and these people take five and a half hours to load you, they’ve killed five and a half hours of your day. The clock’s ticking, the clock’s ticking. Got to go, man, got to go! The 14-hour rule has created an unnatural amount of pressure. For the young fellows, after two or three months, they say the hell with this.
Why do you keep driving?
Because at 54 years old, nobody wants me. I can’t retrain for anything else. For older people, you kind of get trapped. For every one that does well, there’s 30 that it destroys.
‘I Told Her That I Would Do Whatever It Took’
Ayisha Gomez, 39, Riverside County, Calif. Driving three years.
There were a lot of women in my training class. There were a lot of younger, I would say girls, going through. I think it’s women trying to prove themselves. And there are so many of us who are single mothers and the work that’s out there, we just can’t support our families.
Ms. Gomez said she worked for AutoZone for about eight years before becoming a truck driver. Women make up 5 percent of truckers.
My daughter got accepted to U.C.-Davis, and she wasn’t going to go because we couldn’t afford it. I told her that I would do whatever it took.
It is very stressful being away from home, being out of contact with people.
I was driving cross-country and stopped in Texas to pick up a cousin of mine. Her sister was having a baby. I said, “I’ll take you home to California.” We hardly talked at all on the trip. You forget how to communicate with people. You’re by yourself constantly. There’s nobody to talk to except when you’re picking up or dropping off a load.
Are you in a romantic relationship at home?
Yes. He is my high school sweetheart. We got back in touch with each other and things are falling in place. But it’s hard on him because he doesn’t understand what goes on out here. He’s always watching the weather and the news, and calling to tell me there’s a storm coming up, please be careful. He’s worried about me being at truck stops and rest areas at night. He doesn’t want me coming in in the evenings to take showers.
Do you feel in danger as a woman?
In the beginning, I noticed I got a lot of dirty looks from men. You hear remarks under their breath when you’re coming through the truck stops. I don’t hear it anymore. I’ve learned to tune everybody out. I don’t pay attention to anybody around me. I’m always aware of my surroundings, I notice what people are wearing, what they’re looking at, but if you are passing me, it looks like I’m always looking down at the ground.
Ms. Gomez explained that her first year was the hardest because she was required to drive for the large freight company that trained her, which paid a low mileage rate. Since the trucking industry was deregulated a generation ago, drivers’ pay has fallen. Truckers earn on average $43,600 a year, less than in 1980 when adjusted for inflation. Many work the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Now Ms. Gomez drives for a small mom-and-pop company, which pays better than the industry average.
Did you think of quitting that first year?
No. I’m not a quitter. It was very hard. My daughter kept me going. She wants to be a social worker. My oldest son has been in trouble since he was about 15. He’s currently in prison. He got sentenced to 21 years for attempted murder. Now, he is part of a gang. He’s got tattoos all over him. I’m so disappointed.
When all of this happened, my daughter went through a really hard time. I sat down and had a long talk with her. She decided she wanted to work with youth and try to help before they end up like her brother.
Trucking is not a career for me. I’m only doing this as long as I have to in order to get all of my daughter’s student loans taken care of. She’s on her third year. I’ll be doing it for a few more years.
‘Something I’ve Always Wanted to Do’
Michael Gallant, 22, Biddeford, Me. Driving eight months.
Truck driving is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid. I love it. There are some times when it’s kind of a crappy job, but other times it’s great. Over all, I’m very happy with my job. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
I worked at a garden center for four years before this. I was making 12 bucks an hour. Kind of at the bottom of the pile.
I got my C.D.L. [commercial driver’s license] relatively quickly, in Springfield, Mo. I took a Greyhound bus all the way from Portland, Me., to Springfield, Mo. That was 45 hours. Wasn’t exactly fun.
At the minimum I try to stay out for at least four weeks. I’m the type of guy — when I start going, I like to work and work and work. I’m single, no kids, no debt to my name.
Do you worry, as a young driver, that self-driving trucks could take over the industry?
That’s a touchy subject. I haven’t really thought too much on it. I think it’ll be a little while until we get to that point. You’ll still need a driver to make sure that nothing goes wrong with that truck. I don’t see it all becoming autonomous.
‘Any One of My Grandkids Do It, I’ll Kill ’Em’
Ron Carrabis, 70, Las Vegas. Driving 30 years for the same company.
My kids all grew up with me driving a truck. A lot of missed football games, a lot of missed school plays, birthdays, anniversaries. It’s very hard on your home life if you don’t have an understanding woman. My wife and I have been married 44 years. But there’s other drivers out here that have been married two, three and four times.
Mr. Carrabis retired over the weekend.
We have a motor home sitting in our driveway that every time I come home, it goes, “C’mon.”
Would you recommend trucking to a young person?
Any one of my grandkids do it, I’ll kill ’em.
‘My Last Husband Hated Me Being a Truck Driver’
Patricia Moore, 60, Oak Grove, La. Driving 15 years.
I haven’t been married in over 10 years. My last husband hated me being a truck driver. He used to fight with me on the phone out here on the road. I loved it when I had no signal.
It was either my job or his alcohol, and I picked my job.
What’s the best part of being a trucker?
A friend of mine said, “If you’re out here on the road, how come you don’t make more money than you make?”
Everybody paints this as glamorous. Yeah, we get to see the country. At 65 miles per hour from the Interstate.
How is your health?
Horrible. They can’t figure out what’s wrong with my stomach. We eat a lot of junk food. Like last night I ate Subway. It’s junk. In 15 years, I’ve gained 70 pounds.
I’ve also got hurt on my job, tore my knee tugging trailers and all that. Dollying up a trailer, I tore up my rotary cuff.
It’s always go go go, no time for yourself. You might get home at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. If I get home on Friday, most of the time I got to get back out on Sunday. Sometimes I wear my uniform to church because I got to go straight to my truck.
Do you have a retirement plan?
What’s retirement? Sounds boring. I’m single, I have no money saved up, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. My fault. I didn’t think about retirement growing up. This is the first time I’ve ever made decent money in my life.
Last month, Ms. Moore quit long-haul trucking and moved to Midland, Tex., to be closer to a son, where she now drives an 18-wheeler that services the oil fields of West Texas. In a phone interview, she said the job allows her to return home every night, and has other benefits.
I bettered myself — almost doubled my salary. I bought me a brand-new car, a 2017 Chevrolet, two days after I hit this town. My health is also better. I’ve lost some weight. I cook my own food now.
‘It’s Pretty Lonely’
Wayne McLaurin, 46, St. Louis. Driving five years.
I was a customer service rep in St. Louis. When the recession hit, there was no jobs to be found. The only thing that was in the newspaper at that time was nursing and truck driving. Within five weeks, you can be on the road and have a career. I’ve been doing it ever since.
I stay away two to three months at a time. It’s pretty lonely. It’s tiring. It’s depressing, you know what I mean? My whole thing is to try to get away from trucking, whether it be real estate, maybe an owner-operator, something like that. In order to get out of the business, you’ve got to have something to fall back on.
Are you saving money?
Yes. I want to walk away this year with about $25,000 to $40,000.
In the beginning, it was fun, like the young fellow over there. [He pointed at Mr. Gallant across the restaurant counter.] But the older I got, it was like, you need to do something else. You can’t do this forever.
The best thing about it, to me, is you don’t have anybody looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. You don’t have a boss. You have to be able to be disciplined enough to do your job, and they trust you to do that. I love that about it.
When I was a little younger, it was all about getting an opportunity to be out in different cities, seeing things I’d never seen before. But now, O.K., it’s time to settle down.
Do you have time for a personal life?
I don’t have a personal life. I don’t have a girlfriend. And it sucks, it really does. I think about that. When I was a little younger, I always had a relationship. Now doing this, I’m like, why? I realize I’m never in one place at one time.
‘Freedom. Oh My God, I Cannot Tell You.’
Daniel McMillan, 33, and Susan Zimmerman, 48, Danville, Va. Driving two years.
Susan: We met working at McDonald’s. Trucking was my dream first. I raised my daughter and she was going to college, I needed to better myself. Working for McDonald’s for 10 years, trying to raise your child on a McDonald’s wage, you could only rely on tax season to get her stuff. Daniel encouraged me to go get my C.D.L.
Daniel: She came back and picked me up. I jumped on her truck and she trained me. Then I got my C.D.L.
Susan: I’ll drive eight hours and he’ll drive eight hours, and then we shut down. Now we’re owner-operators. We are a company.
People say it’s lonely on the road, but it must be different for a couple.
Daniel: We have friends that were truck drivers, their home life fell apart.
Susan: Their spouses cheated.
Daniel: Children going crazy, going to jail.
What’s the best part of trucking?
Daniel: Freedom. Oh my God, I cannot tell you.
Susan: Beautiful sunny days.
Daniel: You get your crappy days, don’t get me wrong. But we woke up in Laredo one time, it was 79 degrees in the morning. You got to trade the good for the bad.
Most people think trucking is old rednecks going down the road. But it’s very diverse. We’ve seen whole families out here.
Susan: Speaking for myself, there’s not many disappointments of the job. Every day, you wake up somewhere different. You have sunrises and sunsets. Yeah, it’s the same sun, but it’s different everywhere — the colors, the textures.
We get to see our daughter three times a year. We get loads to Florida, where she’s in college. We shut the truck down and get a rental car and go hang out with our daughter.
She gets scholarships because she’s a great student. But then you have to send money because they have to live.
Are you engaged?
Do you have a date?
Daniel: September of 2018.
Susan: We were going to get married this year, but my daughter needs a car.