Truckin’ Across the South with an old Friend in an 18-Wheeler
By David Greitzer
Want to experience the open road, set your own hours, be independent, discover America and Freedom?
Join the 3.5 million strong. Become a truck driver. Long haul, 18-wheeler, big rig, 10-4 Good Buddy.
Everything you eat, wear, or consume was brought to you by a truck. According to National Freight Industries, “a fully integrated third-party supply chain solutions provider,” just the trucking from the Dallas area alone, being centrally-located with major freeways and hubs, supplies 35% of the country within 48 hours of the request.
“If truckers decided to not drive, store shelves would be empty in three days across the country,” says Scott Monaghan, a veteran trucker with Prime Inc., one of the country’s largest trucking companies. “It’s the most impressive logistical system you can imagine.”
A Texas Native
Monaghan, a Texas native, lives in Ft. Worth. Actually, that’s where he claims to have a small storage unit for photo albums and other life’s keepsakes. “I keep about 40 t-shirts, four pairs of shorts, one pair of bib overalls, shoes, socks, skivvies, and a set of golf clubs in the truck. That’s all I wear. That’s the only clothing I own anymore,” he said. “I live in my truck or I stay with friends occasionally.”
The opportunity to spend a week in the life of a truck driver presented itself when Scott Monaghan contacted me earlier in the year as he was passing through Sacramento, California. “Hey man, I’m at the 49er Truck Stop off of I-5, you in town?” he said in a text through Facebook’s Messenger.
“As a matter of fact, I am,” I returned the message. Having only recently reconnected with Scott, on Facebook, after a 30-year absence, I was excited and intrigued to see my old Navy buddy and catch up and ultimately see how life had treated him since I left our ship, the USS England CG-22, a guided-missile cruiser home-ported in San Diego. I left for new orders to Syracuse, New York in 1987 and lost touch with him. I was 23 years old.
Scott and I both had wives and a toddler each in 1987. We shared a history that spun into epic sea stories since 1987. We had been on a few cruises including one West-Pac, or Western Pacific cruise, which took us from San Diego to Hawaii, Philippines, Korea, Japan, Australia, and back over a 6-month period. We even hit a tree at sea during a typhoon that bent one of the 20-foot high screws (propellers).
So yes, I wanted to see him again. I picked him up from the 49er Truck Stop and we had lunch and many beers while reliving old times and filling in the lost memories with impressive exaggeration.
During this beer-infused reunion, I asked a lot of questions about his current career choice, trucking. I said that it might be fun and interesting to accompany him on a week-long run. “We could even drive to Jacksonville, Florida to see Spencer,” he said. Spencer, or Thom Spencer, was the third buddy that made up the trio of trouble-making sailors on the USS England. In 1987 Thom also had a wife and young child.
As promises to do things like this often go, I didn’t think it would ever really happen. Busy lives and work would most likely take precedence over a week-long road trip through the South with no better purpose than to have a good time. Thanks to Scott’s persistence, I managed to find the time.
Within 10-minutes of landing at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport I am drinking an ice-cold Coors Lite with Scott at his favorite sports bar, The Big Apple. This is when I discover he doesn’t have a house or even an apartment. We’ll be staying in the truck in the parking lot overnight.
Sleeping in the 18-Wheeler
To truckers, this might not be out of the ordinary, but to a civilian like me, this is highly out of the ordinary. Immediately, concerns of safety, bathroom facilities, noise, etc… make me question whether this week-long adventure is a good idea or not. Figuring I can withstand almost anything for a week, I was a sailor for god sakes, I decided to tough it out and give it a shot.
“Where Do I Pee?”
“Where do I pee in the middle of the night?” I ask Scott.
“Well, I sleep with my shoes on so I can hop out of the truck when I need to go. There’s a little blind spot between the truck cab and the tires,” he says.
Public urination aside; what about washing my hands? I think this is when I start repeating the “You Can Do This It’s Only A Week” mantra silently to myself.
The next morning comes early after only two hours of sleep. “What now?” I ask.
“We walk over to that Mexican joint and get a couple of breakfast burritos.”
So we walk over to the Mexican joint and buy a couple of breakfast burritos. We eat them in the truck.
“Hey Scott, do you think we could drive over there,” I say pointing to a Marriott Hotel across a busy street, “so I can use the bathroom?”
Like a Homeless Scoundrel
Feeling like a homeless scoundrel I try to blend in with the morning business crowd coming and going from the hotel. As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to do this and the front desk is so busy they rarely look up from the computer screen. And, the lobby bathrooms are clean. Eventually, you can even build up the nerve to grab a waffle on the way out.
Hands Washed, Feeling Better
With that behind me (pun intended), hands washed, feeling a little better about the prospects for the day Scott informs me that he’s been routed to get an empty trailer that will eventually get assigned a shipment. So, off we go southeast. After about 100 miles we stop at a Love’s truck stop, one of 460 in the country. Most have to be in the South because I see one every 10 miles or so.
“I have to brush my teeth,” Scott says.
“That’s a great idea,” I agree while quickly rummaging through my bag to find my toothbrush.
The official name of a Love’s truck stops is Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores. You’ll find several elements of the exact same thing at every location; fuel pumps for trucks, a convenience store with automotive supplies, cell phone gadgets, unique local souvenirs (dried alligator heads, ceramic skulls, full-sized medieval helmets), snack foods, an 8-foot-long hot dog roller grill with assorted tube-shaped meats like the hamburger dog which looks like a glistening turd rotating and basting itself in its own grease and additives, a soda station with the smallest cup size 32 ounces, coffee station and a fast-food franchise of some sort.
The fast-food chain is attached making it convenient to wander from the alligator aisle to the Subway counter. Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Chester’s Chicken, Pizza Hut, are just some of the chains offered. Chester’s Chicken? More on that later when we get to Mississippi.
This being my first time at a Love’s I feel obligated to peruse each aisle. A fellow trucker is staring at the coffee offerings and turns to ask me, “Is decaf okay for high blood pressure?”
“Yes,” I reply with the certainty of medical knowledge I gleaned from one semester of psychology at the local junior college.
“Good, ‘cause I went to the doctor the other day to get my physical and she said I was off the charts. She asked me if I drink coffee in the morning,” he says rambling. “I told her that my morning routine is four cups and four smokes.”
“Yeah, so she says come back in a week and stop the coffee and cigarettes. Hell, I’m 59 and I guess that’s just how it goes,” he continues while grabbing a 48-ounce cup.
“We’re all getting older,” I say trying to back away slowly.
He kept talking as I turned to leave and I supposed he would have shared the story out loud whether I was there or not.
Back in the truck, I tell Scott how friendly people seem here.
“Truckers are lonely. They’ll talk your ear off if you let ‘em,” he says.
A ‘Super Trucker’
Scott tells me I probably just ran into a ‘super trucker.’ A super trucker, he explains, is a middle-aged guy balding but with a grey ponytail. He’s usually wearing pajama pants, Crocs, and a stained t-shirt. And, they all have a wireless headset on 24-hours a day so they can talk to other truckers. It’s the modern form of a CB radio. “They know everything better,” he adds sarcastically.
“By the way, we just drove 100 miles to brush our teeth. Dispatch is sending me back to Dallas to get that trailer.”
“Really, what a waste of time,” I say trying to forge an alliance of shared incredulity.
“Yeah, but I get paid either way. Don’t matter to me.”
On the outskirts of South Dallas, Fair Park, we pick up the trailer. While driving through this neighborhood, I can’t help but notice the vast difference between wealth and poverty in Dallas. Sure each city has its rich and poor neighborhoods, but Fair Park is a scene right out of some 1960’s Edward R. Murrow documentary on poverty. Mostly African American, it is evident that South Dallas is void of most of the city’s love or tax dollars.
Picking up a Reefer
The trailer is a “reefer.” It has a diesel-powered refrigerator unit attached and Scott points out that these cost in the $60K range.
“Looks like we have 10,000 pounds of meat going to Atlanta,” Scott says. “What’s milanesa?”
He hands me the manifest and I see a list of beef cuts including t-bone, rib-eye, and milanesa. I quickly Google it and declare that it’s chicken-fried steak or breaded steak. We both learn something.
It’s now about 1 p.m. Wednesday. We have to be in Atlanta by Friday at noon to drop the load. That’s 781.5 miles or about 12 hours driving. Truckers are allowed to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour period, following a rest period of no less than 10 consecutive hours. Bottom line, because we began the 14-driving period with a 200-mile detour to brush our teeth, we can only make it another few hours. This makes Shreveport, Louisiana an ideal stop to overnight.
“They have riverboat gambling in Shreveport,” Scott says.
“I think I’m going to get a hotel tonight,” I say declaring mutiny already. “You know, recharge, replenish. It’s been a long day.”
I begin to research hotels in the area and find Sam’s Town, a hotel and casino combo that seems good.
“Call them and see if we can park the truck there.”
“What did they say,” Scott asks.
“We can park at Cash Magic. I think it’s an ATM or a bank or something. I’ll get the address.”
Cash Magic, as it turns out, is a small casino where hopes and dreams vanish as soon as you enter the foreboding entrance. Despair rules the day along with nickel and penny video slot machines.
It’s already 7 p.m. and a shower and sleep seem the prudent course of action. However, there’s beer to drink and money to donate to the Gambling Gods.
We meet downstairs and decide to start with the roulette table. The dealer is a friendly woman who has many rules but seems as happy as us when we win. Don’t grab the winnings until she lifts the little brass weight. Use a drink holder for your beer. You have to play $5 minimum.
We try our hand at blackjack. The dealer’s name is Shehandra or Dementia or something like that but she goes by Nikki. By the end of the night, Scott is down slightly and I am up slightly. I’m up enough to cover the room cost which when I tell him makes Scott a little sore. He would have been happy to have slept in the truck I think.
A 9 am Departure
We have a 7 a.m. departure plan. At 6:45 a.m. Scott texts me that he’s moved it back to 9 a.m. Good. More sleep in that luxurious hotel bed that doesn’t fly down the highway at 65mph.
Now 568 miles from Atlanta we have adopted a sort of routine. We stop at a Love’s or a Pilot truck stop about every two hours to use the bathroom, fill up on iced tea, water, fast food. Signs for Vicksburg, Mississippi fly by in a blur. Birmingham, Alabama swoosh.
I admit I’d love to stop in all of these places and visit the sites but a trucker isn’t on vacation. A trucker keeps on truckin’.
Outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, we filled up on Chester’s Chicken. Think of the Colonel’s less successful nephew.
At 11 p.m. we pull up to a very secure distribution center gate. A line of trucks is backed up waiting to be cleared for entry.
“Get some sleep,” Scott says, “It’ll be a while before they unload us.”
I wake up in a Pilot Truck Stop and Scott has meanwhile managed to nap, unload, and drive us seven miles to overnight here.
“Ever been to a Waffle House,” he asks.
“Nope, but that sounds good.”
As we enter Scott says he likes to sit at the counter and watch them make the food.
“They use funny terms for calling out the orders.”
The Waffle House system is as logistically impressive as route planning and dispatches for the trucking industry. The manager, or shot caller, calls out each item to each particular “chef associate” and at the end of the line it gets plated and served by the wait staff.
Our order taker immediately welcomes us to Waffle House with a smile and eager willingness to take our order.
“What can I git Y’all?”
“Uh, give me a minute,” I say pointing to the menu.
Confusion grips his face and Scott chimes in.
“He’s never been to a Waffle House before.”’
Meeting the Shot Caller
“You never been to a Waffle House before?” The teenager wearing a camouflaged hat with a big yellow Waffle House patch on the front looks surprised and ready to turn and announce this revelation to the whole restaurant.
“Shhhh,” I murmur hoping to not create a scene. “I’m not from around here.” No duh. “Oh, give me the grits and eggs. Ironically, ‘Gritzeneggs’ was the name some kids gave me in elementary school. Kismet.
The shot caller: “Gimmie three rapists sunny brown two slice.”
“What did she just say,” I ask Scott.
“I don’t know but I told you they have a funny way of calling the orders.
There’s the egg guy who deftly cracks and splatter’s the eggs in tiny pans and never misses a beat as he slides the finished product on their respective plates. The toastmaster handles all things carb-laden; toast, waffles, pancakes. The meat man keeps his grill full of bacon, sausage, and jiggly country ham.
Two wait staff juggle between order taking, coffee refilling, payments, and other drinks. The shot caller is the seasoned veteran whose command presence is never questioned. She delivers small tweaks and reprimands throughout the process. And, it is a brilliant ballet of breakfast symphony.
We have three hours to pick up the next trailer. More meat headed to Jacksonville, Florida.
“We have time to shower,” Scott says.
A truck stop shower is a thing of beauty. It’s a matter of perspective.
Earning Shower Credits
For every 50 gallons of fuel a trucker buys he or she can earn a free shower credit. Otherwise, they cost about $11.50. Scott has lots of shower credits.
There are about nine shower rooms at each Loves and Pilot truck stops. You pay at the register and get a receipt with a room number and door code.
A television monitor shows when your room is ready as well as an automated announcement saying the same.
When your room is ready you enter the door code and voila, you’re in. It’s a private little room with a no-frills clean shower, toilet, and sink. Shower shoes are encouraged. Clean towels are provided. Each room is cleaned between customers.
Upon exiting back into the country store, feeling almost normal again, I grab an apple and a bottle of water at the counter. The cashier eyes me suspiciously as no trucker has ever bought a fresh piece of fruit before.
“We have to wash out the truck before we pick up,” Scott says. “When carrying food you have to have a washout between loads.”
We drive back seven miles to where we unloaded last night and back into a small washout yard. No sooner did he pay the $55 washout fee the job was finished.
“Yeah, that’s the business to get into,” Scott says. “How can you wash out a 50-foot trailer with a tiny pressure washer in two minutes? As long as they see the stamp on the paperwork we’re good to go.”
By the time we load up this last trailer and get the green light to leave it’s 5:30 p.m.
356 Miles to Jacksonville in the 18-wheeler
We now have 356 miles to drive to Jacksonville, Florida. That’s about a six-hour drive. Another night in the truck.
We arrive at a truck stop at 10:00 p.m. and Scott tells me to get some sleep as we have to leave here at 2:30 a.m. and drive the remainder to a Wal-Mart distribution center near Jacksonville. I need no coaxing. As a matter of fact, I don’t wake up until 7 a.m. at the distribution center. I’m learning that Scott likes to drive alone. I think passenger companionship is not in his normal routine. At least this is what I think to myself to justify my oversleeping.
By noon the distribution center has unloaded the trailer and we’re off to a truck stop near the Jacksonville airport to meet Thom.
Thom drives up to the truck. It’s been 32 years. We all hug and check each other out slyly to gauge the aging process.
“Well, Thom and I still have all our hair, but you’re the skinniest,” Scott says to me pointing at the three of us. Thirty-two years changes anyone.
We decide on a local seafood shack near the water for our first beers and snacks; clam strips, blackened scallops. Within minutes 32 years is erased and we’re all sailors on liberty again ready to tear up the town. We catch each other up on life over the past three decades.
Divorces, jobs, kids, grandkids! But, more importantly, and this is why we did this, we toast each other the way we always used to: “Buddies for life.” We tell our sea stories that only the three of us have in common. We laugh at all the shipboard antics and the people we served with. In this moment we realize few people have a coming-of-age experience the way we did.
And, even fewer get the chance to relive it 30-plus years later. Keep on truckin’, Buddies for life.
David Greitzer, a former Navy Photojournalist, AP stringer, and Sacramento Union photographer, now focuses on travel writing and photography. His work has appeared on the covers of the Boston Globe, London Times, and in hundreds of other newspapers and magazines.