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Drive Time

Blast From the Past: Rush of Big Rigs on the Open Road


I think it started during a slate-blue dawn on the downgrade of the eastbound lanes of the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading toward the tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains. This is possibly the most perilous bit of road in the country, or at least it seemed so 18 years ago when it began the last leg of my journey from the University of Missouri to my home in Maryland. Coming directly off I-70, the turnpike is a trucking corridor, and the early morning hours especially were a chance for the drivers to make time on the downgrade.

For 10 miles or so, the world blurred into sound and fury as big rigs hit 75, hit 80, screamed along the narrow lanes, shrieked through a series of even-narrower tunnels.

For a 19-year-old, chain-smoking menthol cigarettes in a bright orange Ford Fiesta, it was the seventh level of hell. Like entering the Indy 500 driving a Big Wheel. Perpetually white-knuckled, I would fight the urge to simply close my eyes every time I entered a tunnel with a 14-wheeler chortling beside me, one just behind, and two hurtling toward me in the opposing lanes.

In one of those rosary-repeating moments, I realized that all I really wanted to do was be a trucker.

I wanted to sit high in the sky and blow my horn and flash my high beams as I cut through the mountains. I wanted to ease my rig into rest stops and swing myself down from the cab and get a cup or three of milky coffee with an inch of sugar settled like silt at the bottom.

I wanted to see the world, to travel its roads, to follow day into night and back again, to watch the hills surrender to mountains, give way to plains, erupt in mesas, fall back to grassland. I wanted to travel under skies of every weather, visit cities full of light and towns with one bank and no theater.

Secretly, I still do.

It is my fallback plan. If things get bad enough, I'll just take to the road. Me and my dog . . . and my kids . . . and my husband.


So maybe it doesn't make as much sense as it once did. And maybe it never made any sense at all; sure I like to drive, but the closest I've come to a big rig was the medium-size U-Haul I drove from Maryland to Brooklyn. And that took it out of me.

I know a trucker's life is a hard one, and not even in the country-western romantic way. The pressures of the schedules often lead to drug problems, stress-related injuries and ailments. But still. I was moved to Los Angeles from Tennessee by a couple who lived in their moving van eight months a year. The remaining four months they traveled the world. Another woman I know became a trucker and changed from a shy, awkward wall-hugger to an incredibly self-assured person, with a hundred truly great stories.

Whenever I watch a driver maneuver a big rig around some impossibly tight corner, or work his way effortlessly along the current of a freeway, I feel like applauding. To control something so huge, to know the road so well, to ride so high above the rest of the world must be thrilling, at least at first, at least for a while.

Certainly in a slate-blue dawn, flying down a mountain while headlights brush by and the air is full of speed and power.

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