WANDERING NATIVES

As a little boy in Sonoma County, I remember sitting in my dad’s pickup, loving the fact that I was sitting higher than most of the other cars around us. My dad and I would take many trips together, and there I would sit, looking out at the world. When he would pass the big rigs, he taught me to fold my arm in an ‘L’ and pretend I was pulling on a cord. More times than not, the driver of that 18-wheeler would gratify me by wailing on the air horn. Looking up at the driver of that massive truck as he barreled down the highway, it seemed like the coolest thing in the world to do.

Fast-forward 34 years, and you have a boy’s fantasy come true. In 2009, recently divorced and having a mass of debt too large to pay my way out of, I decided to put all of my belongings in a storage unit, obtain my commercial driver’s license, and get a job as a truck driver. My plan: not pay rent, mortgage, or other living expenses, and tour this great big country of ours, all while clearing my head from the divorce. The money that I saved from normal day-to-day living would go toward alleviating my debt. Although many of my friends and family in Truckee, where I had been living since 1986, were concerned that the isolation of the road would be too challenging for a social person like myself, I felt it was what I needed to do. So off I went.

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The first few months had its challenges — being in the correct gear, matching road speed to gear speed, making sure there was always plenty of breaking distance in front of me, and ‘throwing iron’ (putting chains on). As like most things in life, the more I practiced, the better I got. Within several months, I was accustomed to this new challenge and began to enjoy my experiences. I bought an inexpensive mountain bike and found a way to keep it in the truck, using it at truck stops while on two-day layovers. This was a great way to get a little exercise while getting out and meeting folks other than drivers.

On one occasion, I was in Salt Lake City with my next load assignment scheduled for the following day. With the warm afternoon sun beckoning me to go outside and play, I donned my gloves and helmet and began to ride. I stopped at the Mormon Temple, where I sat and took in the peacefulness. I attempted to go inside for a tour, but because I was not a Mormon I was turned away. Not too discouraged, I rode on, and within a mile from the temple I stumbled upon a large gathering of bicyclists. I stopped to see if there was a critical mass event, only to find out it was a bicycle jousting event.

There were about a dozen or so modified bicycles that stood nearly six feet off the ground. The captains of these contraptions would race toward each other wielding PVC pipes with some sort of cushioned tip. The spectators, all of whom were on bicycles, would count down in unison ‘THREE, TWO, ONE, JOUST!’ and off these modern-medieval knights went, their heads down, their joust directly in front of them, aiming for the chest of their opponent. The cushioned tip was enough to knock one of the contestants off balance and onto the ground. They jousted for a couple of hours, and had a finals round before it was all done. Although there was no crown or medal awarded to the victor, the bragging rights held him in high regard among the masses. Amazed at the spectacle that I had just witnessed, I reflected on how these basement engineers took such a simple concept and made it into a festival of comradery. The best part is that I had stumbled upon it on my bicycle, with no plan whatsoever.

Not everything on the road is fun and games, however. Once I was taking a beer load from the Milwaukee Brewing Company to St. Joseph, Mo., on a night run. Being a bit tired and unaware of the roads, I made a wrong turn onto a dirt road. A vehicle that is over 70 feet in length does not enjoy being in this situation. (A note of explanation for non-truck drivers: Typically, dirt roads are not as wide as paved roads, thus there is less turn-radius area.) I stopped, got out of the truck, and scratched my head, wondering what to do next. Part of the challenge of being out on the road by yourself is that when you make a mistake usually only you can fix it. I studied my atlas and decided to make a left onto another dirt road that would hopefully take me back to the highway. As I approached the intersection of the two dirt roads on a dark night somewhere in southern Illinois, I failed to see the culvert on the left. I began making the turn, then I looked out my driver-side window — the trailer missed the stop sign. Everything was all good. Then, suddenly, the truck came to an abrupt stop. No good. The wheels of the trailer found the culvert, which my eyes could not. Forty-thousand pounds of beer were dangerously close to toppling over and taking me with it. After some panicky measures on my part trying to get the wheels onto solid ground, I blew one of the tires on the drive axle. The entire trailer weighted on the large bumper on top of the road. Yup, I was stuck and not going anywhere. Dispatch called out a very large wrecker, and $1,200 and a new tire later, I was on my way. I wouldn’t do that again, and thankfully, since it was my first mishap, the company footed the bill.

All in all, learning to overcome the never-ending challenges of time management, fighting fatigue, and maintaining mental stability were my greatest achievements. Looking back on my almost three years of the gypsy lifestyle, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have witnessed some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I have traveled on roads that I never knew existed. I have navigated through big cities and the smallest towns. I witnessed Amish plowing fields in Pennsylvania with a wooden plow. I spent the night in Minot, N.D., where the temperature was less than 25 degrees below zero. I experienced tornadoes and electrical storms so intense that I wanted to pull over just to watch the show. I witnessed an ice storm in Iowa that consumed a dozen trucks and two dozen cars. I have traveled to the backward, gin-still country of Alabama to the ladies of the night strutting their stuff in Orlando, Fla., to hanging out with mild-mannered Wisconsinites. The most wonderful thing I saw on the road was how diverse this country really is. The road to financial and mental freedom had its many challenges. There were bumps and hills, turns and straightaways, days upon days of never-ending pavement. I struggled with my mind and psyche while my soul struggled with isolation. Somehow I found my way back and knew when it was time to throw in the keys, only to start my next adventure at home.

~ Erik Starks works at Mountain Home Center in Truckee. He lives in Reno. Comment on this story below.

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