I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign
I’ll be willin’, to be movin.’
Little Feat, “Willin'”
He was just another man trying to teach me something.
Chastity Belt, “Drone”
That summer, my new boyfriend said he could get me a job at one of the upscale bars in Missoula, Montana where a friend (his ex-lover) worked. Apparently the tips were so good there you could make rent in a week’s work. I had done some bartending back home, and yes, I needed the money. Plus I wanted to be that cool new girlfriend, the one who could work side-by-side with the old one, learn to rely on her, become trusted confidantes. I wanted that, but I had my doubts. Then, one afternoon, my boyfriend, who in addition to a slew of other part-time jobs worked in the warehouse at the growers’ coop, struck upon a new scheme. That was when he asked me, out of the clear Big Sky, “How would you feel about driving a truck?”
On our first date, Lee had taken me to The Pearl, the French bistro that was either the nicest restaurant in town or the only nice restaurant in town, depending on who you asked. We ordered appetizers and soup and salads and entrees and dessert and it all piled up because we could not stop talking.
Mostly I talked about how before moving to Missoula I’d lived in a cabin in the woods in Northeast Kansas, and how it was so serene and beautiful and complete it made me want more for myself, which meant I had to leave. I wanted that again. Not the cabin necessarily—though that would be nice—but the feeling.
I didn’t talk about the man I lived with there. How my ex had been a joy and then a problem. How after his motorcycle accident I talked him out of shooting himself with the gun his friend kept in the unlocked bike shop next door. How when I went home for Christmas I was so relieved to see him, so happy and sad and confused that one night we ended up sleeping together, and only afterward did I realize, in horror, that he still had the port for his feeding tube in his stomach. How in the subsequent months since I’d saved his life (as he put it) he’d been texting more and more across that thousand-mile chasm between Kansas and Montana, across that incalculable distance between who we were five years ago and who we were now, after the breakup, after the accident, and how I kept responding.
Which stories do we tell about ourselves and why? What is a story and what is a fiction and what is a lie?
“No way,” said the man sitting on the other side of all that fancy food. “I grew up in a cabin in the woods.”
Stories you don’t tell when you’re trying to get a job as a truck driver:
I had been a bumbling, sickly child.
By age four I wore glasses, and later, an eye patch. At age five I had surgery for esotropia (crossed eyes) and at age twelve, to have tubes put in my ears.
Severe allergies to cigarette smoke, mold, cockroaches, dogs, cats, grass, and trees left me under constant attack. Chronic sinus infections disrupted the cabin pressure in my inner ear: it often sounded like I had a washing machine inside my head.
I didn’t feel well so I didn’t want to eat. I was rail-thin. Puny. Weak.
I passed out at the sight of blood or whenever I had blood drawn. Like my mother, I was “a fainter.”
Constant disequilibrium made me walk into things. I barked my shins on tables, bed frames, and door jambs and brained myself on walls, freezer doors, spiral staircases, and the top corner of the passenger door on the family van.
I blamed my ugly, overlarge flat feet, size ten, which promised a corresponding height I never achieved and always seemed to be in the way.
My mother blamed an imaginary hereditary condition, Edwards-itis, to which all descendants of the Edwards family were subjected: a “fun” alternative, perhaps, to the very real and very deadly strain of heart disease that ran through the family.
My father, to whom I was always such a disappointment, used to say I would never live to see fifteen.
In my interview at the coop later that week, I confessed to never having driven a truck before. I did have a clean driving record—no DUIs—and besides, “I was disgustingly responsible.”
“I like the sound of that,” the accounts manager said. The warehouse manager agreed.
They knew Lee, my new boyfriend. They liked him. Trusted him. But they needed time to discuss.
A minute later, as I was walking to my car, the warehouse manager popped onto the loading dock.
Please don’t let him see the gash down the side of my car. That had been another memento left by my ex, but I wasn’t about to try to explain that.
The warehouse manager, Al, didn’t see it or he didn’t care.
“Do you want a job?” he said.
The pay was decent, more than any of my friends were making hourly in town. Plus I’d have all that alone time on the road, be my own boss essentially, get in shape.
But back home that evening, I realized I had no clue what type of truck, or how big of a truck, we were talking. This truck I was asking to drive: had it been at the warehouse that afternoon? Why hadn’t I demanded to see it?
“The truck,” I said to Lee, who was sorting tools and equipment in preparation for two months of trail work in Idaho, “how big is it?”
“I don’t know exactly,” he said. “I mean, they’re not small.”
I lived in Missoula for two years before I met Lee. I’d had offers before, for sex at least, which was never as uncomplicated for me as it seemed to be for everyone else. But I’d gotten to where I could take one look at a person and say, No, let’s just… No.
That, and I was still in love with my ex-boyfriend, who was wild and impulsive and who didn’t start riding a motorcycle until after I moved to Montana and then wrecked it, and his brain, not four months later. (I still cringe when I think about the Onion article I sent him when I first heard about his new hobby: “Friend Who Just Got Motorcycle Already Dead.”) After the accident I blamed myself for moving away from him, for still loving him, for not loving him enough. More than anything, I was furious with him for ruining himself.
But this new boyfriend—he was different. Lee was smart and funny and attractive and good and responsible and a little wild, but in a good way. He was the sort of man I could be fine with calling “boyfriend” after one month of dating and who was himself fine with being called that.
I wanted to impress this good man. I wanted to show him I was every bit as strong on the outside as he insisted I was on the inside.
My training began on a Friday at five a.m. The warehouse’s overhead door was raised and the place fully lit—the five-year veteran who was training me, Sean, was setting up inside. Under the glow of the parking lot lights I saw it for the first time, parked beside the dumpster, coop logo emblazoned on its side: the truck. It was a big truck. One of those refrigerated box trucks you have to step up into, twenty-six feet long, as big as it could be without you needing a CDL (commercial driver’s license) to operate it.
Inside the warehouse, Sean looked me over. I knew what he was thinking: Who does this girl think she is? In a flash we were back outside and he walked me around the truck, which looked even bigger up close, pointing things out like they do at the rental car place, but instead of dings and scratches we were looking at air tanks and fuel tanks and DEF tanks and how to climb way up on the hood and unlock it so you could check the engine. Then he opened the passenger side door so I could peek inside the cab. Here were the instrument panels, the cruise control (which I should never use), high and low beams, wipers, primary and secondary air brake gauges, reefer controls.
I wrote everything down in a little notebook. Then Sean said, “All right, hop in and back her up to the loading dock.”
The other option was to quit on the spot. I steeled myself, walked around the truck, climbed up into it, started the engine according to Sean’s instructions, and checked my mirrors. There was no rearview mirror, which made sense given the whole world of truck behind me, but this realization demoralized me. I had nothing but two sideview mirrors sticking a half-foot off the sides of the truck like alien antenna. The optics were fun-house woozy. I couldn’t tell exactly what I was looking at, how big I was, or how this monster might move in space.
Sean jumped onto the loading dock and started cranking his arm—turn the wheel this way, no that way. I started backing up and the truck began to beep beep beep and I was terrified.
What if I killed someone who sneaked around behind? What if I killed Sean? But no—he was still back there cranking his arm. I started backing, slowly, until I made contact with—something—the corner of the dock? Sean shook his head and held up his hands to show how many feet off I was. I pulled forward, straightened it out (sweat coursing inside my shirt), and beep beep beep tried again.
No dice. Not even close.
After my third attempt Sean jumped down from the dock.
“Get out,” he said.
We had a twelve-hour route ahead of us.
We hit the open road heading north toward Flathead Lake. Sean never stopped rattling off new tips, warnings, admonishments, recipes.
Outside Ronan he took a call from one of the coop sales reps that I couldn’t follow. My thoughts traveled from there.
They took me to the open field beside my father’s house in Des Moines.
As a child I spent summers with my father and his family wherever they lived at the time—Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Oregon, New Mexico. Each summer he attempted to teach me a new sport, usually whichever sport he’d already taught my twin step-sisters to play. My step-sisters, eleven months older and toughened by full-time living with this man, would stand by waiting for me to catch on, to suck it up, to quit playing or throwing or acting like a girl.
Here was where the field came in, where the memory begins: Me, age eight, dragging the end of a baseball bat in the dirt. My father was showing me how to hold the bat. How to swing. Where to direct my elbow, and how to carry through with the downward motion of my arm after the swing was complete. I tried, but I couldn’t make my arm do what he was describing. I could sense my father’s mounting frustration. My step-sisters’ mounting ire.
“You’re just like your mother,” my father said. He meant it as a jab, but the blow didn’t land. Perversely, I was emboldened by the thought.
Something rose up in me then. Something that said, Enough.
I shut down. I gave up. I quit. Whatever you want to call it, it became a regular pattern in the history of my father’s trying to teach me things.
Of any man trying to teach me.
Backing up to a loading dock was but one small piece of the trucking puzzle, so we ignored that piece for a while. Sean didn’t show me how to work any of the equipment in the warehouse, either, like the electronic pallet jack he whizzed around the warehouse like it was his dance partner.
His information was useful but too comprehensive, like his ongoing list of best bathrooms in the Flathead Valley, or places to skip the loading docks because you’d get hemmed in by other trucks. (I of course being happy to skip all loading docks.)
I wrote everything down.
Outside Polson we passed a baby deer standing beside its dead mother on the highway.
“Bambi,” Sean called it.
“That reminds me,” he said. “Don’t brake for animals.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Did you hear me?”
“What did I say?”
“Don’t brake for animals.”
“That’s right. And don’t pick up hitchhikers, either.”
In Glacier National Park Sean turned down a narrow side road adjacent to the Lake McDonald Lodge parking lot, stopped, put the truck in reverse—beep beep beep—and guided the truck back down an even narrower tree-lined path. The path curved sharply partway back, so he constantly checked his mirrors, back and forth, so he didn’t hit one of the trees. On both sides of the truck branches whacked the side mirrors.
Thump thump thwack.
“If you pull straight in, you’ll have to back out when you leave,” he said. “You’re not going to want to have to do that.”
The path was so narrow, I was afraid he was going to take down a tree, or maybe one of the tourists who kept leaping into our path.
Midway through his backing maneuver, Sean looked at me and said, “Are you going to be able to do this?”
“I’m going to have to be able to,” I said.
At five that morning Sean had been curt and gruff and made a point of telling me, presumably as an apology for ordering me around the warehouse, “Sorry—when I’m at work, I’m all business.”
Twelve hours later, making our return trip down the east side of Flathead Lake, he grew gossipy, asking things like, “Now, what do you consider cheating?”
From there he veered to tales of trucking times’ past, where he vacillated, as he had throughout the day, from intense pride in his job and in his knowledge of his job to statements like, “I should have gotten out three years ago.”
I learned, to my surprise, that he still had not gotten out, that I would not be replacing him, but another driver, another woman driver in fact, who was also (fun fact) a Yale grad.
Sean was a college graduate, too, like so many of us in this overeducated university town. (I had just finished school myself.) After college, before moving to Montana, Sean worked at a sled dog kennel in Alaska. One of his duties involved climbing on top of a giant pile of frozen dog turds, where he deposited each new payload from the seventy-five dogs in his care.
“I bet any job seems pretty great after that,” I said.
“Alaska,” he said, “is a very dark place.”
At the end of that first training day Sean let me drive. I was doing fine, he said. “Fine” was fine by me. Back at the warehouse I helped unload the truck. I went home after and felt exhausted but better.
But later that night, every time I thought about having to back up to that loading dock, any loading dock, my anxiety mounted. If I could just practice without Sean there cranking his arm I could get this down, no problem. But that wasn’t an option. The coop’s fleet was in use throughout the day—and other trucks were constantly coming in and out—I couldn’t just go in and practice my backing technique whenever I felt like it. Besides, I was embarrassed to admit I needed to practice something like that.
The night before my first solo route, while Lee was closing at one of his restaurants, I drove out to the edge of town, to an empty parking lot adjacent to Fort Missoula, where I found a pile of orange safety cones. I set up two cones a few feet apart. I put a bag over my rearview mirror. Then I practiced backing the car up to the cones from oblique angles, from the opposite side of the parking lot, over and over again, until I could line up my bumper with the cones.
Later, back home, I called my mother, who was recovering from a surgery to replace the battery in her pacemaker. She liked to joke that I.C.D. was short for “I Can’t Die.” Death was on both our minds: my mother’s mother, my last surviving grandparent, had died not a month before from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
“You’re problem solving,” my mother said when I told her what I’d been up to that night. “Don’t worry. You’ll be a pro at this in no time.”
I had never worked in a warehouse or grocery store before. Pallets, pallet wrap, pallet jacks, ratchet straps, hand-trucks, dock levelers, forklifts, lift gates: I was unschooled in all associated lingo, procedures, and of most concern, equipment (all of which carried copious warning labels).
My first week, when I texted my boyfriend a question about “palettes” (p-a-l-e-t-t-e-s, as in a color palette or painter’s palette), he was quick to correct my spelling. Up until that point I had only ever heard “pallet” (p-a-l-l-e-t, as in a portable platform for storing and moving materials) in two contexts, both relating to Arkansas, where my mother’s family, the legendary Edwards, lived, and one, in about the worst way possible, to trucking itself.
1. In Harrison, Arkansas, I had a crazy uncle of sorts, Everett, who lived with my grandmother’s sister, and who was known for year-round filling his house with miniature light-up Christmas villages and his yard with heaps upon heaps of wooden pallets. No one ever saw him do anything with the pallets, though during one family trip he confided to my step-father that he was growing bionic tomatoes for the government.
2. Outside Eureka Springs, Arkansas, my mother’s younger brother, Gary, and his wife, Gina, were driving to the skating rink with their five children in tow when an oncoming tractor-trailer entered their lane and struck their van head-on, resulting in horrific injuries to my aunt and uncle and their four-year-old, Aurora. Their six-month-old, Autumn, died from her injuries. There’s much more to that tragic story, but what’s relevant here is the driver blamed the accident on an unsecured pallet.
That first week I worked hard, not smart.
A catalog of inefficiencies, I was constantly running back to the truck for that one missing or mispicked item, constantly misplacing my box cutter, my invoice, my clipboard, my pen.
I imagined what I must have looked like to every grocery store receiver, restaurant manager, farmer.
Sweaty, pale, puny, weak.
Who does this girl think she is?
Every muscle screamed in pain. On my first stop I smashed my hand between stacks of milk crates. Later I caught the corner of a sixty-pound box of frozen lamb on my right thigh while pulling it off the truck. A radiant purple galaxy materialized there.
I laughed at my stupidity for having bought a set of dumbbells so I could “bulk up” for the job.
“You don’t have to do this,” Lee reminded me. “I mean, it sounded like a job I might like to do if I didn’t have trails. But you don’t have to do it.”
We were still new, and he was worried.
I don’t know what I was trying to prove. I just knew I hadn’t proven it yet.
As Sean noted during training, every trucker brings their own bag or box of supplies to keep in the truck. Some, like Sean, insist on a box, so the items stay spread out and you can spot them faster. Both strategies have their pros and cons. Me, I’m a bag girl.
The items in the bag change depending on the season, but in late spring they look something like this:
1-small zippered pouch (containing phone, wallet, keys, pen, Chapstick, “Feel Better” essential-oil blend)
1-small notebook (for contacts, maps, delivery notes, etc.)
2-pairs work gloves
6-backup pens (these disappear fast)
2-(full) water bottles
2-bags trail mix (high-protein)
3-granola bars (high-protein)
1-pair winter gloves
1-pair wool socks
The last three items seem strange together, but in late spring you have to start worrying about sunburn while also remaining prepared for a breakdown in a remote location still buried under snow.
Elsewhere in the cab you’ve got other supplies: manila folder with packing slips and invoices, regular clipboard with the next stop’s packing slip and invoice ready to go, metal storage clipboard with mileage/maintenance log and fuel card, DEF card, and spare key; roll of plastic pallet wrap behind the seat; first-aid kit under the passenger seat; salt for traction on ice (best kept on hand through late spring); extra gloves; extra ratchet straps; and so forth.
My first time driving the biggest truck, K-Daddy, was also my first time driving to the Ranch at Rock Creek, a glam ranch north of Phillipsburg, a solid two hours from town.
The route required me to arrive at the warehouse in the morning, build and wrap pallets for the delivery based on invoices in the “Ranch” folder; build and wrap a pallet of eggs for Le Petit Outre bakery, which I would drop off while I picked up their bread delivery for Ranch; load a stack of CSA bins to fill with coffee from Black Coffee, ice cream from Big Dipper, and flowers from Clark Fork Organics; and bring extra pallets to Clark Fork Organics, where I would load produce onto the truck and build and wrap pallets in the back of the truck.
It wasn’t difficult, but each step took time. It was still my first week. I was still getting the hang of everything.
I stopped at Black Coffee first, then Big Dipper, then the commercial kitchen supply store Bar Green. Only the bakery and CFO remained. In my hurry to turn the pallet jack around in the full truck at the bakery, I brought the wheels too close to the edge and the pallet jack tipped backward, its full weight hanging off the end of the truck, with me down on my haunches in the back of the truck still gripping the handle. If I let go, the pallet jack would fall and break. But I was too weak to lift hundreds of pounds back into the truck.
“Help,” I yelled, hoping someone in the bakery would hear me.
I stood there holding up that pallet jack, the clock ticking on my route with so many steps left to complete before I could begin the two-hour drive to the Ranch, and considered my options. I could let the pallet jack drop and suffer the consequences. Or I could stand there yelling until someone found me or until I tired and had to let go, whichever happened first.
Cursing myself for leaving my phone in the cab, I cast a desperate look around the truck: three pallets waiting to be delivered (including a pallet of eggs to be delivered to the bakery whenever I got out of this mess), a short stack of pallets waiting to be built at CFO, and the metal hand-truck we called “Shitbox” lashed to the side of the truck.
That was it. If I could reach one of the extra tarp straps we used to lash the hand-trucks, I could lash the handle of the pallet jack to the inside of the truck and run for help. I reached behind me, farther, farther, almost there—got it.
In the end, I was able to lash the pallet jack handle, climb out of the truck, raise the lift gate until I could pull the pallet jack onto it, and then raise the lift gate the rest of the way so I could drag the pallet jack back into the truck.
All by myself.
I was weak, but I was problem solving.
* * *
The rest of my pick-ups went “fine,” though I was behind, and a little shaken. At CFO, the organic farm on the east edge of town, I took my time completing a maneuver a fellow driver had described like this: “You have to back down the driveway without hitting the bathtub full of flowers on the one side or falling into the stream on the other.”
This truck was a good six feet longer than Junior, Sean’s truck, which meant everything I’d figured out about sideview optics and turning radiuses had to be reconfigured. CFO, like so many spots in Missoula, had a beautiful tree-lined drive. I was beginning to hate beautiful tree-lined drives.
CFO had a big order, three pallets tall as me, which I built and wrapped (over-wrapped) in the back, including three floral arrangements for a wedding I nestled in CSA bins so they wouldn’t get crushed.
Finally, I could head for the Ranch. Just past Phillipsburg you left Highway 1 and took a dirt road, Skalkaho Highway, north into the mountains along a stream, which was where cell service disappeared for eight miles. Thankfully, I had satellite screenshots of my destination on my phone, complete with a red “X” where Al had marked the spot where I should back up the truck.
When I arrived, the Ranch bristled with activity. I pulled over until I could identify the right driveway. My wrists prickled with sweat at the sight of it. The driveway was narrow and steep with rows of trucks parked on one side and a bank of mailboxes on the other, leaving little room to negotiate. At the bottom of the driveway, kitchen staff in chef hats and aprons milled about a smoker running at full blast. Service vehicles buzzed around. I stopped for guests who crossed the road in front of me in a long stream of white cotton slacks.
Like the tree-lined path at Glacier, I could not back up in one straight shot, but had to come at it from an angle, then change course midway through. Finally, my path cleared. Just as I began my maneuver, two middle-aged women ran up from the smoker area and snapped pictures of me. Not with their phones, but with big, professional-looking cameras.
Beep beep beep.
I backed slowly. None of the kitchen staff paid me any mind, a show of good faith on their behalf. Surely this person the coop has hired to drive this enormous truck knows what she’s doing. But I cut it wrong, very wrong, and several kitchen staff dropped what they were doing to run over and help, three men and one woman in crisp white aprons behind the truck cranking their arms—no this way, no that way—and I had to try a second time, and a third, and I thought, This is it. You are an embarrassment. Enough. All while the women photographed everything.
By my fourth attempt, I manage to eek myself into a serviceable position. One of the kitchen staff threw me a look for being too close to the smoker, but it would have to do.
I set the emergency brake and climbed out—stay calm, Nicole—and headed to the back of the truck where I lifted the overhead door and started to unload. The women with cameras ran over. They seemed to be trying to make promotional materials or a documentary of some kind.
One woman said to the head chef, “We want to stage some shots of her handing off the produce. If we could have her move the truck over there, the lighting would be better.”
The head chef grabbed the bin of flowers I’d queued up.
“That is not going to happen,” he said to the woman.
Then to me, with a glower, “This truck was supposed to be here hours ago.”
Each morning, on Al’s desk, a set of directions awaited me. Handwritten, at times illegible, and usually scrawled on the back of recycled paper (e.g., the slick backs of used label paper), these directions detailed my daily mission. I placed the directions in a manila folder I carried with me, along with my clipboard, for the duration of my route. But things could get messy in the truck, and occasionally misplaced, so I always snapped a pic of the directions so there was a back-up. I’ve never liked knowing I had the only copy of something.
A typical Saturday mission: Complete my deliveries around the Flathead Valley (twenty-three stops) plus deliver a kamut gift basket to Lloyd at the food processing center in Ronan, pick up melon bins there and take one to Paradise Gardens in Paradise and leave the rest on the truck, pick up a pallet of apples at Moss Orchards in Rollins, pick up fresh elk from Lower Valley Processing in Kalispell, drop off pallets at Hugh’s on “Egg Mountain” (outside Paradise), plus pick up however many pallets of eggs he had for me.
Moving pallets around the truck all day, I thought of myself as playing one of those sliding-puzzle games where you move the empty spot around to get the picture to come out right. As far as the truck went, I always had to be thinking ahead about where each piece should go and in what order. Just like in the game, you could only move one piece at a time. And just like the game, one wrong move and you could fast send yourself into a frustration spiral.
Once you start seeing cars as death machines, you can’t unsee them that way.
I’d always been a conservative driver because 1.) Cops scared me and 2.) I didn’t want to push my luck safety-wise.
Trucks had always scared me, too. They were the monsters of the road. Big diesel-guzzling metal monsters that loomed so large I forgot about the flesh-and-blood humans operating them.
And yes, they could become death machines.
Take the story of my uncle and the Tyson truck.
Take also my friend Mari, who was touring the Pacific Northwest with her brother to celebrate the end of graduate school when one morning, miles from Crater Lake, their destination, Mari’s brother, the driver, failed to see the stop sign where the small highway they’d been traveling on rejoined the interstate. A tanker-truck pulling a tractor-trailer hit the passenger side of the vehicle at full speed. Mari died at the scene. They transported her brother to the hospital in Klamath Falls, Oregon where, incidentally, my father lived when I was in high school. Mari’s brother survived with minor injuries. I still think about that young man who must every day live with the consequences of an oversight, a mistake any of us could have made but didn’t, because for one thing we weren’t there, and of his other siblings and parents, who had to learn to accept and to forgive.
Despite such stories, or maybe because of them, I’ve always been drawn to big trucks. Their sheer size demanded attention and respect. They abounded in literal and metaphorical meanings—as vessels, as conveyors, as symbols of industry and rugged but problematic masculinity and good old-fashioned hard work.
See: other far less tragic trucker tales I’ve squirreled away. A load of cranberries crushed on a New England highway (the pictures gruesome until you realized what you were looking at), a truck full of frozen chicken abandoned by its driver in the height of summer in Missoula that sat for weeks before anyone discovered it, the truck an ex took a ride in after his car broke down on the interstate in Kansas (whose driver later propositioned him), the truck my friend’s Guatemalan husband hid in while crossing the border from Mexico.
The sight of a “Runaway Truck Ramp” on a mountain road filled me with equal parts horror and intrigue. Even before I started trucking, the steep stretch of I-93 heading south into Missoula, Evaro Hill, could easily convey a feeling of losing control.
Driving in Montana meant seeing roadside crosses everywhere, painted white, like specters. It meant to be shown, and reminded of, every traffic-related death since the inception of the Montana American Legion White Cross Highway Fatality Marker Program in 1953, deaths now numbering in the thousands.
I started seeing highways along my route as part of an ever-unfolding infographic of death and tragedy. Crosses in tight clusters made me wonder: Had the deaths occurred in one fell swoop or over many years, the result of poor design or a culmination of factors, structural or environmental or incidental, like the glare from my upstairs window that caused so many birds to crash into the roof of my cabin in Kansas?
What if thinking about deaths that had come before took me too far—from awareness and mindfulness to distraction and preoccupation—and I crashed my rig as a result?
What I couldn’t refute: By taking this job, by continuing this job, I risked adding another white cross.
As a child, I lived for my mother’s stories. Stories about her childhood, about her failed marriage to my father, about any bizarre accident, coincidence, or twist of fate. She often put bows on her stories: “And that’s why you shouldn’t get married before you’re twenty-five.” Or: “That’s why you should always check under your car before you unlock it.” But in her best moments, she stepped out from under the lesson and let the bare facts do their work.
Like the story she told me about her senior year at Pearland High School in Pearland, Texas, 1979, just two years before my birth. My parents were high school sweethearts. My father was a basketball star, varsity starter all four years. He was so good Baylor offered him a full-ride (which he declined, my mother said, because he was against college in principle). According to my mother, they were about to graduate when she heard about a short story contest at the school. She’d always been good at writing, so she decided to enter. Except she didn’t have anything to enter, so she wrote something the night before it was due (apparently my father lay his head in her lap while she worked on it). It was a short story about a woman who had been buried alive.
She titled it “Delayed Death.” Anyway, my mother won the contest. At the awards ceremony she received an engraved wooden plaque. My father couldn’t believe it. He’d worked his butt off for four long years. He’d even won “Athlete of the Year.” But all they gave him was a stupid piece of paper.
Other stories lacked overt morals because my mother didn’t know what to do with them. They were stories that made her throw up her hands at the world. Stories that could best be described as tragic irony, or maybe just sad. Those were the stories I liked best, because they seemed to say the most without saying it.
Take the story of my Uncle Gary, for instance.
The Tyson truck incident was easily the defining event of his life. But there’s so much more to the story.
Growing up, I heard countless stories about my mother’s abusive childhood. For years her father died a painful slow death from the heart condition she would herself contract twenty years later. Cardiomyopathy. At the time they couldn’t do much for him. He was dying and he was angry, and the sicker he got the more he took it out on the children with his fist and his belt. He especially took it out on his youngest, Gary. When my mother, the second youngest, was still living at home, she often had to step in between the two of them. So Gary, he already had it bad.
When Gary was sixteen, he got his first car. I don’t know what kind of car it was, just that he was proud of it. The story goes, he was driving some classmates home after a school function one night. There were three girls in the backseat and a fourth, a cheerleader, up front.
It was raining. Hard. They were on a dirt road. Coming into a curve my uncle lost control and drove off the road. He tried to right the vehicle, overcorrected, and drove into the opposite ditch and straight into a tree. A branch came through the passenger side window and struck the girl in the passenger seat. Gary said he knew just by looking at her she was dead.
The officers at the scene concluded my uncle had not been speeding at the time of the accident. Nonetheless, given the conditions at the time, he should have slowed down. He should have been more careful.
Years after I first heard this story, I learned a new detail I’ll never forget. After the accident Gary ended up in the hospital with internal bleeding. When he got out of the hospital a few days later, the dead girl’s brothers came for him. They took him out into the woods by his house and beat him to a pulp.
* * *
Flash forward a decade.
After my grandfather’s death (twelve days after I was born), my grandmother, who had never worked a day in her life, got a job, of all places, at Tyson.
Meanwhile my uncle, now in his twenties, got married and had three children before his first wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She survived. The marriage did not. Gary moved into his mother’s basement. For years he abused drugs and alcohol, though he eventually cleaned himself up. He met Gina then, who also had kids from a previous marriage. They got married and had a baby. Autumn. Somewhere around that time, Gary started working for Tyson, too.
That’s where things get strange. Because Gary was still working for Tyson when the Tyson truck hit them that morning.
After Gary came out of his coma, after they buried his baby girl, he told my mother he felt sorry for the truck driver. Being himself a supervisor at a Tyson chicken plant, he knew how much pressure those drivers were under. How they were encouraged to cut corners. To meet deadlines at any cost. Indeed, in the driver’s rush to get on the road, he had neglected to properly secure his load. Then, when he entered the construction zone, he didn’t slow down enough, especially given the conditions. When he hit a sharp icy curve, the load shifted and the trailer flipped on its side, sending the truck and trailer sideways across the highway and straight into my uncle’s van.
Gary said he had forgiven the truck driver.
“I took someone’s daughter once, too,” he told my mother. “The debt has been repaid.”
About six months after the accident, my uncle saw a notice in the paper. The truck driver that had struck them that morning had died of cancer. Not long after that, Gary and his wife received a settlement from Tyson. They built a beautiful new house with the money, and several brand-new chicken houses.
Driving the truck in Montana, some fourteen years after Gary’s (second) accident, I often thought about my uncle, the Tyson truck driver, and the unsecured pallet.
I thought, too, about the time I was driving to Chicago three years after the accident and had to pass a semi. As I inched along, increasing my speed, I realized it was a Tyson truck. Just the sight of the word “Tyson” filled me with dread. On the truck, beneath the word “Tyson,” was a massive picture of a glistening chicken dinner, complete with fixings: corn, taters, buttered dinner roll. Once I was neck-in-neck with the truck I craned my neck and absorbed the full message displayed there.
“Tyson,” the side of the truck read. “It’s What Your Family Deserves.”
I laughed so hard, so urgently, I started shrieking. I laughed until tears stung the corners of my eyes.
That gift of laughter was so beautiful, so freeing, like stepping into a sudden rain shower on a hot summer day.
What is truth and what is story? Who owns a story, and who else can earn the right to tell it?
When do stories become our own—become part of a new story?
Each day out there on the road, pallet after pallet, mile after mile, I was learning.
Nicole Roché lives in Potsdam, New York, in the state’s North Country region. She teaches classes about family history, storytelling, and identity at St. Lawrence University, where she also works as a digital project specialist. She loves local history and unearthing long-buried stories of the area, like the Great Circus Train Wreck of 1889, which she researched and reported on for North Country Public Radio. Her fascination with the railroad continues in the form of an ongoing train log made possible by working from her home by the tracks during the COVID-19 pandemic. She still misses driving the truck.