Life is a Highway

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I wrote the following for the Ottawa Citizen in 1997, I think, but it still stands up twelve years later.. Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road is Woven throughout the piece (should be in italics).
O Highway, you express me better than I can express myself Walt Whitman
Garry Valiquette’s mother remembers her son of four or five always having a wagon tied on the back of his tricycle. The Valiquettes lived in Cornwall, a few houses from Hwy. 2 (there was no 401 in those days), and Garry would wheel his tricycle-trailer to the edge of the roadway and watch the big rigs roll by. “I can remember the blue Smith Transport trucks with their black lettering like it was yesterday,” he says.
Almost half a century later, Garry, himself, is pushing one of those big trucks for Highland Transport, a modern-day offshoot of the Smith-CP transport lineage.
Just a few months ago the Kanata resident was the principal of a Nepean elementary school. This summer, taking early retirement, Valiquette fulfilled his life-long dream and traded in his desk for an 18 wheeler.
The former math teacher and political science major is forthright when asked why he chose truck driving as a second career. “I want to see if I can.” he says. “I think I’m going to enjoy the solitude, the freedom of being in a different place every day.”
Walt Whitman, the grandfather of modern poetry, would have understood. His definitive “Song of the Open Road,” reads like a trucker’s psalm:
Strong and content, I travel the open road…leading wherever I choose…the east and west are mine, and the north and south are mine.
Valiquette isn’t alone out there. According to Canadian and U.S. statistics more people work as truck drivers than any other profession. In Ontario, alone, there are an estimated 100,000 working AZ drivers (150,000 licensed), and over 200,000 people employed in the transport industry.
Trucking has long supplanted the railroad as the preferred method of transport (and perhaps appropriated some of the romance associated with train travel). With the burgeoning demand for just-in-time delivery systems, the so-called “warehouses on wheels” have become the essential engine of a borderless economy. As the century draws to a close, endless packs of tractor trailers criss-cross the continent every moment of the day, linked by satellite dishes, onboard computers, cell phones, and CB radios.
Trucking is a thriving and little explored subculture. This is the realm of cream pies and coffee cups, chain drive wallets and baseball caps, drooping eyelids and CB chatter, truck stops and chicken coops, smokey bears and swindle sheets, deadheads and bird dogs, jackknifes and bobtails, drug tests, black ice and diesel fumes.
Most fascinating are the men and women balling those jacks, pulling those reefers, hauling those tankers, stretching those A trains, shunting those hoppers, spotting those 53 footers. These are the people with the road written on their faces, whose sleeper cabs are their homes for weeks and months at a time, whose trucks are an extension of themselves as they, themselves, are an extension of their trucks.
Observers of cities, solitary toilers… Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years…They are the swift and majestic men–they are the greatest women.
Valiquette’s career path might have taken an unusual turn, but it is not exceptional. One in three truck drivers has some form of post-secondary education while one in fifty has a PhD. Though most male drivers can be distinguished by their rounded bellies and bear-like stances, gear jammers come in a variety of shapes, hides and backgrounds. But like Valiquette and myself, most truckers realize at a young age that they want to drive truck.
One summer, when I was about ten, my family took a trip from Toronto to Minneapolis to visit my father’s aunts. For some reason we always started road trips at 4:00 am. So I remember sitting beside my dad in the half-dawn watching him squirrel our 54 Plymouth around lumber trucks in Northern Ontario while my mom and sisters slept on oblivious. The first time I smelled burning rubber was when one of the big rigs locked up its brakes in front of us.
My parents stopped at cabins and motels along Hwy 17 as we rounded Lake Superior. More than once they caught me wandering over to high grade to watch the trucks on the TransCanada. I was transfixed by the noise of the machines as they tore past, kicking up cinders and dust spirals. The roar flattened against me and then Dopplered into a plaintive wail as the rig disappeared into the purple hills. There was something lonely and soothing about the scene, but it was also highly-charged and stirring.
That same vacation, my parents stopped to visit friends who were building a golf course near Port Arthur. Besides getting to drive the bulldozer, I found an old Mercury flat bed truck abandoned in a field. The side windows were busted out and the springs poked through the bench seat, but the gear shift worked. Methodically I played for hours retracing the route we’d taken earlier in the day, repeating the entrancing place names: Marathon, Hurkett, Schreiber, Nipigon, Wild Goose…
Nowadays I spend a third of my life in a truck, and it’s pretty much the way I imagined it behind the wheel of the rusted-out Ford. The same exhilarating monotony of driving twisted dark roads into engulfing emptiness, and the same spark of discovery coming across settlements along Hwy 7 on the way to Ottawa: Kaladar, Sharbot Lake, Silver Lake, Wemyss, Perth, Innisville. Ribbons of gas station neon and pools of car dealership fluorescence, as if a sorcerer had appeared and commanded: “there will be a town here, take note ye minions.”
For others, the pull to becoming a trucker is almost hereditary. Stephen McGrath drives tanker in Oakville, Ont. He has trucking in his chromosomes:
My introduction to trucks was family. My mother is from northern Ontario, and since most of her family was still there, I spent every summer with my cousins, up north.
How did I get there? By lumber truck. An uncle of mine used to stop on the shoulder of the 401 before it was 12 lanes wide at Keele St. Hop the fence, have lunch, throw me, suitcase, and a one-eyed teddy bear up in the cab of his gas Ford tag axle (extra non-powered axle behind the drive wheels) and head for the north. No sleeper, no heat, 5 speed with a 2 speed rear axle, pulling a tri-axle load of lumber. Now that was trucking: throttle position fixed, door open, foot on the running board, listening to every sound his engine made pulling up the hills. It didn’t pull up the hills very quickly.”
I have a cousin who bought the first diesel engine among friends and relatives. A cabover Mack (a flat-faced cab mounted over the engine), without cab assist (no hydraulic cab jack), and there weren’t many back then. It had 250 hp with a 5X4 twin screw (twin gear sticks and two tandem powered axles). On occasion he used to pull the gas trucks up the big hills, and frequently take their overloads across the scales for them.”
Now I play with the big rigs, it’s really what I enjoy. When I don’t run as much as I feel I should, I get agitated, unsettled. It’s a difficult thing to explain. I love my wife and family, but there’s a calling to the road, there really is.”
The contemporary trucker is a little bit of a sailor, a little bit gypsy, part cowboy, part mechanic, part frontiersman, part astronaut, the last truly independent for-hire business operator, the proud descendent of a long line of tireless and unstoppable teamsters, wagoners and draymen.
In his book, A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, Graham Coster calls them “the last nomads of the industrialized world.” The former Granta editor spent a year hitching rides with trucks in Europe and North America. “At least when you were a truck driver you never had to leave anywhere,” he says. “You were always on the way to somewhere else.”
Three weeks after leaving his administrative position, Valiquette was given a taste of modern trucking. Teamed with a company driver in a double-bunk 98 Volvo, the pair started by pulling a load from Toronto to Montreal, and then picked up a Purolator trailer bound for Moncton, N.B. From there they loaded for Scranton, Pa., where they found a return load of paper and headed back into Montreal. In Montreal they hooked to an empty trailer and took it to an Oshawa drop yard. There they picked up a load of empty parts bins which took them to an auto parts plant in Brownsville, Texas, 36 hours later. At the plant they had to wait half a day for 28 skids of steering wheels and seat belt fasteners which brought them back to General Motors in Oshawa. All within 11 days.
You but arrive at the city to which you are destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart…
“The rules is when you can go, go. Keep going forward, keep driving,” says Coster. “A trucker is like any traveler, like St. Augustine, like Robert Louis Stevenson–like all the people through the ages who said it was better to travel than to arrive. Never mind the destination itself: the end was the means…to shoot at a constantly moving target.”
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you,
however long but it stretches and waits for you…
But you’ve got to like being alone. Truckers rarely stay in cities long enough to develop relationships or do any sightseeing. Instead they may have to wait days in barren, nondescript industrial parks and highway rest stops.
Valiquette talks about some of the dislocation he felt one night after he picked up 44,000 lbs of paper rolls in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s late, pitch black, and the truck computer tells you it’s 1,100 miles to Kingston, Ont. That seems like a long way to go.
“So you try to get to some truck stop somewhere, and there are only about half a dozen guys inside. Nobody to talk to.
“200 trucks might be sitting in the parking lot, but truckers don’t really go in truck stops. They use them as places to sleep and places to eat, but they don’t hang around inside much.
“I thought that by going all these places I would get to talk to someone. Occasionally you might strike up a conversation with somebody while you’re doing laundry or over a coffee, but for the most part you’re entirely on you own. You’re around a lot of people but you’re still crawling in your bunk to sleep by yourself, and you’re still eating by yourself.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, in a truck stop near Essex, England (Truckworld in West Thurrock, Essex, to be precise), Coster comes across the same existentialist displacement: “Trucking leaves you on the outskirts of things…here we are 20 kms from the city, conveniently nowhere, hiding out for a day where we really weren’t welcome and didn’t fit, until we could rumble off again and leave the neat, manicured village to the slumber it hadn’t realized we hadn’t disturbed.”
Solitude and uprootedness are universal conditions for truckers. European transcontinental drivers can be away for months at a time on runs to Siberia or Pakistan.
Country singer Dwight Yoakam spent six years driving truck. His tune “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” strikes a chord with the trucker’s lot.
I’m a thousand miles from nowhere
Time don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere
And there’s no place I want to be…
Not surprisingly, country is the preferred music of the trucking set. It is the music of the white working class and truckers will tell you that it “helps the miles slip by.” Coster finds truckers prefer twangy, reedy vocals, and “that long-loping seven-league-boots rhythm, with which the best songs fell into perfect stride with the wheels eating up the highway…”
Country and Western…is truckers’ music because it’s straight-ahead music: no irony, no humour, no skepticism–and because its comfortable lachrymosity makes it only a music for solitude, not loneliness. It makes being alone sound pretty.”
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted
There is a paradox inherent in trucking. Most drivers will tell you that they choose the lifestyle because of the freedom that goes with it–freedom of mobility, freedom to set one’s own schedule, the freedom that comes with self-proprietorship.
However, the complete opposite is often the case. Satellite tracking can tell a company where the driver is to within 50 meters on the globe. Drivers are often subject to grueling timetables regardless of weather, traffic and customs delays for which they are rarely paid. Owner operators are independent in name only, and for the most part, are completely reliant on dispatchers for their livelihood. Hefty bank payments make it essential for independents to work long hours, often beyond the legal limit. As well, truck owners can be swamped with complicated paperwork and bureaucratic red tape.
So why do people want to be truckers? Choose to work long hours, often for low pay? Find themselves hunkered down in a sleeper cab in Yorkton, Saskatchewan eating cold soup out of a can?
For one thing, these are mighty machines. Some mountain tractors running the Rockies can have 600 horses under their hoods. Multiple combination trailers in Australia can gross out at 200 tons.
“There is a sense of power,” says Valiquette. “I thought that I would be nervous driving for the first time in heavy traffic. But I’ve been in rush hours in Dallas and Cincinatti and it’s completely relaxing. It’s hard getting in the car and driving home,” he says.
Canadian poet Milton Acorn comments on the regal nature of trucking while hitching a ride with his trucker friend: “Riding with Joe Hensby in a ten speed trailer / down 401 the cab so high we’re on a flying throne / …the jungle trail clears when the elephant comes.” Acorn develops the animal imagery more fully by comparing truckers to the kings of the jungle: “We live like lions, often moving, often waiting years to pounce.”
Truck drivers feel the ground through their fingertips and the bottoms of their feet. Somewhere on the American leg of his trucking odyssey, Coster has the revelation that truckers are like farmers because of their closeness to the earth.
“Now I see how over-the-road trucking wasn’t simply another kind of outdoor, wide-open-space work. It was next to the land. Through your windscreen you trained your own time-lapse camera on the seasons. You watched the crops around you grow, learned how the landscape worked, saw human habitation scratch the surface, and build, and sometimes blow away again–and saw it all with 20/20 vision. You lived by the weather, you worked with the elements.”
Now I see the secret of making the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Truck drivers experience every inch of geography. But they don’t really come in contact with the world they move through. This detachment gives the trucker a unique perspective. But it is an eyeview that is coloured with shades of melancholy.
For years my only experience of Hallowe’en–and this was when my boys were little–was catching a glimpse of costumed children with their bags walking under a bridge of the 401 at Prescott or Brockville on my way to Montreal.
At other times, in a hurry to make an AM pick up in Toledo, I’d watch the farmhouses lighting up across Essex County.
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
I’d wonder what kind of people lived in those houses? What kind of dogs and kids? Who would sit down to breakfast? Who has hung a plant in the frost-etched window?
And always there would be the shuddering longing ache of contact. I’d imagine the people I loved asleep in their beds at night as I droned across mid-Michigan, trying to tune in American talk shows on the crackly AM radio, occasionally slapping myself to stay awake.
But then there are the ecstatic moments. Few and far between, but unforgettable. The sun glistening just so off the Detroit River as it rises over the flat roofs of industrial Windsor. Other spectacular dawns that imbue the bleakest suburb with a rare, hopeful light so that even Toronto looks divine on a summer morning (no easy task). Innumerable sunsets beyond cliché across hydro fields, swamps, parking lots and scrub lands. Dozens of shooting stars at key times in my life. A moonrise on Lake Ontario that jumped right out of a Japanese poem. The Northern Lights over Lanark, Ont. that make you pull up on the side of the dark highway and stand gaping and shivering under the shimmering curtain.
James Doel dispatches for Jade Transport of Perth, Ont. His eyes twinkle when he talks about his driving days. “The best moments are driving through Montana on a clear night,” he says. “Running along about 75 mph and the temperature is perfect. The engine is purring along and there are no cops around. The stars are so close to the top of the trailer that you can almost reach out and touch them.”
Stephen McGrath agrees. “Trucking is the only desk job in the world with a picture window that never has the same view twice,” he says. “Specific moments capture inexplicable beauty and truck drivers get to witness them because, most times, they’re the only ones there.”
Here a great personal deed has room.
Constable Bettina Schwarze of the Brighton OPP is a trucker and a cop. She’s better known by her handle, “Goldielocks” to truckers passing her corridor between Toronto and Montreal. When she’s not catching speeders or safety checking trucks, Schwarze runs the occasional load to Georgia for a broker friend or works locally for a cartage company.
“I’ve always been interested in police work and trucks,” she says. “I’m lucky enough to be able to combine the two.”
Schwarze doesn’t mind if the truckers call her Goldielocks on the CB radio (the three bears are the other male officers in her traffic unit). “Drivers tell me that they find out if I’m working when they cross the bridge at Detroit.”
“It’s nice to know there is a cop out there who knows something about trucks,” says Marc de la Courneuve. The Caliber Transport driver has a dedicated run weekdays between St. Catherine’s and Cornwall. “This used to be a bit of a wild stretch through here,” he says.
“Talk to any driver in Montreal and they all know her,” adds Reg Oliver of Verspeeten Cartage. “This is a bad area and everybody plays by the rules.”
Schwarze’s tough but fair approach engenders tremendous loyalty from truck drives. “The first thing a lot of drivers do when I pull them over is shake my hand.”
Schwarze cites dozens of occasions when truckers have helped her with public safety matters. In one case trucks slowed down an intoxicated driver. In another incident, drivers kept her informed on the CB radio about the progress of a wrong-way vehicle. Truckers have also assisted in shutting down the highway while police dealt with a serious situation.
“Most of the Provincial Police’s focus is on community-oriented policing, but the 401 has never been thought of as a community,” she says. “I think it should be.”
As such, truckers are the highway’s first denizens. “They’re up and down the highways and see so many things,” she says. “Often they’re the first ones to come on an accident.”
Schwarze thinks that trucking and police work share many similarities. “They’re both out there all the time, and they’re both dealing with the same situations.”
She pauses and thinks for a moment before telling me what she likes about truckers. “Most of the good truck drivers are very humble,” Schwarze says. “They’re life-smart. I’ve always admired people who could deal with practical situations.”
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools…
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible to proof, is its own proof…
Truck driving is a liminal activity because it involves transition. As author Ronald Primeau puts it, “roads themselves became the place to be: the place for searching, escape and self-discovery.”
The truck driver is the embodiment of the quest/hero archetype. What mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “the champion of things becoming, not of things become.”
The truck, itself, is akin to Campbell’s “insulating horse.” A mechanical vehicle which would “keep the hero out of immediate touch with the earth and yet permit him to promenade among the peoples of the world.”
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go
On the road the driver is free from the fetters of family, the city, the home terminal. Anything can happen. The world and all its manifestations opens up. There is, at least, the illusion of freedom and untapped possibilities.
Dean Moriarity, hero-goof-saint of Jack Kerouac’s generational-fluxing novel, On the Road deduces that “the road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go–right?”
I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air, and all free poems also,”
For Kerouac, the road is a “holy” place. His narrator, Sal Paradise finds “eternity at the wheel,” and suggests that driving for the sake of driving is a near-primal activity. “We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’s Ronald M. Pirsig codifies the metaphysics of the highway in Duncan’s Rule 10:
“The theology of the road forms its own religion, combining bits and pieces of other beliefs. It relies on technology (a vehicle) yet respects the forces of nature. Its deity is the Road Spirits; its principal practice is the pilgrimage.”
I know they go toward the best–toward something great…
But it doesn’t take a Whitman or a Kerouac to tell you what motivates truck drivers. Truckers truck because they find comfort, solace, therapy, identity, beauty, renewal, redemption and perhaps a little salvation between the white lines.
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls
The same soul shared by D. H. Lawrence and a million truck drivers:
The soul is not to pile up defenses around herself. She is not to withdraw and seek her heavens inwardly, in mystical ecstasies. She is not to cry to some God beyond for salvation. She is to go down the open road, as the road opens, into the unknown, keeping company with those whose soul draws them to her, accomplishing nothing save the journey, and the works incident to the journey, in the long life-travel into the unknown, the soul in her subtle sympathies accomplishing herself by the way.

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • Harry realy enjoyed your piece.
    I have so many great memories of being out on the road.
    It was fun, exciting looked forward to going to work each day.
    I started in the early 80s things were slowly getting better but
    I don t think your piece holds up today.
    1997 was about the turning point the onboard computers, satellite dishes
    were becoming commonplace about that time, and now speed limiters and
    so much interference from our own safety department.
    Almost all the reasons to be on the road, the freedom, the pride of getting the load to its destination on time has been destroyed.
    Now we have an rule book the size of an encyclopedia and thanks to
    all this great technology lots of dead time to read it.Intead of
    doing what we love rolling down the highway window open and just loving it.

  • I much enjoyed the story of truckers. With your permission I would like to extract
    portions of it and print it in our local ratepayers newsletter.. we’re always looking for unusual material to interest our readers. Should we have any concerns about some
    facts being outdated as a previous commentator suggests?
    Thank for your consideration
    Clancy Delbarre
    Highland Creek Community Association.