Views Through The Windshield Of A Second Career Driver

by Jim Bray

CRAPAUD, P.E.I. –A husband and wife team from Prince Edward Island who pulled up stakes and adopted the trucker’s life may represent the future for long-haul trucking.

That’s the opinion of Joe Amelia who, with his wife Mary Beth, has embraced life on the road wholeheartedly, and is enjoying it immensely. It’s about the quality time together, the sightseeing and the freedom.

Amelia came to trucking late. Now 55 years of age, he had worked for a pharmaceutical firm on P.E.I. and his only experience driving professionally was in a catering truck years ago. But when the project on which he had been working with the pharmaceutical company ended, it was time to move on.

“The company offered to move me into another part of the firm,” he says, “but I decided to try something brand new.” That career-changing moment, and the fact that the Amelias were planning a yearlong sailboat adventure, meant he needed to find something with flexibility and freedom. “I can’t afford to retire yet, and I wanted something we could leave for a year and still have work when I came back. Trucking was the obvious choice.”

Amelia’s decision was arrived at of the blue. “Everybody was really surprised. We were just sitting around talking one night and I said I want to learn to drive a truck.”

The leap from the three-quarter-tonne catering truck was big, but he completed the CTHRC-certified Earning Your Wheels course with JVI Provincial Transportation and Safety Academy and went hunting for a gig that would give him that all-important year off to sail from P.E. I to the Gulf of Mexico and back.

“Everything I had read said there was a shortage of truckers,” Amelia says. “And on P.E.I. they were bringing truckers in from England and from Germany -they’re really going out of their way to get them.” Amelia didn’t talk to any trucking companies to gauge their interest.

“I believed I wouldn’t have any trouble,” he says. Now he and Mary Beth spend most of their time away from their Crapaud home, living mostly in the cab of the 2009 Freightliner Cascadia he drives for New Brunswick’s Caldwell Transport.

Caldwell wasn’t his first trucking gig, though. “Joe was in produce for a couple of years,” Mary Beth Amelia says. “And he loved the company, the truck and everything, but hauling produce wasn’t his cup of tea: you’re sitting at the port all day and it has to be driven overnight to Toronto. It was really grueling.”

Caldwell hauls freight, though, and “We’ve found them very accommodating. You just pick up, you get your eight hours sleep every night. We go down to the Carolinas, drop it off and then wait to hear where we’re going next.”

Mary Beth Amelia embraced the life-changing move wholeheartedly as well, though it took a while.

“He went out by himself for two years,” she says, “and he’d be gone for 10 days and then home for a couple of days and then back out and he really didn’t like being on the road alone.”

Making the arrangement even more awkward was the fact that she was still working full-time at a bank. “It just wasn’t working,” she says. “We’d only see each other for something like two days out of every two weeks, and the family never got to see him. Then he said he’d hire me if I’d come with him.”

Not that he pays her a salary to ride shotgun. “Not really,” she says, laughing. “But it got me out of (the bank) so I didn’t have to work anymore.” She says banking had gotten stressful anyway, so “I was glad to have gotten my time in and get a small pension and an early retirement.”

Now they spend most of their time together, in the cab.

“I’m with him every day and I’m able to get up and go make a coffee for him, or whatever, and we go to Wal-Mart and get our groceries -in the States, usually, where it’s cheaper -and we have our meals when we stop.”

Like many truckers, they keep a portable DVD player and a small TV in the cab. They also have a microwave and a fridge and “we bring along a George Foreman grill. We can do whatever we want at night when we stop, then go to bed and start out again in the morning.”

As for the more mundane -but necessary -aspects of taking care of business on the road, Amelia fuels up at Flying Js most of the time and, thanks to their frequent fueler club, they get a shower credit they can use at any Flying J every time they buy 50 gallons of fuel.

The cab is a little small for a permanent residence, of course, so the Amelia’s take advantage of the rules of the road for a little rest and relaxation.

“We have to take a day and a half off after every 70 hours of driving,” Mary Beth points out, “so we try to make it down south because it’s a lot nicer in the winter than P.E.I.”

She says they stay in a motel those days, mostly, “and if we really want to go down the street and see something we just detach the trailer and use the truck -but usually we just watch TV and enjoy staying in a big bed for a change.”

Spending so much time in such close quarters can put a strain on any relationship, but so far so good, so far as the Amelias are concerned.

“There have been times,” Mary Beth admits, “but it really works out pretty good and we’re able to talk about things -and it’s always nice when you’re seeing different places.”

Joe agrees. “The truck is small, but we get out and go for walks when we stop.” He says they usually stop for half an hour every three or four hours and get out and move around. They each have some quality time to themselves, too.

“I like to get up and drive early in the morning and she likes to sleep in,” Joe says. “And I go to bed fairly early so she’ll go and sit in the truckers’ lounge by herself for an hour. We each get our own private time.”

Mary Beth enjoys the long hauls as much as Joe does, except for the traffic woes -including oblivious cell phone users -that affect most truckers.

“I still can’t get used to on-ramps and off-ramps,” she says. “People barrel onto the highway and we’re coming up beside them and we have no way to control whether they’re going to speed up or slow down. And we can’t slow down too much and have no place to go, and if you’ve got a heavy load on you can’t stop.”

Despite their love for their new lifestyle, however, Mary Beth says she misses being able to put down roots.

“We’re always anxious to get home, put our feet up in a lounge chair with a glass of wine,” she says. “That’s the thing -in the truck you can’t have anything to drink, ever and they’ve taken a lot of the lounges out of truck stops so there’s no place you can really go -you’d have to drive to get there.”

They make arrangements with their family for when they’re coming home, including a week at Christmas, so they can have a family get-together.

“It’s working out pretty good,” says Mary Beth. And of course they can keep in touch while on the road. “We have a Canadian cell phone and a US TracFone pay-as-you-go unit,” she says. Joe also has a netbook computer so they can get their e-mail. “We’re really happy with the communication that we have.”

The house in Crapaud waits for them, minded by their son and his fiance. “They lived here the whole time from June 08 to June 09 when we were gone for the boat trip,” Joe says, “and when we came back they moved into an apartment. Now we’re going to be gone pretty much all winter again and it’s more economical for them to pay utilities than it is to pay rent.”

When asked if he has any regrets, Joe Amelia says “None at all. It’s an amazing life.” Amelia believes that people like him are going to be the future of long-haul trucking. “The young guys don’t want to do it,” he says, “and even the guys that come over from England and Germany want to be home on weekends because they’ve got families, which leaves guys like me. We’ll go out for three months at a crack because we want to see the country.” He predicts there’ll be many people like him when the economy picks up and companies are hiring more.

The shrinking number of long-haul gigs does frustrate Amelia somewhat,
however. He says he’d love to get on with a company that runs right out to California and British Columbia, but “none of them seem to do that any more. They all seem to be regional like Caldwell. We just go down to South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and back up through Chicago and then home,” he says.

Becoming an owner/operator isn’t in the stars, either. “I only want to drive hard for another five years and then I want to cut back and drive maybe only eight months a year,” he says. “You can’t do that with your own truck, but you can driving for someone else.”

In the meantime, part of his arrangement with Caldwell was that he have a dedicated truck. “I’ll put on all the miles they can possibly give it, but we have to have the same truck,” he says. “We live in it, everything we own is in that truck.”

Amelia’s advice for anyone who wants to chuck it all and start roaming like he and Mary Beth is “Just do it, but get training. That’s an absolute.”

Amelia says that when he graduated from his 12-week course he thought he knew everything there was to know about driving, but the reality was much different.

“What the school did was make me safe to go on the road, so that the province was convinced I wasn’t going to kill somebody,” he says. “But as far as knowing how to drive I didn’t have a clue. That comes with time and experience and I’ve got a lot more of that to get.” In the meantime, the three years he’s spent behind the wheel has made him better, “But it takes a lot of miles under your belt.”

He doesn’t think that should frighten off potential drivers, though. “You can’t be afraid of it,” he says. “You’ve just got to do it. That’s the biggest part of doing just about anything. Once you make up your mind you can do anything.”

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