Trucks are the obnoxious, lumbering scenery of the American roadway, eliciting either hair-trigger rage or blithe non-comprehension from other motorists. Trucks don't zoom around like sports cars. The fact that they pick up speed on even minor downhill grades, or that they lug down to a crawl on even minor uphill grades, or that they can't stop on a dime even though the car in front of them can and does, is a continuous shock to the motoring public.
I'd like to say that trucking is seen as a job of last resort, particularly for women, but that would be too generous. People display blankly concerned facial expressions, when the subject of trucking comes up, as they imagine Bubba characters luring out of the gloom, like frights in a grade school haunted house. Bottles full of piss. Obesity, body odor, chicken fried steak, chain-smoking, drugs, debauchery, fatigue, and then the suspicion of unsavory lust that remains chronically outstanding or, worse...somehow satisfied. Toothless racists yammering about the South rising again; hordes of cocky, dark-skinned immigrant males, swarming the country, not properly understanding the signs. One truck trying to pass another, but only going one mile-per-hour faster. An alarmed notion of carnage on the interstate — wreckage, bodies, maybe snow, things overturned. (Long delays.) Women truckers are not thought of at all, usually, but when we are, we're presumed to be distorted, grotesque examples of our gender — dykes, or worse, ostensibly hetero. Too ugly or abrasive to have avoided this pass, in any case.
And yet –! Trucking is fetishized at the same time, even by the same people. No matter how determined we are to forget that our souls need freedom, that our souls are freedom, the heavy symbolism of the open road is undeniable, cutting through all our socioeconomic mental filters. Destination-obsessed though we are, we still can’t un-know that the journey is everything, and that riding high, in power and prowling grace, ain’t too shabby either. I’ve seen people from every walk of life get stars in their eyes at the thought of trucking; the thought of seeing everything and everyone they know disappear in a big, chrome rearview mirror — from the meekest, most devoutly Catholic undocumented Mexican hotel maid to the whitest, khakiest-wearing, alpha-male desk jockey, leading the team in sales, five quarters in a row. There is no other job on earth that evokes so much scorn and reflexive dismissal, and yet commands so much respect, prompting so much inexplicable yearning. A lot of people in this world earn their money by sitting in one place for eight or ten or twelve hours a day — truckers are just lucky enough to have a view that changes.
Still, it’s not for everyone. It’s a profession that selects *you*, ideally. It’s rough on people, certainly those suited to it, much worse for their families and those unsuited to it. There are as many types of trucking jobs as there are stars in the sky, but they all involve being some kind of gone. One thing I can say for sure: nobody complains about trucking more than truckers. Certain types do gravitate to certain professions, as we all know, and most professional drivers have a drop of coyote in their veins — something wild, mostly harmless, freedom-seeking, a little ragged. Even the fluffy teddy bear drivers, and the creaky old-timers — even the hordes of dark-skinned immigrant males, and most definitely the lady drivers, share something wry, deadpan, cooperative to a point. Right up to a point.
North Dakota oil field trucking was a sub-genre I was still getting used to, but like all things oil field, it was essentially testosterone on testosterone. More, harder, muddier, colder, wetter, hotter, longer, worse, scarier, steeper, narrower — you get the picture. Even the military cannot compare to the oilfield in terms of a specifically masculine paradigm. Nut up or shut up. I realized, and not for the first time, some essential filtering mechanism women have to prevent them from ending up in places like this was not functioning for me.
If truckers en masse were coyotes, oil field truckers were...a little more like cats, taunted by a laser pointer. We would wear ourselves out trying to catch a thing that didn't even exist.
Williston, North Dakota. 3:32 am, May 11th, 2012
I followed Bobby’s taillights through the night, over hill and dale, for about an hour before Williston gradually materialized; first as a sprinkling of distant lights, then as a broadening of streets; finally as a disheveled, bruise-colored slump, with muddy truck tire-tracks striping the intersections, curbs, even sidewalks. I’d never been this far west in the Bakken shale; my company was based out of Minot and we worked around Stanley and on the Three Affiliated Tribes reservation, mostly. Even by the forgiving light of the moon and the streetlights, this was a town that had been kicked in its teeth. It seemed conceivable that this infamous ground zero of the most recent domestic oil boom might sadly implode, eventually; eroded to bones by the curse of its own mineral wealth.
Bobby barreled off the main road, coming in hot through the left of the two forlorn fuel lanes, setting his brakes with a mechanical flourish I’m pretty sure I hallucinated. I minced through the adjacent lane in more ladylike fashion. Driving fatigued is like driving drunk — you try extra hard to get it right. In a more normal place and time, the casual observer might admire Bobby’s jaunty red long-nosed classic with the silver flying pig hood ornament and the aggressive moose-guard grill, or my sleek black 18-speed with chrome everything, both of us pulling beefy, high-clearance, somehow essentially masculine 40-foot water trailers.
Trucks look the way everyone thinks drivers feel, and you know what? Sometimes we do feel powerful, free, aggressively employed in the sector of unsung heroes. This was the Bakken shale oil patch, though. Trucking was the dominant form of life up here, for hundreds of miles in every direction. Water trucks like us; boxy high-profile frack sand trucks; big-bellied, low slung crude haulers, and — holdover industry from all the farming that still limped along, despite the oil field’s intrusion, huge silver bullet tankers full of ammonium nitrate. There were also crane trucks, rig trucks, mobile diesel mechanic trucks, flatbeds carrying pipes and the guts of rigs to and fro, or heavy equipment haulers. In every parking lot and every field perched some unlovely fifth wheel travel trailer, home enough for now for two, three, even half a dozen oil field truckers. Bobby and I were nothing special, even in our sexy, muddy Peterbilts. Just two more flies on the corpse. We stood in mute, companionable silence, all four nozzles blasting into all four fuel tanks. The lights overhead hummed and snapped with disrepair and dying insects.
432 gallons of unsulphured road diesel later, we hung up our nozzles and re-secured the big fuel caps, dull silver and nearly the size of my hand.
Inside, the little place was just what you’d expect. Interrogation-level lighting, gritty linoleum floor in a speckled gray design, claustrophobic junk food aisles — every legal chemical stimulant to the human body was represented. It smelled like burnt coffee. A digital chime shrilled each time the door opened. The speakers broadcast a song no one had liked even when it first came out a couple decades ago; a testament to the endurance of lowest common denominators.
Bobby and I were second-next in line when the cashiers, a younger, scruffy male and a formidable person of I believe the female persuasion, announced a fifteen minute shift change. And just like that, they stopped taking money. They leaned back against the far counter, resuming what appeared to be a well-worn flirtation, entirely comfortable as their growing line of customers shuffled like hapless livestock. Some people gave up and left, triggering the digital chime. Other people came in, unaware it was a motionless purgatory of the semi-damned, also triggering the digital chime. I imagined that the chime sounded every time someone in the Bakken realized they weren’t going to leave here with ten thousand dollars after all.
“When’s tire guy gonna be here?” I murmured to Bobby, trying to wake myself up. From behind, he most closely resembled an upright pair of dirty red coveralls filled with rocks in the shape of a very large man.
He shrugged, and rumbled over his shoulder, “Go park and rack out. These shit heads.” Bobby’s big, auburn beard dominated so much of his face and, frankly, torso, that I often found myself reading it rather than his expressions per se. Right now his beard was irritated, tired, and not talkative.
That was nice of him. I considered it, drifting in a brief reverie about the pros and cons of taking Bobby up on his very desirable offer. I thought about time, tick-tock-ticking, the sound of clocks — the second hand moving inexorably around all those faces, and the bright digital ones on the dashboard that irritate your eyes, at night – just a little, this area in your field of vision that frustrates you, a little more each mile. You think about your gear bag and your duct tape, back where you can’t reach it of course, and whether it’s worth pulling over to put some tape over that light. But you don't. It’s not that big of a deal. Maybe it is. No, it’s not. Then that train of thought segued into something about that sound gravel makes when you drive on it, all eighteen tires rolling and crunching over the gravel, like eighteen mouths eating Grape-Nuts; the steady stare of headlights through the dark, and the flinch when you haven’t met anyone else’s headlights in some time and suddenly there they are, too bright – painfully drowning out that damn digital clock — and that became something about the way sunlight looks on water, and suddenly I was catching myself before I fell forward into Bobby.
I took a deep breath. He hadn’t noticed, it seemed. “No, I’m alright.” Fuck.
The minutes crawled. My brain was a fugue state; I felt like I was going to drift off into space if I didn’t anchor myself somehow. I leaned forward on my tip-toes and murmured, “This shift change is like changing underwear by swapping with your buddy, right?” Bobby’s shoulders shook a little and he snorted, and spread all nine of his fingers in a brief ‘whatever’ gesture. But his body relaxed somewhat, and he applied some Chapstick, deep within the beard’s interior. Bobby kept it in the hollowed-out husk of his own severed finger. I’d been made aware of this during my first meet-and-greet of my new coworkers, when he’d offered me some Chapstick. It was cherry. I still didn’t know whether or not to believe it, but the facts were, Bobby indeed had no index finger on his right hand, and indeed the Chapstick occupied a hollowed out old finger that looked mummified. It all just seemed normal to me now.
Tick-tock. I fixed my gaze, randomly, on the nacho cheese warmer, briefly imagining the way it would feel to throw it through the plate glass window, to start a riot. I really doubted anyone would join in. I’d have to set the trash cans on fire myself — oh!
And remembered the tire. The tire on fire.
Something happened back at the frack site, with the flat, that I’d forgotten all about. Not because so much had happened since then — just driving to Williston and standing here in line for no reason — but because my brain was so slippery. How could I have forgotten, though? It had felt…huge.
With the exception of the bulldozed area, the frack site had been beautiful, frankly. They mostly were. I mean, that was the wonderful part about this job, in its own fucked-up way — the oil field doesn’t confine itself to shitty old missile ranges or strip-mined no-man’s lands, or the clear-cut wounds of old forests. No, it wrecks entirely virgin swaths of land. The sites we worked were among trees, streams, in gentle valleys, and out in the sighing plains. North Dakota had been represented to me as ugly, but it’s not. Ever since the freezing spring rains had given way to summer, I’d been rambling deliciously over these russet washboard roads, the landscape unfolding endlessly all around me in pastel blues and greens and beiges. We climbed up mountains and wound through cornfields and trucked past remote homesteads, where people had affixed large plywood signs to their fences that said “GO HOME OIL FIELD TRASH” in ragged, crimson paint strokes. My mental map of this land grew like some kind of 3-D hologram, every job — adding a new section, characterized by the scenery, the emotions I’d felt at the time, the music I’d been listening to, the experiences I’d had there, the weather, if I’d seen the sun rise or set there, and how many times.
So, this most recent frack: we’d started working it about 9 a.m. We came from another job before, in a flat area, maybe fifteen miles between the frack site and the freshwater pump station. And a little work at a job before that, not too far off the paved highway.
The most interesting thing about this oil field trucking gig, in my mind, wasn’t that we were expected to work outrageous hours — it was that no one complained about it. They craved it, in fact. Overtime! Ooooooooovertime! — it’s like brains to a zombie. I was somewhat inured to the situation now, but only in the sense of an amazed hostage. By the time Bobby and I pulled into the shithole gas station in Williston, I’d been at the wheel — not just awake, not commuting the several hours to the first job site in the backseat of the company suburban, but at the wheel of a tractor trailer for over 36 hours. There were more and less reliable protagonists on my crew — I’d say Bobby was one of the saner examples — but they were all nuts.
And I wasn’t exactly Ms. Stable. I didn’t come up here to be a whistle-blower or a weak link. I came up here from Arizona, where I’d been an adjunct English instructor at the university, most recently. I’d posted final semester grades while waiting in line at a fresh water pump station, in fact, and I’d happened to have enough cell signal to get a good connection with my phone’s hot spot. Oil field Hannah was nursing fresh wounds from a divorce and a dead mom, one of those front-hand/back-hand life smacks.
And somehow, all of that would be tolerable, juicy even, from a creative standpoint, if I wasn’t also what you might call a failed artist. Art is a vocation we accept completely in those irresponsible for earning a living, such as children and decorative women. Inconveniently, though, art can befall anyone. Art asserts its right to exist, and it doesn’t care what happens to your birth canal in the process. Economically, art functions like the Hunger Games, where almost no one survives but anyone that does is lauded as a cultural hero. Our favorite bedtime story is that of the starving artist who died in abject poverty, probably of syphilis, his or her creations having been strongly objected to by all the subject-matter experts of the time, but now recognized as dazzling works of genius, worth millions. It’s a fantastically mixed message, which over time erodes the art-inclined person’s natural insight and replaces it with hyper-inflation of the ego, hypo-inflation of the ego, or worst of all and most likely, both, simultaneously. Being a failed artist just means you didn’t win the artistic Hunger Games, but you still nurse a massive wounded ego complex that makes it difficult to be happy with…well, maybe that’s the end of the sentence. Difficult to be happy.
Oil field Hannah glided through her days and nights, placid as a geisha, haloed by a silently flaming tantrum of angst. The beauty and the wreckage and the surreality of her surroundings paled in comparison, and became soothing.
I was, by now, an entirely competent member of my crew, and not any credit to the company’s training or to myself. It’s easy to commit when your radiator blows up halfway across the country and you have to spend so much on parts, labor, and hotels that you coast into Minot on fumes. I didn’t have an exit strategy.
So, back at the flat tire: when Bobby pointed it out – a big floppy, rubber, minority-spotlighting problem, in direct violation of rule number two — I sighed and rubbed my face. Dammit. Now everyone would assume my vagina had made me run over something sharp. Which was entirely possible. Never underestimate the lizard brain.
is a writer from Chinle, AZ.