Joy Ride: How One Woman Found Bliss on the Open Road
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
May 18, 2012
Between hauling caskets and cat litter, dancing at truck stops, and making friends with everyone she meets, Shannon Smith—a.k.a. "Sputter"—finds her sweet spot.
There are 3.5 million truckers in America, and only 200,000 of them are women, and only a fraction of them are black women, and only one of them is Sputter. They say a trucker's life is lonely, but that's not how Sputter sees it. She has a magnanimous way that invites the whole world into her circle, and most people are happy to fall in. This morning, at a truck stop, she bought an old man a honey bun and sat with him because it turned out today was his birthday and he had no one else, anywhere, to eat with. Oh, we had such a good time!
It's summer in the Midwest, solidly hot, and she's got her shiny black hair in ribbon curls on top of her head, her body jiggling with the rhythm of the road. She has buttery-smooth skin and round, sturdy features. The steering wheel is so large she uses it like a shelf to rest her elbows on. She's put almost all 565,000 miles on her truck—an International 9400 Eagle, royal blue, with a 500-horsepower Cummins ISX engine, ten speeds on the floor, and an air-ride suspension system—and to her it fits just like a favorite pair of jeans.
Today's zigzaggy journey started about seven hours ago at an abandoned Kmart parking lot near her home in Cleveland where she has permission to park the rig, and if all goes well she'll make it in time to Walcott, Iowa, and the Iowa 80, the self-proclaimed world's largest truck stop, where the 31st annual Truckers Jamboree starts in a few days. Along the way she'll drop off a load of factory-new tractor rims, pick up a box trailer full of feeding troughs and another of beer—and haul whatever else Rob decides based on the bid offerings on his computer at the Landstar dispatch station in Kalida, Ohio.
The sky is without clouds, flat cerulean blue. A Toyota passing in the left lane has four bikes attached to a rack, one with pink streamers flapping helplessly. When you're in a long-haul truck you are in a different zone, a shared space high above the rhythms of vacation, commuting, visiting. You are in a moving neighborhood above all that. Friendships are virtual up here, and Sputter makes them easily, gabbing with the guys on channel 19 on the CB, or listening to infomercials on the satellite radio; late at night she'll call 800 numbers to chat with the operators standing by.
This may sound weird, but she's proud of the way she's taking care of these tractor rims. Now, don't laugh. She's 35 years old and responsibility has always scared her. If not for that, she knows she would make a great mom. Already she's a great mom to her two cats: Hurt, a stray without a tail she nursed back to health, and Ghost, who lives in the attic. The three of them share a duplex back in Cleveland. Michael, her boyfriend, a 51-year-old cop, lives there too, mostly. He hates the cats. It's hard to have to inch your life along, trying to convince someone else to hop aboard. That's another reason she loves her truck—just throw it in gear and go. The last time she brought up the subject with Michael, she said, "Michael, there's not much time left for babies." She said, "Let's go to a doctor and get fertilized and have as many as we can have." He said, "I'll give you one," but not in a believable way. She makes her voice low and goofy when she quotes Michael.
"Let's get married at the beach," he said to her the other night at dinner. The beach? For real? She's not some beach girl dressed in white. She wants to get married at a haunted house—maybe on Halloween. A costume party! She can't even picture Michael at a wedding like that. (Which right there is a problem.)
For the third or fourth time today Gretchen Wilson comes on the radio and Sputter turns up the volume. I don't waste my time on manicures and spray-on tans. And I don't pay no never mind to the calluses I've worn on my hands. She gives her aching knee a rub as she sings, taking in the scenery. I work hard! I play harder! I'm a good timin' American daughter! She's somewhere west of Chicago, coming off some exit, merging onto some highway; everything about the expansive Midwest thoroughfares—the diesel stops and fast food joints and weigh stations—has a way of collapsing into a collage. The GPS on the dashboard will interrupt, tell her where to turn, what to do. More than once she has thought her heart needs a gizmo like that.
Sputter started long hauling at 23, just as soon as she could get insured; it had been her dream ever since she was a little girl watching her daddy, a heavy-machinery mechanic who spent all his days under the hood. She would make a noise with her lips, a wordless sputtering song, and the family would sing to her tunes, and somewhere in that transaction Sputter got her nickname.
As a child, she devoured her father's legend: a sharecropper's kid who emigrated North for work, arrived practically shoeless in Cleveland, where he got the job at the garage. That job was everything to a man like that. That job was America itself. He had six kids. Sputter was the youngest. How she dreamed of climbing on his big shoulders, him parading her through town like his pride and joy. She dreamed. It got so she dreamed of becoming a broken-down old truck so he would spend as much time with her as he did with those rigs.
"I'm going to become a truck driver," she told him one day. He said she would have to learn how to fix one before she drove it. "Well, you can teach me!" she said. (And wasn't that the whole point?) He said, "No." Then one day just after high school graduation, a recruiter from the U.S. Army called and Sputter answered the phone and listened to his pitch. "Well, can you teach me to fix a truck?" she asked. He said he could. "Can you make me a truck driver?" He said he could do that, too. She signed up that very day.
She rarely thinks about the army, boot camp, all the hard work. She rarely thinks at all how difficult it's been to be a black woman making it in a white man's world. She thinks about being like her father, making her father proud, being a good worker, never lazy, always thrifty, changing the oil herself. She wishes Michael were more like her father.
Mostly, though, she tries to focus on the good times—so many good memories out here on the road. Like the time she was pulling 44,000 pounds of warm beer in the trailer and found herself dreaming, or sort of pre-dreaming, imagining herself kidnapped, dead and famous and featured on Nancy Grace. She hit the brakes and felt the beer slosh forward. Wake up, girl. Wake up! She slapped her cheek, shook her head. She turned to channel 19 on the CB, opened the window, smacked her other cheek.
That was when she got the idea to take her shirt off. Manning the steering wheel with one arm, she wiggled right out of it. That's what I'm talking about. She unhooked her bra. Woo! Flung that bra in the back of the cab. Woo, girl! Woo! she said to herself, the hot air blowing on her breasts and the thrill of adventure refueling her. This was just north of Columbus, Ohio, on I-71 at around 3 A.M. on a blistering summer night, and Sputter was back in business.
She got another idea. She flicked a switch on the dash and, bang, on came the cab lights, exposing her soft brown body to the night. Hello, fellas! (Hey, they probably needed to wake up, too.) She didn't wave, didn't even look in the direction of the passing rigs, just grinned smugly. "Northbound naked chick!" they said to each other on channel 19. Stuff like that. "Nice rack, air ride!" Oh, please. She did not think she had anything even approximating a nice rack. (So that was sweet.) She thrust her chest forward like a confident old hen and drove clear on up to Cleveland, two and a half hours away.
At a little after 11 p.m., Sputter chugs slowly through the lot at a Travel America truck stop and finds a space away from the harsh glow of Quiznos red and green and flashing L-O-T-T-O pink neon. She's logged about ten hours today, and now she lines all three axles of the rig just so, shifts into reverse, and puts her whole body into spinning the mighty steering wheel as she backs the 71-foot 18-wheeler into an impossibly skinny slot. It's dark over here, a good spot, and she has neighbors on either side, rigs rumbling. Most truckers keep the engines on all night, for the air-conditioning in the summer and the heat in the winter.
She throws a switch and the truck exhales a loud, satisfying hiss. "Okay," she says with a long sigh of her own. She rubs her knee. Stupid knee. Too many years climbing up and down and up and down the cab's steep steps. They don't make rigs with women's bodies in mind. Of course not. Last year she joined an awesome organization, Women in Trucking. Most of her friends in Women in Trucking have grown kids, started driving after. Some have husbands who drive, both of them trading off, like living together in an RV. She tries to imagine Michael doing that and laughs out loud at the thought. He would die! Michael likes everything nice. Likes his fancy clothes. Likes to shop. Loves to shop.
She has two questions for Michael when she gets home: When did he know Sputter was the one? And: What does he love most about her? She's going to ask him and start planning her future.
She makes about 40 grand a year driving a truck. You can make more if you want to drive more, but Sputter doesn't like driving in snow or ice. Rob, back in Kalida, leaves it up to her. Technically, Rob owns Sputter's truck, along with about 30 others. He hires the drivers, maintains the fleet, writes her paycheck, gives her full benefits. Like she says, it's a dream job.
She crawls into the back of the truck, her cozy capsule of a home: twin bed topped by a blue fuzzy decorative pillow; refrigerator stocked with apples, grapes, and soda; microwave; and built-in cubbies holding her shampoo, Febreze, Lubriderm lotion. People ask if she's afraid out here and honestly she isn't. She thinks of the guys as brothers—ornery, sometimes stupid, but more or less protective. When the lot lizards in heels and tight tops come knocking at her door, they freak out when they see she is a woman, and she tries to reason with them to go back home and find another way to make a living. You can do better for yourself!
It takes a special person to be a trucker, Sputter thinks. You have to have a sense of responsibility and you have to remember people need the stuff you're hauling. One day a trailer full of soup, another day juice, carpet, bleach, ketchup and mustard packets. She has hauled all that. She has hauled mail, oxygen tanks, caskets, fireworks, plastic eating utensils, tissue, paper towels, cardboard, books, sales inserts for newspapers, bundles of shredded paper and aluminum cans, paint, cat litter, dog food, toys, garbage, garbage cans, TVs, DVDs, camcorders, Whirlpool products, plant pots, military ammunition and tank parts, freezer coolers, oil, batteries, hydrochloric acid, white powder calcium, liquid chemical solvents, aluminum ingots, powder coating, 50-gallon drums of car wash liquid, and literally tons of auto parts: crankshafts, bumpers, rims, doors, gas tanks, windows. It's like everything is in bits and pieces all over the country and she's hauling it so people can put it together. It makes her feel like she's a part of something big.
One good thing about Michael is he understands that, or he takes her word for it. Her work is important. He doesn't whine and beg her to come home. That shows respect right there. Yes, it does.
Michael didn't know she was a trucker when they met, not that it would have mattered. He heard her laugh at a comedy club. It was the laughter that drew him. He got her phone number. She thought, hey, a free meal if he shows up, and was shocked when he did. "I eat chicken, corn, and mashed potatoes," she told him. "That's it." She told him she didn't trust casseroles or anything mixed together like that. She knew nothing about the kitchen beyond the microwave and was not interested in learning. She laid down these and many other laws. Michael hung in there, worked on softening the heart piled beneath all those rules. She was afraid of losing control, of the responsibility, of being seen and being known. Eventually, though, she let go. She fell in love. She still wonders if he understands how huge this is.
"Oh my lord!" she says, checking the time. She steps up to the dashboard, turns the satellite radio to HLN's Nancy Grace, comes back and flops on the bed, then gathers her curls into a bandanna. Sputter has a lot of friends on her various radios, but none compares with Nancy. Her guest tonight is the aunt of a kidnapped little girl. Now, if that isn't sad. Sputter admires everything about Nancy: the way she kept going after her first fiancé was killed way back when, how hard she works, the fact that she didn't have her babies until she was 48 years old.
She sets two alarms, one to wake up Michael so he won't be late for work in the morning, and the second to remind Michael to feed her cats before he leaves. She wonders if he shampooed the carpets but she knows the answer is no, so she decides not to call him to say good night.
The ceiling curves low over the bed, a tight little cave; the voices on the radio are muffled, flat, and private back here.
Finally Nancy says, "Good night, friend."
"Good night, friend," Sputter says softly, and cuts the sound.
Some people might feel intimidated walking alone around a place like Iowa 80: 225 flat acres under a giant sky, parking for 800 rigs, a movie theater, a museum, a truck wash, two game rooms, a custom shop for personalized embroidery, vinyl graphics, T-shirts, and laser engravings, a barber, a dentist, a 300-seat restaurant with a 50-foot salad bar, and the 30,000-foot Super Truck Showroom where balcony seating overlooks the Place for Chrome(r).
"Can you believe all this?" Sputter says out loud. She has her camera and she's trying to get a set of seven-foot chrome exhaust pipes into a single frame.
"You like the bent or the straight pipes?" she asks a shopper standing nearby.
"You have to pick," she says.
"But I don't—"
"Everybody has an opinion!" she says.
"Okay, bent," the woman says.
"Do you? Really? Oh, wow, and here I am all about the straight!"
Chrome is everywhere—chrome mud flaps, fenders, bug deflectors, filter housings—and Sputter stands before it all wearing her purse crisscrossed over her middle and shaking her head at the splendor. She meets a trucker from Australia, another from France, and the three compare notes on their nations' fast food offerings. Australia sounds terrible. She meets Peg, a round woman from Texas who is sick of waiting for her husband to finish gabbing at the 50-foot salad bar. "Then you hang out with me," Sputter says, and invites Peg outside, where countless other new friends await.
They follow the crowd to the Super Truck Beauty Contest, which involves the personal stylings of more than 100 entrants. Many of the trucks have names, like racehorses or rodeo bulls—Pure Attitude, Bustin' Out, Flirtin' with Disaster. Big and small, they sit with their hoods propped open and their drivers' families in lawn chairs beside them, the people fanning themselves and offering to answer any questions you may have. Sputter has only one, over and over: "Can I take your picture?"
She ambles past a big rig painted bubble gum pink and all done up with breast cancer awareness ribbons, and charges up to the woman showcasing it to compliment her. Then she reaches into her purse and hands the woman a 20.
"No, no, no," the woman says. "That's not what this is for. This is just for awareness."
Sputter shoves the money into the woman's pocket anyway. "Now, would you mind if I took your picture?" She gets Peg in the frame, too, and soon enough the two move on to admire Working Class, a blue rig with white horses galloping over ocean waves airbrushed onto the side. Working Class is famous for the gas fireplace inside its cab, a real fireplace spitting a tiny blue flame over fake logs. The rest of the cab, fully upholstered in black padded leather, is drenched in purple mood lighting swirling in rhythm with a smooth saxophone soundtrack, and over the bed hangs a mounted statuary of more horses galloping over ocean waves.
"Lord, lord, lord," Sputter says. "Lord!" If she could take it all in she would, but she can't, so she keeps snapping pictures to savor later, snapping all day and into the night. At the Tracy Lawrence country music concert, she stands on a hay bale to get a picture of the band, which is impossible from way back here. Even though he hurt you, he's still the one you want. You're gonna feel this way till the day you don't. She knows every last word. She sings and sways, comes off the hay bale, throws her arms into the air and wags her hips. I was all decked out, ready for church. Had my brand-new suit all covered in dirt. She twirls, hops, fist-pumps the sky, and the dancing gives the crowd permission. A woman with long blonde hair gets up, yanks at her companion; then a trim couple in cowboy gear; soon a small crowd twirls around Sputter, everybody throwing their heads back and embracing the sweat. Fireworks unload into the sky, and all the trucks in the Super Truck Beauty Contest put their lights on display—a shower of blinks and pulsating truck lights—and then they blow their booming truck horns in unison in great cacophonous celebration. Her knee of course aches, and the Michael situation weighs heavily (how much compromise does love require, anyway?), and she longs to start a family, but right now there is chrome, there is bouncing color gleaming to the beat of caroling horns, and there are new friends dancing. For Sputter, it is a very fine place to be.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's sixth book, Hidden America, about the people who do the jobs that make America work, will be published by Putnam in September.