Shannon Smith
Photo: Peter Yang
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.