At 12:32 p.m. Erik sends Omaha the canned message: “I have completed loading,” enters a trailer weight of 18,480 pounds and an estimated time of arrival in Plainview of 8 p.m. tomorrow.  The dispatcher responds with a message that the computer shows him running on time.

A half an hour into the trip, all stress melts. Phoenix is 256 miles ahead of us. We’ve left Los Angeles behind and turn east on I-10, following a sign for, “Palm Springs – All Desert Cities.” Our ride quickly turns desolate. The haze thins out, and the earth becomes a sun-baked tan once again. There’s hardly any traffic on the four lanes of the highway, and Erik starts an Enya CD. The vocalist’s haunting Celtic lyrics harmonize with the hum of the engine and the hush of the slipstream against the windshield. Jagged, barren mountains rise sharply from the flat desert several miles to either side. Groups of windmills spin in unison, further adding to my geographic hypnosis. A sign reads, “Elevation: Sea Level.” Beside the highway runs an occasional dry wash or pebble stream, a carving of the last monsoon.

The bright, slowly changing landscape outside carries my mind away.  The truckers have formed a convoy—traveling with safety in numbers, like the wagon trains of long ago—and they make relaxed conversation with one another as I drift off. Enya’s music couples with the light jingle of the wind chimes to provide the perfect soundtrack for my desert daydream. The other truckers are likely feeling the séance as well; channel 19 falls silent except for an occasional short comment and response. A distant dust storm shrouds the bases of the distant mountains in a passing fit of light brown. It’s solar noon, and the other trailers in our small convoy are leaving no shadows.

In the background of this trance-inducing movie on the Real Life Channel plays the monotone robotic voice of Erik’s NOAA Weather Radio, announcing that it’s 93 in Palm Springs. There’s a tropical depression offshore of the Baja, perhaps just beyond the point where the sun-baked sandy peaks touch the clear blue sky.  The voice announces that today’s forecast high is 115 to 120 degrees. Groves of palm trees become a regular sight near the slightest sign of someone’s home, and the windows through which they appear begin to heat up again. 

Erik keeps an eye on the temperature gauge and occasionally flips on the engine fan. We pass by a blue and white services sign that points to “RADIATOR WATER.”  After Palm Springs, there aren’t any more palm trees. There aren’t even any signs that humans have been here before, except for the pavement beneath us. If it weren’t for that, and the presence of struggling plant life here and there, I could think that I’m on the moon.


The flight of Americans from their homes is most obvious on these hot summer days. Several cars with Massachusetts and Rhode Island plates have passed us on North Carolina’s I-77 this morning.  There’s even a New Hampshire plate. Sometimes I see so many out-of-state plates that I forget we’re in North Carolina.

All these people from everywhere, bringing their crowds from the cities to the highway, at the height of summer, subtract from the “open road” that lures truckers like Erik. People are strange: for as much as they seek the company of others, they are also solitary at heart.  When they spend too much time around others, they feel constraints on their individuality.  It builds. They feel like numbers. They crave solitude, just like we did.

The road offers land features, cities, strangers, and even phrases on billboards that can remind you of some experience, someone you knew, or someone you know, far away.  They’re too far away to interrupt your solitude. Your thoughts are truly your own.  They are free to fly.

Freedom doesn’t last long on the East Coast’s roads in summer, however. It lures the couples, families, and many college kids out to a road trip vacation.  At 4 p.m. the traffic grinds to a halt. I-77 is down to one lane in a construction zone ahead.  Riding five feet above the asphalt in slow traffic, I have a great view of the fact that out-of-state license plates are on the majority of the cars around us.

There’s a minivan with dad driving, and mom handing out sandwiches to kid 1 and kid 2. There are blankets and pillows neatly stacked in the rear window, and a huge Rubbermaid luggage bin attached to the roof.  Next to the minivan, a ten-year-old Toyota Camry with rust holes carries two guys our age in its front seats.  They’re wearing faded collegiate athletic caps with overly curled visors, and their true status symbols are the $200 sunglasses they’re both wearing. The names of two major universities are plastered across the rear window. The contents of their luggage the back seat suggest they’re headed to the beach.

“It’s the speed of the electronic age that drives people out here,” says Erik.  “There are a lot of people with degrees out here.”

  As he sees it, people feel so rushed that they begin to search for anything that reminds them of timelessness or a bygone era.  Technology has always governed the speed of our business.  Faster communications have rocketed the pace of business past the speed at which most people can operate. Because some businesses take advantage of it to assume a competitive edge, the rest have to keep up just to survive. Given the push to match the speed of electricity flowing through a computer chip, almost any settled, committed person will sooner or later want to fly from it all. Their nostalgia for slower, simpler times is evident on the road.

  “Just look at the cars,” Erik says. “Why would DaimlerChrysler create the Plymouth Prowler, or why would Volkswagen bring back the Beetle unless they honestly thought they could sell it?  I definitely see a push to bring back the past.  It’s the thing that’s luring more and more people out to the road these days—the need to get away.”

All these people on the road with us this afternoon are not finding the simpler, bygone era they were looking for, at least not here on I-77.  They’ve perhaps never considered that vacation literally means, “To vacate, to leave vacant.” Having all vacated at once, they’re all here, all stuck in construction traffic, all caught in a mass exodus from whatever they were trying to leave vacant.  This mountain-to-beach highway is now anything but vacant. They all had the same idea.

There are few other times in a person’s life when he or she craves being an individual more than at vacation time.  For the first time in months, they’re on their way to a beautiful destination, a break from the rat race.  Then, in the midst of the orange barrels, backup alarms, sunburned guys in hunting vests and hardhats swearing at each other, and state troopers eating pastries next to growling bulldozers, the vacationers discover that their exact plans have been coincidentally matched by thousands of other people seeking the same freedom. Their minds get stuck under the steamroller. They start putting silver dollars in the swear jar. They pound the dashboard. They do some really idiotic things.

They’re a shining example of why everybody would be better off learning as early in life as possible that no matter what you think or where you want to go, there is always a group of people who think the same and want to go there too.  The sooner we all confess that we’re really not alone, even when we think we are, the sooner we can all relax.


Around us we have only the rolling ridges of the southern Appalachians.  Though we’re away from the traffic, it still pays to slow down. The hills here are still steep enough that Erik has to use the engine brakes— “jake brakes”—while descending.   The jake brakes freeze the action of either four or six cylinders (his choice) of the engine, leaving the remainder of the engine unable to go as fast.  They make the engine get a lot louder.  Hauling these fiber rolls through the Blue Ridge has forced him to occasionally use the jake brakes and air brakes together while downshifting, just to keep it under 70 going downhill.  Runaway truck ramps—dead-end exits lined crosswise with sandbags—lie at the bottom of those hills like runways designed specifically for crash-landing. They have bold yellow signs that read: “FOR RUNAWAY VEHICLES ONLY.”

“It costs a lot to get your truck taken out of one of those” Erik says.  “It’s best to check your brakes often and stay in control.”  He quotes something he learned from his trainer, which he applies to the way he lives: “The faster you go, the more control you lose.”


We’re spending the night at Werner’s Fontana terminal to have the trailer repaired in the morning. At least, Erik hopes that they’ll repair it in the morning so he can make money while he’s at work.

His work is my vacation. It has forced me to take many steps back from my own life that still exists 3,000 miles away, and to simplify more than I ever thought I would.  At the same time, the journey has shone a bright light on all my surroundings, and has forced me to take in all I can of them. In every place I’ve only been able to assume that I’d be there for a few hours, and most of the time, I’ve been right. This constant motion from culture to culture forces me to develop sharp senses and take in every moment as if it were my last, to notice every detail as though I had to describe it to a detective a year from now.

I’m only a guest in Erik’s solitary life of touring the circle of American society.  It has many smaller circles we’ve passed through or have called home for a night. Although we’ve never spent much longer in any place, Erik’s example has taught me to observe, smell, touch, and hear my surroundings as I go.

Through that development I’ve learned that the only non-solitude on the road is the rumble of the diesel engine and the sound of the traffic, but after just two weeks, I’m starting to tune that out. Doing that has made my senses even more sensitive to the more important parts of my surroundings.

While becoming more sensitive to the outside, my world inside is much simpler than I ever thought possible. I have nothing to do each day except wake up, pull my jeans on, and come forward to watch the Real Life Channel. The passing scenery—all new to me—seems not-so-real because of the amount of it I’ve seen in such a short time. It feels like I’ve been flipping through an enormous National Geographic pop-up book in which the pop-ups are holographs instead of paper. 

The many rolls of film I’ve finished prove to me that all this scenery has been real. As if photographs were not proof enough, every time we stop, I look up and around and notice where my feet are planted. They’re walking the earth of someone else’s home, yet that someone else is my long-lost neighbor in the grand scheme of things. At those moments my surroundings seem very, very real, and the place I’m standing becomes home while I’m there. If I had the opportunity to give up the freedom of the road, I could set down roots in almost any one of those places and commit to it.

My opinion of all the places we’ve passed through is the traveler’s perspective. The few truckers who’ve trusted me enough to talk (usually giving their first names only) tell me that this land with all its cultures—“water to water” as they call it—is their workplace. It’s hard for me to fathom that a 3,000-mile-long portion of the Northern Hemisphere is something of which they know most parts.

Only with the freedom of the road have they gotten to know it so well. My friends and neighbors, with their committed lives, have often told me their dreams to drive across the country when they retire. These people yearn for a time when their lives aren’t so committed, so they can have a taste of driving across the desert on I-40. Erik hopes we don’t have to take that route again this month because he’s been across it so many times that the boredom puts him to sleep at the wheel.
Despite having crossed this land so many times, Erik says having me in the truck has opened his eyes to details he’s never noticed until now. He tells me I’ve taught him to see the Real Life Channel though the eyes of a curious wanderer, and that has allowed him a refreshing break from the way he usually views it.

Having me here has changed the way he experiences trucking. Before now, he’d never imagined sitting beside the truck in some desolate location like an old-fashioned cattle-driver, relaxing in a camp chair next to a hibachi grill. He’d preferred rest areas in rural places, but hadn’t thought of turning his night stops into campsites. I’d suggested it from the spirit of UNH’s Outing Club, in which I’ve been active. The club’s members, who represent the heart of UNH’s outdoorsy culture, would consider the camp chair and hibachi grill critical for a long outing like this. Erik credits this new way of thinking with giving him a new attitude toward trucking—a new lease on freedom that had become old to him a long time ago.

From Erik I’ve been forced to see life through the eyes of someone who can’t allow his existence to get complicated. Like him, I have to go where the load goes, and I don’t have any means of reaching out to others except through his cell phone or the CB radio. I suppose if I really went crazy I could chat up Erik’s dispatcher on the Qualcomm. On the cell phone, there’s often no signal in sparsely populated areas. The CB is seldom good for meaningful interaction with others. It’s about the equivalent of a ship or plane’s navigation radio except without being important to the success of our journey. 

Without phone calls or mail, pages or email, and having no work to do when I get up in the morning (unless journaling counts,) I’m about as uncommitted as a person could be. I don’t go anywhere on most mornings except to the food cabinet and refrigerator, and then, upon taking my seat in front of the Real Life Channel, I ask its live narrator where we are.

At home, I know where I am every morning, and I usually have someplace I need to be shortly after waking up. Less-important details get magnified. Sometimes my first thought of each day is wondering if there’s enough hot water for a shower. When I’m with family or roommates I might get frustrated waiting for the shower because I’m feeling the pressure of a deadline that requires my being clean and presentable.

On the road, the truckers have deadlines but they don’t have to be presentable. With Erik’s lifestyle, I wake up and wonder where and when my next shower will be. I try to remember where and when my last shower was, but that’s becoming more difficult with time. Often I put on the same clothes, not being able to remember if I’ve worn them two days in a row, or ten.  It doesn’t matter most of the time anyway. Truckers deliver to the loading dock, to the back entrance, the part of the store that customers don’t see. Erik and I are behind the scenes.

Since it doesn’t even matter if I’m presentable to society, I’m free from the pressure of socialization. I’m free from dressing to impress, and free from wondering how I might be received. It doesn’t even matter anymore if someone smiles or frowns at me, because my chances of seeing that person again are pretty slim.

The smiles I do receive, along with occasional conversations, are the cream and sugar in a cup of coffee I would now be happy to drink black. I’m trying to promise myself that when I get back home I won’t let my mind get so cluttered with commitments that my senses become dull again. This journey has shown me that life is more enjoyable when I become a part of my surroundings and secretly observe them at the same time— when I allow myself to be in them, but at the same time not a part of them.