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*Some names have been changed.

prologue: light in a northern town

Westbound on Interstate 90 in southern Minnesota, at 3 a.m. in January 1998, I began to feel small and vulnerable. The northern Great Plains will do that to you when you're 2,000 miles from home, on a highway that seems like it has no end, in the middle of the night, in the dead of the winter. Call it snowbound desolation.

It was magnified by the fact that I was on the plains and away from the populated East Coast for the first time in my life. I looked out the car window and saw black, as though I was on the ocean. The radio in my sister’s 1986 Chevy Celebrity picked up a local station playing Kiss the Rain by Billie Myers. Its mellow, bass-filled undertones enhanced the scene, while the words seemed to reach out to me from beyond the darkness:

Hello? Can you hear me? Am I gettin' through to you?

The song asked me if it was late at night where I was, and questioned my growing feeling that I was, in many ways, alone.  It didn’t matter that my family was there—just as exhausted as I was—to bring my sister, Karen, to a college semester in Missoula, Montana. I still felt alone. The only light came from farmhouses here and there, miles in the distance, like ships on the horizon.  They appeared to creep along while I drove at 75 miles per hour. Without those lights, I would’ve had no idea if anything were out there at all.

Finding the all-night store wasn’t easy. When I walked in, the harsh fluorescent lighting blinded me for a few seconds. My body shook as I entered the 80-degree temperature difference.  Aimlessly I walked up and down the short isles, looking at trucking and automotive equipment before I remembered I needed the food isle. The beer looked tempting but the sign said I couldn’t buy it after 1 a.m. Chips? No.  Popcorn? No. Pre-made tuna sandwich? Not quite.

I was beyond tired. I’d been unable to sleep when stopped at a rest area a few minutes earlier. Trying to sleep at the rest area made me uneasy.  What if we were robbed? The many truckers parked there didn’t seem like the clean-cut type of person that I could trust.  At the convenience store, I saw nothing that could satisfy the void I’d felt growing for 400 miles.  Billie Myers’ song echoed in my head, addressing my inner emptiness and telling me to "Wait for the dawn."

Glancing out the frosted window, I became jealous at the sight of 18-wheelers parked side-by-side with their marker lights on. Their idling engines made a steady rumble that was the only noise for miles around.  I knew the drivers were in their sleeper berths under blankets, with heaters running, maybe watching TV. They seemed to have everything I needed. I felt ill prepared by comparison and wished I were at my destination.  I didn’t buy any food.

Without knowing it, I hungered for home. Or a home. I didn’t know what that meant yet. I felt like I was on the ocean in a life raft.  I figured one of those big-rigs was what I needed. In high school, my friends Ken Olney, Erik Eskedal, and I had dreamed of driving across the country in one of them.

In summer 2000, Erik and I fulfilled that dream.  Ken came with us, in spirit. When the opportunity came, we left home for the deep south, then picked up Historic U.S. 66 from St. Louis to California and drove back all the way to Chicago. We hauled massive fiber rolls over mountains and learned our cargo would become something a lot less manly. We delivered store shelves to a California valley mall where we watched a movie filmed back home. We brought toilet paper to the Texans and snacks to the Sunshine State. Our travels took us through Superman’s Metropolis, UFO’s Roswell, and a tiny town called Earth. We encountered the beasts of its namesake planet: Elk, scorpions, alligators, egrets, spiders, and one ill-fated toad. We finally got lost in the jungle when we drove through the streets of New York City.  This book is based on the diary I kept of our trucker’s journey. Most of it was originally hand written in the front seat.

We took the journey in search of freedom. As teenagers we’d become tired of the same old commitments around home. We were in search of something new, different, better. It seemed most of our peers were following each other into commitments without considering the freedom of the road. The stories in this book may seem familiar if you’ve ever experienced life as a trucker, road tripper, or long distance vacationer. You undoubtedly have your own road stories.

 If you’ve always been more settled, then this book is about the experiences, people, and places you probably don’t think about in your day-to-day business, but perhaps dream about when your life makes you feel trapped. For you, the “miles” ahead are about what you might experience if you gave in to those dreams, went to those places, met those people, and had the experiences for yourself.

Those places, people, and experiences are part of “The Road.” America’s freedom-seeking pioneer spirit has been alive since the Mayflower brought people fleeing British bondage to coastal Massachusetts in 1620. From that spirit the Road was born. It has been the object of American dreams since the westbound covered wagons. Those horse-drawn vehicles gave rise to motorized convertibles with tailfins (after a brief obsession with steam-powered trains,) but the highway was no less an icon of opportunity than the Oregon Trail had been. As the 20th Century came to a close, people were still reaching for the freedom they saw in the road. A hundred years after the invention of the automobile, the average American had more commitments and a faster-paced lifestyle than the Americans of a century earlier, but what Erik and I saw from the truck cab showed that many Americans still dreamed of dumping those extra commitments in search of a slower-paced freedom.

Over the miles, we wondered and discussed: What is it about the road that has kept its place in American dreams for so long?  The vehicles we drive (and dream of owning) say a lot about who we are and where we wish the road would take us.  Like houses and clothing, we use them as a form of fashion. So, what makes a person want to jump in an 18-wheeler and live on the road?

Is it better to live with such freedom, or to live a settled life with commitments?  Both can shelter a person to the point of ignorance: Small town commitment becomes naivety, city commitment leads to arrogance, and freedom of the road, we would learn, robs a person of social skills. Too much of either can repel other people. No matter which type of life we choose, we Americans remain as passionate as ever about driving in our own vehicles. Whether fuel prices are high or low, something about us keeps the cars selling and the trucking companies recruiting.  That something is the reason behind the pain we started feeling when gasoline prices began their dramatic rise in 2004: We like being in the driver’s seat. But when we’re at home, surrounded by commitments, is the road really everything we dream it is?

As teenagers, Erik, Ken, and I got sick of home, thought of all the future commitments we might have, and dreamed of the road.  Our summer journey, when we were 25, was the realization of our teenage dreams. In many ways it surpassed them, while in others it showed us cold reality.

It gave us a good look at America—our home—one year before 9/11, when its people were the most carefree and materially blessed of any population that had ever existed.  National security was lax, while all forms of personal security were immense. The nation’s supply of cheap oil was the greatest it's ever been, and as a result, so was the manufacturing process that gave us (and the truckers around us) all the loads we hauled that summer.  Many of them were “just in time” loads, to be delivered at a specific time and not a minute late.  We saw that the population demanding such loads was living in a way that made them necessary.

The wheels on the airplane representing the speed of society were just beginning to leave the tarmac during a takeoff that began with the personal computer technology our generation had welcomed as children.  Also plainly obvious in our nationwide journey were the things that would make the carefree age begin unraveling after our return home. We had literally seen the height of it, the last of it, on what would prove to be a tour of the American economy’s innermost gears. Through various circumstances and conversations, the road taught us about all these things.

From the road we learned just as much (or more) about how to live rather than how not to live—lessons that still guide us when we remember to let them.  Finally, the road gave us possible answers to the questions we had at the time, and a lot of new experiences we couldn’t have dreamed of. Like the road itself, this book is about dreams and ambitions.  It’s about detaching from all that people expect of you and from all that you expect of yourself, regardless of your age or what you’ve done until now. We learned that anything is possible when one begins a journey. Most importantly, we learned the meaning of home, and the void it fills.

1. boats, planes, and trucks

July 12, 2000    Mattapoisett, Massachusetts
6:30 p.m.

The ocean sends me off on this road trip: the ocean I probably won’t see, hear, or smell again for a month.  I’m about to trade this seaside setting for a constantly moving world of pavement, diesel engines and warehouse parking lots. I’ll be sleeping in rest areas, dining in truck stops, using public bathrooms exclusively, and socializing on loading docks. Thinking about the road ahead makes me want to linger here all the more. There’s a steady light breeze coming off the bay, just strong enough to force the salty air up over the land and into hundred-or-so cottages that are lined up to view the water.

Ken’s family has one of them.  It is one of the places where he, Erik, and I sat around during our vacations from high school, watching the sailboat races, the planes flying over from Otis Air National Guard base, and storms. The three of us were adventurous, nature-loving weather geeks who felt trapped in our suburban Boston surroundings. We didn’t want to stick around town after graduation. We would spend chilly autumn nights at my family’s lake house in New Hampshire, which Dad built when he was a 25-year-old machinist apprentice—before lake houses were in demand.  There, Ken, Erik, and I would sit around a campfire, wish for the first snow, think about girls, and talk about trucks. 

Whenever we got together we talked about trucks. We each wanted a bigger truck than the others. We’d imagine ourselves enroute to visit each other, driving down the highway in our trucks with Bob Seger tunes blasting from aftermarket stereo systems. It was 1993, and trucks hadn’t yet sold themselves to white collar America. Soccer moms still drove minivans while their husbands drove sedans. We were 18, and our mutual love of trucks—a love stained with red, white and blue testosterone—came from our lust for independence, solitude and identity. One of our favorite Bob Seger songs was “I feel like a number.” In suburban Boston, we could relate. 

Like most 18-year-old guys, we fantasized about girls, but we also dreamed of having wives and families.  We figured that the commitment of married life was a long way off, and we weren’t in any hurry for it. Therefore, automotive and travel topics often grabbed pole position in our conversations while “girls” took a back seat (with us.) We would dream of ways to save our money, and of the biggest truck it would buy.  Plowing driveways in winter could make the loan payments for a brand new truck, we reasoned. We’d never outgrown watching snowplows. We worshipped eighteen-wheelers.

This evening, Ken’s house is the same as it was any time we ever sat on its front porch talking about those things over ice cream, board games, and the sound of the ocean surf. This is where we first aired our dreams of what it would be like to drive to the other coast. We wondered aloud how long such a trip would take and what we could see and do along the way. The road in our minds was a much more perfect place than it really is. At least one of us would have to become a trucker and tell the other two what it was really like.

It would be Erik, and now I join him as writer and photographer. As he and I get ready to leave for the journey, the smell of the beach house’s old wood mixes with the salt smell of the sea, and the aroma of tonight’s shepherd’s pie is only visiting. Scattered throughout the house are the toys of summer vacation that excited us when we were children: Colorful beach towels drying on a railing, dive mask and fins with hints of sand in them, and an open bottle of sunscreen on the coffee table. The area rugs display sandy wet footprints from a busy day of play, and relics of the sea provide decoration.  Glass fishing net floats occupy every corner, and various forms of seashell art proudly display themselves wherever they can be seen. Antique ship lanterns that once burned whale oil now hold electric light bulbs.  It’s a dimly lit cottage, and the floors, like the deck of an old ship, creak underfoot.  The character of this place has always made it so good to come here.   The evening meal is over, and Ken tells me that the sailboat races are happening again. He points out over the water.

“They’re going to be coming around that buoy; get your camera ready,” Ken says.  He joins me on the pier, watching the races like we always did.

Erik is back at the cottage packing up his things, and seems as reluctant to leave as I am.  I’m excited to finally spend some time getting to know him.  I met him because he was Ken’s closest friend in their high school (I was from a different town.) Until now, I’ve only seen Erik when Ken was around, but I’ve always enjoyed his company. Erik is philosophical, artistic, and one of the most laid back people I’ve ever met.  He has always acted and spoken like a person much older than himself. He was born in India and adopted together with his twin sister Elaine into the United States when they were infants. At first glance his dark skin can make him appear Afro-American. For the first few months of their friendship, Ken actually thought he was. Erik’s smile mimics that of golfer Tiger Woods. He lets the phrase on one of his favorite tee-shirts do the talking: “I am Tiger Woods.”

Like most truckers I’ve heard about, Erik keeps to himself. At parties, I always noticed that he was the one whom everybody knew was having a good time, but no one was ever sure what he was thinking.  I’ve heard a few people guess that it’s naked women, but he likes us to keep guessing.  Perhaps I’ll be the first to get a few glimpses inside his mind while he drives.

Erik’s closest friends have always thought of him as a psychologist during their problematic moments.  It could have something to do with Erik’s adoptive father being a psychologist, but Erik also has a longer list of life experiences than anyone else our age I know.  He was well traveled before he started trucking. When you go to Erik with a problem, his response might start with, “A guy I met in Montana once told me…” and he’ll elaborate from there.  You listen to him because you’re drawn by his story, and he leaves you wondering how on earth he came up with his response.  Most of the time, he doesn’t know, either.

While Erik packs his things, Ken and I sit on the pier. We watch from behind a row of moored dinghies as the lead sailboat tacks beyond our view and behind the house with stilts. The vessel emerges back into view with its jib up, gaining great distance from the other boats.  Though all three of us watched this spectacle on summer evenings past, Ken followed the sailboats into a career with the U.S. Coast Guard.  He always loved the ocean, and loved to be out on the saltwater. 

We met at age 15 through a newspaper called The 21st Century, which was distributed in Boston area high schools. I’d written a few weather articles for it when a letter came from a kid my age in another town named Kenny Olney (nowadays it would be an email – how quickly things change!) He said he was also a weather watcher. Our friendship began when our first phone conversation quickly turned to mountains, girls and trucks. As long as I’ve known Ken, he’s spoken most enthusiastically about sailing and navigation.

After high school he and I went to Vermont’s Lyndon State College to study meteorology and be roommates.  We both joined the campus volunteer rescue squad, and he also joined the town’s volunteer fire department.  We were too young and not smart enough to chase the dreams that had brought us to Lyndon. We both left. I transferred to a community college in the Boston area so I could be a paid EMT there, and Ken dropped out of Lyndon but stayed in the area. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing.

Ken’s father had been in the Coast Guard, so he drifted in that same direction. He signed his name and became enlisted.  In 1997 he got stationed on Cape Cod and generously contributed to the success of Anheuser-Busch Corporation.  I often visited him at his apartment on base.  We’d spend all night grilling bratwurst and drinking beer.  I can’t remember much else except that he always challenged me to eat one more slice of bratwurst, and the room was always spinning. We were enjoying the freedom of being single.

In September 1998, he found himself at a party where he met a 19-year-old blonde military brat named Bridget.  A few months later they married. At about the same time I got the phone call: He was cutting back on drinking, trying to quit smoking, and searching the bookstores for topics on fatherhood.  Tyler was born on September 29, 1999. He’s here at the cottage with us, as is Bridget.

As a result of being a father, a husband, and having a commitment to the Coast Guard, Ken can’t go with us on the road. Erik says Ken couldn’t even look at the truck when he learned I was going.  We’ve been trying to avoid the “single-guy” talk while around him. We both wish he were going, too. We all shared this dream.
As a writer and photographer, I hope I’m here to bring the experience to him and to the many other people Erik says he’d like to show.  I also have the feeling that you get when you know you’re doing something for a deeper reason than you’re aware of. Only time will tell if I’m right.  As I leave, my first career—the city ambulance—has just ended.  Now I’m an older-than-normal University of New Hampshire student with the summer off.  My first romantic relationship also has just ended. I’m the least committed and most free I’ve been in a long time. 

As darkness settles in along the South Coast of New England, the gentle waves wash up only as high as the brown line of seaweed dotted with pearly-white and pink shells.  Even the tiniest shells cast their own shadows in the evening sun. On the pier, watching the sailboat races, Ken and I don’t say much. We’re just happy to be here.  We watch as an airplane flies over towards Otis Field.

I stare at the airplane the longest.  Ken’s love of boats is my affinity for planes.  In 4th grade I’d look out the classroom window and dream of flying an airplane.  In my high school you had to come from money, earn straight A’s and be a star athlete to be somebody.  They probably liked me more than I thought, but perception is reality for a teenager. I didn’t fit the mold I perceived, which made me dream of flying even more. The summer before my senior year in high school, I took an introductory flight lesson at a tiny New Hampshire airfield but I lacked money and motivation.

I found that motivation earlier this year at UNH, where I’ve been taking earth science classes. I met Jenna*, my first girlfriend. She majors in biology, loves marine biology, and said she’s always been a science geek. She doesn’t look like a geek at all, but is physically fit and tan with long, straight black hair and brown eyes (a quarter Japanese, she said.)  Our time together was better than any summer love story I’d ever heard my friends tell.

One night last month, we had a sunset picnic on a deserted Massachusetts beach.  She told me about being on UNH’s research vessel and commuting to a summer internship in a zodiac boat.  The engine of a low-flying small airplane interrupted the ocean surf.  I studied the plane’s silhouette against the twilight. Jenna asked, “OK, what kind of plane is it?”

“Cessna four-seater,” I said.

“You know all those planes, don’t you?” she asked.

“Not all of them,” I said. “That one’s pretty common.” She grinned at me the way a girl looks at a guy when she’s impressed but still trying to figure him out.
“Why don’t you fly?” she asked.  There was a look in her eyes I’ll never forget.  I said I’d started lessons in high school, but she didn’t buy it.
“I don’t know,” I said.  I was unable to answer her: Why didn’t I fly?
“You should,” she said, as she rested her head back on my shoulder.  Too soon, it was time to take her home.  I had to pick up my friend Eric Stone from Boston’s Logan Airport at midnight.  Last year I helped him drive from New Hampshire out to Salt Lake City to get his Master’s Degree in meteorology, and he flies home a couple times a year.

With the wrong gate information from Eric, I found myself in a quiet, empty terminal where I came across a display of model airplanes.  It represented the history of aviation, from the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Boeing 747-400.  In the midnight silence of that empty terminal, Jenna’s question rang through my head. 
Why don’t I fly? I thought.  I couldn’t answer her question.

Jenna eventually broke up with me so she could do a yearlong study in Australia.  She said she needed freedom to discover herself in a place where home is too far away to interfere.  I went through my first-ever breakup boredom, and in that boredom all I could think about was flying.

At my local airport I met an energetic, always-smiling, athletic flight instructor named Warren. He tried to talk me out of it by saying what a commitment it is.  He seemed like a mountain-dwelling monk testing the will of a truth-seeker. I took his initial abuse, and the monastery door opened. Then Warren gave me more abuse, always with a smile. He later told me he’d just quit his well-paying job in Maine’s timber industry because he wasn’t happy. He’d been an Army Ranger, and his real desire was to fly for a living. His new job at the airfield didn’t pay him enough to get an apartment. He lived in his Jeep Cherokee in the woods at the end of the runway, but he was always clean-shaven and the happiest person I’d ever met. I was his first student.

As my life has followed the airplanes above the lakes and mountains of New Hampshire and Ken’s life has followed the ships out to sea beyond Pease’s Point, Erik’s life has followed the trucks out to the highways of the United States—out to The Road. Though all three of us talked about cars and trucks, Erik is the most fascinated with them.  He knows cars and trucks better than Ken knows boats and better than I know planes. He designs new ones in his sketchpad. That helped him decide on art as a college major. He worked through college as a parking valet in Boston, where he happily took the keys to all kinds of expensive and high-performance cars.

Last year, Erik quit his valet parking job and told us he was going to truck driver school.  We couldn’t believe it: He was about to live out the dream we’d all shared years earlier. He went to Indiana for the school and signed an agreement with Werner Enterprises, a major trucking company based in Omaha, Nebraska.  The agreement said Werner would front the money for his commercial driver’s license (CDL), and in return, Erik would become their employee for a year.

Werner issued him a Peterbilt 379, an American classic the three of us had worshipped (I still have a poster of one on my wall.) Ken and I started getting Erik’s phone calls from all over the country.  In those conversations, he said I could join him as a guest anytime I wanted. The idea grew.

I knew the door was wide open when my relationship with Jenna ended. This fall I’ll return to classes at UNH, and Erik says he may not still be trucking when my semester’s over. Having such an old, crazy dream begin right after my first breakup is the best I could’ve hoped for. Last week when Erik and I solidified our plans to hit the road, I was very excited.

“I’m really excited, too,” Erik said to me more than once.  “There’s a lot to see, a lot to learn, and every place has different things to show you and teach you.”
At our seaside starting point, the waves carry in their breaking action the repeated sound of a sigh.  I want that one last breath of salty air. Warren sends me off with a study manual for the FAA pilot exam. If there’s any commitment I’m reluctant to leave behind, it’s flying.  I’m entering the road. It takes away whatever identity you have, and separates you from your commitments.  On it, you’re never sleeping or eating in a permanent home. Such is a way of life for Erik. 

What does one think about, in so many hours on the road?  I want to see this way of life that Ken, Erik, and I have wanted to try for so long, and why so many settled, committed people dream of the “dark desert highway” of Hotel California fame. As a teenager, I thought I knew why I wanted to get on the road and just drive. But now I’ve experienced a taste of freedom on road trips to the Rocky Mountains, and also a taste of having a career and a relationship. After such previews I’m not sure about the road anymore, but I’ve done enough dreaming. I need to know.

I turn my back on the ocean and walk back to the cottage.  Behind me, I hear the sighs.

2. leaving home

July 13

It’s 7:30 a.m.  We’ve spent the first night at the house in Framingham, Massachusetts where Erik grew up. His parents are away, so he invited his friends over for pizza and beer last night. They’re all college graduates who are a couple of years into the workforce. Many of them commented on how they don’t get to party with Erik much, now that he’s on the road all the time, so there was cause for celebration. I enjoyed the socializing with the knowledge that the road can be a lonely place. We all stayed up most of the night and slept where we fell.

As we pick ourselves up from those places and recover, the truck cab is out in the street with all of our stuff haphazardly thrown in it. I can’t decide if the massive vehicle looks out-of-place in this moderately upscale neighborhood, or if it’s a bigger status symbol than the fancy SUVs parked in the other driveways. Erik has promised his dispatcher in Omaha that he’ll be on the road by eight. They’ve assigned him a load going from nearby Tewksbury to Louisville, Kentucky. 

He gets his load assignments, and other messages from his dispatcher, on the “Qualcomm,” a hand-held computer terminal wired to a satellite receiver on the outside of the cab. The setup’s manufacturer is a growing communication technology company called Qualcomm, hence Erik’s name for the device itself.  It beeps, and a red light illuminates on the dashboard to let him know there’s a message waiting. He picks up the keyboard, hits the “read next” button, the red light goes out and suddenly he knows where he’s going for the next two or three days.

Today, they’ve given him a computer-dispatched 900-mile haul due in four days, and the humans know he can do it in two. They send him a note back, saying he’s to “split” (drop) the load in Pennsylvania and get on to more urgent deliveries.  Another driver will pick up the Kentucky load a day or two after Erik leaves it at the splitting point.

The inside of the truck is Erik’s apartment.  Behind the two captain’s style front seats, there’s a four-foot-long passage to twin-size bunk beds mounted to the padded leather walls.  Where the passage ends at the edge of the bunks, the sleeper berth’s clearance is high enough so I can stand and reach my arms high in a stretch without touching the ceiling.  A skylight above the cockpit adds a cathedral feel.

From the Peterbilt 379, the company upgraded him to this Freightliner Classic XL when he became a driver-trainer.  The sleeper berth in the Peterbilt only had one bed. It got pretty tight in there when he took his girlfriend on the road with him for two weeks.  When Werner handed him the keys to this one, he opened the door to find protective plastic from the factory still on the seats, and the odometer registering only a trivial amount of mileage.

The size in the Freightliner is noticeable: Behind the front seats, on either side of the passageway to the bunks, there’s a stack of various-sized cabinets and storage shelves, including a drawer that doubles as a roll-out desk for someone sitting on the bottom bunk.  He’s got a small refrigerator that runs on 12 volts, and the television I brought along fits on one of the shelves so we can see it from the beds.

The cab has lighting for every corner, allowing one to more easily see Erik’s large collection of candy wrappers, empty coffee cups, napkins, books, magazines, and crumbs.  There are light and air conditioner controls at the head of each bed.  Behind the seats, tall black leather curtains reach from ceiling to floor, and a smaller, longer set of curtains unfolds to cover the front windows.  He never uses those, because it makes him feel claustrophobic. Leaving them open gives him the feeling of having more space. The company allows drivers to customize the rigs they’re assigned to, and Erik has installed an aftermarket Kenwood stereo CD player. It makes it more like his home. 

Cleaning his mobile apartment also makes it seem more like home to him, and he says we’ll stop to do that down the road.  I’ve enjoyed going barefoot on road trips in the past, and the Freightliner’s spongy carpet (what little of it shows) massages my feet. I usually bring my Teva sandals, which have felt the earth of 20 states, and sneakers. 

Erik drives in his well-worn Birkenstock sandals. We start the day with a bagel at Barnes & Noble’s café, and I pick up a Frisbee at Sports Authority. Frisbee is an addiction I got from a road trip with my sister. Now I’d like to see if I could play the same disc in all 50 states, starting with this journey. Erik seems skeptical. He says he’s been smoking for a year and isn’t in good shape. I promise to go easy on him. Outside, it’s Frisbee weather, about as nice as summer gets in Boston: Clear, not humid, and 80 degrees. From Framingham we ride north on I-95/ MA-128, Boston’s inner beltway. It’s usually backed up solid at rush hour. That may happen early on a nice day like today, but the midday traffic flows freely.
Picking up the first load at Tewksbury allows us to stop at nearby Lynnfield, where I grew up. Erik turns onto the tiny wooded side street of modest 1940s homes where I learned how to ride a bicycle and raked lawns as a kid. He gets concerned the trailer won’t clear the electrical wires, but it does—barely.  It’s the biggest vehicle I’ve ever seen parked outside the house.  It occupies the same curb space where my relatives park five or six cars anytime Mom hosts a holiday gathering. She’s inside, eating lunch, and makes sandwiches for us. She’s eager to see the vehicle that will be my home for a while.

A Mayflower descendant who never lived outside the Boston area, Mom got me into one of the two biggest things that make a New Englander: The Red Sox.  Dad was never a sports fan, but he got me interested in the other thing: The weather. Like most native New Englanders, Mom is often shy and stone-faced around new people. Although she hasn’t seen Erik in seven years, she warms right up to him. His personality brings that out of a lot of people.

Mom excitedly takes several pictures of the truck, and an official “departure picture” of the two of us with it. Erik lets me pose in the driver’s seat. I feel like a kid again. The living quarters pass Mom’s approval when she sees we’ll be sleeping on regular twin-size bunk beds and have plenty of cabinet space for food. She notes the mess. Erik tells her we’ll clean it tomorrow.  The truck attracts the attention of Dale Hoban, who’s been living next door with her husband Dick since before I was born. She, too, says it’s the largest thing she’s ever seen on this street. She’s as fascinated as Mom is. Mom excitedly tells her that I’m going to be touring the United States in it this summer.

Dale’s jaw drops in disbelief. At 25, I’m not supposed to be touring the country by road. I should be giving money the same treatment cows enjoy in India, and keeping one eye on the clock at all times.  My awareness of freedom makes me smile more genuinely than I’ve ever smiled for one of Mom’s pictures. I get the feeling that all the neighbors would gather around the truck if we hung around until they came home from work, but we want to get going before the rush hour.

Erik says he got a similar reception when he first parked the truck outside his parents’ house, too. “The people were curious, asked for a tour, and they were surprised to see I had a bed,” he recalls. “They didn’t know I slept in it. It wasn’t like parking in a Texas neighborhood where people know all about trucking.” While New Englanders aren’t as exposed to long haul trucking as people in the rest of the country, Erik—always the individual—says he used to fall asleep at night to the sounds of trucks passing on the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) and dream of being in one of them. “Now I am that truck,” he says.

When we leave Lynnfield in that truck, Erik is glad we have enough time for one more dinner at his house. I’m a bit surprised at his hesitation to leave this crowded part of the world.

“I love Massachusetts a million times more since being out on the road” he says.  He talks about Framingham as we stand in line for coffee at a Starbucks downtown.  It’s the same Framingham Ken was raised in, and never liked much. Although Framingham is officially a town and not a city, it’s the largest in the nation.  Erik tells me how this place, despite its urban problems, is a good home.

While he talks, I look outside the coffee shop to see Route 9 packed with traffic for Shopper’s World and trying to reach the Mass Pike to get into Boston.  Everywhere I look, I see someone fighting for his or her own mission as if it were the most important. It’s made Boston area drivers infamous and hated in every state they regularly visit. It’s an impatient way of life: Move quickly or be moved unwillingly.

During high school, Ken and I used to sit in the Burger King nearby, look out at the passing traffic on the Mass Pike, and dream of what it would be like to get on that highway and just head west.  We knew that the other end of it was in Seattle and that between here and there was an experience. Based on what Ken had shown me in Framingham, and what he said about it, I could see why he wanted to leave.
Erik always got people to see things in different ways.  With the right words to describe this place, he’s doing it to me now.  He considers himself part of the youthful bookstore scene, and Boston is a youthful bookstore city. He tells me everything he loves about Boston: Winter snow, summer heat, academic institutions, culture, some of the world’s greatest hospitals, and the Red Sox. Erik is a die-hard Sox fan (in a way that puts Ken and me to shame,) and says he tries to find out each game’s scores and highlights no matter where he is. With the help of Erik’s description, I can look at Boston and see a place I could call home.
Compared to Erik, I haven’t been away from here much, but I’ve spent enough time car tripping and camped in the back of a Greyhound bus to know The Road doesn’t take very long to make a person start craving attachment.  Being on the move all the time doesn’t provide it very well.
Detachment and freedom are other human cravings.  As the world’s pace moves faster, things that force people to slow down and smell the roses become harder to partake in.  People visit psychologists to learn things about themselves that they might find on their own if they had time.  Having worldly commitments and the need to stay ahead of others can keep us from getting to know ourselves, from getting to know the world around us, and from getting outside ourselves.

As settled, committed people go about their meetings and appointments, they can forget that at those same moments in the desert, on the plains, and in mountain passes is The Road.  It is the anti-busy. The Road makes you realize that you’re not going to go anywhere at the end of each day but to a temporary dwelling.  The Road makes you lose track of what day it is.  It puts you miles from your comfort zone and makes you grow.

Personal growth was the first thing I noticed when I road-tripped the first time.  I drove from Plymouth, New Hampshire to Greensboro, North Carolina overnight and solo.  It was the first time I’d ever gone such a long distance. I enjoyed the passing lights and radio stations of places strange to me.  Each place had its own vibe. The darkness of the sleepy hamlets in Vermont and western Massachusetts left me wondering if I’d physically be able to continue driving all night.  New York City offered a welcome dose of excitement: the radio played pulsing club-dance mixes, and at 1 a.m. the city was still awake.  I, too, woke up.

A while later, I found Philadelphia too sprawling and too well lit at a time when I wanted to relax again.  The first place I felt independence was the New Jersey Turnpike, of all places.  It’s notorious for traffic, but at 3 a.m. I had only one other set of taillights to follow in heavy rain.  I stayed awake by drinking coffee out of two 32-ounce nalgene bottles, and the music of the radio was the only company I had. At rest areas, familiar people and conversation topics no longer surrounded me.
I spent the night putting distance between my home and myself, and then the rain and the darkness lifted just south of Richmond, Virginia.  Road signs carried names of places I’d never heard of.  My map said I’d passed the last major city for a while.  The daylight allowed me to see the license plates of other cars more easily.  Most were Virginia or North Carolina plates.  A few were South Carolina or Georgia.
I was finally far enough away from home to know what my own license plates said: New Hampshire.  I wasn’t a southerner like everyone around me. For years I had noticed the license plates from faraway places while at home.   As I entered North Carolina, I was the stranger in town. It was like starting life over from scratch.  I had been awake for almost 20 hours, but my thoughts were clearer than ever.  The details of my life were too far away to be distracting. I was finally outside myself, and only beginning to accept where I’d come from. 

After almost a year as a long-haul trucker, Erik has accepted his Massachusetts roots. Although he talks more fondly of other places, he says everything familiar to him is here in the Bay State, and what exists anywhere else really belongs to someone who was born there. 

He parks his trailer in an abandoned parking lot on the far side of town, and will always know it as his home base: “The Parking Lot,” even if someone develops it. For the last few months his sister has been picking him up and dropping him off there because a falling tree crushed his car while he was away trucking.  Though the truck is the only place he has now—and it doesn’t even belong to him—Framingham is where Erik returns after every trip in it.  For Erik, the Boston area is home.

Elaine picks us up on her way home from work. We take naps at the house. In the evening Erik invites his friends over again. This time they see us off. Elaine takes us to Dunkin Donuts for coffee and drops us off at The Parking Lot. It’s time for the 11 o’clock news, but we’re finally getting on the Mass Pike westbound. The smell of French vanilla coffee and song of Kenny G’s sax permeate the dark cab.  Outside, the city lights of the Framingham area slip by.
“I like this music” he says, popping in a CD of something more upbeat and jazzy by Morcheeba.  With his CD hand he also holds a lit cigarette. He’s cracked the window a bit to allow the smoke to escape, and through it the sounds of the “Mass Pike” join us as he accelerates the diesel to a steady 65 m.p.h.
“There’s a lot of traffic out here tonight” he says, half out of frustration and half out of astonishment in having to downshift and use the brakes at such a late hour.  His cigarette almost spent, he remarks, “wow, we’re already 12 miles from the parking lot.”  He finishes the butt and closes the window, and Morcheeba’s music seemingly gets louder as a result.  His thoughts become louder to him. There’s so much about his life on the road he’d like to tell me—and everyone else in his life who’ll read this—and he isn’t sure where to start.

“My trainer said this job was ninety percent mental, because when you’ve got six-hundred miles to do, you’ve got plenty of time,” he begins.  When not thinking about his own life, he likes to watch the lives of others.  “There’s a whole psychology and anthropology of being on the road,” he says. “There are different road patterns, different traffic, and differences in the way people drive. You get used to the ways and the patterns on every new stretch of road you find yourself on.”

Pointing to a vehicle passing us, he says, “Just look at this guy.”  It’s a van weaving across marked lanes in front of us occasionally.  The top of the van slides across its chassis like markers on a physician’s scale, and it pivots from a point just underneath its hood ornament.
“Probably drunk,” Erik says calmly. He’s not at all surprised or showing any concern. He downs the last of his coffee and tosses the empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup to the floor.  In a collision, his Freightliner would fare much better than the recklessly driven Chevy van in front of it.

The Freightliner has a fuel capacity of 240 gallons of diesel, split between two tanks. One tank is mounted on each side of the cab underneath the steps to the door.  Just after midnight, Erik stops in Sturbridge to fill them. They accept a total of 143 gallons. With full tanks, we put our home state behind us and follow Interstate 84 into Connecticut.
The traffic on I-84 is just a few other trucks.  One of them passes us and Erik flashes his lights when the end of its trailer is clear of our front bumper.  It pulls in front of us, and we see its red trailer lights flick off and on and few times.  Erik says it’s a courtesy among truckers, especially those who work the interstates—known as “long haulers.”  A smaller semi whose cab has no sleeper berth gets in front of us in the passing lane, and its driver won’t move over.  Erik gives up and passes it on the right.
“Local truckers don’t get as much respect as the interstate guys” he says.  “They’re generally not as attentive because they don’t put in as many miles.”  He draws a gray line between two types of truckers.  They are trained to operate the same machinery, but the local drivers live around here and pick up local driving habits. The long haul has eye-opening effects on a driver that are hard to explain to most settled people.

Erik is comfortably settled in for this month-long haul, while I still can’t imagine what I’m getting myself into. I’m still on a road I’ve traveled many times, so I feel like I’m just going for another ride. It hasn’t hit me that this truck will be my home until mid-August. Morcheeba’s jazzy performance continues on Erik’s aftermarket CD player. As the highway’s traffic thins out even more, the rig sails its way like an ocean freighter off into the darkness.

“Every free spirit in the country can somehow identify with the road at night” Erik says.  “After a while, the curves in the road seem to flow along like a snake.”  We pass truck stops and parking areas full of trucks, each side-by-side with amber and red parking lights on.  Their drivers are asleep in their bunks. I ask Erik why we’re not with them.

“It’s hard to get a parking spot on the East Coast at night” he replies, as he switches out Morcheeba for a Pink Floyd CD.  Truck parking lots require super-long spaces and enough room so big-rigs can make their wide turns without hitting each other. Such space is at a premium on the high-tax, heavily populated east coast. The song, Shine On You Crazy Diamond goes well with the scene of night driving: the hypnotic, never-ending train of passing white lines, the uninterrupted, unchanging hum of the engine, and the road signs that appear into the headlights and fade back out into the darkness.  Erik rolls down the window and lights up another butt as the lights of Hartford come into view.
He’s set his sights on an all-night, non-stop haul to his company’s drop yard in Quaquake, Pennsylvania, where this load is due at 5 a.m.  He’s happy to be hauling a “light” load: 13,142 pounds as compared with his capacity of about 46,000.  He says the light load makes the trailer easier to navigate on I-84’s hills.  On family car trips over this road, I’d never even noticed hills.

This is still too familiar. Sleepiness wins. I apologize to Erik for not being better company, as I walk back to the sleeper. He assures me: Being on the road alone is normal to him. Gratefully, I carve some space for myself amid all the junk on my bare mattress and pass out.

3. becoming a land freighter stowaway

July 14

In the predawn darkness, we reach Quaquake. The mattress rocks back and forth irregularly. I’d have fallen off if it weren’t for the bed-belts. I squint at my watch: 4:50 a.m.

Erik backs into a space among 20 other trailers in the rutty dirt parking lot.  Dispatch tells us via Qualcomm that we should not enter the nearby Allentown terminal until cleared by operations. It’s a standard order that Werner drivers get when they’re near a company terminal.  It’s a base with a secured parking lot, showers, laundry machines, and truck maintenance. Such things are valuable commodities on the road. The company doesn’t want drivers crowding in at the same time.
Erik can reply to them with a “canned message” or one that he types himself.  This morning he doesn’t reply at all. He gets the trailer into a space as best he can, chocks the wheels and sets the trailer’s landing gear. Air hisses out of the suspension system. When it’s done, he frees the cab from the trailer and types a message on the Qualcomm to let dispatch know he’s completed the mission.  He fills out a trip envelope.
“This is what I get paid from” he tells me.  On the envelope, he records the number of miles he hauled the load.  The company pays him by the mile. Mileage for Erik is as important as hours for a time clock-puncher, and he copies the same information to a personal log in case he gets screwed. 

The eastern sky glows with early morning twilight. We’ve come 324 miles from The Parking Lot and await whatever’s next.  Our list of errands includes a stop at the terminal to register me as a rider.  He says that technically, I was supposed to meet him there. We’ll also need to pick up a power inverter so we can plug in and enjoy the color TV I brought.  Our immediate need is sleep.

“We’ll probably get to see the sunrise before we get to go to bed,” Erik says.  The Qualcomm beeps with our next load: Rolls of fibers due in Macon, Georgia in four days. He checks the road atlas and exit guides for the best routes and stops on the way.  Most loading docks don’t do business at this hour, so we have some time to relax before we have to meet the shipper. This secluded freight yard is a nice quiet place for a nap.
We sleep the day away. With empty stomachs and empty trailer demanding all our attention, we miss our chance for the terminal. The company still doesn’t know I’m here. I’ve just become a stowaway on a land-freighter.
Ships have galleys for cooking, but the land freighter doesn’t. The only food on board is a box of Chips Ahoy cookies Erik pilfered from his parents’ kitchen. There are two left. Songwriter Bruce Hornsby’s lyrics enter my mind as the fog hangs low over the Pocono Mountains in Ravine, Pennsylvania:
There’s a place / A little roadside shack / Poor-man’s Paris / With parking in the back…

Just after three in the afternoon, we brake for breakfast at a place like that. It’s called the Raceway Family Restaurant and Travel Stop, just off of I-81 near Hazelton.  Hornsby’s song, Down the Road Tonight, first made me imagine this kind of place when I was in high school. 

I imagined the type of hole-in-the-wall eatery with a bunch of highway route signs near the entrance to its parking lot. The sound of speeding cars and big-rigs was right outside its door, and the moment anyone stepped inside the establishment, they saw a sign that said, “Please seat yourself.” They could tell that the coffee was fresh, the waitresses were down-to-earth, and the food was going to be good.
The Raceway Restaurant is a close match. It has a dirt parking lot out back, big enough for several 18-wheelers parked side-by-side. Inside, a Middle-Eastern cashier minds a convenience store that sells truck parts and accessories amid two aisles of junk food, cold drinks, postcards and bumper stickers.  A door at the back of the store leads to the restaurant. The waitresses are busy.

Jackie, our waitress, is grateful for the fact that we’re so patient. She makes a point of telling us. We don’t have to get to Georgia until Tuesday morning, and Erik could do it by tomorrow morning if he wanted to.  He’s in a relaxed mood today.  And me? I’m a stowaway on Captain Erik’s continent ship.

Seated next to him at the bar, I tell Jackie that as long as I have coffee it doesn’t matter when my meal comes. She keeps my mug full, with a smile. When the food reaches us, we find it’s been worth the wait, just as I’d envisioned years ago. It doesn’t last long on our plates. After having only chocolate chip cookies for the last eighteen hours, we’re finally eating breakfast.

While eating, Erik begins to wake up. He’s clearly not accustomed to having someone write down the things he says. He’s never hosted anyone who wanted to document his life on the road. Between puffs on his cigarette and swigs of his coffee, he apologizes for not being so full of philosophy and ideas as usual. Having never ridden with him, I tell him I haven’t noticed.

In the absence of deeper thought, he describes the route to Georgia.  Interstate highway numbers and directions roll off his tongue as if he were directing a stranger to the nearest gas station. He names states he’s been in as though they were his neighbor’s backyards, and then stares at the wall for a few seconds. His cigarette smolders away like a paper hourglass between his fingers.

“You know, this trip includes a 70-mile stretch of highway I’ve never been on?” he ponders.  He’s seen so much of North America’s geography and met so many of its people that he can’t begin to tell the stories.  “A lot of times I want to carry around a tape recorder and talk into it the things that I see while I drive. There are plenty of stories to tell from past trips and other truckers, but there will definitely be new stories. Being out on the road for a month like this and not coming back with new stories is like going for a swim in the ocean without getting wet.”

Coffee sparks his creativity. He’s been thinking of ways to organize a “semester on the road” similar to semester-at-sea programs for students.  He’s only looked into the business end and has a lot more on the psychological end to consider: “The age of the students, how long they’d stay out here; I think no longer than a month to a month and a half,” he says. He sips his coffee.  Maybe I’m the test pilot for his program. I feel fortunate to anticipate such a real-time lesson.

The lesson begins after breakfast as we arrive at the shipper’s loading dock to get our first haul into a state I’ve never seen.  A lot of times, a shipper keeps several of the trucking company’s trailers on hand so it can pre-load them for drivers. Today, we have to wait an hour for the warehouse workers to load the empty trailer he picked up at the drop yard.

Boredom sweeps over me at the warehouse. I wish I were still at Mattapoisett, or at the lake. Why did I leave? I wish I were still with Jenna. Why did she leave? Things were good they way they were a few weeks ago. Why did it all have to change?  At least Jenna is on her way to Australia. The sharp things underneath her feet will be sand-dwelling seashells in view of the Great Barrier Reef.  The sharp things under my feet are pavement-dwelling shards of glass in the shadow of overgrown weeds. Erik tells me that whenever he has to take a leak in the middle of the night he uses the area between the cab and trailer. Someone, please remind me to never touch that part of the truck.

The truck shakes violently enough to make my pen scribble away from my writing, as the forklifts load our trailer with 31,577 pounds of fiber rolls (on 78 pallets.)  I give up.

 We organize the cab and make the beds.  All of our disheveled gear gets stowed in the many cabinets. I wonder if Erik is only trying to make his stowaway feel at home – freighters aren’t supposed to be neat, are they?

“Do you normally keep the cab this way?” I ask.

“I think a homey feel is important,” he replies.  “Like I said, ninety percent of this job is mental, and the more you feel at home, the more comfortable you are, and the less likely you are to go crazy.  It becomes even more important when there are two of us living in the cab.”  He pauses while throwing away some more trash from the last trip, and continues: “I tell you, from a trucker’s perspective—and maybe you wouldn’t expect to hear this—but the first night you sleep in your cab after being home for three or four nights is always the best.  You’ve been home, so you’ve done your laundry, and for the first time in probably a month, you have clean sheets.  That smell of clean sheets your first night out is really relaxing.”

Sounds promising. The workers slam the door on the trailer and cast us away from their dock.