Story by Christina Valdez; Photos by Didi Martinez
Speeding out of an 18-wheeler’s blind spot on Interstate 35 is common. One rushes by the towering truck relieved, passing the drivers as they stare ahead. They are the truckers—identified by occupation and the time it takes to pass their massive vehicles. But they are there—living life on the road. Truckers Abel Rodriquez and Reno Alton talk about life inside these invisible road beasts from the Flying J gas station in Waco. Rodriquez loves life on the road while Alton hates it.
From Illinois, 27-year-old Abel Rodriquez has been a truck driver for six years and said he loves his job as much as he did when he was a kid watching the trucks drive by him.
“Don’t do it for the money,” Rodriquez said. “Do it because you like it because the money is not there. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I am going to get my CDL [commercial driver’s license], that way I can get a bunch of money.’ You’ve got to like what you do.”
Rodriquez owns his own trucking company, Roca Transport Inc., with four trucks and four drivers working under him. Roca Transport Inc. transports ink for Sherman-Williams from Chicago to Texas and produce from Texas to Chicago. Rodriquez dropped out of the University of Wisconsin with a 3.7 GPA after he decided that instead of investing in school he would rather invest in equipment and start his own trucking company.
“I did that for two years and then I decided that is what I wanted to do,” Rodriquez said.
In January 2016, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enforced new laws to regulate the recorded hours of 3 million commercial truck and bus drivers to prevent fatigue on the road. Rodriquez said the new laws “screwed [him] over” instead of helping him. Truckers can only log, with paper or electronic logs, 11 hours a day and, for Rodriquez, that means fewer breaks and less money.
“If your 11 hours are up or if you decided to take a two-hour day, it counts against you,” Rodriquez said. “You’ve got to keep going instead of stopping. You can’t stop and rest. You’ve got to keep going until the computer tells you. It’s hurting more than it’s helping.”
The weekly miles that Rodriquez puts between him and his home become barriers, especially when family members die. Rodriquez said family members passing away, and him not being there, is the worst thing that has happened to him on the road.
“You’ve just kind of got to ignore it for a second until you get home,” Rodriquez said. “I own the business and I’ve got customers and they need to know beforehand because I booked the load.”
Rodriquez’s wife, Danielle, joined her husband on his most recent route and emerged from the cab’s bed during the stop. The pair plans to have kids after Rodriquez’s business expands to having more trucks and more drivers. In the meantime, his wife is learning English at a community college while Rodriquez is on the road. When asked if having his wife with him on the road was easier on him, Rodriquez giggled and said yes.
“It’s hard for her because I married her from Mexico so she doesn’t really know English,” Rodriquez said. “So being at home in a country that she has never been [to] before and being home for four or five days at a time by herself, it’s harder for her.”
The dangers of life on the road comes from the solitary lifestyle that many truckers lead. Truck drivers are more exposed to health risks on the road when there is no one around if an accident or a health scare occurs.
“A lot of truck drivers, we’re not healthy,” Rodriquez said. “We are sleeping by ourselves and no one is around you; we can have a seizure or a heart attack or something, and you are just out here. There is nobody to really to help you.”
Despite the risks and the loneliness of the road, Rodriquez said he can’t imagine stopping anytime soon. He said he always looks forward to seeing the sun on the open roads when driving down I-35.
From Oklahoma, 51-year-old Reno Alton said he hates life as a trucker.
Alton has been a truck driver for two years after working in the oil fields for 21 years. When his job ended, Alton said becoming a truck driver was the only job out there for him. Alton described life on the road as “not worth doing.” With a wife, two children and three grandsons, Alton said that the only reason he is a truck driver is for his and his wife’s insurance.
“I am home, if I’m lucky, 34 hours every two weeks,” Alton said. “It’s bad when you’ve got grandsons.”
After working in the business for two years, Alton had strong words to say about the trucking industry, his fellow truckers and other drivers.
“Man, I don’t want other truckers to get mad at me,” said Alton. “80 percent of the truck drivers don’t need to be on the road and 90 percent of car drivers don’t need to be on the road.”
Alton transports all kinds of materials across the country, and was currently hauling 20,000 pounds’ worth of steel rods from Canton, Ohio, to Laredo. Alton said that legally he can only drive 64 mph in his specific truck with a 20,000-pound load and it would take him several hundred yards to get to a complete stop in his truck.
Alton said that if a car cuts him off within inches when entering the highway, he cannot slam on his brakes without the load on his truck bed going through the cab where he is sitting. Alton said that instead of him slamming on his breaks, he is running the car over. He said that the horror of that reality is that “it could be you and your child in that car.”
“People are idiots including me,” Alton said. “If I’m in a car and I get close to a truck, I am an idiot for getting close to that truck. I need to back off and give him his space. If I pull up beside him like I want to pass him, I don’t want to sit here and ride beside him for miles. Go. Get in front of him. 80 percent of people don’t do that.”
Alton expressed his frustration about the January 2016 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration laws that now regulate truckers recording the amount of hours they are on the road.
“I can only drive that truck for 11 hours a day,” said Alton. “Still, 11 hours is a whole lot of hours being behind that wheel whenever you’ve got a mother and her child on one side, a father and his child on the other side. If I get dozy and sleepy, I can care less about me it’s those individuals right there.”
Alton described how he and other truckers get treated by the public. He said he gets honked at, flipped off and ignored. In the two years that he has been a truck driver, Alton said that only four kids in the cars passing him on the highway have asked him to honk the truck’s horn.
“I am surprised by how truck drivers get treated. Take it, they brought it on themselves from years ago, but they get treated like garbage—not only at the shipper, but at the place they deliver it to, but also the general public as well.”
After working in safety for nine years in the oil field, Alton double checks all his loads at every stop to make sure that they are secure and uses double the restraints on all his loads.
“Whenever I get a load—no matter what load it is—I will stand back here [at the back of my truck bed] and I’ll look to the left, I’ll look to the right. I’ll picture my wife and one of my grandsons on the left and I’ll picture my daughter and my other grandsons on the right. Is that load going to stay on that truck? If I don’t think it is, I throw more [restraints] on there,” Alton said.
Alton said he will leave the trucking business as soon as the oil field business picks back up.
Despite his negative feelings about the trucking industry, Alton said he is always proud of his truck. With his most memorable night in the truck being when a thought crossed his mind after a phone call with his wife.
“One memory that will probably always stick with me is sitting in that sleeper of that truck at nighttime, with the curtains closed, having talked to my wife on the phone instead of being with her,” Alton said.