John Stelplugh, is an experienced trucker, from Trinity, Texas.
I'm an American truck driver and I started driving on May 17, 1977, when I was 17. I've driven in all 48 states, and most of Canada although that has been a few years ago.
I grew up driving our farm trucks. The first truck I ever drove was a 1949 Chevy 2 ton truck, hauling hay with my family. I was only 4 years old then. I would drive through the fields while Grandpa, Dad, and my Uncle would buck the bales onto the truck and stack them. (*Just for an FYI, I recently bought that truck back, and am hoping to restore it for my son.)
Miles & Experience -- Until I had my stroke this past fall, I had 35 years under my belt, with no accidents. As for miles, this is only a guess but I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000,000, since back in the earlier days, truck drivers ran much more than they do now.
Training -- When I started driving, truck driving schools didn’t exist. Neither did interstates. The interstate system was just getting started, with bits and pieces here and there, joined mainly by US Highways.
My very first trip was from Kansas City to Sacramento, across Hwy 50. I will never forget it either. I was with a friend who asked me to “ride along”. It was either that, or haul hay all summer. So, I decided to take and adventure. And what an adventure it turned out to be.
Once we got West of Canyon City, Colorado, the driver asked me if I would like to drive. Not knowing much about it, I said, “sure”. What he didn’t bother to tell me was that I was about to take 73,280 lbs of truck across Wolfe Creek Pass.
I can still picture the White with red striped hood that was impaled into the side of the mountain at a 15 mph sharp left turn, right before a ski resort. But, I was committed now.
Back then, jake brakes didn’t exist. I was gripping the wheel all the way down the mountain. I remember at the bottom of the mountain, seeing what was left of an old Cadillac that had crashed and burnt.... I guess from overheating the brakes or transmission.
Once I finally got the truck stopped, I got out, walked around for a bit, and tried to get my knees to stop knocking. The driver asked me what was wrong. I didn’t reply, but got into the passenger seat, and didn’t say one word to him the rest of that day.
Then, a couple of days later, we were going across Donner Mountain. We had stopped at a little truck stop up on top of the mountain, which is now a convenience store, for a bite to eat. We walked inside, and while in there, I noticed pictures all over the walls, showing the history of Donner, along with most of, if not all of the many accidents that had happened over the years on that mountain.
Remember now, I-80 wasn’t there then. It was still just a highway. Anyway, I thought we were past the worst part of the trip, and it was all going to be pretty much flat ground from there on to Sacramento. He asked me if I wanted to drive again, and stupid me said, 'yes'.
This guy did it to me again....put me on a mountain and had me take it down. But, this time, I had that image in my mind of all of those pictures I had just seen. That was the beginning to what became my career for the next 35 years.
As for the CDL license, back in those days, that didn’t exist either. You either had a operator’s license or a chauffeur’s license. Then, when CDL came into effect, I grandfathered into it, and will keep that until 'the Good Lord decides to take me home.'
For the Love of the Job -- Trucking for me, has been a very gratifying experience over the years. I have met some extremely good people, and have met some not so nice also. This business has changed so much over the years.
Years ago, ALL drivers had a comradeship with each other. You might start a trip alone, but by the time you reached your destination, you would probably have a convoy of trucks going somewhere within a few miles of each other.
In those days, we didn’t have the luxuries that we do now. We would often pull the trucks off the road, build fires, cook our meals on those fires, sit around telling “trucker tales” and then crawling under our trailers to go to sleep, since that was more comfortable that trying to sleep in a “coffin” sleeper, with no a/c or anything.
Yet, it was a blast, running with pioneers of the highways. Today’s drivers aren’t the same. But, that isn’t their fault. It’s just the way things are. With technology the way it is, and everything else that is involved, no one has the time to be social. Companies have decided that quantity is better than quality. ..whether it be for fuel, pay, or whatever.
Drivers, especially good drivers aren’t treated like they used to be. And that is sad. These good people are taking away from family time, and made to do things that back in the day were not even thought of.
Don’t get me wrong....the “Old School” driver worked his tail off for months at a time without seeing his family, but it was for a different reason. It was a choice then, unlike now.
Now, you work mainly for beans, compared to what we made in those days, because of taxes, cost of living, etc has gone way up without driver’s wages following suit.
When I first started driving, I was making .20 per mile, and making a healthy paycheck, too. Today’s drivers are being made to do more, and getting paid pretty much the same wage I was back then, with not much if anything to show for it.
Today, if you want to be a driver, you can’t think that this business is a “get rich quick” thing, because it isn’t. I know what I am saying is probably going to be disputed by some, but it does take a lot of hard work and the willingness to forfeit many things to make it in today’s world.
I won’t sugar coat anything here. I am just trying to be as honest as I can as I don’t want to mislead anyone on this occupation, which is more than just an occupation.....it’s actually a lifestyle in itself.
We truck drivers are like modern day cowboys and cowgirls, and I don’t mean that in a “hot-headed” way, either. They roamed the lands and stayed away from family for months at a time to drive cattle from Texas to Kansas or beyond. What is different about those trucking jobs, than what we do? Not much. We just get it done faster now, and with a lot more distractions, such as traffic, DOT, etc.
Lessons Learned -- One of the biggest things I have learned over the years is patience. Without it, you can’t win. You have to have it in order to literally survive in this business.
You have to learn how to organize your time, and make that time work for you, not against you. Good planning is a necessity because you never know what is over that next hill. It might just be a hill, but it might be that mountain that you always heard about, but tried to avoid.
Also, (and I stress this very strongly) NEVER think you know everything. An old driver once told me that the day I thought I knew all about ANY subject, was the day I had better sit back and re-evaluate my life, because my life would soon end. It took me years to fully understand what he meant, but I know now that he was right. Thank you 'Southern Shaker' for the advice.
Future of My Career -- Unfortunately, I am not driving at the moment, as I had a stroke this past fall, but if it’s God’s will, one day I will be out there again, with all of my brothers and sisters, honking my horns and waving to all of you, with a smile.
I have been both a company driver and am now a truck owner. I am blessed to have a wonderful driver who is taking excellent care of my truck, and taking care of business for our company.
It’s tough not being out there, but at the same time, I know that I have no business being on the roads under my circumstances. I have had some people tell me that I should just “buck up” and get back in and go. But, I don’t want to jeopardize anyone on our highways, including myself. Once I feel well enough, then we will see.
My Favourite Trucks -- My two favorite trucks of all time are the Kenworth W900 and the Freightliner Classic XL, which I now own. I believe that this will probably be my last truck, since for one, they don’t make them any more, and I was planning on converting it into a stretched out motor home anyway, when I retired. The Classic has always been a nice roomy truck, while Peterbilts, and Kenworths, while they are beautiful, just don’t have the room for us “bigger” guys.
Proud to be a Trucker -- There are two thing in life that I have always been proud to call myself. One was being a “farm brat” and the other is an American Trucker....that will go to the grave with me.
I am proud to say that my son is somewhat following in my footsteps. While he might not drive one for a living, he also owns mine with me, and he has been involved in trucking, with me since he was only 2 years old.
His mother, if you want to call her that, left when he was only 2 and from that point on, he was literally raised in a truck, until I put him in school. For his 5th grade year, we decided to home school him in the truck, which was a blast. I recommend this for families who want to keep the family together, yet be able to go out and instead of just reading about history, actually seeing it.
The Future of My Industry -- I would like to see the comradery come back between drivers. I would also like to see all trucking companies treat drivers with the respect they deserve, instead of treating them like slaves in order to line the pockets of the ones who don’t deserve making money.... for just sitting back and not doing anything but making it nearly impossible to make an honest living to support a family.
Big truck sleepers return. What was once an extravagance for the big strappers in trucking, is now a practical means for a trucker to increase his profit margin and be comfortable living on the road.
A new addition to our gallery of Petes, by Michael Lee, a 1982 Peterbilt 359: a classic big rig truck!
Custom truck show and big rig event schedule for U.S. and Canada. Check out the listings for a big rig show coming up.