The Road Less Traveled
By Bett Williams
'Don't worry, this ain't a penis pump or nothin',' Pete says from beneath my bunk. 'I'm just taking my blood pressure.' We have just finished taking a toke off the small joint he stores in the cap of a pen. He's settling into his nightly ritual of watching Friends. I close my eyes, drifting off to the sound of the show, his laughter, and the sound of the other trucks pulling in and out of the Flying J parking lot. I am in heaven.
With road people there is no 'getting to know someone.' That is to say, with Pete and me there wasn't a process. There's just something you do when you are a decent passenger that has to do with a radical openness, a kind of total psychic surrender to the other person and the way his mind works. We talk our way out of Los Angeles, through Interstate 5's 'Grapevine' mountain pass, until after about an hour and a half he says he has a confession to make. The day before, Pete had canceled on me, claiming his wife didn't want me to ride with him.
'That's not really true,' he says. 'I was having second thoughts.'
'Pete! You lied!'
'I thought maybe you were going to be all Hollywood,' Pete says. 'I wasn't sure we were going to get along.'
It's not often I'm told so blatantly that I've been lied to, so I really wrap myself around the whole concept. It is one that I'm not able to make sense of until I have felt the truck moving for quite a while, rocking hard whenever we roll over the slightest bump in the road. Driving a loaded semitruck is more dangerous than I'd ever imagined. To do this for long hours at a time everything has to be completely right. First and foremost, the head has to be right, and in Pete I have found a brother with a psychic equilibrium as fragile and subtle as my own. The night before the ride it suddenly hit us both that if for any reason we didn't get along -- if conversation was stilted or if we simply bugged each other, even a little bit -- the entire planet would be thrown off its axis.
We talk about sex a lot. His wife stopped wanting to have sex with him about 15 years ago, so he has it pretty rough.
'I get hit on by guys all the time because I'm German and Polish, and you know --' he says.
'They assume you have a big dick,' I say.
He tells me about a car that recently pulled up alongside him. The man inside was jerking off. Pete pulled off at a rest area, and the man climbed into his cab and gave him a blow job.
'Sometimes it's nice -- with guys, I mean -- to have somebody really appreciate your body,' Pete says. 'My belly is kind of big. I'm no Brad Pitt. The guys seem to like it, though. It's too bad I'm not gay. It would be a lot easier out here.'
Pete has driven over 2 million miles. He can't open his hands all the way, a consequence of grasping the wheel so much. He is a proud father and a philosopher with a beautiful mind. I like the way his work slacks hit his Converse sneakers and how his longish black hair hangs from his baseball hat. When we splurge to get a room one night so that we can watch Talk to Me on HBO, it occurs to me that curling into his body would be the most natural thing in the world. I don't, though. I kick him out to go sleep in his truck. I know that if I spoon him, I'll fuck him, because everything I've suspected about the trucking world is revealing itself to be true. The cab of a truck is a hypersexual realm where orientation becomes less rigidly defined. As a lesbian, I know that if I have sex with Pete, it will be weird in the morning. But that doesn't mean I don't want to.
"On the road you have three factors -- access, accountability, and anonymity,' says Tim Anderson, head of the Gay Truckers Association. Tim conducts in-depth research on sexual networks in mobile communities. Government and health officials have ignored how sexually transmitted diseases can be easily spread through mobile populations. With his Trucker Health Project, Tim hopes to change this.
When I first became obsessed with the idea of going on the road with a truck driver, I contacted Tim. We spent hours on the phone as he filled me in on lot lizards, truck chasers, and good buddies (gay truckers). The sexual world portrayed by Joe Gage in vintage gay porn films such as Kansas City Trucking Co. -- this paradise of diesel gasoline, Merle Haggard songs, and working-class cowboy angels -- is not completely at odds with reality. It became a fantasy world on to which I projected my amorphous lust. Of course, I would have loved to go on a ride with a sex-crazed female truck driver, but I figured my chances of finding one were almost nil. I would ride with a man, and I would keep my fantasies safely within the confines of my own head. Gay male truck chasers have more options.
'Some truck-chasing gay men get a trucking license simply to gain entry into this subculture, but they don't last long,' Tim says, referring to the men who crowd the Internet to peruse trucker porn and seek sex with drivers. 'Many become addicted to meth. That will take you down fast. The harsh realities of long-haul trucking aren't something they bargained for. You really have to be a true nomad at heart to stick with this job. You have to have itchy feet and a talent for dysfunctional relationships.'
The life expectancy of a trucker in the United States is shorter than that of the average male by 15 years, according to a study published in 2006. Riding with Pete, I begin to understand why. Overloaded by 1,000 pounds, we drive through four weigh stations in one day. If an official sees the tipped scale, Pete may be fined $900 or more. He might not even be allowed to continue with his load. Pete's son, who is in his first year at a state university, has just called to inform him that his new roommate has bailed on him. Rent will be $400 more than Pete had planned on paying. Money is tighter than ever, and Pete is scrambling to boost his income, often spending three weeks on the road in between short stays at home. I feel Pete's terror as we approach the scales. His breath quickens. We pass, but he is shot clean through with adrenaline and says he feels like he might puke. Today is supposed to be his vegan day, a commitment he made to his health spurred by his vegan punk-rock kids, but he is too stressed. When we go to the Flying J he piles his plate high with ribs. 'One of my few pleasures in life,' he says.
In rats, sleep deprivation induces hyperactivity, irritability, and hypersexuality -- which some scientists consider to be a model for mania'all thanks to the chemistry of serotonin. For truckers, sleep deprivation is compounded with the hypnotic sound of the engine and the endless white lines, inducing a kind of trance that often has a huge sexual component.
Alejandro, a retired long-haul trucker who lives in Phoenix, describes it as 'Nirvana, basically.'
'Is it sexual or spiritual?' I ask.
'All of the above,' he says. 'There are reels that go on in your head. I mean, there are like, half-hour spans where I'm like, Oh, my God, where have I been? Where am I right now? Like, I'm going down the road doing 90, and I have to pull over and check my bumper to make sure I didn't hit anything -- because I'm blanked out.'
I have driven from Los Angeles to Phoenix to meet Alejandro and hear his story about when he parked at the Flying J, hoping to get some sleep, and woke up to the sound of people crawling around his truck.
'They crawled underneath the flatbed that I was pulling, underneath the air bag regulator,' he begins. 'There are air bags in these trucks for your suspension. They rigged them. I took off. I got maybe two miles down the road when the air bags deflated, so basically the top of the trailer hit the bottom of the wheels. All this dust and crap is flying off, and I got trucks swerving everywhere.
'They had also pulled the plug on my radiator, so I was losing water the whole time,' Alejandro continues. 'I ended up pulling over on this frontage road. They found out I was gay because I had a Damron guide with me. You know what that is?'
'Not really,' I say.
'It's a big book that says where all the gay bars are and everything. Once they found that, it was all over,' he says.
'So who were these guys, just a bunch of dudes?' I ask.
'Klan, pretty much,' he says. 'The guy kept looking at me and telling me shit, and I was like, 'I don't know what the fuck your problem is.' '
Which guy? I ask him.
'The guy who was up in my truck,' Alejandro says. 'I don't know who he was. He was masked.'
'So you pulled over?' I ask.
'Yeah,' he says. 'I had turned the truck around to go back to Houston. My buddy was there; it felt safe. I figured at least I could get to a truck stop and call somebody. I heard them on the CB and everything.'
'What were they saying?' I ask.
' 'That truck's gonna fuck up at any given moment. Wait for it. It's in a good spot right now.' God, I haven't talked about this in a long time,' he says. There's bright anger in his eyes, which
seems good, better than fear.
'I'm thinking, What's next? I'm not going to sit in my truck and wait for something,' he continues. 'I got out, and I was just going to haul ass to the truck stop. It wasn't going to do me any good, but it's just what I immediately did.'
'Yeah,' he says. 'I figured, if something was going to happen, somebody from the road was going to see this. So then I'm taken down.'
'By how many guys?' I ask.
'One caught me, and the rest were right behind him'maybe eight or 10 guys,' Alejandro says. 'Only three or four ended up hitting me. So they're saying, 'You fuckin' Mexican, you fuckin spik, get over to the other side of the border. We don't need your kind over here. I'm gonna teach you a lesson, blah blah blah blah.'
'When did they start calling you a faggot?' I ask.
'The faggot thing didn't happen till after, when they said, 'Let's go back to your truck, and let's see what's doin' in there.' So they went through my truck, and they found my Damron guide,' he explains.
'They were into getting you for being Mexican first, then?' I ask.
'Yeah,' Alejandro says, 'at the truck stop there's an inspection sticker that you have to have on your truck after you get it inspected. The guy who was inspecting my truck'instead of putting my company name on it, he put my name on it. They saw that and went, 'There's no denying it. We've got ourselves a wetback up in here.' '
'When they found the Damron guide, did you sense the change?' I ask him.
'This sticks out in my head,' he says. 'They're like, 'We got a fag here. We got a faggot here.' Then he's like, 'You gonna be my little bitch?' It was clear up to my neck what was gonna happen, and then they said it, and I was like, you know, 'Fuck you.' And it went on, you know -- different kind of shit like, 'You like cock -- you like cock, you little faggot. You want mine?' And I'm like, you know, 'You're standing here downing me because I'm gay, and yet you wanna stick your dick in my mouth?' That's when it got hazy, and I got ballsy, and I was like, 'You know what? Bring it! Fuckin' bring it! And you'll pull back a bloody fuckin' stub.' You know, if I'm gonna go down like that, I'm gonna bite somebody's dick off.'
There are the bodies. Once Alejandro came across an accident and found a man's body charred and smoking in the driver's seat. A trucker friend of his once hit the body of a man who'd jumped off a bridge in an apparent suicide.
'Pretty much every trucker has seen a body,' Tim Anderson says. 'You're expected to just keep on driving as though nothing has happened.'
The accident that scarred Pete forever involved a family. It's one of the first stories he tells me as we drive along I-5. Pete saw the accident, parked, and walked past a dead kid on the road who had flown out of the car. The father was outside the car too, also dead. Pete got to the car and peered inside. There was a grandfather with a missing arm, and another kid, this one alive, right next to him. The kid didn't see that his grandfather's arm was missing, and Pete wanted to keep it that way. The boy asked Pete why his brother was outside the car. Pete didn't answer and instead tried to distract him until more people came to help.
'I rented a lot of DVDs to get my mind off it,' he says. 'But before that I called my mom and dad. The thing that really got me was not the gore. I thought that would bother me, but it wasn't that. It was the story of who they were'that they were probably going to an amusement park together that day, and now everything is changed forever. That's what really got to me.'
We have parked at a rest stop, and I offer to give Pete a massage. It seems only fair since I kicked him out of bed the night before. He lies on his mattress, and I dig deep into muscles that might as well be those of an alien creature, so different are they from any muscles I have ever felt. His back is impenetrable; his hands, a mass of calcified nodules. He says he's never had a professional massage before. What would be the point? I think. It would take years to undo what the road has done. Sex is the physical language that makes more sense really. Sex can get in.
'I want to make a list of all the things you've transported,' I say.
'Hey, can I make that list? It's in my head already,' he says. Later he recites it like a chant.
'Chocolate from Hershey; Mars bars in Minnesota; plastic pellets; polyurethane pellets; a whirlpool out of Fort Smith, Ark.; Doughboy pools; Hansen's soda -- I drank some of it; Similac; Crisco oil; Levi's out of Sulphur Springs, Texas; watermelon from Magic Mountain; 40,000 pounds of strawberries...'
The list goes on and is heady, like a love poem. I know now my erotic hunger for the road as experienced from a truck cab has something to do with touching physically the pragmatic facts of commerce in America. Nearly everything we buy has been moved by a truck with a driver with a mind spinning beautifully, or not so beautifully, through time. Like a love poem, this breaks my heart.
At dawn Pete pulls into a lumberyard in Washington State. Fog obscures the warehouse buildings that look like they haven't been painted since the '50s. Handsome, rough, flannel-shirted men with gruff demeanors smoke and drink coffee. Few words are spoken. It's as if we've stepped out of time. Pete and I make eye contact.
'It's so beautiful here,' I say.
'My wife doesn't get this,' Pete replies. For a moment, maybe he feels less alone in the world.
When we drive down I-5 back to Los Angeles we are in full-on sexual trance mode, not speaking, lost inside our heads. After six days on the road our voices are hoarse, and we are comfortable enough around each other to allow long silences. I know what's in his head because it's the same thing that's in mine. The bed behind our seats has become a stage for some really nasty fantasies. Today it's naked chicks of the Jessica Simpson variety.
'That's where the gay guys cruise,' he tells me when we pass Vista Point. I see two trucks parked on a lone hill that looks out on prairie that rolls for miles until it hits mountains whose caves the bandit Joaqu'n Murieta used to hide out in. Pete shares a story about frolicking with some men in the woods once when a driver pulled up and shined his brights on the trees, making it impossible for him to come out without exposing himself. That really sucked, he notes. A truck stop farther down the way brings up the topic of Magic and H2O, two crack-addicted whores who have become friends of his.
'I'm sorry you didn't get to meet any hookers,' he says. It's true that I was hoping to see some hooker action, but authorities have cracked down on meth, and thus the many hookers for whom it is the drug of choice. On the road, finding a willing woman with teeth is hard.
'We can go to Fresno sometime,' Pete offers. 'You'll find a lot of hookers there. I'll buy you one if I can watch.'
'Deal,' I say, but I don't really mean it, because he doesn't really mean it either. We really just enjoy each other's company and don't need much else.
'It was on I-10 between El Paso and San Antonio,' Alejandro says. 'There really isn't anything there. I was being a courteous driver, letting this guy in a Cadillac come out of the rest area. He switched lanes and everything. He came out, but he got behind me, and I look in the mirror and think, Where the fuck did he go? Right? Anyway, I got back in the lane. It's a slow lane there. He was right over there, and he pulled up, and he was in nothing but his underwear in that car. And I'm like, 'Hey now!' Anyway, that was a fun thing out on the road.'
Alejandro wants to stop the story there, but I won't let him. Tim Anderson and Alejandro, both gay men, are much more cautious and evasive about personal sexual details than Pete.
'We went to the next town, which is, like, 10 miles down the road,' Alejandro says. 'I pulled over into a spot. He pulled over next to me, and he got into the truck. He was a very dentist-looking professional guy. All I asked was, 'Do you always roll down the road dressed like that?' '
'What else happened?'
'After he gave me probably what was one of the best blow jobs of my life -- got me to climax -- he stopped and turned around for me, and he said, 'Come on.' '
'Only in Texas,' he says.
'Texas giveth, and Texas taketh away,' I say. It doesn't register at first. When it does, his warmth crosses a divide between us that I didn't know existed until it has already melted. He tells me about his truck, how sexy it felt to be up that high, going so fast.
'You know what they say about Peterbilts: Ain't nothin' sweeter than a long-necked Peter.'