New life of a trucker: Less traffic. More hours. And so much kindness

Aliyah Chavez

Native truck drivers across the U.S. report similar changes tied to the pandemic: long shifts, extra precautions, fewer wrecks and more “thank yous.”

When Ornell Wilson gets home from a long shift at work, she tells her children to go to their rooms. She immediately sprays her shoes with disinfectant.

Once the coast is clear, she sheds her clothes at the door, throws them in the wash and hurries to the bathroom to take a hot shower. When she is finally clean and changed, she goes to find her kids.

“I have a fear of bringing the virus home because of my family,” Wilson said. “I have young kids. Usually they run up on me and hug me the second I get home. It breaks my heart that I have to tell them, ‘Hold on, don’t touch me yet.’”

Wilson, Diné, adopted the new routine as one of the millions of truck drivers considered essential workers in the U.S. As others hunker down, they’re on the road 24/7, delivering things like food, lumber and fuel.

Wilson and other Native truck drivers say they’ve seen similar changes tied to the pandemic: an increase in their hours and extra safety precautions. They’ve witnessed good things too, like less traffic and more “thank yous” and acts of kindness from strangers.

Wilson works for Dr. Pepper in Houston, delivering products from a local plant to grocery stores across the city.

“I just can’t believe that people are buying so much soda during this pandemic,” Wilson says.

Before the outbreak, she worked an eight-hour shift. Now, she reports to work at 3 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t finish until 6 p.m.

“All of us are tired. We have been working, like, 14- or 15-hour days. My life has been working and sleeping. That’s pretty much it,” Wilson says, laughing.

There’s another challenge for truckers like Wilson: As states have closed truck stops and rest areas to curb the number of people on the road, getting a quick bite to eat has gotten harder.

Many fast-food restaurants have closed their dining areas, making drive-thru the only option – which is tricky when you’re in a truck the size of a blue whale.

“I lucked out the other day at the taqueria though,” Wilson said. “The cashier asked if I was a truck driver. I said yes. He thanked me and then paid for my food. That was the first time someone has ever done that for me.”

Across the country in Juneau, Alaska, Joel Williams, Tlingit and Haida, delivers fuel.

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Joel Williams, Tlingit and Haida, delivers fuel in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Joel Williams)

His job is to take fuel that arrives on a shipment from Seattle and haul it to commercial buildings or apartments so people can run their heaters.

Williams estimates 90 percent of Juneau is heated by fuel oil.

“If we weren’t able to do our job, a lot of people would be very cold,” Williams said.

In mid-March, rumors that a Seattle port was shutting down sparked an increase in people ordering fuel, Williams said. Usage has also gone up with residents sheltering at home.

Williams says all of his coworkers have been working tirelessly to keep people warm.

“With one week of no freight to our town, it would be absolutely catastrophic,” Williams said. “Sometimes rural villages fly to Juneau to order their food and supplies. If there were no freight, it wouldn’t affect just Juneau but all of the remote villages who rely on us too.”

Like Wilson, Williams says he is diligent about washing his clothes at the end of the work day. He wipes his truck with disinfectant and wears surgical gloves.

“The biggest impact on me is that I was out there doing my job while the shelves were going empty,” Williams said. “We needed to be able to shop too. Many of my coworkers are family men.”

There’s a bright side for Williams too.

“I see the elderly who sit by the window and wave thanks to me,” Williams says. “And now that the kids are home, sometimes they stand on the porch and want to watch me do my job.”

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Bryon and Tammy Wascomb are general freight contractors. The married couple are semi-retired and say they enjoy their job because it gives them the opportunity to travel. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Wascomb)

When Bryon and Tammy Wascomb began driving two and a half years ago, they planned for adventure. They wanted to see the United States in their truck, which they named Ruby.

“Now we’re quarantined to the truck … We pretty much only get out when we need the restroom,” Tammy said, chucking. She is Cherokee and Delaware. Her husband is non-Native.

The couple says they’ve “hauled just about anything you can think of.” Previously they transported animatronic dinosaurs for a Jurassic West show. Another time they transported a particular type of grass from the Navajo Nation to Florida for a race horse.

Since the pandemic, they’ve been hauling necessities like large amounts of pet food and cardboard.

“We take the cardboard to various plants because they turn it into toilet paper,” Byron said. The couple says there has been a large demand for this.

On a normal schedule, the Wascombs estimate they deliver one “hot load” — shipments that must get to a location as fast as possible — every month. In the past three weeks, they’ve doubled that.

Before the virus hit, the Wascombs were planning to take a break from work to see their family. That is not the case anymore.

“We decided we wouldn't go home until we know it's all cleared up,” Tammy said. “We haven't seen them since Christmas so right now it's hard.”

A pleasant surprise for all of these truckers is a decrease in traffic and accidents — and an increase in kindness.

Before the pandemic, Wilson said people weren’t shy about throwing her the bird or yelling at her through the window. On usual days, she would see small children signaling to blow her horn.

Now, she sees people wave at her and even sees adults signaling her to honk.

“I’m getting a lot of thank yous lately, and it makes me feel really good,” Wilson said.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix Bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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