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Alone on the road, a trucker’s long haul as America fights the virus

Like so many other long-haul truckers, pumping wares of a gasping economy through the arteries of the nation’s highway system, Darrell Woolsey sees the changing landscape through his windshield.

Self-isolated in the cab of his 2016 Freightliner, a twin mattress behind him and the world out front, Woolsey moves from one load to the next, one truck stop to another, a game of dot-to-dot to keep business churning.

In the past two weeks, as the coronavirus spread across the country and forced most everyone into hiding, Woolsey picked up recycled plastic from Jack Daniel’s in Tennessee and delivered it to Trex, maker of composite decks, in Virginia. He carried massive steel buckets for Bobcat excavators from North Dakota to Georgia. He hauled rolls of brown paper from Alabama to Texas, radiator coils for furnaces and air-conditioners from Virginia to Iowa.

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He wonders if the truckload of trees he picked up at a Tennessee nursery and delivered to five Home Depots in Minnesota and North Dakota got sold and planted before the storm of coronavirus hit.

For now, he will keep on trucking, rumbling through these times in a diesel-powered cocoon of glass and steel, a Lhasa apso named Rusty by his side, Clorox wipes on the dash. He and other truckers are bringing the goods so that the rest of us can stay put.

Woolsey does not know when he will go home to Cheyenne, Wyo., where he has a wife and three children.

“I’m quarantined, even though I’m moving around,” he said. “So I might as well keep working, as long as I can.”

Truckers are already familiar with the type of self-isolation now facing millions of Americans: being confined to small spaces, disconnected from family and friends, unsure what the days ahead will bring. Loneliness is part of the job, even as the world passes by.

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Interaction is limited to waves and gestures, some pleasantries with shipping clerks, small talk at the truck stop.

Almost all of a day’s 24 hours, awake and asleep, are spent in the cab. When he is parked, and closes the curtains to the outside world, he is in full quarantine. He calls home. He cooks on his George Foreman grill. He watches DVDs. He posts videos to his YouTube channel. He sleeps on the little mattress.

“I live in something smaller than a jail cell all the time,” Woolsey said. “I hear other people complaining, and I’m like, get over it. There’s lots of us living like this all the time, coronavirus or not.”

He is not sure how long he can outrun the virus, or its effects on the trucking business. Fewer overseas shipments into the ports mean fewer trucks needed to haul them into the nation’s interior. Slowing production and falling revenues for American companies will trickle into the thinning bloodstream of transportation.

“Trucking is just booming, and we’ve got to move stuff to restock Costco and Walmart and all the grocery stores,” said Todd Amen, chief executive of American Truck Business Services, which provides financial services for drivers. “That’s happening right now,” he said. “It just depends on how long this lasts.”

By at least one gauge, the industry appears to be holding steady. Travel Centers of America, which has more than 260 truck stops in the United States, said that its sales of diesel, which powers most large trucks, had a double-digit spike in early March.

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Sales have settled in recent days to “positive low-single digits, year over year,” chief executive Jon Pertchik said. Predicting the next few weeks, he said, is difficult.

“We’re struggling to put any certainty into an uncertain time,” Pertchik said.

There are more than 3 million truckers in the United States, according to an industry trade group, the American Trucking Associations, and about 1.8 million of them are classified by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as operators of heavy trucks or tractor-trailers.

That includes all types, from dry vans making short hauls to tankers carrying liquids. Intermodal truckers carry shipping containers on their backs, from seaports to inland distribution centers. Reefer drivers haul refrigerated products of all kinds.

Woolsey, 52, is among several hundred thousand truckers who own and operate their own vehicles. He leases his truck and trailer to a company called Turquoise Trucking, based in Iowa. It finds him loads, stays in touch with him through a dispatcher, and gives him 85% of the negotiated rate. He pays the expenses, such as fuel and maintenance.

Truck drivers are on the move, maybe more than workers in any profession. Social distancing is only a problem when you stop and get out of the cab, which might only be a couple of times a day.

“It’s only when I walk past a couple of people to go use a bathroom, or interact with a shipper or receiver,” Woolsey said. Truckers, at least male truckers, save empty bottles to limit their bathroom stops, he said. Maybe now more than ever.

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But if they contract the virus, truckers can spread it over long distances. And truckers represent an at-risk group: mostly older males, typically with more underlying health issues than the general population. They are more than twice as likely to be obese and to smoke, studies suggest. Few have health insurance.

Woolsey is more concerned about the coronavirus affecting his family, not him, but he has noticed the precautions unspooling across the country.

He first noticed that truck stops had stopped using rollergrillers, those self-serve hot-dog cookers, a couple of weeks ago. Their dining rooms began closing to everything but takeout. Fast-food places were limited to drive-through orders, no help to a trucker.

Weigh stations seemed to be waving truckers through without as much personal contact as usual. Shippers and receivers were closing their waiting rooms to truckers, posting signs to ask them to stay in their cabs while goods were loaded and unloaded.

At Super Radiator Coils in Richmond this past week, they asked truckers to take a squirt of hand sanitizer when entering the office.

Even if Woolsey is the last trucker on the highway, there are federal limits on how far he can go — generally, 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour window each day. Driving time is logged and inspected.

He split the 1,000 miles from Virginia to Iowa into two shifts, pulling over to sleep through an afternoon. Rested, and with his legal clock reset, he drove through the night to deliver coils — “probably the innards to an A.C. unit or something,” he said — at the Lennox factory in Marshalltown, Iowa.

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Most of the trips the past two weeks earned him $2 a mile, pretty standard and about double what he needs to cover costs. But one run last week, a load of flooring headed from Georgia to New Jersey, was canceled at the last minute. The trip to Iowa earned him about $1.29 per mile.

“When that flooring load canceled on me, I thought maybe they just don’t need flooring right now,” he said. “But that low rate this week? I don’t know.”

But Woolsey is determined to see how the economics play out. His world bends with the elasticity of supply and demand. Maybe shipping will slow. Maybe truckers will park themselves.

He was waiting in Mobile, Ala., last week when another trucker said he was giving up and going back home to wait out the coronavirus.

“If there aren’t that many loads out there, but still a lot of trucks wanting loads, the rates will plummet. And I won’t make much money,” Woolsey said.

Traffic in US cities has almost disappeared, but he is a master at avoiding traffic anyway. The sensation that the country was shutting down struck him in the dark of rural Tennessee, where all-night gas stations were closed.

“It’s the middle of the night that things feel a little more ‘Mad Maxy,’ ” he said.