The dinner-plate moon’s still high as Sarge steers his tractor-trailer onto Middlebrook Pike, but the road is already wide-awake. Located near the crossroad of I-75/40 and parallel to a gas pipeline that runs clear to Texas, Middlebrook is the beachfront property of the trucking world, a prime stretch of real estate flanked by bustling transport companies—one of which is Sarge’s employer, Dark Star LLC. Truckers like to get an early start, and this morning is no exception. Sleepy headlights funnel into the darkness. Engines grunt and belch with the strain of warming up. Tailpipes fart great, stinking plumes of exhaust.
Settling into his air-ride bucket seat, Sarge’s mind is occupied with thoughts of chili-cheese dogs, his truck-stop breakfast of choice. But today he’s got a passenger who’s taking notes, and his wife sent him off with an earful of sound advice: Don’t talk politics, don’t talk religion and, for god’s sake, lay off the chili-cheese dogs. He chuckles, “She knows what they do to me. Even I wouldn’t want to be in the same cab as me after I’ve eaten one of those things.”
Meanwhile, over in the passenger seat, I’m struggling to remain conscious and beginning to see the logic in those sketchy trucker-crack pills they sell in gas stations. My eyes keep fluttering shut, but between the engine’s cranky grumble and the fact that my body feels like a slab of vibrating Jell-o, there’s no chance of falling asleep.
By the time we merge onto the near-empty interstate, the eastern edge of the sky has lightened to periwinkle blue, giving way to a peachy-rose a few moments later. Sarge has seen plenty of sunrises from behind steering wheels in his time—the 57-year-old trucker has been piloting big rigs since he was 18—but neither the spectacle nor the occupation has worn out its welcome.
Granted, the latter has come close. “Trucking made for a decent paycheck, but it didn’t make for a decent family life,” he explains, backing up his statement with a story that sounds more like some prototype country-western ballad. Cumulatively, Sarge’s line of work has cost him two wives, who sought divorce when the reality of an absentee trucker-husband set in. Back then, he’d stay on the road for weeks at a time; he says there were times he’d come home and even his dog wouldn’t recognize him. On several occasions, he traded trucking in for other occupations, including working as a cowboy, a firefighter and a scuba instructor, but ultimately resigned himself to his fate. “I always end getting back in the damn truck,” he jokes.
Finally, Sarge found a good sport in his third wife, who packs him lunch in the morning and even enjoys riding along on occasion. And his current job with Dark Star sends him on day runs around the region instead of cross-country hauls. These days, sticking closer to home suits him just fine. His gray-whiskered grin is a familiar sight at area truck stops, and clients wave like old friends when he pulls up to their loading docks. When we fuel up at a truck stop outside Knoxville, even the groggy-eyed cashier seems to recognize him—less his unorthodox breakfast. Next to the counter, plump brown hot dogs glisten beneath the rotisserie’s heat lamp. Sarge ogles them lustfully, but walks out empty-handed.
Lugging myself back into the rig, I wonder aloud about the trucking paraphernalia I’d seen inside: tricked-out CB radios, mini pizza-ovens with dashboard plug-ins, a cheerfully offensive assortment of mud-flaps and confederate flags. Sarge says he has a trashcan full of radios at home, but that we won’t be needing one today. I’m mildly disappointed, as I’d had my heart set on using the handle “Large Marge.” He assures me, in a fatherly tone, that it’s all for the best.
This marks the second time in the same day Sarge has sheltered me from imminent sexual harassment, or worse—the other being his insistence that I tag along with him in the first place. My original plan involved visiting a few truck stops, interviewing truckers and maybe hitching a ride out of town and back. Which, as it turns out, is a bad idea. “Have you ever heard of ‘lot lizards’?” asked one former truck driver I spoke with, rhetorically referring to the prostitutes who frequent truck stops. They hang around the lot, knocking on windows, climbing in and out of willing cabs. My research methods aren’t that thorough.
After a quick stop in Dandridge, during which Sarge unloads some timber and pink insulation for a man who looks like Willie Nelson, we continue on our way. The coffee I’d picked up at the truck stop begins kicking in, and Sarge’s arsenal of stories lifts the mood. He prattles on about shrimp boils in Florida, mudslides in California, cattle roundups in Colorado, debauchery in Cozumel. Cities, mountains, coastlines… if he hasn’t lived there himself, he’s seen it from the interstate.
“People become truck drivers for different reasons, but it gets in your blood,” Sarge says. I ask him if he ever runs out of things to think about, and he shakes his head. “Oh, no, I can always find something to contemplate.”
He notices things about the outside world, for instance, that have a tendency to blend in with the scenery for the rest of us. When we pass by what appears to be a thicket of scraggly sticks, Sarge points to the shrub’s already-peeking buds and predicts a good berry-picking season. He takes note of the random sprinklings of daffodils and snowy-blossomed Bradford Pears, and he narrates our entrance onto each new highway with a historical or personal antidote. It’s the details, he says, that get him through his day. “We get to see the same things over and over, but we get to watch them change through the seasons,” he says.
Still, occasional boredom is inevitable. To keep himself entertained, Sarge says he has a soft spot for “wacko right-wing radio”—AM 1470, out of Maryville, being a favorite. The shows he holds closest to his heart are the ones in which callers claim to have extraterrestrial lovers or possess secret knowledge about planets inhabited by the spawn of fallen angels. He loves conspiracy theories, and has a few of his own.
But the scenery he passes can be equally fascinating. At times, the backwoods towns offer a kind of visual manifestation of the call-in shows’ eccentric discourse—I finally lost count of the homemade “Jesus Is Coming!” signs. At others, the landscape is so visually stunning, it’s a feat not to run off the road. The interstates and highways we’re taking today snake between, and sometimes over or under, curvaceous North Carolina mountains, tracing the outline of steep-sided gorges and railroads and sparkling rivers.
At one particularly picturesque overlook, just before a stop in the small town of Murphy, Sarge pulls off the road. We climb onto the truck’s flatbed, and heft ourselves onto the last remaining pile of cargo. It’s just stopped raining, and a cool, blue mist oozes upward from the still-leafless mountains.
Confronted with this moment, trucking suddenly strikes me as being among the most romantic, most literary, most bohemian of professions—the wayward roaming, the streaming landscapes, the freedom, as James Agee put it in his article “The Great American Roadside,” to “move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it.”
But later, when I ask Sarge if he’s ever read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road , he just cocks his head in confusion. “You know,” I clarify, “that beat-era book where these guys are running back and forth across the country, just because they’ve got to keep moving, they’ve just gotta go?”
His final answer comes swiftly. “Nope, never heard of it.”