June 2018 – Cynthia Tobin

In the middle of a March snowstorm I entered this world in the bunk of an early 60’s Peterbilt. Born to a trucker who picked up a young pregnant teen about to burst, and then married her after we were born. It was somewhere outside Toronto I made my entrance into this world following my twin brother. So I don’t know if this early root in trucking is what sealed the fate of this gypsy soul, or not. Throughout my childhood I had a love for trucks. Trucks came and went as fast as the stepfathers, but the two things consistent were the bikes and the trucks. I loved the smell of the diesel.

At an early age we had fields of upon fields of hay. My first memory of being in a truck was sitting on my Grampa Bennett’s knee and steering that big old GMC, rather erratically, around the fields. Grampa worked the pedals and sticks – I just steered. Oh the freedom! The beginning of a lifelong love affair.

Through the years I perfected the twin sticks and was soon able to work the fields on my own. I would spend every spare moment in the seat and was teased because I was a girl and girls don’t drive trucks.  Well here I am, thirty four years later, happily employed, and proudly driving for a Winnipeg based company.

Looking back over an almost 35 year career, I reflect upon the road that has brought me here. It’s been a long one with no shortage of hills to climb and overcome. Growing up in an highly racial era I was mulatto. At that time, by almost anyone’s account, I was a freak. A cross breed, and a few other rather discriminatory names. I was never quite white enough and never quite black enough to be accepted. Instead I was teased mercilessly by my peers. At times I literally feared for my life. All the while learning the life lessons I would one day need – they unknowingly gave me strength. One of life’s repeated lessons. Perhaps It was the skin thickening teachings that I would need later in life, or the lesson on just how it feels to be the underdog. I will never know any one of a thousand reasons fate put me through this but it’s more than likely why I have zero tolerance for bully behaviour.

After having left home at fifteen. I took odds and end jobs, mostly around trucks, to support myself while I finished school. Staying put in one place just wasn’t me. So, l replaced the hobo stick and hankie for a backpack and set out to see the world, hitching a ride anywhere I could. I never accepted rides from anyone in a car, I just knew I was safe with a trucker. Those knights of the highway were a safe haven. I travelled every state and province from the passenger seat of one semi or another all the time wanting to be just like them. Out there rolling through town after town in the still of night, while the world slept. I wanted to be that safe haven for lost souls, I wanted to become the very best trucker I could be….I wanted to be the inspiration to others that these unsung heroes were to me.

Every one of those fellas taught me something as I watched the way each had their own groove. The way they clutched, the way they shifted. I listened to the sounds each engine made as they crept along the highways. These rough and tough highway cowboys rolling along on the adrenaline rush of dedication. Most of all I heard their stories. Watched the way their eyes lit as they spoke of their journeys. Good and bad they all taught me something. Little did I know it then just how much those bits and pieces would become my story.

I stepped out of a truck on Christmas eve some thirty six years ago. The roads were closed and I stood in the stillness surrounded by the beauty only fresh fallen snow can give and as I gazed in awe at the mountains against the moonlight, I felt at home. I quickly obtained a residence and settled in but the itch to drive was burning deep within me. So, knowing I could drive, and having family in the business, I headed to Kelowna where I looked up a lost relative and then never looked back.

That is where I started my driving career. Although for family, getting my license was no easy task but 3 attempts later I proudly had my licence in hand and was handed the keys to brand new 1983 GMC General with a 9 speed Fuller Roadranger Transmission. Looking back now, that truck was my stepping stone and I knew that if I could navigate the Rocky mountains in that baby, I could eventually drive anything. Being of small build but five foot eleven inches tall, I had the legs to reach the clutch, and an attitude to ignore the heckling. Yes, heads turned when out of the truck stepped a girl but I never was one to use my feminine wiles to get things done. From tossing a tarp to chaining locking houses, oversize loads and heavy haul work, if I couldn’t do it, I kept at it until I got it done. There were times that I asked for help but that was not very often. Stubborn pride? Perhaps.

My Uncle had plans for me and rolling the hills was not in the cards right away. It started out as a yard jockey at first. Looking back, I see this was perfecting my backing up. I used to laugh and ask if I was going to be the backwards hauler? Little did I know just how useful those skills would become. My uncle took the time to make sure I was good and ready to roll the mountains. So until then, I did local. Round and round I went hauling everything from swing meat to houses. Learning the way each trailer felt with varying weights and load types. After a year of running local, oil changes and brake adjustments on all of our nineteen trucks, I was officially (by Uncle’s standards) ready to step up to doing regional. Spending most of the next year running the Kootenay mountains and chaining up, I almost threw in the keys. Yet those words of Gramps kept echoing in my head. Pushing me on. Eventually I moved into Long haul where I remain.

Today I specialize in the Expedited Perishable Reefer sector. I consider myself a definite professional in my choice of trucking. I love the challenges thrown my way, like weather, alpine highways and other unforeseen elements. Meeting delivery times with a 100% success rate to date. Something I am very proud to have maintained all these years.

Throughout my career I have been honored to have seen the world through many a windshield. From the German autobahn to the mines of Canberra. With stops in Asia, The Netherlands, Mexico and the good old U.S. of A.

With each place I drove I was like a sponge learning the differences from one country to the next. Seeing how commerce ran. The cultural challenges faced with being a foreigner in a strange land were lessons well taught. Lessons that gave me, unknowingly at those times, some of the most valuable tools I would need throughout my career.

Back in the day, as I sat on Gramps knee and we roared around the fields, He used to gently whisper “that’s right, you can do this” other times he would tell me “There’s nothing you can’t do sparrow, work a little harder” words from the greatest influence in my life. Words I have never and will never forget. Sometimes, when life requires that extra little push, I hear those words again.

Don’t misunderstand me, my life’s not been an easy one out here. Sacrifices had to be made and few outsiders understand what it takes to be a trucker, yet here I was killing it with my kids in the bunk, living a life full of riches no money could buy.

What a road it was in getting here. After several tragedies in my family I struggled to find a place where I belonged. I didn’t know it then, but I was running away. Away from a world, my world forever changed. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Trucking left a hole in my heart as my worlds collided in personal tragedy. So I set out to find myself.

Once overcoming the language barrier of Germany, I took notice of the incredible differences between trucking the autobahn and our mighty Trans Canada. The quality of life for a trucker there is so very different. There they put more focus on family and a truck stop meal would be considered  a four star restaurant here. All on all, I made some great friends but despite the very different trucks, it was a challenge I quickly grew bored with.

While waiting to load one afternoon a couple of the fellas were talking about China. I had always fascinated with Asia ever since reading, “The Oriental Dreamer.” So 4 days later I was sitting in Xìan ready to drive the rice trucks. It was an experience I was in no way ready for. The top speed on that old Dongfeng was 35 miles an hour. What year was it? I had no clue. It had an open box much like a dump truck without a gate and every shift ground and every joint creaked as they had no idea what grease was. Each morning I would fire up this dinosaur that I had named Clinger, as it felt like it belonged in an episode of M.A.S.H. and we would head down to the water spout where we loaded thirty two inches of the dirtiest water I had ever seen. Then we headed out to the mines, up some of the narrowest donkey trails laden with switch backs and hair pin loops covered in clay and gravel. All the while passing hordes of workers in the rice banks all hunched over in a foot of water. It truly was picture perfect in those fleeting moments of stolen glances, while trying to navigate and swat away the dinga gnats before they feasted on the sunrise smorgasbord I was providing them. We drove for what seemed like an eternity to the mine where we were directed to a loading tunnel. We would proceed in the dark unlit tunnels to the loading shafts and then back in and wait. The first thing that hits you is the overwhelming smell of garlic. The very hot and glowing Arsenopyrite bits and pieces would drop down the shaft into the salted water of our trucks where the steam released would give us a very garlic smelling sweat bath.

After about two hours of this assault on the senses we were ready to leave. Every time I left the mines I asked myself “What on god’s good green earth made me do this?” – the answer never came. They were long days, sixteen to twenty hours of round trips to the ship yards. Then came the day they sent a couple of us to the Pyrite mines. Again the over powering stench of the mine made me question my sanity. Once loaded, our lead, who’s only apparent job was to get us to the loading depot, lost us. I am not sure if anyone ever recovered that truck and load, but after four hours I made my way back to town, gathered my belongings and literally jumped ship. I hitched a ride on the Meong Truong cargo ship. I had no idea where it was headed but it had shipping cans on it and to me, that meant trucks. So for a few days I got to earn my keep logging temps and fuels. If nothing else on that barge stunt I realized I was no sailor.

I touched land next in Port Hedland, Australia and I was so excited to be there. After speaking to many of the locals I headed to the Canberra region landing a job driving for the iron ore mines. They were kinda skeptical of this waif of a girl claiming she could drive a truck. I felt their laughter. Yet time and time again I proved them wrong as I never missed a shift in any one of their several types of lorries. After 3 weeks of being tested and hit on, I had had enough of being the joke.

I spoke with Abe, a big rather intimidating fella and instead of heading home I signed on with a company out of Noonamah driving a truckee train, also known as a road train. These trains are huge units, consisting of a truck and four to twelve trailers. The trailers are hooked up by what’s called converter dollies. There are many forms of combinations, the most common being the three trailer or two trailer combination. A road train can be up to 53 metres in length and up to 80-120 tonnes in weight. When looking back in the mirror, well, let’s just say it’s a long way to look back.

On a normal road, if there is such a thing, special permits are needed to run a train. Roads in the Outback are mostly one lane. There are no freeways or super highways here. I have to commend Western Star trucks as the pulling power was truly phenomenal in these. That started my love hate relationship with Western Stars.

The road trains are a crucial link in the Outback. They are the only possible way to get the freight through to small outback towns. I was surprised to find that very remote Aboriginal communities rely totally on the road trains. In some places, if it weren’t for the trains, it could be months before a truck can get back to them so a normal semi-trailer load just isn’t big enough.

Another thing I was totally not prepared for was the vastness of the Australian outback. The Outback is huge so the importance of  the road trains and the knowledge and skill of the drivers is very important. It can fool a lot of tourists, which I still considered myself, who look at a map of Australia and think it does not look very big. They can get themselves into all sorts of trouble if they are not prepared. The Outback of Australia is also a beautiful place but it can quickly turn deadly too. This I learned after being thrown into the seat of a lorry with my first train of eight cars behind me. There were many hazards driving such a huge truck on rugged roads that are in many cases just a track. With all those wheels rolling and rumbling on the rugged terrain I needed to get used to changing tires. As you can well imagine that is very hard work in the blazing heat!

The animals, in the Outback, roam freely and graze on the side of the road. They are big animals and there’s always at least one that will stand in front of your truck. If you try and stop a road train quickly –  it’s just not going to happen. That’s why you see the big bullbars or as we call them, moose bumpers, on the front of Aussie trucks – they keep the animal from crushing the grill and rad if you hit one.

When people think of ‘road trains’, they usually think of livestock and trailers full of cattle. But they haul everything – fuel, machinery, cattle, sheep, food and everything else a community needs. They also haul tons and tons of product out of the big mines in their ‘side tippers’. This was the area I quickly adapted to. At that time there was no communication with the trucks so I pretty much had to be a ‘bush mechanic‘ and be able to get myself out of trouble as best as I could! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like in the outback if it were not for the road trains and their drivers. They truly are an essential and very intricate part of life. Overall it’s a dangerous lifestyle but, as a certified road train driver, I can tell you, ‘By crikey, it’s great fun!’

Reflecting back on some of the stranger things I have been through out here on the road, I have to smile. Yet nothing taught me more patience than a trip I took where I had to pick up a load of cucumbers at a hothouse location. They didn’t have an address, just directions. They were, “take the left at the fork in the road” which I did. Up, up and over the mountain I went. As I passed the last shack on the left the road eerily began to narrow as it turned to gravel. Still, upwards I went. As I reached the summit where a greenhouse should have stood, there all alone was a tree. With a rather steep decline just behind it. As the sun set, looking around at my predicament, I had only one option. So using that stubborn determination, and with Gramps words loud in my head, I threw her in reverse and inched my way backwards. The forty five minute uphill climb seemed to take an eternity to back down from. In all the miles throughout my career, over the tundra and through any kind of weather, no amount of hairpin turns or ice slicked highways left me sweating more than this backward adventure did.

As I looked back in the bunk at the two children sound asleep, I praised my Uncle who took the time to teach me right, and my gramps for giving me the strength to believe in myself. Never have I been more certain of the gifts they bestowed me than I was seeing my two kids drooling in the bunk as they slept. After completing the ground kissing ritual and self-back patting I proceeded – taking the right fork. Not far up the road I came upon another fork but this time I called the greenhouse who advised me to take the left fork.

Yeah, I have been down many roads. Not all of them good ones. But all valuable. Not in cargo – in lessons. With every road I see new things. I meet new people and when I can, I try to help those around me. As this job offers plenty of opportunities to help.

It’s been a great run. Having been an Owner Operator, an independent operator and am now moved into the seat of a company driver. I have sat for miles with 4 permanent seat positions, but have hauled everything and anything from diamonds to dirt, and almost everything man made. I thoroughly enjoy the company I work for. They have my 110% dedication. A fantastic group of people, who work hard and are without doubt the very embodiment of professionalism within the industry.

I have been fortunate enough to have come into what I would call “The greatest era of trucking.” People often ask me “why don’t you get into hauling something else?” Fact is, After having hauled almost everything, Expedited Perishables is what I do best.

I have met so many wonderful people along the way like Mikey. I would bump the dock and this was the one place my kids were greeted with a midnight snack. It was the only place they would stay awake for. Mikey, and those like him and I have remained friends throughout the years.

My greatest treasures are my wonderful children who accompanied me many of the miles I travelled. Mostly homeschooled in the truck, they had an education that only time could afford to teach as we rolled on. No they didn’t have all the designer clothes and latest fads. But we had what so many kids of their era didn’t – good solid family time.

From the People to the wide open spaces, I have kept coming back as my gypsy soul cannot sit still too long. Would I change a thing about my lifestyle? Not at all.

In a truck…. I am home.