Few blue-collar professions attain anything close to the mythical standing that the popular imagination confers on the trucker. He—and it’s usually a he, despite the smattering of women who have entered the field in recent years—is a whole slew of American icons rolled into one: cowboy, gypsy, outlaw, loner. He keeps uncertain hours and sees many lonely nights, but such hardships seem heroic in our era of regimented work. And his recompense for such struggle is generous—or used to be, before the massive deregulation of the ’80s squashed many union firms and slashed drivers’ wages by 27 percent. Even with these changes, though, the highway is still the trucker’s own. Perched high above mere motorists in his long, gleaming machine, he can unblushingly consider himself king of the road.
Trucker-turned-sociologist Lawrence J. Ouellet chronicles this life in Pedal to the Metal: The Work Lives of Truckers, a study based on his 13 years’ experience working for several small California hauling firms. Ouellet frames his account as a dissection of trucking by an objective insider, emphasizing that he’s an old hand who knows the world’s rigors as well as its joys. “I never felt I was faking it,” he says of his dual life as a trucker and ethnographer. “My “true self’ includes a quite visceral sense of being a truck driver as well as a sociologist.”
These two identities don’t immediately seem compatible. And, in fact, they aren’t: The weird contrast between Ouellet’s guises of “disinterested reader” and “genuine article” permeates every level of the book. Pedal to the Metal is dominated by the dessicated jargon that academics use to impress one another with their seriousness; Ouellet even incorporates a token chart, “Prestige Ranking of Equipment,” to illustrate drivers’ preference for Peterbilt trucks over Macks. He’s a meticulous cataloger of behaviors, noting that “drivers wanted to finish [their shifts] quickly so as to have time for socializing, sleeping, and other interests.” This is not the voice of one of the boys.
But wonk or no, there’s no question that Ouellet loves trucking. Often it’s hard to see how he ever left it, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, when his dutiful objectivity gives way to rhapsody. “I think about all the sleeping people in those little towns and urban sprawls I pass by, straight, square people whose lives I sometimes envy for their routine,” he muses, devouring an imaginary road. “….Now, locked in this rhythm and enveloped in night, I do not envy them at all. I laugh at them, at their world. I am not lonely. I feel free, masterful, totally alive….I am high on the magic, and I am sorry for the squares who will never know it.”
Throughout Pedal, Ouellet tacitly weighs blue-collar freedom against the pedantic routine—but high status and high pay—promised by the ivory tower. Strangely, though, the course he charts within these pages is the opposite of his own. His central argument is that there are two competing sets of rewards that truckers experience in their jobs: “intrinsic” ones like beautiful sunsets, the pride of operating a nice truck, and a gratifying sense of machismo, and “extrinsic” ones like good pay, job security, and benefits. Pedal implies that the former is far nobler than the latter, yet Ouellet uses the example of “university professor”—his own profession—along with “account executive” to indicate a job that is damningly, insipidly extrinsic.
This tension between two forms of compensation motivates truckers’ key conflict—union vs. nonunion work. Here, just as Ouellet’s researcher pose weakens his claim to authenticity, his obvious investment in the trucker mythos hobbles his ability to be a critical observer. Ouellet, as it happened, worked only for nonunion firms; union jobs are scarce and demand a lot of experience. But according to him, the scarcity of union jobs isn’t the problem—most truckers, he claims, just don’t want union work.
Why would anyone scorn the security of a union job? The answer, according to Ouellet, lies in the intangible magic of trucking, those ephemeral payoffs that union firms can’t provide. His truckers don’t want to share plum assignments according to cumbersome union work rules; they’d rather dicker informally with management for the best runs. That means that a senior driver sometimes gets stuck with a 15-hour shift, but so be it. He simply expects the dispatchers to give him a break the next time, and if they don’t, he can always find another company.
These guys like to live the macho truckers’ image, too, driving the prized Peterbilt or Kenworth tractors that are most often used by small, nonunion companies. Senior truckers lay claim to particular tractors, which they emblazon with their names and deck with chrome on the management’s tab. Rather than feel exploited by their low wages and long hours, Ouellet’s truckers savor them as a fair price for this autonomy. They style themselves “super truckers” and take pride in their elevated priorities—priorities that often seem misplaced to the uninitiated. Ouellet describes one veteran who quit angrily when his boss refused to pay for some chrome accessories he had installed on his cab.
Despite the fact that many truckers who leave nonunion work seek opportunities with a union, Ouellet’s subjects constantly belittle union jobs and workers. “Joe” considers working at a unionized company, but decides that it would be “like giving up being a trucker.” “Burt” tells Ouellet that the union guys loaf and follow pointless rules: “It makes a mockery of work, it’s an insult to guys who give a damn.”
Such anti-union bluster sounds rather suspicious after a while. Ouellet’s take on the hierarchy of rewards looks like nothing more than an apologia for the harassed and underpaid world of nonunion trucking. The truckers he surveys seem to struggle to justify their weak position in the industry, insisting too loudly that they don’t need what the union has to offer. Ouellet’s research was conducted primarily in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he makes no mention of the upheavals in the industry that have prevented most truckers from choosing union work even if they want to.
Union guys, portrayed almost exclusively through the eyes of nonunion drivers, come off looking like dullards who readily sacrifice all that is glorious about their jobs for mundane financial remuneration—but the one time a union trucker’s voice is heard in Pedal, it begs an opposite interpretation.
“When on the road, super truckers see union drivers in their typically unattractive trucks…and they sometimes see and hear union drivers who are envious of the super trucker’s intrinsic rewards,” Ouellet explains. “For example, as I pulled out of a weigh station, I heard the union driver in front of me tell his partner over the CB radio, “Look at me, I’m driving a big CAT [Caterpillar engine]’ while purposely lugging his own low-power engine after each shift to make it emulate the CAT’s characteristic burst of exhaust smoke.” Ouellet interprets this posing as blatant longing for his own rig: “I was driving a fully accessorized, CAT-powered Kenworth, and here on the road I felt that my job, not his, was the one to be envied.”
But the union trucker’s behavior is hardly incontrovertible evidence of engine envy. It sounds more like he’s mocking nonunion haulers’ weakness for horsepower over earning power.
Big, shiny rigs aren’t just for showing up other guys; they also work wonders with the ladies. Ouellet spends several pages discussing the women who reputedly pull up beside truckers on the highway, take off their clothes, and fondle themselves. Here, again, union guys lose out—as one trucker says, “Sometimes I feel sorry for those chicken haulers and freight haulers; no woman is going to show her stuff to guys who’ll drive shit like that.”
Ouellet does emphasize that these are merely stories truckers tell, and uses them primarily as evidence of how the truckers construct their sense of themselves. But he also says that it’s happened to him, and describes one of the unique pleasures of trucking: “the couple that slowly passes by, her dress up, his hand between her legs (Did she look at me and smile?).”
It’s not just women who angle for truckers’ sexual attention. Gay men idle by the roadside, blinking their brake lights at passing trucks, or approach truckers at rest stops known as “pickle parks.” Ouellet notes that these overtures are “perhaps more common” than female exhibitionism, but he doesn’t savor them like he does the women’s flirtation—and neither do his kind of truckers. Oh, a couple of guys admit they’ve accepted blow jobs, but “both claimed to have treated the homosexual roughly.”
Truckers’ more “common response” to such signaling is to see how far down the highway they can get a man to follow them, and “they [report] the results with great glee,” Ouellet writes. He chooses not to probe this sort of dabbling, even though it casts an insistent new light on truckers’ machismo. There may well be hordes of gay men who go home, unsatisfied, from pickle parks, but it’s equally possible that at least a few kings of the road are in fact closet queens.
This whiff of latent sexual indecision is only one of the many rents in the façade that both truckers and the public so prize. Ouellet’s description of men obsessed with a symbolic image of themselves, to the detriment of all other considerations, seems authentic. But just why that image is so important—what frustrations and yearnings the cowboy hides—is never clear. It’s masked by Ouellet’s own competing myths, buried under both the sociologist’s categorizing and the trucker’s self-deception.