On The Road

excerpt from Behind the Camera, 1986 – 2000

For my senior seminar class, I spent the semester photographing truck drivers at the 76 Truck Stop off I94 in Calumet City, not far from my parent’s house. Truck drivers were a fascination of mine; I thought of them as modern-day cowboys. Their freedom out on the open road in their self-contained studio apartments was a lifestyle that appealed to me. I bought a CB for my car to communicate with truckers and gave myself the handle of “Cookie,” which was an unfortunate choice when drivers on the other end started asking if they could eat me. When I was not at school, I went to the truck stop to start conversations with drivers as they ate or did their laundry. I was not aware of a type of prostitute who frequented truck stops and was offended when the management accused me of being a “Lot Lizard.” I told them about my project, that I was a photojournalism student, and got the go-ahead to converse with the truckers.

The truck stop was like a bit of city unto itself, with a restaurant, coin laundromat, and a store with food, snacks, and electronics. In the store was an artisan glassblower; he made little figurines of animals and cartoon characters out of glass as truck drivers stood around and watched him work each night. They had showers, a big TV room, video games, and a bank of phone booths for calls home. Some of the truckers came through regularly, and we became friends. They would watch out from afar when I was doing interviews and vouched for me when I started taking photos of people. The project was my taste of life as a documentary photographer; I treated it as if I were on assignment for a big magazine and spent the semester capturing life at the truck stop. I learned how to talk to strangers and maneuver through uncomfortable conversations. I met many characters, but none of them were what I imagined; they didn’t seem independent and free. Many were bored, lonely, and missed their families and friends; others were divorced, living in their trucks. For the most part, they appreciated that someone was interested in what they did and opened up and let me photograph them. When the semester was over, it was clear that I would need to get out on the road to tell the whole story.

Right out of school, I received my first rejection from the prestigious Eddie Adams workshop, where award-winning magazine editors and photojournalists worked with recent grads. The connections and experience of the workshop were said to jumpstart the careers of participants by five years. If I was going to be a photojournalist, I wanted that jumpstart. Many of my friends were getting jobs at local newspapers. I couldn’t imagine cutting my teeth in the industry by taking photos at high school football games or the ribbon cutting for the new car wash in town. I was only interested in taking pictures of things interesting to me.

That summer, I took a job at a gift shop that sold and personalized keepsakes in the shopping mall by my house. It was a rough month; I had destroyed numerous ID bracelets and etched wine glasses and beer steins with crooked engravings and misspellings when I received a call that a truck driver was coming to town and could take me on a short run. A friend from Columbia made the connection for me with a friend of her son. Brian was a young truck driver, just a couple of years older than me, and was headed to Detroit to pick up a load. I called my job and told them I would not be coming back; I could have sworn I heard the manager say “Thank God” under his breath before wishing me good luck.

I hopped into Brian’s truck at my truck stop with my camera bag in hand, and we headed off. He was a new driver, and his reasons for truck driving were similar to my ideas about wanting to photograph the trucking lifestyle. I told him about my hopes for going on a long haul to experience the life of a truck driver. We used the ten-hour ride as a test run to see if we were compatible enough for an extended time together, and we got along. He had an outgoing personality and a good sense of humor and warned me that he played guitar and wrote songs in the evenings.

Weeks later, a twelve-day, long-haul trip arrived. Right away, it felt quite different than my days at the truck stop, or the test run Brian and I had made earlier that month. I wasn’t exactly prepared for an extended trip; I brought only a couple of changes of clothes and a hundred dollars. The drone of the long drive set in quickly as we drove along the interstate on our way to Texas, and I found taking photos from the truck to be limiting. Unless the scene was unusual or the lighting just right, pictures out the windows were not what I wanted. Before we left, we decided that Brian would not be the main subject of the photos. His company did not know I was with him. I would photograph people we met on the road. When we got to our first truck stop, I was excited and ready to take some photos. We ate dinner in the restaurant, and Brian went back to the truck to sleep. As I walked around, it occurred to me that there were no familiar faces there, just strangers wondering, who was the girl with the camera? I was uncomfortable and went to the TV room and watched the news before I hurried back to the truck in the dark.

I didn’t take any photos. That night, I slept in the passenger seat of the cab while Brian slept in his bed in the back, snoring and farting all night long. It was an excruciating trip; I became irritable about Brian’s lousy hygiene habits, and he made up a song about the bitchy girl with the camera, which he belted out any time I asked him to clean out the truck. My money dwindled because I kept washing my clothes and paying to take a shower every day. After the first week, I started taking birdbaths in the washrooms twice a day. Nothing was going the way I thought it would, no extraordinary moments with people, no great conversations, almost no photographs taken. My sense of purpose disappeared, I was no longer a student doing a project for school, and I wasn’t on assignment for Life magazine. The wild world was intimidating and most of my free time to take photos was late at night when weird shit happens to young women walking around an unfamiliar truck stop.

One morning I got up early and went into a truck stop outside Tulsa. It was quiet, and I saw a man opening the metal gate of a small barbershop. We struck up a conversation; he was a minister and a barber. He had his barbershop in the truck stop for several years and held services there on Sunday mornings. The barber minister was a cool-looking guy, slight with a perfectly combed black pompadour and shiny black shoes, right out of the ’50s. As we talked, a transient fellow walked in and asked for a haircut. The barber told the guy, “I’ll cut your hair for free if you let this young lady take photos.” I sat back at first and listened to the two of them talk. The poor guy warned the barber that he had a metal plate in his head from an old accident. The barber took excellent care of him, shave, haircut, and a facial. When they finished, he looked like a new man, and he thanked us both. I went to the truck and told Brian it was time for me to go home. He drove me to a bus station in East Saint Louis. I was broke and had barely eaten in days; he gave me twenty bucks to buy a bus ticket and something to eat.