I fell off the tractor.
And slid down the mountain bank. In Wyoming.
So began an interesting day.
We delivered our equipment at the top of a 17-mile, winding dirt road with a tornado of red dust in our wake. The scenery was stunning. Miles and miles of rolling green hills, dotted with stunted pine trees and black cows that provided a contrast to the hillside.
I stopped at the top of the road. On the driver’s side, the bank dropped straight down.
I opened the door, held tightly onto the handle grips — always chanting the Schneider mantra: “Three points of contact.” Greg always says when you’re dealing with big equipment, things can go wrong in an instant. Hurrying is bad business in trucking. I wasn’t hurrying, but it wasn’t the same tractor dismount that I am used to.
I reached down, stretching my leg until I could feel the ball of my foot on dirt. My toes were pointed up the mountain. As I let my heel down, it pulled me backward at just the same instant I let go of the hand rails. My ankle went over, I fell and did a backwards somersault as I instantly realized I was about to roll down the mountainside. I pushed out my right foot and dug into the dirt, twisting and rolling sideways. Thankfully, I came to a dusty stop.
I looked up, the sky was starting to rotate, the same way it spins after a bottle of Chianti. Greg was staring down at me from the open tractor door in disbelief.
Shit! My ankle hurt. I was dizzy. I wanted to throw up. But miraculously, covered in dirt and little sticks, I was unscathed. I can safely say that I am one of the most agile 53-and-a-half-year-old truck drivers on the road today. I credit the bathroom pliés (pron. plee – ehz) that I started two weeks ago when I thought my balance wasn’t as good as it could be.
A plié is the basic ballet exercise. While brushing my teeth in the women’s restroom at the Petro or the TA, wherever we happen to switch drivers, I arrange my feet in first position. Heels together, toes pointed out to make a “v”. I bend my knees and keep my heels on the ground. Then l lower myself, letting my heels lift slowly until I’m in a crouch, nearly sitting on my heels, my back straight and my arms out at my sides. Then I slowly reverse the process, standing up straight until my feet are flat on the ground again. It’s great for the balance and the leg muscles.
I’ve done a million in ballet lessons from the time I was six until I was a teenager. I don’t hang onto the counter. I keep my arms in the basic ballet arm position, holding them out from the shoulders, hands above the waist. The first time, I could barely heave my butt up twice before giving up. The morning of the fall, at a Sinclair truck stop, I had worked myself up to eight. I’m convinced I wouldn’t have recovered from that somersault and stopped my fall without being injured, if not for that little bit of conditioning.
After that little misadventure, and the equipment unload, we headed down the mountain, we stopped at the first truck stop because Greg could hear air gushing. We found that a rear trailer tire had been punctured. We drove 30 miles to the nearest repair shop in Wheatland, Wyoming. We were second in line behind a fertilizer truck.
The driver looked interesting to me, so I started talking to him. He appeared to be my age, he was a little less than six feet, handsome and fit, with a close-cropped, but scraggy grey beard. He wore denim coveralls and a red t-shirt. What really caught my eye were his nice teeth. They were straight and white. Whether he had good genes, had braces as a kid, or good dental work as an adult, he clearly put some importance in caring for his teeth and there was money to back it up.
When I moved to America, I was shocked by the number of toothless middle- and working-class Americans, especially the number of young people and particularly in the South, away from the well-paying, benefit-heavy, manufacturing jobs in the North, where unions were strong in the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s.
In 2004, while we took shelter from a tornado warning in a one-story, brick Waffle House in Yulee, Florida, I eyeballed the employees with my intense, Asperberger-like inspection, a habit Greg has learned to ignore. I leaned over my menu and in my inappropriately-loud whisper said, “Everyone working here is missing some teeth, but they all have a cellphone.”
In Louisville, Kentucky, I met a FedEx driver who was missing several front teeth. So, confronted by this company driver in Wyoming sporting such nice choppers, I just had to know more. I asked how much he got paid. “Ten dollars an hour?”
“Naw,” he said. “This is Wyoming.”
“Nooo, this is Wyoming. I have endorsements for doubles, triples, tankers and HazMat. I started at $8.25.”
He leaned forward and smiled. “And I have a degree in electrical engineering.”
Wow. Now I was really curious. Why was he doing this? I asked him if he had children. No, he said. No family left in the state. Parents died a couple of years ago, brothers and sisters had long since moved away “across the states.”
“Why do you stay?” I finally asked, point blank.
“I like it here,” he shrugged and smiled again. I had so many more questions. Was he staying in Wyoming for a relationship? Had he given up looking for work in his field? Or did he not want to work in his field anymore? Did he have retirement savings? Did he own a house? But his tire repair was complete and he was on his way.
I started working through the math. Let’s say he makes $9 an hour. After a modest $12 a day for withholding tax, that’s $60 a day, $1,200 net a month. Rent may be cheap, but in Wyoming he needs a vehicle to get everywhere, gas is expensive, heating fuel is expensive, food is expensive. Does he have health insurance?
Is he part of what my friend calls, the “New Lost Generation,” Americans over 50 who have been downsized, their incomes carved in half, their retirement savings either non-existent after too many years living beyond their means, or decimated by Wall Street’s greed.
Will he be caught in the “Psychic Crash,” an analysis in NewsWeek’s cover story, United States of Narcissism. It says self-obsession in the U.S. has risen to epic
proportions and there could be dire economic consequences. The evidence is mounting that Americans are encountering more inequality and less mobility, and the argument that lower taxes will increase jobs by spurring the rich to spend — a belief held dearly by truck drivers — is simply not true. The evidence also indicates that younger generations will be poorly equipped to secure their economic futures, not only because taxpayers’ wealth has been handed over to, and mismanaged by, the private sector, but because the necessary investments have not been made in education, research or innovation.
It makes my head spin and I worry about where we’re going as a nation.
Anyway, back in Wheatland, it turned out we had two punctured tires, so we took the opportunity to hit Safeway for some provisions in preparation for four days of driving and sleeping, first to California, then Kentucky.
We stumbled onto BJ’s Barbecue on South Street at Ninth, where we met Brandon, the BBQ chef. He told us he was originally from Wyoming and left for 18 years, working as a self-taught chef around the country. A friend had convinced him to return, complaining there was no good food in town.
With music from the local radio station blaring out of his red pickup truck, we sampled the pulled pork — yummy! We also had ribs with a blueberry barbecue sauce, baked beans, and coleslaw with raspberries, all winners. Brandon had decided to go healthy with the sides. He said he ordered fresh green beans that morning and was planning to put them on the menu later this week with potatoes and bacon bits.
I wanted to try those, too. We have to come back, I told Greg. It was time for me to crawl into the sleeper. Greg planned to drive a back road through to Fort Rawlins before meeting the Interstate.
My ankle was a little sore but ice helped. I needed sleep.
The next day, my ankle was much better. And now, I’m up to 10 pliés.