“She’s what? You have to be kidding?!”
That was my first reaction when I heard that my friend Dona Omanoff was now driving a big-rig cross-country for a living. The last time I saw her, she was safely ensconced in her lovely home in Hobe Sound, Florida. Dona told me how she had been struggling to earn a living since her handsome and successful husband, David, had died in a tragic car accident.
It’s still hard to wrap my head around it. Dona the statuesque artist/photographer/author, known for her diaphanous dresses and spiritual trekking to places like Stonehenge, driving a truckload of potatoes from Idaho to LA.?
I think her story proves once again that women can do anything they want to do, and that necessity is still the mother of invention.
I’ve met many people that wanted to pursue trucking as a career, or had it on their Bucket List, but I entered a training program out of desperation. I was never able to make the art gallery financially successful, but it turned out to be a good tax write-off. Then my husband died in 2008 in a tragic accident. We had saved quite a bit of money and made smart investments, but over the next 4 years the money evaporated as I was supporting my home in Florida and an investment home in Jamaica.
Before my husband died, I had been seeking corporate work, but the unemployment numbers had skyrocketed and there simply weren’t any jobs. One day a young man was eavesdropping on my conversation during lunch with a friend and he told me about CR England’s training program for truck drivers. I went home and applied online – that was Wednesday. On Monday, I was in training at their school in Fontana, CA.
What did your family and friends think when you told them you wanted to be a trucker?
My family wasn’t too thrilled. I think they were concerned about safety, and also that the training was a scam, and that I might fail and then owe the company thousands of dollars. Many of my closest friends though were very supportive because they knew I was independent and courageous.
I also must say that I never “wanted to be a trucker.” In fact I’ve been kind of embarrassed about it. I only “came out” on Facebook six months after I started driving. I had to because everyone was asking me why I was posting photos from all over the country. The only way I can process this journey I am on now is to believe I am being guided to do this, perhaps for my own spiritual or artistic growth.
How long did it take? What kind of license? What are the hours?
I had no idea what I was in for. The first day there was 100 people at the California training facility and by the end of the week there were about 40. We got our permits within three days. I had to take five exams at the DMV, and it was very difficult, I just squeaked by, even though I studied for hours.
After getting a permit, we learned to drive within a week and in another week took the road test. I only had about ten hours behind the wheel before taking the test. It’s a class A license (CDL). Of course you have to have drug tests and are screened thoroughly by Homeland Security and the corporate compliance people. Trucks can be lethal weapons like the airplanes that struck the Twin Towers.
We also had to get up at 4 a.m. every day and be in “the yard” until 5 p.m. We were sleep deprived and stressed out. Many people that have been in prison get jobs as truck drivers, which I think is good. They need an opportunity to have employment. People from every walk of life were in our class. So many people have been affected by the economy. Every color, faith, and race was in my class.
The real training came during the apprenticeship phase where I was placed with two trainers and drove with them, completing 20,000 miles and a series of other written and road tests. Still I did not feel confident about my skills and we drove as a team for three months before driving solo. I’ve been driving by myself now since April. I had a contractual commitment with the company to pay back my training by working for them for 9 months.
I never thought about the trucking industry and its impact on our food supply, and I was never taught to respect trucks on the road either. Drivers in cars don’t think about what it takes to stop a loaded trailer of 80,000 pounds speeding down the highway.
Have you met other women truck drivers? If so, what age group were they?
I see many women drivers, but I’ve only met about twenty, and they ranged in age from twenty to sixty. My trainer was in her early twenties, and she had been driving for six years. Some of the old timers look really rough and have very jaded attitudes. I joined the Women in Trucking Foundation, and I hope to attend some of their events in the future. I am seeking out the professionals, so I can learn from them. I’m sure the few I’ve met in my short time on the road do not represent the whole industry. I think I may attract the quirky characters because I love to hear their stories.
How do the other truckers treat you?
I’ve been treated so kindly it often makes me cry. The men are helpful and not condescending. I think they remember how hard it was to learn. I think they miss their daughters and wives. They are usually protective but not intrusive.
What is the best thing about being a truck driver?
The best thing is seeing America in all its astounding beauty and also seeing the uncared for places – it expands my heart.
The worst thing?
It’s dangerous. One mistake could kill you or others, and it could mean criminal charges. Having access to healthy food and personal hygiene (just being able to wash your hands) can also be frustrating. Also the isolation is difficult at times. It’s against the law to idle the truck in most places and very costly, so it’s really hot in the middle of summer and very cold at night, though we do have bed heaters for winter.
What is the worst city or place to drive through?
West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains were more treacherous than the Rockies because I got off route. Getting off route in a non-truck friendly place is very bad. It can be miles before you can turn around, and you may get fined. I’ve had police escort me to destinations because I got lost. Random acts of kindness are plentiful on the road.
In the San Bernardino area of California, where several highways come together, and the people are driving 70 mph, merging at the speed of light is surreal. Wyoming is very dangerous in the winter because of high winds and snow drifts.
How do you pass the time when you are driving?
My iPhone is indispensable to me. I listen to TED (Technology, Education, Design) Talks, audio books downloaded from the net, and online conferences such as “The Power of Music.” You Tube videos also help pass the time. I enjoy listening to Pandora and music stored on my iPhone. Sometimes I chant and listen to divine music letting the vibrations lift me up.
Do you sleep in roadside rest areas? Aren’t you afraid?
I prefer rest areas rather than truck stops. The good ones have art and tell the story of the area with educational exhibits. Truck stops fill up after dark, and when you are a new driver, it is very hard to navigate and get a spot for the night. Sometimes they smell like urine and are dirty.
Parking areas by the side of the road are sometimes the only place available when my hours are up, and I must shut down. Many are on deserted roads out in the middle of nowhere. I try to avoid those because I don’t sleep soundly. Anyone can break into the truck easily. We are not supposed to carry weapons either, so it’s a quandary.
What are your future plans?
My goal is to live between Jamaica, Florida, and California. Right now, marketing the ebook and promoting the record company are my priorities. I will start publishing a video blog “The Yoga of Trucking” in 2015.
When you are no longer on the road what images and thoughts what will you take with you forever?
Certainly it will be the images of the road at dawn and dusk, the golden magic hours of light and transformation; when all things are shimmering and alive with dew and color. These times give way to thoughts of an unlimited universe and emotions of deep love for my life. Gratitude for the chance to live as a woman in America during this time of freedom and opportunity.
Follow Dona Omanoff’s blog and gorgeous photography here.
Photos courtesy of Dona Omanoff.
© Carole Ann Borges, 2014.