With the world seemingly at a standstill because of the coronavirus, “America’s Rolling Backbone” keeps on trucking.
City streets and interstates across the United States are as empty as they’ve ever been in modern history, with the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home orders causing a drastic downturn in traveling. However, the number of big rigs on those roads hasn’t decreased at all.
“Most people don’t realize this: when you walk into your house tonight, everything you look at inside that house, including the house, was delivered by a truck driver at some point, whether it’s before manufacturing, after it was assembled, delivered to your house,” said Joe Schnittker, a part-time trucker from the Grand Valley. “The only thing inside your house that wasn’t delivered by a trucker is the oxygen you breathe. Even the fruit. Sure, you can go out to Orchard Mesa or wherever and pick fruit, but all that irrigation pipe, the seeds for the trees, the boxes they put it in, all of that, everything in our lives is touched by these truck drivers.”
Schnittker has been driving trucks for 46 years. He now delivers locally for a company that lays concrete.
In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s national emergency declaration eased regulations on how many hours truck drivers can be on the road on any given day. Under normal circumstances, truck drivers keep log books and take mandatory half-hour breaks every four hours. They can only be on duty for 14 hours a day, and they can only drive for 11.
Now, because of the coronavirus and the increased importance of deliveries, those regulations are no longer in the way.
“It’s federal guidelines,” Schnittker said. “Like anything, there’s room for improvement. It makes you spend more time away from home, but it also keeps you safer, and that’s what’s most important.”
Some truck drivers have seen their workload increase exponentially as a result of the coronavirus. Others haven’t noticed much of a change at all.
Carl Cruz was heading to Cardinal Health in Denver with medical supplies from California when he stopped in Grand Junction for food.
Though the pandemic has come with challenges for him and his fellow truckers, he admitted he has enjoyed the open roads.
Driving time going through Las Vegas has been cut to a fraction of what it typically is, Cruz said, as he’s been able to get through the gambling capital of the world in a matter of minutes instead of hours.
“The traffic through Vegas ... man it’s really been nice,” he said.
James Wood, a driver for Moon Boys Trucking, stopped in Grand Junction on Wednesday on his way to his hometown of Ladysmith in northern Wisconsin, nearly 1,300 miles away.
“It’s non-stop. It’s been an increase for me,” Wood said. “Right now, I’m hauling scaffolding, but I normally haul for the railroad. The amount of stuff we’re moving has increased. The product is going to different railroad spots. We haul a lot of construction material. We’ve been running to Las Vegas every week.”
Cheryl Polk of Elegy Trucking has been driving professionally for 22 years. The routine for the Elkland, Missouri, resident remains the same as it ever was: six days of driving a week, 10 hours of driving a day.
There’s only one thing missing from her lifestyle right now.
“I just want to sit down somewhere and have a steak dinner,” Polk said.
Bobby Chaffin has been driving for Peregrine Transportation Co. for a year and a half. He and his other three group members follow a dedicated route under normal circumstances, transporting metal planks from Jeffersonville, Indiana, to Kansas City, Missouri, three times a week.
However, the coronavirus has disrupted that route, bringing him briefly through the Western Slope of Colorado instead.
“I feel (cabin fever) all the time. I get out of my truck wherever I stop, stretch my legs,” Chaffin says.
Whenever the virus outbreak lessens and restaurants are re-opened, he’ll waste little time gathering with his group at a sit-down restaurant.
“I’m probably just going to go where the group goes,” Chaffin said. “Four of us are involved in dedicated runs and once a week, we try to stop and have supper. We haven’t been able to do that.”
Most drivers sleep in their trucks instead of hotels, so the closure of many hotels hasn’t affected them too much. However, not only are the restaurants that are still open limited to takeout, but at rest areas, bathrooms and changing stations are harder than ever to come by.
“Everybody likes to have a shower, sleep on clean sheets,” Schnittker said. “When most people go home, they can go mow the lawn or play with their kids or throw to the dog. These guys are stuck in the cab of that truck. The ones that do it, they do enjoy it.”