It was late morning, and the truckers filed through the Pilot Travel Center door, one after another. They were from Wisconsin, Kentucky, Canada, Michigan. Their trucks outside held everything from meat and toys to milk products, paper rolls, tobacco, alcohol, and auto parts.
And these drivers all needed a break.
Depending on their needs, they headed right, toward the showers, or straight ahead to the counter to grab a fax. Some shuffled over to the Subway for a sandwich, others wandered back to the ATM machines, the beef jerky section, the books rack, or other sections offering headphones, toys, pliers, towing cables, fuses, CB antennas, lots of Star Wars stuff, American flags—you name it.
After shopping, showering, or eating, most drivers grabbed a cup of always-fresh coffee—and some friendly conversation with the lady behind the register. This particular day, the lady was Tina, or, as one regular calls her, “Tina Beena.” Like the others who work this travel center, she knows the conversation may be casual, but it’s vital in a certain way, too.
“They don’t have anyone to talk to most of the day. So I strike up a conversation with our regulars. It’s important,” she said.
Eventually for these drivers, it was time to get back in the rig and on the road. Walking—or sometimes running—out the door, they climbed into their trucks at one of the eight diesel fuel lanes and rumbled their way back on the road. If their day was done, it was over to one of the 80 parking spots to get some shut-eye.
Such was the scene on a recent day at this Pilot Travel Center along I-94 in Dexter, Michigan, a typical, larger truck stop in America—or what truckers routinely call their “home away from home.”
“Trucking would be impossible without truck stops,” said owner-operator trucker “old man Jacob,” from Grand Rapids, Mich., one of the truckers at Pilot that day. He has been in the rig since 1979. “You can’t do it with no truck stops.”
Truck stops, said Chris Vallom, a six-year trucker from Prescott, Canada, answer that first, burning question OTR truckers face every morning: “Where am I going to stay tonight?”
It’s difficult to fix a value to truckers of these sprawling, neon-lit islands along America’s interstate highways. One way to think about truck stops, says Pilot General Manager Nate Harbowy, “is that it’s a kind of hotel on the road for them. Most of our OTR drivers are on the road from seven to 21 days. They’re looking for places that are easy and convenient.”
There are more than 1,500 truck stops in the U.S., according to the combined reported locations by the three giants, Pilot Flying J, T/A (TravelCenters of America), and Love’s.
These centers offer a staggering array of goods and services. This Pilot is a good example.
Here, truckers can get not just fuel (and Diesel Exhaust Fluid) and a place to shower and park for the night. The truck stop also offers check cashing services; lottery tickets; money orders; Transflo Express, a service that allows truckers to send in their invoices—essentially a scan and fax; Trip Pak overnight shipping; Western Union; a small video arcade; and enhanced Wi-Fi for a very reasonable price.
Along with the CAT (certified automatic trucking) Scale, most truck stops of any size have all of these amenities. Some also offer laundry, TV/movie theaters (albeit simple ones), and attached or adjacent vehicle washing services and motels.
The inventory in the stores is huge, and includes clothing, hats, gloves and the like, and 12-volt products such as televisions, toaster ovens, coffee makers, truck accessories such as CB radio equipment and hazmat placards, audiobooks, movies, video games and, at least at this Pilot, Beanie Babies and beaded jewelry.
This is in addition to all kinds of hardware and vehicle-related products.
The first truck stops in the U.S. popped up in the 1940s, mainly because they offered diesel fuel, which at the time was not usually available at local gas stations. The creation of the Interstate Highway System through the ‘50s and ‘60s led to much more professional truck stops created to accommodate big rigs. From that time, they have kept growing, adding services and products.
Partnerships are also a large part of truck stops today. They have connected with all kinds of food chains, from Subway, Arby’s and Bojangles to Burger King, IHOP Express, and McDonald’s, just to name a few.
Pilot also has partnered with the likes of Bass Pro Shops, among other companies, to provide products and services. And it has launched a road assistance service and the Road Warrior program, which recognizes and thanks professional drivers.
What all this translates to for truckers is a pleasant, colorful, warm place to stop, a place that exists largely for them—a home. Tina says that 90 percent of Pilot’s customers are truckers or drivers.
“They’re all different. A lot of them are even-keeled, mellow. Some are whippersnappers.”
Shannon Olliff ranks among the mellow. From Brandenburg, Kentucky, he has been driving since 1993. As he stood outside the door enjoying a smoke, he wore a baseball cap bearing his employer’s name, John Christner Trucking, which is based in Sapula, Oklahoma.
Shannon was driving a refrigerated trailer, a Kenworth T680. Like so many drivers, “I love the solitude, being by myself, being independent,” he said. Driving OTR has its price at times—for him, two marriages. He is on his third.
Wife No. 2 tried to talk him out of trucking, so he got an associate degree in computer programming. Tried it, hated it, he said.
Shannon has been known to ride with one of his Chihuahuas; he currently has three—Daisy, Roxy, and Buddy. He’s also been known to help his sister rescue dogs, driving his rig to various locations to pick up the pooches.
He’s a regular at this Pilot, and Pilot in general, he says. He gets cash rebates, cheap Wi-Fi and, important this particular day, movies. “I gotta catch up on my Sons of Anarchy,” he said.
Chris Vallom, the driver from Canada, has been on the road just six years, though he is 52. Formerly an operator of a bed and breakfast and catering company (which he still runs), he took on trucking as his son neared college age.
“It pays well, it’s very flexible. I can get weekends off if I need to, or work five, six, seven day runs.”
This Pilot is a regular stop, he said, because “it’s one hour from the Canadian border.” Plus, he likes the chocolate coffee he can make here. There is a shortage overall of truck stops, he said. He wishes there were more, so truckers didn’t have to spend nights in big, bare parking lots.
Shannon agreed. The truck stop is, in one word, “Home,” he said. “This is where we shower, where we eat. All of us here are all alike: We’re loners. But we connect at the truck stop.”