By Exodis Ward, NMIndepth
As my Dad packed his bag for his next trip, we talked about how coronavirus had affected his work. A truck driver that keeps food on tables, toilet paper in bathrooms, and medicine on shelves, he has a crucial role in an economy battered by the coronavirus.
When the pandemic first hit and panic buying cleared grocery shelves, there was a moment when the value of those who drive through the night to deliver important goods across the country came into national focus. But largely, it’s an unseen role.
My pandemic experience has been vastly different than his as city ordinances advised me to stay home and only go out when necessary. But I’ve been wondering, what is life like when you’re an essential worker who has to be on the road during a pandemic?
Dining on the road more complicated now
Dad started folding his shirts as he mentioned one of the most basic challenges for him: eating. So accessible at home, food is nearly impossible to find while on the road.
Dining rooms at restaurants have been closed for a while, which means he can’t order food. That leaves the drive-thru as his last resort, but even then, it’s not really an option.
“I have food in the truck, but when you’ve been driving from dusk until dawn, you’re too tired to fix something to eat,” he said. “With Covid-19, people don’t want you walking up to the drive-throughs even though you showed ‘hey, there’s my truck.’ I cannot bring it through a drive-thru because it’s built for a car that’s no more than 6 feet long.”
Dad’s employer passed out emergency kits filled with granola bars, but for the most part, he meal preps to make his life easier.
More hours behind the wheel
There are more obvious problems arising from the pandemic, like longer work shifts. While talking about panic buying, how it led to suppliers to send out more stock and pushed drivers to work more frequently, he sorted pills into their container.
Driving for extended periods of time is harsh on the body. Prolonged sitting can cause health issues like swelling in the legs, blood clots and back pain. At its most basic form, driving is exhausting. Dad’s never complained once, but I’ve seen it in the way he knocks out while we’re watching a movie or how he’s snoring after five minutes of laying down. He is utterly wiped and usually takes a day to recover.
Exhaustion exposes drivers to risks like road hypnosis, especially at night when they need to be hyper-vigilant because they can only see a short distance ahead.
“You’re looking for other drivers on the road; there’s deer and elk you have to dodge. I haven’t hit one, thank God. There’s a lot of hazards you have to look out for,” he said, pausing as he counted out medicine.
Coffee helps, he said. “I have a coffee cup that says Loves’ on it, so whenever I get coffee, it’s a refill and doesn’t cost me anything. I like to turn the music up or talk to my friend, Ken. Being observant and watching what’s going on around you is the main thing.”
Staying vigilant to stay safe
When the new coronavirus first made an appearance, no one was really sure how it spread. Now, five months into it, we understand that Covid is spread through bodily fluids like spit, which is why it’s so important to wear a mask.
This raises a problem for companies where employees switch trucks often, but my dad is lucky. He has an assigned truck that no one else drives.
The next biggest concern when it comes to keeping the virus at bay is how to keep up with hand washing. In addition to hand sanitizer, the company my dad is with only schedules stops at truck stops, which is great because he always has access to hot, running water.
Truck stops present their own set of problems though, with large numbers of people coming in and out from different locations. They could easily turn into hotspots for the virus especially in places like the showers, where people linger. To avoid this, truck stops have required everyone to wear masks and they’ve become more vigilant in their cleaning, he said.
“They’ve always done this, especially the Loves’ that we stop in Killeen. Every time you come out, they go in and spray everything down. They make sure they spray the bathrooms, wipe them down, and change out the towels every time,” he said. “I’ve noticed it a lot at the Travel Americas and a lot of your Flying J’s too.”
Even with my dad taking his own precautions, we still take extra steps when he’s home. As soon as he walks in the door he showers, we spray his duffle bag with Lysol, we wash his clothing and towels. And we’re extra watchful of any symptoms that could develop because one of the things we’ve learned about living in a pandemic: even when you’ve taken every precaution, things still happen.
We’ve been fortunate thus far and I’m thankful for it. Every. Single. Day.
Taking care of “family”
With all the negativity that seems to surround the pandemic, not everything has been bad. My Dad’s friend, Ken, gladly sends along any masks or hand sanitizer he finds. It’s nice to know there is still a sense of community. If anything, people have come closer because of the distance.
Dad finally stopped buzzing around the room and zipped up his bag. It was getting close to the time he’d have to leave. He sat down and put his glasses on, to verify his route.
I finished our chat with a simple question: How does it feel to be essential to the economy? He chuckled and left me with an anecdote.
“I’m gonna tell you something,” he said.“I drove probably an hour outside of Española, to Durango, and back to Pagosa Springs at 30 miles an hour because of a blizzard. I could barely see and I had to use the edge of the road to drive. The lady [at the store] told me ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind’ and I asked her why she said that. She said ‘You drove in a blizzard to deliver.’ And I was like ‘Yes. I did.’
In his eyes, it was simple; it’s about the idea of community.
“I was looking at it like my family. What I’m delivering they’re going to need for breakfast and lunch foods tomorrow. If I don’t make it there, that’s a child that may not get breakfast or lunch.”
This article was first published in New Mexico In Depth here. Exodis Ward is a multimedia journalism student at UT El Paso.