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Dispatches from the Flying J

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Trucker Ken Spriggs makes his way toward the Flying J Travel Center, La Grande, after winter weather Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, forced the shutdown of Interstate 84 and other roads. Now 78, he said he is considering making this his last season of driving.

LA GRANDE — Brenda Holman belongs to a dying generation of truckers.

Her blazer is embroidered with “Aunt B.” on the right breast. She jokes that she is an aunt to seven, mother to none. A byproduct of the lifestyle, she said. She noted it was difficult to find a partner. She’s been a trucker for more than 32 years.

Inside her truck, a collection of books. A physical map of interstates. A small bed, slightly disheveled. A CB radio hangs above the driver’s seat. A smattering of notebooks and pens placed neatly on the dashboard. A small monitor attached to the dash for checking the routes, though she usually uses her phone to find information on road closures.

Her CB radio has become quieter over the years, with less chatter coming over the airwaves. She remembered when truck stops were abuzz with truckers swapping stories and jokes over coffee whenever the roads were closed.

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Brenda Holman, a truck driver with Fremont Contract Carriers Inc., checks TripCheck for road closure notifications Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at the Flying J Travel Center, La Grande. She was among the dozens of of truckers stranded at the Flying J overnight as Interstate 84 remained closed for most of the day due to winter weather.

On Wednesday, Jan. 5, she found herself stuck for more than 24 hours at Flying J Travel Center, La Grande, as repeated accidents, heavy snow and maintenance closed down Interstate 84. It had been closed off and on several times during the past week. Snowdrifts one day, wrecks and traffic blockages by unchained semitrailers the next. Dozens of other truck drivers had been stranded there, as well.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been shut down with this many trucks parked,” Holman said.

Rows of trucks were parked, placed and maneuvered into the lot, blocking each other in and forming a logistical slide puzzle, one made trickier when the roads were clear.

She was anxious to leave Flying J — the roads had just opened eastbound, albeit briefly — and solicited other truck drivers to move their rigs so she could maneuver out of the lot. As one driver left — a day-route driver without a sleeping rig in the cabin who wanted to find a hotel for the night — space was cleared for her exit. But it was just a hair too late, as I-84 was closed yet again due to unchained semis blocking the route.

A few dogs perked their heads up over the dashboards in the trucks at the parking lot. Some drivers, Holman said, will bring dogs or family along on the routes. Partnering up, she said. It is a lonely profession. None of the truck drivers along the route had known each other, despite some driving along the same route for years. Holman said that she hasn’t seen some of her co-workers back in Nebraska for several years.

For brief moments, she and a couple of truck drivers she hadn’t met before spoke outside as snow fell, and joked about the closure.

“I think we’re stuck here till spring,” one of the drivers said.

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Trucker driver Ken Spriggs of Vale looks over his coffee Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in the Flying J Travel Center, La Grande. Spriggs was among the dozens of drivers stranded at the Flying J due to bad winter weather closing Interstate 84 and other roads.

Past time

Ken Spriggs, 78, is a day-route truck driver. That means he goes home every night — at least when he’s not stuck in a road closure spanning several days.

He said he has a daughter in Elgin he was thinking of staying with for the night if the roads didn’t soon open up. Working for a company based in Vale, he has been a truck driver for 12 years. Before that, a police officer with Prairie City for 20 years. Further back, a veteran stationed in South Korea just after the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. He said he’s been shot at in both jobs. He collects two pensions, but continues to work because he enjoys keeping busy and loathes idleness.

“I just hate sitting around,” Spriggs said, walking toward the Flying J, reminiscing of past days. “I used to come here and eat all the time, years ago. Those were the good days. Awesome restaurant, we ate — my daughter always met me here, and we’d eat like crazy.”

His truck was parked along Highway 30, several hundred feet away from the truck stop. He said he thinks this might be his last season driving the route.

“I thought about quitting these guys, but they said no,” Spriggs said, filling up a coffee cup.

He charmed his way into a cheaper cup of coffee from the counter clerk, said it was a refill. He wasn’t interested in watching TV. He sat down at a Subway counter and looked out the window. Rock ballads from the ’80s played over the Flying J’s sound system. The trucks outside are packed in like sardines.

“I spent a lot of years here,” Spriggs said, reminiscing. “I think I might just make this my last run.”

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Semitrailers fill the parking lot Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, at the Flying J Travel Center, La Grande. Frequent closures of Interstate 84 and other roads due to inclement weather, crashes and unchained semis trapped drivers between Baker and Umatilla counties.

Extended stay

Michael Cruz had been at the Flying J for two days due to closures. He was sitting sideways on a lounge chair in the back watching television. Next to him, Randy Payne, a truck driver of 10 years, was watching the television as well. Payne had been there for two hours. A string of commercials played over the TV. Payne wore a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie, a well-worn and stained reflective vest, and a Bluetooth headset. He was checking his phone, passing the time.

“Other than your CB receiver, you have nobody around you,” Payne said. “That’s it. It’s a mindset. Trucking is a lifestyle; it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. You are living in a walk-in closet. You live there for two to six weeks at a time. You’re away from your family — I don’t live here, I live in Albuquerque. It can be a dream job for somebody, but the wife has to sign on for it, the husband has to sign on for it, the kids sign on for it.”

Truck drivers are paid per mile. Typically, it’s under 50 cents per mile, lower for newer drivers, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. When the trucks aren’t moving, the drivers aren’t getting paid, and the companies aren’t turning profits. It’s a pressure that incentivizes long hours and driving in poor conditions.

“There are some companies that will be ‘Go, go, go!’ no matter what,” Payne said of the pressure to keep the wheels turning. “With my company, I don’t really feel that way.”

Time is the enemy. If you keep still, you make no money. Boredom creeps in. Some pass time with video games, or movies, or books — or hitting refresh on TripCheck or news stations for an update on when the roads open back up.

“I was supposed to be in Seattle today,” Payne said, “and that’s not happening.”

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