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Out of class, into the drivers seat

Mills College Weekly

Last August, Ali Haynes was stranded in Salt Lake City, anxious to get back to the Bay Area for her sister’s wedding. When another driver offered his trailer to Fresno, she hitched it to her 10-ton black Freightliner truck.

The next morning she edged into a scale house in Kern County. The inspectors said her length was off by three feet and she would have to repair a minor problem on the trailer.

Luckily a mechanic working on another truck could fix the problem. Ali adjusted the length herself and drove through the scales again.

“You’re too heavy on one axle.”

Haynes’ company refused to send help. She was pissed. Drivers shouldn’t break the seals on the trailer doors, because the company receiving the load can refuse it.

With the afternoon sun bearing down, her t-shirt and jeans were soaked in sweat, and she’d only eaten crackers all day. She went inside the trailer and moved 400 cases of Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade.

Her load was still uneven. Again she shifted the cargo.

It was 6:30 p.m. before they let her go. Her fines would total 350 dollars, nearly what Haynes made in a week.

By midnight she made it home to her mother’s in Alameda. She had a day to rest before the wedding.

In January, Ali Haynes, now 25, returned to Mills after a three-semester leave. She will graduate in May with a B.A. in Studio Art. When you imagine truck drivers, you might have a different picture in your head. Ali will challenge your preconceptions. She’s 5 feet 8 inches tall, a slim woman with short curly hair capping a high forehead. Her latte complexion is the result of a palette mixed by her black father and white mother. She has an easy laugh, and if her arms are bare, you’ll see three tattoos, all boldly-etched Chinese characters.

Entering as a transfer in Fall of 1999, she completed four semesters. But “a devastating heartbreak” forced her to go on leave right after her senior art show. While she was away, Ali returned to an even earlier calling: the romance of the open road.

Though she didn’t drive a truck the full year she had planned, she enjoyed the experience. “I’m turned on by the idea of a life involving adventure and struggle where you have to earn your own ruggedness. I don’t know where it came from, but I like to get my hands dirty to balance my scholarly side.”

As a teenager, Haynes went to summer camp in Quincy, 250 miles northeast of her home in Oakland. She fell in love with a boy and they spent many evenings on a cement bench overlooking a railway track. They considered hopping on a freight train. But it was more realistic to plan a road trip. The love affair eventually faded away, but the road trip notion stuck with Ali. It morphed into a desire to drive a truck. A big truck. A train-sized truck.

Nearly 10 years later, while on leave from Mills, Haynes decided to pursue her old dream. She discovered a trucking school in Alameda and taking out a $4500 loan for the tuition, she spent four weeks there. Upon receiving her license, she was hired by a company based in Salt Lake City. Their five-week training “turned out messy,” she says, and she quit. But so close to her dream, she went back.

On a bright June day, she took the truck they gave her, a 2000 model Freightliner, and headed west out of Salt Lake City. It was her first solo run. Pulling into a TA stop in Tooele, Utah, she bought a pack of cigarettes, a bad habit she’d picked up during training. Back in her cab, she pushed Bonnie Raitt’s Silver Lining CD into the player and turned up the volume. “Here I was, just me and this big-ass truck,” she recalls with a grin. “It was kinda surreal. An eternal moment.” She mouthed to the universe, “Look at me, I’m really doing this.”

Haynes had just become one of the 167,000 women truck drivers in the U.S. That’s about five percent of all truckers. In 1929 the first woman to receive a commercial license had been Lillie Elizabeth Drennan in Texas. She defied those who said it was too dangerous for a woman to be on the roads. Lillie Drennan carried a loaded revolver by her side, but she never used it.

While many women pair up, Ali drove solo. She didn’t carry a gun, but she brought along Rudy, a nine-month old Doberman-Shepherd mix. His company-and lots of common sense-kept Ali safe on the roads. She was surprised not to encounter obstacles as a woman or person of color. “I met people of all ages, ethnicities, and reasons why they went into trucking. Truckers look out for one another.” She found “a good deal of respect for a woman, especially one driving by herself.” There were a few anxious moments, but Ali managed to avoid hassles.

She drove a ‘reefer,’ a refrigerated truck, mostly hauling frozen foods, pharmaceuticals, and film. Her trips ranged from 800 to 2,500 miles across the United States.

Her driving stretches lasted three to five weeks. It was lonely but she talked on her cell phone with friends and family. She played her seven CDs over and over again.

The people she met impressed her. “We know little of truckers outside of stereotypes. People assume they are trashy, overweight, crass, conservative, white and male. Yes, certainly there is some of that but by no means all of it. I found sensitive, thoughtful people, some very educated.” She came across people from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Such encounters inspired Haynes to imagine a photo documentary. “These are very lonely people with difficult lives. They’re eager to open up and tell you all about their lives.”

A year earlier when Ali had composed her senior show, she had put up large portraits of herself, her brother, and three friends. Each picture was reflected into a mirror carrying a self-critical phrase (I am… inadequate… fake… undesirable… cruel… an asshole). “Everything showed up on one mirror, revealing that all of us are subject to such thoughts.”

Ali had chosen art as her major because she believes art concerns itself with what is universal in being human. In her compositions she explores “the quiet desperations we humans keep hidden from each other.”

Meanwhile her romance with driving got shaky. It was tough sleeping on the truck, taking infrequent showers, eating poorly, and constantly hustling to make money. Haynes received 23 cents a mile (paid only for driving time), and federal law prohibits driving more than 10 out of 24 hours. A unionized trucker might earn decent pay. So can those who bend the rules or partner and drive non-stop. For the 60 hours she worked in a week, Haynes made less than 500 dollars.

“The money was disappointing, and I was tired of fighting with the company over the tiniest things.” At the end of August she delivered her last load to a Bud plant outside Fort Collins, Colorado.

“I don’t regret quitting when I did,” she recalls. “If I had signed up with a different company or hadn’t been a solo driver, perhaps it would have been different.” She remains positive about her journey. “Life doesn’t have to follow a pre-meditated course, there is space to go on tangents. There are no Have To’s in life.”

She plans to drive again, but the next time she will get a partner. And she will bring along her camera.

“If nothing else looks like it’s about to happen after graduation, I just might go back then.”

Haynes entered Mills with one tattoo on her left shoulder. Two Chinese characters, for strength and beauty.

While on leave from Mills, she chose another tattoo. It’s on her right wrist, the character for grace.

“It was a sloppy time in my life. But I realized that even if you feel like hell you can still display a sense of grace. Instead of feeling jilted and bitter, I understood we’re not abandoned, we’re receiving love all the time. The sun comes up in the morning, flowers bloom, there’s food on our table.”

She’s back at Mills, but she sports no new tattoos. It’s not because trucking silenced that side of her, but because it left her broke. When she gets the money, she will get two more tattoos. On her left arm, she will put the Chinese character for faith. On her right arm, a box with a hummingbird, cherry blossoms, and the character for joy.