Stuff

I Spent 24 Hours with a Female Truck Driver

"That's one thing about this job," says Kerry, her long blue nails resting on the steering wheel. "You get amazing sunsets."

by Nell Frizzell
May 12 2015, 3:45pm

Dawn in a Halifax truck depot. All images by the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It is 4 AM and I am sitting alone, in a Travelodge outside Halifax, drinking a cup of instant coffee, and staring at a parking lot. My 24 hours as a female truck driver are about to begin and I'm so excited I hardly notice that the milk is a foil-fresh tub of wet chalk.

"I'm outside a door. Not sure it's the right one. Lol."

Kerry Hughes, HGV driver, motorbike enthusiast, horse-whisperer, and my driving companion for the next two days has arrived. She is taking me to meet my motor. I say my motor; I can't even drive. I've lost my provisional license. The last time I took a lesson my instructor's rotund father in a navy nylon blazer asked my mom out on a date and I've never got behind the steering wheel of a car since. And yet just 16 hours from this moment I would be sitting behind the wheel of an 18-ton truck, in my pajamas, turning the key in the ignition.

4 AM: As we drive through the first inky possibility of dawn towards the warehouse, Kerry and I immediately start talking about male pride. "There has been a bit of an 'only bird in the warehouse' thing before," she explains. "Not so much in this job, but I have had to deal with a few dented male egos in the past, especially when you start earning more than them, as a driver." The haulage industry is astoundingly male-dominated. In 2013 there were 300,000 truck drivers in the UK, of whom only 0.5 percent were women. And yet Suma, the whole foods company for whom Kerry drives is bucking the trend—eight of their 40 drivers are women, nearly 40 times the national average. Not that being the only bird in the warehouse particularly bothers Kerry, I get the feeling. After a Yorkshire childhood of mountain biking, horse-riding, and getting drunk in the steam room of the gym, she started working for her stepfather's business and trained to be a driver at 21. I can imagine her, in maroon fleece and steel-capped boots, walking comfortably into any room, any group—not unaware of the men, but certainly not afraid of them.

We walk through a silent warehouse, the daylight bulbs shining over rows of cardboard boxes, trolleys, and high metal shelves. No one's here. Kerry kits me out in a high-vis vest, blackened along the edges, picks up her keys, and strolls out to what she calls her "wagon." She is carrying a wadge of hole-punched delivery orders, a plastic cup of coffee, and small click-and-lock tupperware box containing a sat nav, her mobile phone, and various leads.

I've never climbed into an 18-ton truck before. Holding onto the handles like an 86-year-old grandmother attempting to get in the bath, I swing myself up until I'm sitting at least six feet in the air. I feel like the Pope. In leggings. Kerry's hydraulic seat hisses and bounces into position as she feeds a tachograph card into a machine above her head. It looks like the tape deck of my dad's old Fiesta but apparently this machine will monitor how many hours the driver is working, when they need to take a break, and how much time is spent lifting pallets off the back of the truck.

The author, basically in the clouds

5:30 AM: As we drive across the highest bit of motorway in the country—the M62 by Scammonden—pink clouds appear above Kerry's shoulder. "That's one thing about this job," says Kerry, her long blue nails resting on the steering wheel. "You get amazing sunsets. There's just something about the A1 in the morning, you know?" I do know. Or, at least, I can imagine. Up here, traveling at 40 miles an hour, you see far more of the world than you ever get when grinding along in a normal Fray Bentos tin of a car. Allotments, rivers, woods, and canals wind off into the horizon; this is the the time of truck drivers and badgers, of oil tankers and wild deer.

Kerry, checking out her "wagon."

6:30 AM: Our first stop is at a small wholefood shop in Chester. "Morning!" we chorus to the owner of a newsagent, opening his shutters next door. "How you doing?" asks Kerry. "Well, I'm still here," he replies ruefully, beside display of union jack egg cups. At each stop, Kerry shunts the pole holding the walls of this curtain-sided truck out of position, undoes the row of straps along the bottom of the tarpaulin, and pulls back the sheet, like someone opening the curtain on a particularly box-oriented stage. She then slices open the cling film holding an order together on a pallet and piles the boxes on the edge of the truck for me to lift and carry into the shop. Having me there to help must save her, well, seconds at the most, if I'm honest, but it's fun to be finally doing something, clad in my high-vis waistcoat, desperate for an excuse to climb up and explore the chilled section behind the cab.

9:30 AM: This run, from Yorkshire to Merseyside via North Wales, is far more rural than you may expect of an articulated truck. We deliver to the house of a yoga teacher, tucking the giant wagon behind a hedge; we pass enormous fields of daffodils on our way to a distribution center; we pull up at a farm shop surrounded by fields and fruit pickers' caravans, our delivery scored by neighing horses and the beep of the truck's rear lift. "Would you know how to fix that if it went wrong?" I ask, pointing at the small orange box that operates the lift. "Well, I'd have a look at the fuse box first," says Kerry, as if this were obvious. "But, to be honest, if you can't fix it by hitting it with a hammer, I probably wouldn't, no."

Half an hour later, waiting outside a factory in a small industrial unit near Ellesmere Port I watch a male driver with long blonde hair and red face—a viking in orange rubber grip gloves—swing down from his cab and approach the delivery dock. When Kerry asks him if he's got much coming off he looks shocked, then confused, then offended. "Did you just tell me to get off?" he asks. The trans-pennine language barrier is alive and well, it seems.

10:30 AM: Driving into Colwyn Bay mid-morning, Conwy Castle glows in the sunshine, blue-brown water smudges up to the beach, and we overtake a train running along the beach huts to our right. It is beautiful; significantly more beautiful than updating a spreadsheet behind an MDF desk in a grey office in central London. There's a weight restriction between us and our next delivery and so we go on a merry loop of the town before sliding onto the promenade under a 12'3" bridge. This truck is 12'3" high, but Kerry seems unperturbed by the prospect of a tight squeeze and, in fact, the only minor incident is when I drop a can of kidney beans in the middle of the road. As Kerry talks about her friends—mechanics, petrolheads, engineers—it becomes clear that she is at home in male company. And yet even she comes across problems from time to time. Like the truck stops that have just one communal shower, or trailers that continually left the warehouse loaded in reverse, only ever when she was the driver.

11:30 AM: The tachograph says we're due a break and so, pulling over in a lay-by to eat our sandwiches, Kerry and I start chatting about ex-boyfriends. A huge two-story red truck full of sheep chugs past as we discuss infidelity, drunk texts, and spare keys. My blue seat cover is slowly getting scattered in grape stalks and empty water bottles collect at my feet. A mistake, it turns out, when you're traveling along at 40 miles an hour, six feet above the nearest toilet.

We roll through Ruthin, get a thumbs-up from a giant tattooed forearm in a Ray Stewart truck outside the Patchwork Farm Shop, and head back to Chester, past The Leprechaun Guest House where, sadly, we don't stop at all.

1 PM: "Chester Stripping" screams a huge black and white sign. It's only as we move off, and a large telegraph pole moves out of view, that the word "Paint" emerges between the two. Probably for the best. Outside one house, where we're due to deliver about my bodyweight in porridge, a man comes up to the driver's door and knocks on the window. "Listen, darling, if you take right at that junction, rather than coming in past the war memorial then you'd avoid this tight corner," he mansplains, helpfully. "Yes," replies Kerry, apparently unconcerned. "I've come in both ways—it just depends on what side I'm delivering from." "Well, coming in from the right is better, because you avoid that tight corner," he repeats. "I should know," he adds, "I've brought the company car home a few times myself," He strolls back to his car, thrilled with the joke.

3 PM: By now we are well and truly in Merseyside. Red signs for the Echo swing outside newsagents. Kerry and I have, by this point, almost emptied the van and sit drinking a cup of coffee and eating an apple next to a huge 105-pound canister of propane, a stack of squashed cardboard boxes, and a water butt you could swim lengths in with a small, sniffing Jack Russell at our feet. People, myself included, bitch and moan about being given vague delivery times by companies like Argos and UPS. But I now see just how unpredictable a delivery route can be. The search for parking, traffic, waiting for someone to open the delivery gate, hard-to-carry loads, phone calls, chasing staff for signatures; it's almost impossible to know how long you're going to take. Imagine picking up 17 mates across two counties for a night out and then you may see why giving an arrival time to the nearest five minutes can prove a problem.

Kerry, eating her sandwich.

6:30 PM: It's now been over 14 hours since Kerry picked me up to start work this morning. I've carried boxes and lifted sacks, climbed stepladders and dragged trolleys. We pull over outside a farm, a roll of yellow signed delivery sheets resting on the dashboard and an unfortunate smell of red onion permeating the cab thanks to my salad sandwich earlier. I'm starving, despite snacking on almost an entire bag of trail mix, half a box of oatcakes, some pineapple, and a packet of crisps. Kerry has eaten nothing, except a sandwich, since we left. So, as the sun sets across the River Dee to our left we stroll up to the pub for dinner. It's one of those faux-vintage pubs with a poker table in one corner and a huge range of microwaveable puddings on the menu. I absolutely love it, but it's not quite the fry-up-in-a-porta-cabin-beside-the-roaring-fumes-of-the-M62 I'd been expecting. "Oh, I try not to eat at truck stops," says Kerry. "Because I don't want to die at 50." It's a fair point. She also, as a habit, avoids service stations because the overwhelming smell of piss in the truck parks, thanks to the hundreds of men too lazy, too cold, or too sleepy to walk the 30 feet to the toilets, is enough to put you off your chips.

9 PM: And so I zip myself into my sleeping bag, lying on top of a small hardboard shelf. Yes, tonight I am going to sleep in the cab. Right there, behind the steering wheel. My mattress for the night is a gray, Bakerloo Line-like cushion and my privacy comes courtesy of a thin nylon curtain. Kerry—who is sleeping out the back in a tent—has asked me to turn the engine over for a few minutes, to kick-start the chiller function in the onboard fridge where all the yogurt and drinks are stored for the morning deliveries. And so, in a pair of pin-striped men's pajamas I sit behind a steering wheel the size of a paddling pool and push the key into the ignition. My heart is racing as the throb of the engine runs along the back of my thighs like lightning. I have never been so excited. At last, I feel like a truck driver.

We never think of the people who bring us the things we, toddler-like, grab out for at every waking minute. We just want the stuff, from the shop, and we want it now. Until I clambered up into the crows nest of a truck, this Scalextric of ever-moving traffic delivering, unloading, checking off, picking up, and ticking over the nation's needs had barely entered my head. My only impression of truck drivers was a vague collection of macho clichés—spray paint pin-ups on cab doors, fringed curtains and football scarves, honk if you like it dirty, Yorkie bars and bacon baps, pissing in a bottle, the smell of axle grease and orange overalls, yellow teeth and an ashtray on a dashboard.

The cab. Pretty comfy, as it goes.

Those cliches exist for a reason, of course; lots of those men grind up and down the world's motorways day and night. But there are thousands of women driving those routes, too. And the truth is, we put them there. We are the demand and they provide our supply. We want to walk into a shop and find six different shapes of pasta and never spend a moment thinking about the miles of tarmac, the flexes of bicep, the stamping on boxes, and the long, lonely miles spent getting it there.

But somebody got it there. Somebody like Kerry. Somebody, perhaps, like you.

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