Truck Stops: A Trucker's Home Away from Home

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On a typical morning in a Pilot Travel Center along I-94 in Dexter, Michigan, truckers filed through the doors. They were from all over: Wisconsin, Kentucky, Canada, and Michigan. Their trucks outside held everything from meat and toys, to milk products, paper rolls, tobacco, alcohol, auto parts, and more.

They all came to the truck stop for a quick break before heading out on the road again.

After shopping, showering, or eating, most drivers grabbed a cup of fresh coffee — and some friendly conversation with the lady behind the register named Tina. Like the others who work this travel center, she knows the conversation may be casual, but it’s vital in a certain way.

“They don’t have anyone to talk to most of the day. So I strike up a conversation with our regulars. It’s important,” Tina said.

Eventually for these drivers, it was time to get back in the rig and on the road. 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.

“Trucking would be impossible without truck stops,” said owner-operator “Old Man Jacob,” from Grand Rapids, Mich., one of the truckers at Pilot that day. He has been driving since 1979. “You can’t do it with no truck stops.”

Chris Vallom, a driver from Prescott, Canada who has been behind the wheel for 6 years said, "Truck stops answer that first, burning question OTR truckers face every morning: 'where am I going to stay tonight?'”

One way to think about truck stops, according to 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 anywhere from 7 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 an array of goods and services.

Here, truckers can get fuel 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 submit their invoices — essentially a scan and fax), Trip Pak overnight shipping, Western Union, a small video arcade, and enhanced Wi-Fi for a small fee.

Along with the CAT (certified automatic trucking) scale, most truck stops have all of these amenities regarless of size. Some also offer laundry services, TV/movie theaters (albeit simple ones), attached or adjacent vehicle washing services, and motels.

The inventory in the stores is huge and can include clothing, hats, gloves, and the like. They also carry 12-volt products such as televisions, toaster ovens, coffee makers, truck accessories such as CB radio equipment and HAZMAT placards, audiobooks, movies, and video games. They also offer 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 more professional truck stops to accommodate big rigs. They have kept growing, adding services and products.

Partnerships are also a large part of truck stops today. They have connected with many food chains, like Subway, Arby’s, Bojangles, Burger King, IHOP Express, and McDonald’s, just to name a few.

Pilot also has partnered with Bass Pro Shops, among other companies, to provide products and services that truckers may enjoy. 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, inviting, and warm place to stop during their long OTR routes. Simply put: a home away from home. 

Shannon Olliff is 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 he said, “I love the solitude, being by myself, being independent,” he said.

Shannon has been known to ride with one of his Chihuahuas; he currently has 3 — Daisy, Roxy, and Buddy. He’s also been known to help his sister rescue dogs, driving his rig to various locations to pick them up.

He’s a regular at this Pilot (and Pilot in general). He gets cash rebates, cheap Wi-Fi, and important on this particular day, shows. “I gotta catch up on my Sons of Anarchy,” he said.

For Chris Vallom, the driver from Canada, trucking is a second career at age 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 5, 6, 7 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.”

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