Charlie Walker is in a very exclusive club, having driven more than 3 million miles over three decades with nary a fender bender for Birmingham, Ala.-based transportation company Boyd Bros.
That’s a lot of safe miles behind the wheel of a large tractor rig hauling thousands of pounds of materials on a flat bad trailer. For Walker, 62, a Harris County native and Columbus resident, it’s a source of pride that he’s one of only six drivers with Boyd Bros. — which has more than 600 truckers on the road — to have traveled that distance without an accident.
How far might that be? Let’s just say it’s a really, really long haul. Doing a little math, however, it means Walker has driven the equivalent of 120 times around the Earth based on its circumference of just under 25,000 miles. Still not impressed? Then how about traveling six times to the moon and back based on its distance of 238,900 miles from Earth.
“Wow,” said Walker when told of the calculations during a recent interview at a local eatery. “I never thought about it like that.”
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Walker also is among a large group of Americans making a living driving a big rig near and far, encountering interesting people, moments and situations. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 1.8 million over-the-road tractor-trailer truckers on the job, with nearly 100,000 more needed by the year 2024.
Here are Walker’s thoughts on his 30-year career and his journey thus far, with the interview edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q: So how did you get into trucking?
A: I was fascinated with trucks since I was a kid, and I had an uncle that drove trucks. I was working in textiles at one time, and I was at home one evening when the recruiter for a truck driver school came by and I got a chance to talk with him. So I took the opportunity to go to truck driver school (in 1985). I had to drive from Columbus to Clarksville, Tenn. The closest one for me was in Florida, but they told me their class was full. I went on the weekends. I would get off work at the textiles at 3 o’clock Friday, come home and change clothes, and drive all the way to Clarksville, be there Saturday morning, school on Saturday, on Sunday, and get out Sunday evening. It’s about an 8 or 9 hour drive one way. It took four weeks, but I started off on the weekend and halfway through it the mill laid me off, so I was then able to go the whole week. I had been with the mill about nine years. I was a fixer, a mechanic that works on the machines that make the cloth.
Q: How did you end up at Boyd Bros.?
A: I went to a lot of different companies looking for a job, but I didn’t have any experience. So I went down to Boyd and they had a stack of applications for new guys trying to hire on. They looked at my work history and I guess that’s what impressed them. I always had had a job since I got out of high school. So they gave me a chance.
Q: What do you like about your job?
A: I like the fact that I’m somewhere different everyday, and it’s something different everyday. I like variety. I enjoy driving the truck and just the different scenery, the different places and stuff. And I like the people I work for. I work for some good people and they’ve been good to me … the whole Boyd family. Like the president up there now, I’ve known him … when I started he was like 9 or 10 years old.
Q: You get a sense that the company cares about you?
Q: How long did it take you to get your first million miles driven safely?
A: That took seven years.
Q: That’s a lot of hauling?
A: I was driving a lot. But when you’re driving, you don’t think about trying to accomplish the miles. You’re just trying to make a paycheck every week. But you’re trying to do it safely.
Q: You’ve got a big responsibility as a big-rig driver with families on the road with you. Are you always conscious of safety?
A: You’re very self-conscious about what’s going on around you. You can be driving down the road and sense a lot of stuff. You know, the sixth sense? You develop that the longer you drive, and you get a feeling that car is going to pull out and you’ll be ready for it. And when you come around a curve and see (traffic) stopped in the road, I’ll start stopping way back. You try not to get yourself in no jam. I always tell the (younger) guys, don’t ever get yourself in a jam and don’t get in no hurry.
Q: It’s better to be five minutes late than not get there at all?
A: Exactly. And Boyd appreciates that, too. If you’re coming in with a load and it’s not safe, they’d rather you pull over and stop and call your driver manager and let them know what the conditions are, or if you’re not feeling good, or the unit isn’t doing right. They don’t want you taking chances.
Q: Do you ever feel pressure when driving? What’s your mood like?
A: I’m at the point now where I’m at ease with it all because I’ve been doing it so long. But I see a lot of guys that get uptight, they get stressed out. If you’re waiting to pick up a load and you’re supposed to be there at 8 o’clock, and you get there at 7:30, but it gets up to 11:30 in the day and they’re still sitting there waiting ... well, some (drivers) get frustrated. I don’t. I just get back there and turn my air on and turn my TV on and relax until they come and get me. You’ve got a lot of guys that get antsy.
Q: How do you make your money?
A: We mostly make our money on miles (driven) because as long as the truck is moving, even if it’s empty or loaded, we still get paid. If we get delayed by a customer, we get paid by the hour up to so much. But we really make our money when we’re moving.
Q: How far have you traveled as a trucker?
A: Most of the United States and Canada. I may have been to all of the states except for Washington and Oregon, and I’ve been quite a bit into Canada.
Q: How far this year?
A: The farthest I’ve been this year is Arizona ... somewhere around Flagstaff. I came out of North Carolina going out there and it’s like 1,700 miles one way. I picked it up that Friday and I was out there that Monday. That’s a good drive. That’s what you want on a weekend. If you’re not at home on the weekend, you want something that will keep you busy, keep you riding, for the whole weekend.
Q: Does that wear you out?
A: You do get tired. You’ve got 11 hours you can drive in that 24-hour period (before a mandatory break). I basically know how far I’ve got to go. Like if I’ve got a 1,200-mile run and pick a load up on Friday (and drop off on Monday), I try to drive three hours Friday, three on Saturday and three Sunday to space it out. That way it’s comfortable.
Q: What is your favorite area to travel to and take in the scenery?
A: Out west. It’s beautiful out there. And up in Michigan. It’s beautiful up there. I want to get back out to Arizona to do some hunting.
Q: In your opinion, how safe is the motoring public when sharing the road with truckers in general? Or should the public remain careful?
A: The public should still be real careful. You’ve got some (drivers) taking chances. They’ll cut four-wheelers off and try to get back at them and that kind of stuff. You don’t need a driver behind an 18-wheeler like that.
Q: Have you seen road rage?
A: Yeah, I’ve seen road rage. I was in a traffic jam going up (Interstate) 95 one year, and the traffic was backed up and this guy was coming around the left shoulder, in the grass, passing everybody. And he got beside this one truck and it moved over and ran him into the ditch. Then he came back up and stopped and jumped out of the truck, out of his Jeep, and this truck driver jumped out and they got face to face. They didn’t get to blows, though. I’ve seen that stuff quite a few times.
Q: How different is it to drive a big rig versus a really large pickup truck?
A: It’s a lot of difference, because you’re taking off with a slow start. You’ve got to get all of that momentum going. But once you get it going, that weight pushes you, and you can’t stop just like that (snaps fingers), you can’t turn just like that. You’ve got to prepare for it. All the time.
Q: What basic skills are needed to be a good truck driver?
A: First is common sense. Then you’ve got to be patient and don’t let people get you upset too quick. You’ve got to keep your cool.
Q: Do you have to get a physical?
A: You’ve got to keep the DOT physical up every two years. They’re constantly randomly checking you for drugs and alcohol, which I think is a good thing.
Q: Is it hard to pass a truck driver physical?
A: If you let yourself get run down, it is. But so far I’ve been doing pretty good. As a matter of fact, a doctor up in Birmingham kind of laughs when I come around because he knows my age and everything. He puts you through a little agility test.
Q: Is it hard to stay in really good shape because you’re sitting so much?
A: Well, a lot of it has to do with each individual and what you eat out on the road. And you get your rest when you can. But a lot of it is your eating habits. I bring my food from home. I’ve got a microwave and a refrigerator in the truck. My wife fixes my dinner at home. I like a lot of baked chicken. I love vegetables, any kind of peas, beans, greens, I love that. She’ll fix me enough dinners to last me the course of a week, and I keep me a case of water in there, and juice. I try not to eat in the truck stops a whole lot. It’s costly.
Q: Describe a truck stop today?
A: Some of the truck stops are real nice, with good facilities and stuff, and you meet a lot of nice people. You meet a lot of grungy people, too, people who don’t care how they look, and some that don’t care how they talk. Cursing, you see a lot of that. When you run across somebody real nice and decent, you like to sit down and talk with that person and spend time with them.
Q: Truck stops are pretty large these days?
A: At the average truck stop, you might see maybe 400 to 500 trucks, and at some of the bigger truck stops, even more. I stopped at one up in Virginia the other day and they’ve got a truck wash, they’ve got a pharmacy inside, a Popeye’s Chicken. Some of them have got weight rooms and exercise rooms, and showers and washers and dryers and all of that … I try to take enough clothes with me to last me so I don’t have to do any laundry on the road.
Q: Have they changed a lot since you started 30 years ago?
A: Yeah. Most of them had good restaurants to get home-cooked meals. But now a lot of them are going to fast food stuff. They take the restaurants out and put in Popeye’s Chicken, Subways, McDonald’s and Hardee’s. There’s still a few that have good sit-down restaurants.
Q: Do you have any basic advice for the general public when driving around a big rig?
A: Don’t linger next to a truck. If you’re going to pass, go on and pass. If you’re going to ride behind it, stay back, because I’ve seen a tire blow on those trailers and it will bend the trailer all up and knock the lights out. It can do some serious damage. Or you can hit something in the road and blow a tire.
Q: Finally, what’s the future like for you at 62, lots more driving?
A: As long you want to drive and your health holds up, you’re good to go. My plan is to keep driving with Boyd until 65 or 66, and then at that point I might decide to drive a little farther on, because I still enjoy it.
Hometown: Born and raised in Hamilton, Ga., in Harris County
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1972 graduate of Harris County High School; graduated from truck driving school in November 1985
Previous jobs: Worked in insurance sales and at a steel mill, and spent nearly a decade as a fixer (machine repair and maintenance) at the former Bibb Mill in Columbus
Family: Christine, his wife of 30 years, and three children – stepson, William Phillips, and twin sons, Pierre and Tierre Walker – and six grandchildren
Leisure time: He loves to hunt and fish, and enjoys spending time on some land he owns in Harris County; he gardens, growing collards, cabbage, peas, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, “you name it”