To my mind, at least, Joe Schmitt would‘ve made one hell of a cowboy.
A lean, rangy owner-operator from Wisconsin, Schmitt is about to notch his 20th year on the road, running long haul refrigerated routes across the U.S. His weathered hands bespeak his devotion not only to his profession behind the wheel, but also to his pride and joy, a 2003 Kenworth he‘s turned into a working show truck on his own, with the help of friends and family.
Like Union cavalry general John Buford, Schmitt follows a simple maxim when it comes to his craft: taking care of “horse, saddle, then the man,” in that order. Dubbed “Wreckers & Checkers,” Schmitt‘s rig features hand-laid wooden floors and a matching tractor and trailer paint scheme, with his reefer unit‘s engine painted to match.
The unusual name for Schmitt‘s operation stems from the commitment he made upon becoming an independent two decades ago: like a stock car racer, he was either going to wreck or take the checkered flag, both in terms of succeeding at the business of trucking and winning a few show truck trophies in the bargain.
Though Schmitt indeed built a successful career as trucker and won a passel of trophies (though just falling short of winning the top prize at the National Association of Show Trucks [NAST] contest at Mid America for the second year in a row) he‘s now ready to hang up his keys.
Though the trials of the road are hard and getting harder (this winter proved particularly bad), and though fuel prices are out of sight ($800 one way between Utah and Wisconsin now; a price that would‘ve covered him round trip with some left over not long ago), the reasons he‘s leaving the long-haul business and selling his truck boil down to one thing: family.
“I‘ve got two little ones still at home yet, so I want to be with them more,” he told me. Once he sells his truck (which is almost paid for - he‘s got a year of payments left), he plans to take a local trucking job so he can be home every night. “It is just time to do this,” he said.
I am more than sure this is a common sentiment today among long-haul independent drivers - a sentiment that‘s getting a lot of help, no doubt, from $4 per gallon diesel, out of sight insurance rates, higher sticker prices due to new pollution control technology, and ever-stricter idling rules. No doubt Schmitt, like a lot of drivers, found that the hassles now far outweigh any of the benefits life as a truck driver used to offer.
Ah, but what memories of the road Schmitt has - ones he shares with an easy laugh. Back in 1996, for example, he found himself stuck in a horrible blizzard, pushing a bank of snow into the back end of a completely jammed truck stop parking lot. “I jumped out of the cab and immediately sank up to my hips in snow,” Schmitt told me. “I called my customer back in Wisconsin and told him, ‘I have some good news and bad news. The good news is your lettuce is safe and sound. The bad news is we‘re all sitting in snow so you won‘t see if for a few more days.‘” As a result, a two-day run turned into five days, with the National Guard helping dig everyone out of the truck stop.
This past winter of 2007-2008 proved just as tough, he said. Every trip seemed to be fraught with blizzards, Schmitt told me. One proved so bad most of the paint off the front end of his vehicle wore off, forcing him to spend two days of nearly non-stop sandblasting and re-painting to get his truck for the shows.
Though he relishes those memories - especially all the hard work that went into building his one-of-a-kind “Wreckers & Checkers” creation - the call of home is now stronger than ever and has won out over the long-haul life.
Good luck to you, Joe, and many happy trails. We‘ll see you on the flip side.