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18 wheels, one lens: LaRaine Ullom, truck/history buff, shutter bug

LaRaine Ullom, 54, has been team driving with her husband since she was just 18 years old.

By Aprille Hanson
The Trucker Staff

2/5/2014

Editor's Note: AT THE TRUCK STOP is presented by CAT Scale.

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If LaRaine Ullom had been alive during the 1800s, her lifestyle would be pretty similar to now — except she’d be riding across the country in a wagon instead of a 2005 fully automatic Volvo.

“I’m a history buff … I’d have to say my favorite [time] is the old West in the pioneer days,” said Ullom, who owns Flying U Trucking Inc. in Beloit, Kan., with her husband Keith. “What would it have been like to hook up the wagon and go across the country? It just seems like ‘oh my goodness, how did they do it?’”

Ullom, 54, has been team driving with her husband since she was just 18 years old. Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., she was wide-eyed watching her father build Kenworths for 16 years and seeing her uncle work as a professional photographer. It was there that her love for trucking and photography were cultivated.

“I always had this trucking thing. I wanted to be in these big machines,” Ullom said. “I’m a photo bug. I just learned from my uncle. I learned back in the day when we used dark rooms.”

Ullom said she met her husband, who is 15 years her senior, at the Midway Truck Stop in Columbia, Mo., before she started driving a truck.They were married Sept. 2, 1978, and team-drove together for the next 12 years. In 1990, they left trucking for 22 years to run a roofing company.

“My husband drove a truck and his father was a mechanic for a trucking company, so we just kind of fell into it,” Ullom said.

Despite always team-driving with her husband, that doesn’t mean it was easy for women drivers back in the late 1970s.

“There really weren’t too many women in the trucking industry back then. It made it difficult to take showers because they were in the men’s restrooms. You’d either have to rent a hotel room or wait. A lot of spit baths as we’d say,” Ullom laughed. “I do recall one time trying to wash my hair in a rain storm.”

Ullom said she also faced harsh scrutiny from men who thought she was “stealing their jobs.”

“I’m with my husband; I’m not out there to take your job. Everything since we’ve been married has been together,” from the roofing business to their current trucking business, she said. “It really keeps your marriage together because you’re there to communicate with each other all the time.You’re right there in person to deal with anything.It’s always been that way for me and him.”

Ullom said her step-son and step-grandson haul a variety of freight for their company and her husband is training their son to also drive a truck. The couple has five children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

For the Ulloms, they primarily travel in a 1,000-mile radius, picking up wrecked tractortrailers and cars for a relative’s salvage company in Kansas.

It gives LaRaine a chance to see first-hand the dangers of drivers being too “green” nowadays, she said.

“I think that’s what a lot of the drivers need, is to go with an experienced driver. They teach these guys and throw them out on the road and they don’t know anything and I know because I’m picking the wrecks up. … In the two years, there hasn’t been two weeks where we haven’t hauled a truck in.”

One of the worst she’s seen was a woman driver who collided with a train in Oshkosh, Neb.

“We scooped it up and put it in a container,” Ullom said of the disintegrated truck. “They didn’t tell me,” if she survived, she added. “We pick up some of them and I think ‘oh, did he really make it out of this?’”

While Ullom has a close-up seat to the tragedy in trucking, she also witnesses the beauty of the country through her Nikon camera lens.

“Back when we started, we’d drive four-on and four-off,” which Ullom said she misses, but she puts the now 10-hour break to good use. “That’s when I get to do all my picture taking. A lot of the pictures I take are going down the road 75 miles per hour [in the passenger’s seat] and you wouldn’t think they’d turn out as good, but I’ve practiced. You look ahead and know what shots you want and snap the picture and sometimes several more.”

Ullom said she enjoys taking photos of older buildings or landmarks, hoping to preserve history that’s fading away due to progress.

A few examples are Reno and Las Vegas, Nev., and Needles, Calif., which have drastically grown in their hiatus from trucking, she said.

“You’re expecting this little town because that’s the way it was 20 something years ago,” Ullom said. “When we came off the top of this mountain going into Needles, if you can think about the old westerns it was this little bitty spot in the road and now it just takes up the whole valley.”

The couple enjoys taking the younger grandchildren out on the road with them in the summers to soak up some of the country’s lesserknown history.

“We took our grandson to see Dodge City [Kan.] and it was just ‘oh grandma look.’ I have photos of him in the jail, the stage coach,” she said. “I like to go to the old Indian village here [in Kansas], north of Courtland because it shows you what our history really was. You know there were actual people living there. Now it’s just an open field; one dwelling still remains.”

Ullom said on the land at the Pawnee Indian Museum state historic site in Republic, Kan., at least 300 Indians were killed by soldiers years ago.

Then there’s the oddities, like the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kan., which was weighed at 19,873 pounds in September 2013.

“They add to it every year so it maintains its size so nobody beats them,” Ullom said.

Her favorite historical spot she’s recently visited is certainly not going away any time soon — the Grand Canyon.

“I’ve always wanted to go there … It was just like, ‘Oh my word, here’s this wagon train coming up there where are they going to go coming up this canyon,’” Ullom said, picturing what the pioneers had to go through.

And while she enjoys documenting history, she’s also lived it. When she started trucking, diesel was about 47 cents a gallon and she was at the wheel of a 1966 COE Mack with a Fuller 13-speed.

“There used to not be a truck stop within a 500-mile radius,” Ullom said. “You really had to know your fuel mileage if you were going to make it to the next place to get fuel. Now they’re practically at every exit.”

For Ullom, she continues to enjoy her time back on the open road and would welcome any of her children or grandchildren to join the family business.

“If they have the nomadic spirit, that’s about as best as you can explain it,” Ullom said. “I really think the trucking industry is something to look at. It gives you your independence. You are your own boss of your truck.”

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