Pulling into the truck stop parking lot — the kind of place she’s been rolling to a stop at for almost 50 years behind the wheel — BJ Neal scans her surroundings and lets the muscle memory honed by decades on the road click in her head.
It may look like a small detail, this deductive process of choosing just the right spot, but it isn’t — at least not for someone who came up the hard way.
“When they started having the huge truck stops, there were drivers who recognized I was willing to just be a straight, honest driver, and they would give me pointers,” Neal told The Trucker.
“They would always tell me what truck stops were the safest to park and where to park. You never parked in the back row. That’s where drivers would sell parts of their loads, where the lot lizards worked, there were the drugs and all that,” she said.
“I don’t have to deal with that anymore, but I can remember when parking (space) at a truck stop had to chosen carefully,” she continued. “When I go now, it’s well-lit, it’s open. I don’t even think about it anymore, but I still have a tendency not to park in the back because of old habits.”
It seems Neal was destined to be a curiosity in her career. She was raised in an era when females in the cab of a truck were frowned upon (if they were allowed at all), and she started driving in an era when she was often, in her own words, the only gal in the room.
Today, she stands out because, at the age of 81, she is still truckin’ along. For someone who says she just wanted to get the job done, the sassy Oregonian has blazed quite the trail.
“I have tried over the years to figure out why I have so much fun doing this,” she said. “All I can say is I must have a thing about running around on wheels, because I’ve always enjoyed it.
“The same highway is never the same. There’s always something,” she continued. “People say, ‘Don’t you get tired and fall asleep at the wheel?’ I say, ‘No, I’m busy. I don’t have time!’”
Neal first discovered a love for the road sitting beside her father, who drove logging trucks in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. By the time she was old enough to earn her chauffeur’s license — this was long before the days of CDLs — management put the kibosh on her ride-alongs with her father.
However, the hook had been set, so to speak, and Neal happily followed the road into trucking. When she met her future husband, who was also a driver, she recalls shooting him straight about her goals.
“My husband knew what I wanted to do, because from the time I was a kid, I always said, ‘I’m going to be a truck driver someday,’” she said.
“In those days, they didn’t have many rules they enforced on how long you drove, so produce haulers had to do an awful lot of extra hours,” she continued. “Back then, you picked the stuff up fresh, so they iced it. We used to have to go places and have the ice blow out of the load. Down the road, you’d see water dripping behind you all the time.”
Neal’s husband was supportive of her goals.
“My husband asked his boss if he could teach me and his boss said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’” she said. “He didn’t have to pay me; all he would be paying would be my husband, and I’d be doing the extra driving. I got most of my hours as relief driver for him.”
By the mid-1970s, Neal and her spouse were driving regularly for small operators between California and the Pacific Northwest, and they even bought their own truck. When the marriage fell apart, however, she found it difficult to get hired.
“My husband and I divorced in ’83. It just happened. By then I had about eight years driving experience, but I was never a paid driver — and they still did not like the idea of a woman being in the truck alone,” she recalled.
“There was a lot of reluctance to hire me,” she said. “I did have friends that knew I was a good driver, so I was encouraged to check a company out of Portland, Oregon, that hired teams and did not care if you knew each other. They put two people in a truck, and that was it. They hired me and let me drive.”
The company’s system put Neal in whatever truck was available, with whoever was available. Some of these pairings worked out, but most of them didn’t — and Neal said she soon grew tired of sharing the cab. Determined to drive her own rig, she eventually left Oregon and headed for Texas. There, she did a lot of slip-seating, constantly changing equipment and driving whatever rig dispatch put her in.
“Eventually things changed, and I went with companies where I had an assigned truck,” she said of her 30 years driving in Texas. “Everybody knew when they hired me that I had a lot of different trucking backgrounds and could take any truck.”
Eventually, time did what adversity and discrimination never could: It slowed her down.
As she approached her 70s, Neal said, she quit long-haul runs for more localized routes. Since moving back home to Oregon in 2016, she has done what she describes as “part-time” driving. Most recently, she joined K&E Express Transportation out of North Bonneville, Washington. She now drives a local route, delivering to grocery stores and warehouses.
Every run she makes adds to her career total miles. That’s a number Neal stopped tallying after hitting the 2 million mark during her years in Texas.
Neal says that life is good and she’s happy, and that the years haven’t “ground all the pepper out of her” yet.
“The only complaint I have in life is that, because I learned to drive the older trucks, I don’t like the newer trucks,” she said.
“I have a lot of trouble with them, with all their so-called ‘smart stuff,’” she continued. “It’s stupid to me. [This company has] one truck that’s a 2015 I think, a Kenworth, which I love to drive but don’t get to all the time. The rest of them I just deal with.”
Luckily, Neal’s company takes notice of its drivers’ preferences.
“They’re replacing all of this equipment with newer trucks, and I’m going, ‘Aaaaaaaah!’” she said. “The owner said, ‘I’m going to keep the old Kenworth.’ I said, ‘Oh, good!’ It’s better than driving these new things.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.