Gabriel Valdez found himself an empty table at the Petro Stopping Center off Exit 161, Interstate 40, just east of Little Rock Arkansas, where he could eat his breakfast.
So, what are we having this fine morning? Sausage and eggs? Biscuits and gravy? Maybe some Texas-style French toast buried in powdered sugar and whipped cream?
Nope. Valdez was starting his day with fish, vegetables and brown rice.
“I do that every day,” he said. “My wife cooks fish for me, I wrap it up in foil. At Walmart they have little cups of rice, different styles of brown rice. And then I buy a bag of vegetables. I have vegetables, rice and fish every day.
“I mean, every once in a while, don’t get me wrong, I’ll scarf down a burger or a hot dog,” he adds. Sure, a guy has to live a little. His discipline is still admirable.
Then he explains it isn’t just his health he’s thinking about, it’s his wallet’s health, too. It just so happens that he likes fish, rice and vegetables, but part of the reason it’s his go-to meal is that restaurant food adds up.
“I’m here to make money, not spend it,” he said.
Valdez’s rationale for his choice of breakfast is sort of symbolic of his choice of career. He became a driver about a year ago at the age of 41. And while he’s found the job suits him, it was the prospect of making way more money than he was before that convinced him to get his CDL and start driving.
“I used to be in the customer service business until I just got tired of corporate America,” he said. “I was getting paid a good amount hourly, but it wasn’t cutting it, breaking my back, all this overtime just to try to make ends meet.
“I don’t know why I waited so long.”
Valdez’s father was an owner-operator for 40 years. His brother is nearing 25 years as an owner-operator. When he decided he was ready for a career change, his dad gave him an obligatory fatherly warning that trucking isn’t for everyone, but they were both supportive. Valdez is hoping in a couple of years he’ll save enough to fully follow the family tradition and be an owner-operator, too.
Currently, Valdez, who hails from the west Texas town of El Paso, drives for Mesilla Valley Transportation, hauling “dry goods, automotive parts, paper, all types of freight: throughout the U.S. and into Canada.”
As with so many drivers, Valdez says seeing the country is one of the best parts of the job. A few places have stood out so far — Cheyenne, Wyoming; the Denver area; parts of Tennessee, where he would be later that day; Portland, Oregon, where he’d just been.
So, of all the landscapes America has to offer, the mountains, the prairies, the deserts, the coastlines, is there one area that has stood out so far?
Without hesitation, he answered: St. Louis.
That’s a first. But, yeah, he “fell in love with St. Louis,” he said, “the scenery downtown, the arch, the ballpark. I can see myself walking through there having a nice tall beer, you know?”
All of Missouri is nice, he said, especially the green, rolling hills.
His complaints about the driving life are nothing out of the ordinary. Valdez team drives, and he says he hasn’t gotten used to trying to sleep in a moving vehicle.
And he and his wife, Maribel, still haven’t gotten used to his being away so much. “I guess she’s having a little trouble not seeing me on a daily basis,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll go two weeks without seeing each other. But for the most part, we went into this knowing that’s what it’s going to be.”
His sons, Kevin, Abraham and Anthony, are grown and pretty much on their own, but he and Maribel have a daughter, Gabby, who’s 2 and is starting to catch on to daddy’s absences.
“This last time, just as I was about to say ‘bye,’ she knew it was time to say ‘bye.’ She got up, got her hugs and kisses and just went off. But she knew something was up, you know what I mean?”
Well, summer will be here soon. He can take some vacation time, pack up the family, drive up from El Paso, show the family the scenery and take in a Cardinals’ game.
Fish for breakfast, leisurely strolls in St. Louis — it’s all a matter of taste, and the man knows what he likes.
Klint Lowry has been a journalist for over 20 years. Prior to that, he did all kinds work, including several that involved driving, though he never graduated to big rigs. He worked at newspapers in the Detroit, Tampa and Little Rock, Ark., areas before coming to The Trucker in 2017. Having experienced such constant change at home and at work, he felt a certain kinship to professional truck drivers. Because trucking is more than a career, it’s a way of life, Klint has always liked to focus on every aspect of the quality of truckers’ lives.