Between them, Georgia-based drivers David and Dana Walden have nearly 70 years of trucking experience, a stint that has taught them hundreds of life lessons and given them thousands of stories.
Those stories mark important events in their lives — especially the one about the cellphone. In fact, without the cellphone story, many of the others would never have happened.
“I had service with AT&T and I had an old Suncom phone,” David said. “I was having trouble with it. I called a friend of mine and I go, ‘Man, this phone of mine sucks. I’m fixin’ to throw it out the window, go get me a megaphone and yell out the window at people.’ He goes, ‘No, no, actually, I know this team couple, and she’s really good with electronics. And they’re close to where you are.’
“So I call them,” David continued. “This guy answers the phone and I go, ‘Hey, my name’s David and my friend told me your girlfriend is really good with electronics.’ He goes, ‘Oh man, she’s fantastic with electronics!’ I go, ‘You don’t know me from nobody, but could she look at my phone?’”
That girlfriend turned out to be Dana, an Army veteran who loved trucking as much as David did. Over time, a friendship blossomed until one day Dana, who was now single, made David an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Dana calls me out of the blue one day and goes, ‘Hey, I’m here in Louisiana, fixin’ to go out to California with a load of ice cream. Where you at?’” he said. “I go, ‘Actually, I’m coming through Vicksburg, Mississippi.’ She said, ‘I’ll sit here and wait on you. We’ll go across there together.’ One thing leads to another … and here we are 20 years later.”
The couple’s professional story mirrors their personal one in all the ways that are important — a lucky break here, a fortuitous bounce there, and the sheer dogged determination to see things through.
David was introduced to trucking by his father, who drove for half a century. While his father is now deceased, his legacy lives on through his son’s love of the industry.
“When I was growing up, Dad drove a company truck for one company for like, 30 years,” David said.
Dana’s hands-on introduction to trucking didn’t come from a parent. It came from Uncle Sam, through her stint in the U.S. Army. During her hitch, the Iowa native served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield before starting her driving career in the civilian sector. For the past 15 years, she’s driven for Tarkett, based out of Dalton, Georgia, where she has a designated local run.
“I got grandfathered in on CDL,” she said. “I never did have to go for that testing. I got home like a week before you had to start; I had one week to get my CDL without testing.”
In 2001, David founded Walden Transport. Since then, he has built a successful business through the ups and down of the market and the many challenges that face all entrepreneurs.
“When I got my truck in 2001, (Dad) said, ‘You realize you’re making a massive mistake. You always drive for somebody else. That way they’ve got to deal with the problems,’” David said. “I go, ‘Dad, I’ve been driving 14 years. I just want to try.’
“Six months later, he went and bought his own truck,” David continued. “I said, ‘Wait a minute old man. What happened to making a mistake?’ He goes, ‘Well, I’m 62. I might as well make my first mistake in life.’”
As much as David enjoys being his own boss, he says that, looking back, he has to admit his father had a point.
“That thing Dad put in the back of my head, ‘You’ve got to pay for the repairs,’” he said knowingly. “I had one truck for 10 years, and I put three motors in that truck. First one was $15,000. Next one was $18,000 and the third one was $21,000.
“Dealing with repairs is your biggest fear in this business, that and now fuel,” he continued. “Last year, fuel just tore me up. Running to the West Coast or Northwest was costing me $6,000 to $7,000 to go there and back to Georgia. That’s a lot of money.”
Dana, who first became captivated with driving as a child after seeing a garbage truck in her neighborhood, said experiencing the freedom of the road is the best thing about her long career.
It’s also taught her a lot of life lessons, including one important one concerning team driving with her spouse.
“We only drove together for a little bit,” she said with a big laugh. “I would choke him now if I had to ride with him.”
David’s latest rig, a 2019 International LoneStar featuring an X15 Cummins engine and Fuller 10-speed transmission, is his pride and joy.
“I always had Freightliners. My first was in 2001, my second one was in 2002; got another in 2012 and in 2015,” he said. “I was just ready for something different. I’m not a Peterbilt man at all and Dana goes, ‘Have you seen the [International] LoneStar?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen them on the road.’ She goes, ‘It looks like a train.’ I go, ‘To me, it looks like a 1938 Ford in the front end.’”
Driving a rig you like, as any driver will tell you, is the key to happiness in your work, especially given the amount of time David spends in his. He estimated he’s averaged 150,000 miles a year going back to his company days, and says he never ran harder than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We hauled food boxes from Chattanooga all over the country,” he said. “We were running out West, picking up produce, coming right back to Georgia and the Carolinas and Florida. I’d say 2021 — I probably did almost 200,000 miles by myself that year. I was running my butt off.”
David has grown older and wiser when it comes to his chosen profession. He’s an owner-operator in the strictest sense, serving as his company’s sole driver, not because the opportunity to expand isn’t there but because of the headaches that come with having to manage it.
“I got friends that have four, five, six trucks and I see the crap they’ve got to go through,” he said. “I don’t want that two-in-the-morning, ‘Hey, I’ve run off the road. Hey, I’ve hit somebody. Hey, I need money for this. Hey, the truck’s tore up.’ To me, that would just be too much.”
While the Waldens don’t travel as a team — they’re happiest following their own paths as drivers — as a couple, they always share the journey.
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.