Over the course of 14 years and more than a million miles, life on the road has taught Joan Raby a few things — like the importance of building relationships and providing support for others.
After years of driving for various carriers, from Iowa to Wyoming to Texas, the Cincinnati native recently signed on with San Antonio-based Guenther and Sons.
“Guenther and Sons are milk haulers,” she said. “Prior to that, I’ve done pneumatic, hazardous, reefer, tanker. My first tanker was Jack B. Kelley out of Amarillo (Texas) and that was cryogenics, helium, compressed helium, liquid helium, nitrogen and ethylene — all hazardous.”
Raby grew up in a family of construction workers, which eventually led her to a desk job with a Ohio paving company. Then, she says, her husband died unexpectedly, forcing her to take a hard look at her career.
“I knew at that point, in my early 40s, that I needed to make more money,” she said. “My check had always been the second check in the house as a construction secretary. When he passed away, the crew started letting me go out on the weekends for asphalt construction and started teaching me the equipment. I even passed the pre-trip for accommodation vehicles.”
After relocating to Florida, Raby enrolled with Roadmaster Trucking School in Orlando. She was the only female in the class, but she says her classmates were a friendly lot, and she fit right in.
“The school was filled with your bricklayers and electricians and the types of trades I’m used to being around,” she said. “I had an edge from practicing driving a big truck for the paving company. I remember passing a bunch of tests and hearing the instructor saying, ‘Do you all know you just got beat by a girl?’
“It was pretty funny,” she recalled with a laugh.
Unfortunately, the next stage of her driving career wasn’t nearly as positive. Raby’s first carrier required 60,000 miles with a trainer, a process that took four months. To add to the frustration, she said, personality conflicts with her trainer caused a low level of teacher-student interaction.
“It was the kind of thing you suffered through,” she said. “I really didn’t learn anything.”
Never one to shy away from engaging people, however, Raby augmented her on-the-job experience by reaching out to experienced drivers for help. This a strategy she has continued throughout her career. In turn, she went out of her way to help newbies, remembering the frustration she felt at not having her questions answered when starting out.
“Your first year is your hardest. I think it has an 80% dropout rate in our industry,” she said. “I noticed that when new drivers would ask for help, it was treated like a joke. They were bullied, and they weren’t learning anything. With what I went through in training, I didn’t want anybody else to feel alone.”
Raby quickly discovered there was only so much one person could do. Noticing that many drivers were putting down the CB and turning to social media for communication, she decided to set up online. She founded Ask A Veteran Driver, a Facebook forum and website (askaveterandriver.com) that gives drivers access to experienced truckers who are willing to lend their knowledge.
“It’s a private group. We only allow drivers, retired drivers, about-to-be drivers, or you must be a direct family member of a driver,” she said. “The reason is, questions are sensitive, and only another driver is going to get it.
“When I built the site, I asked veteran drivers to be on the panel because I only had six years’ experience at that point,” she continued. “The biggest rule is, you’ve got to be polite, like you’re standing there talking to somebody in person that’s asking for your help.”
The forum attracted numerous participants, with a wide range of questions.
“It was one of those things: If you build it and ask, they show up. It took on a life of its own,” Raby said.
Launched in 2014, the group now numbers about 5,000 and is a wellspring of truck-driving knowledge curated from every corner of the industry.
“I have a pretty high percentage (of members) who are active,” Raby said. “We cover mountain driving, bridge laws, routing, paperwork, teaming, health and exercise, repairs, tires, safety gear, even our families and relationships. Anything you want to talk about.
“We also encourage drivers to step out of their comfort zone after a certain time, because there’s so much our industry has to offer,” she continued. “Look into car hauling, flatbed, pneumatic, oversized. I have mentors for each one of these specialized areas — doubles, triple, tanker — and (participants) can even ask for a personal mentor. I have a livestock hauler who’s got 3 million miles just hauling livestock that will train the right person, and that’s rare because they’re a very closed bunch.”
Ask A Veteran Driver has also inspired others to launch their own efforts to address certain aspects of the trade in more detail.
“It spun off a bunch of other stuff like Truckers with Tools for people who are not sure how to use tools,” Raby said. “A tow truck operator spun off Ask a Veteran Tow Truck Operator. I spun off CBs for Newbies — usually drivers will have a couple of CBs and we connect them with a way to send off their old one to somebody who can’t afford one right now.”
Raby has also engaged the members of the group to support worthwhile causes. She organized a fundraiser that raised $12,000 for the family of a trucker who was murdered on the job. She also spearheaded Truckers Against Bullying, an initiative through which she pairs members with youth to provide mentoring and moral support.
“It’s just about knowing that there’s a group of people that care about you,” she said of the effort. “We let these kids know, ‘You’re our family.’”
Ask a Veteran Driver has added yet another level of satisfaction that Raby has taken from her career. When speaking about her life behind the wheel, there’s a pronounced note of wonder in her voice for her chosen profession.
“Seeing our beautiful country — Mount Shasta, Mount Rainier,” she said. “Arizona down on the I-8; it’s called the Imperial Sand Dunes, and you think you’re in Saudi Arabia. Not to mention the produce farms in the San Joaquin Valley and the San Bernadino Valley with the miles and miles of strawberries and the nut trees that Blue Diamond owns.
“And then out East, the mountains of Virginia. I was on this enormous bridge at night climbing over this gorge and the trees were so tall. I was climbing towards these trees and the moon was so bright, it was like daytime at night. I went up through the fog and for a couple seconds there I couldn’t see. It was a spiritual feeling. Just gorgeous.”
Wherever her travels take her one thing’s for sure: Raby will always go out of her way to help others.
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.