Bubba Branch was just knee-high to a grasshopper, as they say in the south, when he first climbed aboard his granddaddy’s big rig in Florida. His earliest memories include rowing through the parked semi’s gears, turning the wheel and pumping all the leftover air out of the brakes.
“I drove a million miles and never left the yard,” he said with a laugh.
Branch says he’s proud to still live in Florida as “one of the few who are originally from here.”
Most of all, though, he’s proud to be a trucker — like his dad and granddad before him.
“I have been around trucking all my life,” he said in a husky southern drawl. “Grandad and Dad were in it for 40 or more years. I like to say I was born in a truck. I was one of seven kids, but I was the only one that took to trucks. I would ride with dad anytime I could.”
Branch said he also has special memories of riding along in his grandad’s truck.
“You could do no wrong with Granddaddy,” Branch said. “He was the cat’s meow with me.”
At age 18, Branch earned his CDL. His first job was driving an old, run-down 1970s-model GMC Brigadier General for Miller and Sons in Central Florida. He had to work hard to land that job, he said, adding that he “pestered” the company for a long while before they finally gave him a shot.
“They said all they had for me to drive was an old truck that had a lot of issues,” Branch said. “There were holes in the floorboard, and the fumes were so bad my eyes would turn red. I took it home, washed it, and Dad and I patched up the holes. I drove it for a while before I got caught by the DOT.”
After the truck was red-tagged and ordered out of service by the DOT, Branch didn’t have to worry about it anymore, and in the ensuing two and a half decades he moved up the ladder of success in the trucking industry.
Now, at 44, he and his wife, Krystal, operate Atlas Heavy Haul out of Lakeland, Florida, his hometown. The company primarily hauls heavy equipment.
“I wanted to haul equipment all my life, so I got some good experience and started on my own,” he said, adding that his heaviest haul so far was a massive electrical box that he delivered to Heinz Field, home of the NFL Steelers football team, in Pittsburgh.
The load weighed 200,000 pounds, and it took Branch nearly 15 days to make the run from Miami.
These days, Branch enjoys spending time working on his show truck, a 1996 Kenworth W900 dubbed “Just a Phase.” When he picked it up the truck was white, but he knew he wanted to paint it red so it would stand out.
The entire interior had been stripped, down to the bare metal, so a new hush mat was put in the cab and sleeper, then new floors, seats, an SH Tube twisted shifter and new door, roof and sleeper panels. Bubba’s son, Kolt, painted the dash, and all the accent pieces were painted by his wife.
Once the interior was complete, SH Tube crafted all the stainless-steel accent pieces on the rig, along with the speaker boxes in the cab. Other custom pieces include the mirror brackets, exhaust pipe holders, the dipstick and gear shifter, and more.
The Kenworth is powered by a CAT 3406E engine with an 18-speed transmission. The entire truck has taken Branch about a year and a half to build, but he said it still isn’t 100% complete.
In June, at the annual Shell Rotella SuperRigs event held in Branson, Missouri, Branch’s rig won the categories for best chrome and best engine, and he placed second in the working truck with limited mileage category.
“I have wanted to be at Shell Rotella for so long, and this was my first time,” Branch said. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity.”
As for the future, Branch said Kolt is the one of his three kids who is most likely to follow in his footsteps. Kolt rides with Branch in the big rig any chance he can get, just as Branch did with his dad and granddad.
“Kolt is hooked on it,” Branch said. “He said he wants my rig one day, and he said he is going to paint it blue. I told him to make sure I’m gone before he goes and does that.”
In talking about the industry he loves, Branch said he sees a lot of room for improvement and hopes some changes will be made before Kolt gets his CDL and hits the road.
“Lack of parking is critical,” Branch said. “There is nowhere to go. Now you are told by a computer when you are tired, even if you are not, so you have to get off the road when it says so. You have to have a place to stop that’s safe, and there just aren’t that many.”
Like many drivers, Branch has had to park illegally to meet hours-of-service requirements.
“I was in Jackson, Georgia, on an on-ramp one night. The two nearby truck stops were packed — like they always are — and the ramp was the only place I could park. I got woken up by the Georgia Highway Patrol to a Level 1 inspection. He told me I couldn’t park there, but he let me stay for the night because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
Most of all, though, before his son becomes a professional driver, Branch said he hopes the profession will be seen as one of honor. He wants those who aren’t in the industry to respect truck drivers and the jobs they do.
“Do you realize what this country would be without people choosing to be truck drivers?” Branch said. “Do I think they owe us something? No. But we should get a little more respect.”
Looking back on his career thus far, Branch says he feels blessed.
“I am doing what I love, and I am so beyond grateful for it,” Branch said. “I am thankful to be a truck driver, and I just want to say thanks to all my fellow drivers. You have my respect.”
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and raised in East Texas, John Worthen returned to his home state to attend college in 1998 and decided to make his life in The Natural State. Worthen is a 20-year veteran of the journalism industry and has covered just about every topic there is. He has a passion for writing and telling stories. He has worked as a beat reporter and bureau chief for a statewide newspaper and as managing editor of a regional newspaper in Arkansas. Additionally, Worthen has been a prolific freelance journalist for two decades, and has been published in several travel magazines and on travel websites.