Eva Knelsen has made a lifelong habit of defying stereotypes. Whether that means running contrary to her family’s opinions or digging in her heels to drive a bright pink semi, the 36-year-old trucker has had to overcome a lot of barriers to do what she loves, on her terms.
“My parents taught me that you don’t take crap from anybody,” she said regarding the source of her grit. “You do your job and you do it well, and you don’t take anything from anybody else. If they dish it out, you can dish it right back.
“That’s one thing I will never take for granted, or my work ethic that my parents taught me,” she continued. “I had my first full-time job when I was 12 years old, so I will not ever take that work ethic for granted.”
The Canada-born Knelsen grew up in a Mennonite household, one of 15 children. It was there that she was both inspired to and discouraged from pursuing a life in trucking.
“My parents were born and raised in Mexico. After they got married, they wanted to get away from there, so my dad moved (my) mom up to Canada,” she said. “Every other Christmas, my dad would pack us all up and we would drive in a 15-passenger van down to Mexico to visit family. And just seeing the trucks on the road … oh I absolutely loved ’em!
“Then, when I was about 16, my brother got his license and started driving,” she said. “I went with him a couple times, and I just fell in love with it even more.”
Knelsen’s parents frowned on her budding career interest and wrote it off as just a passing fancy — until she went to school and earned her CDL, a move that was not well received by her family.
“I didn’t speak to my family for four years, because they did not accept me as a driver,” she said. “It was not (acceptable) for female Mennonites, but it was okay for my brother to drive, because he was a male. Yeah, there were some words that my parents both said to me that hurt so bad — but the more they said it, the more I was determined to make it (as a trucker).”
At first, Knelsen didn’t find the trucking industry any more welcoming than her family. She struggled to find her first trucking job, and once she did, she faced hostility and abuse out on the road.
“When I first started driving, there were plenty of men on the road that would keep saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t be on the road. You should be barefoot, pregnant, in the kitchen doing a woman’s job,’” Knelsen recalled. “Whatever. There weren’t very many women out here. But, like, in the last, I’d say about 10 years, I’ve seen more and more women out here. And it’s awesome seeing that.”
By the time Knelsen landed at Ontario-based West Coast Transportation, the trucking landscape had changed and evolved, and so had her experience as a driver.
One goal, however, had yet to be met — having a chance to drive a pink truck.
“Growing up, my mom always wanted one of her children to love the color pink. I never did. I was a tomboy, so pink was gross,” Knelsen said. “But she bought me a pair of pink toe socks when I was about 16, and that’s when I started loving the color pink. Everything had to be pink.
“When I first started driving for West Coast, I was just driving one of the regular white Peterbilt Type 79 Ps with burgundy fenders. But inside, I had everything pink,” she added. “My covers were pink, floormats, steering wheel. Everything was pink. Nobody else wanted to drive it because it was too much pink, but I didn’t care what anybody said.”
Knelsen’s boss, Don English, wasn’t worried about the truck’s interior makeover, telling Knelsen she could do what she wanted as long as the job got done and he didn’t have to drive it. But when she told him how cool it would be to drive a pink company rig, he had some choice words about the idea.
“The boss said, ‘[expletive] no! I’m never buying a pink truck,’” she remembered with a laugh. “Well, his then-girlfriend, her mom passed away from breast cancer and she convinced him to order me a pink truck. She told him we could do it up as a breast cancer awareness truck. And so, he did.”
Ken Worth Senior, as it Knelsen’s long-awaited pink truck was called, hit the road in March 2017, and was replaced by Ken Worth Junior, a W900L, in August 2020. True to her word, Knelsen made sure the truck was a familiar sight at events supporting breast cancer awareness and helping raise funds for research.
“When it first came in, I asked the boss if it was okay to be involved in the Truck’n’ For a Cure show back home in Woodstock, Ontario,” she said. “And he’s like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I built it.’ To this day, every year, we still raise money for that show.
“There’s also a show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that they do as a truck show charity event,” she said. “It’s only been two years that they’ve had it, but by the sounds of it, it will be an annual thing.”
That pink truck even helped mend the rift Knelsen’s career choice had created between her and her family. Her mother, who died this spring, was particularly taken with the rig.
“My mom fell in love with the truck that I was driving,” Knelsen said. “I took her for a drive with it. I actually have a video and a couple pictures of her in the passenger seat. I went bobtailing to the farm once, and the first time she saw the truck she comes running out the front door. She’s like, ‘It’s pink!’ Yes, Mom, I know.”
When Ken Worth Senior was retired, Knelsen briefly considered buying the truck, but because her boss promised to continue the pink truck legacy, she passed on the opportunity. Besides, she said, he wasn’t keen on the idea, and didn’t want to risk losing one of his best drivers.
Knelsen said she’s just happy to be able to bring more awareness and funding to a cause she believes in.
“It can be a little overwhelming at times,” she said. “My mom didn’t die from breast cancer, but it was cancer and ever since she passed, (the pink truck has) meant so much more to me. I never realized what having a cancer patient in your family was like until she was going through it.
“Driving this pink truck makes me feel like I’m actually making a difference when I’m raising funds or if I’m going to a charity event,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m helping someone.”
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.