Years ago, Shelle Lichti ran for her safety — and found support in the trucking industry.
Dubbed the “Rainbow Rider,” Lichti, who now drives for Hirschbach Motor Lines, has been trucking since the early 1990s. She says the freedom she found on the road proved to be her saving grace from both a turbulent past and the stigma of hiding her own sexuality.
Lichti grew up in an orphanage, where she says she faced many challenges, living through assault, harassment, bullying and homophobia. She escaped by finding refuge in the trucking industry.
“I thrived, and found that this was something that came relatively easy for me,” Lichti said.
“I found that I had an affinity for it, and loved the power, the freedom. I loved that I was in control, especially when I was younger, because so much was beyond my control and having some semblance of that was so important,” she said. “It’s helped create who I am today, and I am very grateful to the industry as a whole. I believe that without it, I would have died, either by my own hand or someone else’s.”
Looking back, Lichti says, the paths she took in the past didn’t hold time for encouragement or comfort. Behind the wheel, however, she realized she had a choice: She could use her past as a crutch, or she could move forward.
She chose to move forward.
As a mentor to other truck drivers, Lichti seeks to help women as much as possible, advocating for their rights as drivers and human beings through her 501c3 nonprofit, LGBT Truckers.
When a friend belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community “unalived themselves,” as Lichti describes it, she decided to take action by creating a safe, supportive community for truck drivers. The group now has amassed more than 6,000 followers on Facebook.
The group’s followers include both those who belonging to the LGBT community and allies who are employed as drivers, mechanics, office staff and many others. Lichti herself says she delayed coming out as a lesbian for fear of the possible aftermath of bullying and depression.
“I wanted people to accept me on my work and not who I slept with, because we are more than our sexuality. It’s such a small part of us, but some people want to make it so big and that’s so sad,” she said. “Why would you be threatened by somebody who is born to be attracted to someone else?”
The LGBT Trucker group, which started in 2008 as an 800-conference line that anyone could call, at any time and talk to someone, branched out into other areas as the needs of the group grew. One of those “branches” is the “Highway Hangout,” a series of web-based karaoke sessions during which drivers took turns singing and embracing each other’s voices. In addition, the group offers resources such as help finding LGBT-friendly trucking schools, along with housing and food security.
The positive response to the group’s efforts inspired Lichti to ask Hirschbach for support with a colorful Pride-theme truck wrap to show support for her group on the road. The truck was quickly dubbed the “Rainbow Rider.” The most recent wrap, which adorns a Freightliner and features a “Love Is Love” design, was completed and re-debuted in November of 2020.
The truck’s interior is something Lichti likes to update regularly. Pink was a staple in her truck’s interior for a while, but she is now updating the decor with different colors, new bedding and an organized kitchenette.
She says she has an agreement with Hirschbach to eventually buy the Rainbow Rider; she plans to then donate the truck to the LGBT Truckers organization.
“Hirschbach supports every hard-working driver regardless of race, creed, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation,” said Jillaynne Pinchuk, Hirschbach’s chief culture officer. “We support positive messages that foster understanding and acceptance. When Shelle approached us with her idea of the Rainbow Rider to support LGBTQ drivers, we were all for it!”
The travel-sized decor inside the truck is what Lichti is used to because she spends most of her days on the road. She says the independence offered by her chosen career in trucking addicted her to the lifestyle of roaming and exploring where she wished with an RV. When she’s not on the road, she resides at campsites all over the U.S. She loves being out in the sun, listening to birds or relaxing with music, books or her crafts, free from worry and moving on with confidence.
Acceptance and empathy are strong traits Lichti possesses. Ever since she started driving nearly 30 years ago, she has worked to transform her truck into a home, not only for herself but also for the precious four-legged creatures she’s rescued over the road.
During the surge of COVID-19 in March 2020, she recognized an opportunity for fellow truckers to communicate worldwide by sharing photos of their furbabies and posting available dogs or cats. The Facebook group Trucking Furbabies was born out of that desire.
“We wanted to create a positive, happy environment where drivers could share photos of their furbabies,” she said. “You can’t stay in a ticked-off mood when you see critters.”
Currently, she has two cats and one Chihuahua, Zulu, who had been abandoned at a truck stop in Laredo, Texas. She says she can tell Zulu was previously owned by a truck driver because when the brakes pop, Zulu wags his tail, eager to hop up the steps and into the cab.
However, the rabbit-furred Japanese bobtail cats, Neela and Wobbles, were borderline feral when she rescued them. Now they’re properly trained and sweetly nuzzle up to her.
The animals she rescues stay with her until they find their “furever” homes — and in some cases like the bobtails, they require more tenderness, love and care.
“There are so many animals that are just waiting and wanting their forever home and they get turned away, or put down, for so many stupid reasons, like high (separation) anxiety animals,” she said. “Place them with a trucker. We’re with our animals 24/7.”
Neela, nicknamed “Neela-Beela,” has 13 toes on her front paws. Gaining her trust and getting her used to the truck was a challenge, especially because she flinched from sudden movements. Lichti’s sister helped Neela recover — and, in some ways, helped Lichti to recover as well.
“Animals are so helpful to drivers, because we need somebody to talk to and something to take care of,” she said. “It’s less lonely. We all know that animals have the health benefits of lowering blood pressure by getting out and exercising and the psychological effects that can help with depression in trucking … I wouldn’t know what to do without one.”
For now, Lichti says she isn’t looking to add any new critters to her truck, and she’s working to find “furever” homes for the two cats. She says she’ll likely rescue more animals in need afterward. She estimates she’s rescued 300 animals over the years, and the perfect life she imagines — besides driving — is having an animal by her side.
Hannah Butler is a lover of interesting people, places, photos and the written word. Butler is a former community newspaper reporter and editor for Arkansas Tech University’s student newspaper. Butler is currently finishing up her undergraduate print journalism degree and hopes to pursue higher education. Her work has been featured in at least nine different publications.