Tim Olden’s savvy behind the wheel, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, earned him the title of Owner-Operator of the Year for 2020 at Decker Truck Line in Fort Dodge, Iowa. This achievement, while largely based on financial indicators, also takes a great measure of skill — something Olden has in abundance.
“It takes a qualified driver to run these things,” said Olden, who owns, drives and repairs his own rigs.
Olden is not an overnight prodigy.
His impressive skill set comes from spending the majority of the last 32 years out on the road. Because he typically drives between 160,000 and 180,000 miles each year, Olden says almost any place can feel like home.
“Home is wherever I lay my head,” said Olden.
During the warmer seasons of the year, Olden typically makes his home in what he calls his “summer truck,” a Peterbilt Model 386 that he’s transformed into a home on the road. He added several modifications, including antique birchwood flooring, to the rig. In the winter, he switches to his Model 389, because it has better ground clearance.
“There’s only 6 inches of clearance (on the 386),” said Olden, who has no intentions of operating his rig as a makeshift snowplow.
Transforming a truck into a home away from home is no small feat. It does seem apropos, however, given Olden’s early career interests: He originally wanted to become an architectural engineer, but found he wasn’t suited to an office job.
“(Trucking is) freedom. It’s a lifestyle,” he said, explaining why he changed his life’s direction at age 18 and earned a chauffeur’s license and hitting the road.
Three years later, when the CDL was introduced, he recertified, keeping up with the times.
The early 1990s were sort of a “golden age” for Olden, who said he began to develop a skill for repairing rigs soon after hitting the road. A family mindset prevailed in the industry. Truckers often stopped to help other drivers, as well as the public, out with flat tires and minor repairs.
“We used to help one another,” he recalled. Olden still carries a repair kit and spare parts in his trucks to assist others as needed.
And of course, as in any good family, there was food everywhere within the trucking community.
“We used to do cookouts in truck stops. We used to set up a couple of flatbeds with music,” he said. Such events were like a party in a parking lot. Today, however, the practice has been discontinued due to safety concerns.
Many changes have been necessary over the years.
Olden recalls keeping a roll of dimes and using pay phones to report his location to dispatch twice a day, once between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and again between 5 and 6 p.m. This system was all that was available in the days before cellphones and easily accessible computers, and it had its limitations.
“A lot of my friends would actually pass away in the truck,” said Olden. “Nobody would have contact with them for a week.”
If a driver didn’t complete an assigned run, police had to contact other drivers with the same company to piece together the missing driver’s routine in an attempt to find him or her. These days, electronic logging devices (ELDs) and other equipment transmit the locations of the trucks. Even though he understands the reservations some drivers have about ELDs, Olden says that to him the device is indispensable.
During his years on the road, Olden periodically took breaks from his trucking career to work construction jobs for a few months at a time.
“I (had) my ups and downs (with) trucking,” he said.
It was during one of these “breaks” that Olden met his girlfriend of almost 13 years, Margaret “Peggy” Carstens. She would be instrumental in helping him through one of the most challenging times of his career.
He began a partnership in the trucking industry, but it was short-lived. The owners parted ways over a disagreement, and Olden found himself driving for a different company. The financial difficulties caused by the dissolution of the partnership were major, but Olden says Carstens helped him through them.
Today, as an owner-operator driving for Decker Truck Line, Olden says he’s been able to reclaim the family-oriented mindset he remembers from his early days in the trucking industry. In addition, he enjoys the freedom and respect the company affords him as an experienced truck owner.
“I’m known by my name (at Decker),” Olden said, adding that his driving miles, which number over a million, have been recognized with commemorative rings, plaques and jackets.
It appears that Olden has found his niche in the industry, and he said working as an owner-op for Decker has given him the right mix of independence and camaraderie.
“I should have (gone) to Decker 20 years ago,” he said.
Olden has weathered changes over the years, for the most part with a positive attitude. The open road has changed a lot during the last three decades, and Olden’s experience has morphed as well. However, gaining all that experience and being recognized as Owner-Operator of the Year hasn’t gone to his head.
“I’ve watched this industry change,” he said. “I’m the same now as I’ve always been.”
Gina Hoffman is a freelance writer and editor located in Northwest Arkansas. She is also pursuing her bachelor’s degree in strategic communication from Arkansas State University. Her love of the stories surrounding trucking began as a child through anecdotes and postcards shared by an aunt who was an OTR driver. When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband, four sons, three cats and two dogs.