Reanee Swiger-Gray waited a long time to get behind the wheel of a big rig. But once she got there, she soaked up everything there is to see and made the most of every day on the road.
“What I love about trucking is, my home is in a different location every day. I see things that some people could only dream of,” said the native-born Texan. “I would have never seen elk migrating; I’d probably have never seen an elk unless it was in a darn zoo. I would have never seen the things that I’ve seen out here. This country is a wonderful place to see.”
Swiger-Gray first fell in love with trucking while growing up on a farm.
“I grew up and lived just southeast of Austin, Texas,” she said. “We raised Arabian horses my whole life, and we would go to the shows. I would see the people bringing the horse trailers full of horses to the shows and I was like, ‘I’m going to do that.’”
Life took her down another path, however, and she wound up working as a hairdresser for 27 years, until the economy and other aspects of the job turned south, she said. With lots of time suddenly on her hands, she tapped her son Logan on the shoulder and asked him to come along as she at last chased her dream.
“One day I just decided it was time to try something different,” she said. “So, I moved all my belongings into a cargo container at my mom’s house and said, ‘Mom, I’m doing this.’ She was like, ‘Okay.’ My family and my parents were very supportive, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it since I did it.”
Swiger-Gray was 43 or 44 at the time, she recalls.
“There was one other girl in my class at trucking school; she was young,” she said. “There were some older guys, guys about my age. I also kind of stood out because I’m 6 feet, 1 inch tall, and my 23-year-old son Logan is 6 feet, 4 inches.”
Swiger-Gray appreciated her son’s support but admits it was tough having him as a classmate. Especially since, she said reluctantly, he got better grades in truck driving school than she did.
“I had done hair, while he grew up working on a farm,” she said in her defense. “He was used to hauling big truck trailers, and I hadn’t been doing that. Following in my child’s footsteps in school was tough. I had to prove myself.”
Once on the road, driving for Minnesota-based Brenny Specialized, Swiger-Gray felt like she had finally come “home” to do what she was always meant to do. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges along the way.
“There’s a lot I had to get used to,” she said. “The lack of respect from four-wheelers is a big challenge. I also thought it was going to be easy to just jump in a truck and take off running. But you have to learn things, you know, like backing up. It was totally different, but I’ve loved every bit of it.”
Another challenge for the decidedly people-oriented Swiger-Gray was the reception she often got from other drivers because of her gender.
“A lot of men are willing to help — and a lot of men would rather watch you struggle than help,” she said. “I don’t come across a lot of women; the ones that I work with are very helpful with each other. Other women I have met are very respectful and helpful, but there’s a lot of them that don’t go out of their way to say hi.
“But other than that, I have a very good support system in my friends and family and my husband, Homer,” she continued. “I have met wonderful people. I have a support group of truck drivers. The support I have out here runs deep.”
Swiger-Gray also derives support from being a member of the Women in Trucking Association, which this year named her Member of the Month for April. In a press release, the association cited her impeccable safety record over more than 1 million miles. But it also cited her character, referencing a story about Swiger-Gray that showed the depth of her compassion for her fellow human beings.
“It was Jan. 29 in Austin, Texas. I took my daddy to a sleep study and it was right next to a hospital,” she said. “I happened to hear this man saying, ‘I have no shoes.’ Well, I knew the bus was behind me and the bus took off and he was hollering at the driver that he wanted to get on the bus but couldn’t because he had no shoes.”
Swiger-Gray dropped off her father and then drove to the nearest intersection where she flagged down the man crossing the street.
“I pulled up as he walked across and I said, ‘Sir, what size shoe do you wear?’ He’s like, ‘(Size) 8, 9.’ I literally took the shoes off my feet and handed them to him,” she said. “He walked over, found a place to sit, took the socks off his feet because it was drizzling rain. He put them on, said thank you and proceeded to walk away.
“I am a very giving person,” she explained. “During my life, I had to ride the bus everywhere myself at one time. I had a group of homeless guys that would come meet me and walk me up the road late at night when I got off from work. I would feed them, take care of them and they took care of me. I would give you the shirt off my back if it meant anything.”
As for other people who are thinking about doing something new with their lives — especially in trucking — Swiger-Gray has some hard-won advice.
“The only thing I can say is follow your dream,” she said. “It’s not an easy start out here. If you’re new, walk around with your head up, be proud of what you’re doing. Be proud. The whole thing is to be confident in what you’re doing; have confidence in yourself, and you can succeed.”