When asked what advice she can give couples who choose to work together, especially in the close confines of a semi cab, Joanne Balmer has a ready answer.
“Pick your fights,” she said with a big laugh. “Don’t be somewhere you’re going to be sitting for hours and hours and hours when you start (an argument). That’s not good. Always be on your way home when you’ve got something to say, so you can get out of the truck sooner.”
Balmer’s sage advice for trucking couples comes from four years of going on runs with her husband, John Balmer Sr., a trucking veteran of more than three decades. The two are together most of the time, as John estimates he logs about 50 weeks out of the year on the road.
“Seriously though, I don’t know if there’s a secret to it or not,” Joanne said of staying off each other’s nerves on the road. “Both of you need a function, I know that. I do the paperwork, write down the mileage. I do all the cooking in the truck, which is great.
“I also do all the electronics,” she continued. “John’s very old school. When it comes to electronics, he’s like, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t want to get it. I don’t want to learn it.’ He hands me the phone all the time and says, ‘Fix it.’”
The Balmers, who have been married for 23 years, decided to give the work arrangement a try once the kids left home.
“We talked about it a long time ago, about when the kids grew up and were gone on their own that she’d jump in the truck and come with me,” John said.
John has been on the road for 34 years, estimating he’s covered “several million” miles during that time. A product of Fort Madison, Iowa, he’s spent nearly all of his life behind the wheel as an owner-operator, lately leased to D.A. Moore Trucking of Stronghurst, Illinois.
“I grew up around trucks and have always been interested in them, he said. “I watched the show ‘Movin’ On’ when I was a kid, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Those guys were always getting into trouble and always having fun doing it. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”
He lets out a well-worn laugh.
“That’s pretty much how things panned out for me — except for the trouble ain’t too much fun sometimes,” he noted.
Being a driver for more than three decades, John’s life has settled into a certain kind of rhythm, not unlike the one his tires beat out beneath his 2001 Peterbilt 379, pulling a reefer from the Midwest to the Southeast U.S.
“I used to run 48 states coast to coast, did for years. It’s kind of a dedicated run, now,” he said. “I’ve got one where I come down (to) St. Elmo, Illinois and pick up for Hy-Vee Foods and go to Sheridan, Iowa. Lot of times I’ll haul out of Burlington and go to Atlanta, Georgia, or Carthage, Missouri.”
In his co-pilot Joanne, John has inherited a sidekick with as much love for — and as long a heritage in — the trucking industry as he has.
“I’ve been around trucks for over 50 years. I grew up around trucks,” Joanne said. “I got my CDL permit twice to go get the license and could never get anybody to hire me, because I didn’t have two years of provable experience for insurance. Nobody would insure me. And I was not getting out of the truck with my husband to get in the truck with somebody else for weeks.”
The couple’s driving arrangement took a little bit of time to break in, but the payoff since then — in shared experiences and changing scenery — has been well worth it.
“We used to haul show trailers, and we did the Budweiser Clydesdales. I really enjoyed that,” Joanne said. “And NASCAR racing — we went to Talladega and hauled some racing ones, too. But the Budweiser one was really my favorite because they let us go back and see the Clydesdales and interact.”
Even the challenges of COVID-19 were easier to take because the couple could share the experience.
“In the beginning of COVID, it was great, because we go to Atlanta all the time — and when it comes to traffic, I’m sorry, but Atlanta is the hellhole of the U.S.A.” Joanne said. “When the traffic cleared out of there, it was awesome.
“The biggest problem I think we’ve had is, they shut down everything that we use out here. You couldn’t find any place to eat. You couldn’t even find a bathroom,” she said. “Most of the time places still won’t let you use the bathroom. Like, seriously? That’s the worst of it.”
John has spent the majority of his career as an owner-operator. When you ask him why, he just shrugs and says the independent lifestyle of the road is appealing. That’s something he holds in common with generations of men in his family.
“I do what I want,” he said. “I’m hardly ever out of the truck. If I’m out of the truck, I’m usually working on it — getting it ready to go again, making sure everything’s all right and (that it’s) not going to have any breakdowns. That’s just how I grew up. All I can remember is trucks. If it wasn’t my dad, it was a few of my uncles or my grandpa. I just teethed on it.”
Given his many years on the road alone, John admits that it took some getting used to having Joanne ride shotgun. But having driven it both ways, he’s most definitely appreciative of having her there these days.
“I’ve been in a truck running coast-to-coast by myself, and it’s kind of like living in a cage,” he said. “When I put her in here, there was actually somebody to talk to. It’s been nice.”
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.