Every so often, my friend Chet Gordon has a stopover in St. Louis, and we meet for dinner.
Chet is a long-haul truck driver these days, so we stick close to the interstate. Ideally, he's able to find a parking spot among the tractor trailers at a Love's truck stop in the far northwest corner of St. Louis County, and then we drive in my car to one of the closest sit-down restaurants, a LongHorn Steakhouse next to the failed St. Louis Outlet Mall in Hazelwood.
Driving there on our last visit felt like touring an abandoned metropolis in a zombie movie. We descended St. Louis Mills Boulevard past an emptied-out Babies R Us and curled along the perimeter of acres of unused parking spots. In less than two decades, a complex designed to efficiently funnel thousands of people to shops, restaurants and a movie theater had dwindled to accommodating... us, a handful of other diners and a few workers at a surprisingly hard-to-kill chain restaurant.
"Hello, my friend," Chet says whenever we meet again.
For nearly 30 years, he was a photojournalist in New York and New Jersey. Now that he's a driver, I follow along on his Instagram feed as he posts photos from across the country. Truck stops at dawn in Wyoming. Downtime between loads in Indiana. Fried catfish at the Travel Plaza in Big Cabin, Oklahoma.
- CHET GORDON
- Steam rises from Chet Gordon's truck and trailer after being washed at 1 a.m. at the Blue Beacon Truck Wash in Antioch, Tennessee, on Saturday morning, February 15.
We worked together for more than six years at a newspaper north of New York City. Neither of us were married at the time, and we sometimes stayed up all night covering chaos or winding down over beers. Newspapers were faltering even then. It hadn't reached the despair of a hollowed-out mall in the suburbs, but you could feel the dread.
I took another job in 2013, and shortly after, the hedge fund that had bought the formerly family-owned newspaper before I left began slashing jobs. It laid off talented editors, outsourced the copy desk to Austin, Texas — and eliminated the entire photo staff. For me, it was like leaving a party early and learning later there had been a house fire at the end of the night.
Chet and the other staffers, who had helped teach me the business, scattered in search of new jobs. Despite decades of experience, they quickly learned there were few options. Chet spent nearly three years battling to keep going in a career he'd begun in 1988 after serving in the Marine Corps. He landed a spot as the first photo editor of a lifestyle magazine group, only to be laid off again. He took jobs as a laborer for a contractor and in the warehouse of a grocery wholesaler as a way to buy time until he could return to his profession. But he wasn't going to return.
"I'm literally laying in bed one night," he says, recalling a conversation with his future wife. "I sat up, and I said, 'You know what? I'm going to drive a truck.'"
It wasn't completely out of the blue. Not long before, he'd ridden along on a cross-country trip for a personal photo story on a long-haul driver and returned with new interest in the industry. And at the grocery wholesaler, he chatted up drivers who dropped off pallets of food, quizzing them about the pay, lifestyle and best trucking companies.
After his late-night epiphany, he sent an inquiry to one of the companies, Prime Inc., based in Missouri. Over the previous three years, he'd sent dozens of applications to newspapers and former humanitarian aid agency clients with no luck. But a recruiter from Prime looked at his military service and his decades as a hardworking news photographer, and quickly offered him a bus ticket from New York to the company's headquarters and training facility in Springfield. Chet delayed for another couple of weeks, and then he boarded the bus for the Midwest.
"A twenty-plus-year career in the news business," Chet says, replaying the mental hurdles of leaving his old career and joining Prime. "It was tough. It was difficult. It was shocking. It was shocking, yeah. But I made the right choice."
- CHET GORDON
- Chet's rig parked for the day on the morning of March 30 at the Flying J Travel Center in McCammon, Idaho, after an overnight leg. En route from Laredo, Texas, to Hermiston, Oregon, for delivery early the next morning.
- CHET GORDON
- Chet Gordon pauses after using a leaf blower to clean out his trailer in Aurora, Illinois, on August 7, 2019.
In October 2016, I picked him up from a bus depot at the Gateway Station in downtown St. Louis where he had an hour or two to kill before traveling the final leg to Springfield. Working at a newspaper is one of those jobs that becomes an identity. Those who leave tend to switch to something still of that world, maybe a turn to the "dark side" — public relations or advertising. Some go into teaching. I've known a few who went on to law school.
It's not that they can't do other things; it's just outside their imagination. So I would not have ever suggested Chet go into trucking, but it made sense. He had always been a rigorous planner, meticulously lining out his gear, arranging remotes and strobes for jaw-dropping sports images. He was also mission-driven and a relentless traveler, embedding with doctors traveling abroad on humanitarian missions to nearly 30 countries and photographing life in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Africa or just relaxing in Bermuda.
Over hamburgers and beers at Maggie O'Brien's pub, we talked about the trucking industry, the news business and the state of the country. It would become part of our routine. As Chet moved from trainee to company driver to now leasing his truck toward ownership, we would meet semiannually at some truck stop or empty parking lot around St. Louis and catch up at whatever restaurant was nearby.
He estimates it took a year tor so to get over his anxieties and feel comfortable in the truck.
"I like it," he tells me during a recent phone call. "I tell them all the time, 'Send me wherever you want to send me. I'm going.'"
But even as Chet has settled into a routine of living out of his truck for four weeks or more at a time, the country that he crosses from one end to the other has seen an upheaval unlike any in our lifetime. In March, the weight of the coronavirus first began to settle on the consciousness of the United States. Restaurants closed their dining rooms, or closed entirely. Pro sports suspended their seasons. Schools shut down.
- CHET GORDON
- Empty Trucker’s Chapel at the Road Ranger Travel Center in Princeton, Illinois, on Monday afternoon, April 6.
Those still working were divided into "essential" and "nonessential," but even then, there were differences within the distinctions. People with essential jobs like mine could still mostly work from home. People with essential jobs like Chet's had little choice but to keep forging across the landscape.
"I'm an OTR (Over the Road or long haul) commercial truck driver, and here's why the coronavirus terrifies me," he wrote at the top of a Facebook post later published by another of our former co-workers in the Putnam County News and Recorder (in New York state). Chet described the craziness of the run on toilet paper and antibacterial wipes, the necessary limits on the number of people in crowds, limits that would later be revised down to zero. But from his perch in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler, as people began to wrestle with the severity of the pandemic, he could see a missing piece of the conversation.
"It seems that no one is willing to acknowledge the very real potential mass chaos if the perishable and grocery supply chain network is disrupted in this country," he wrote. "Imagine for a few moments if a percentage of the unseen low-wage farm, livestock and migrant workers, along with meat, seafood and poultry processing plant workers, as well as the warehouse workers, loaders, dock workers, and truck drivers were to succumb to the virus. This is an industry where none of us can 'tele-work' from home, and our work affects the health and well being of every single person in this country. Everybody has to eat."
Not long after he wrote that, clusters of outbreaks started popping up at meatpacking plants across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in early May that revealed about a fifth of the plant workers in South Dakota and Iowa had contracted the virus and nearly 5,000 workers in nineteen states had tested positive. Chet's routes occasionally include some of those same facilities, not to mention all the truck stops and other warehouses along the way.
"Some places have it together," he says. "You know, they check us at the gate, they check temperatures. They request your license, and they spray it and wipe it down when they give it back to you. ... Quite a few places don't even want you to get out of the truck, other than to open your doors and back up to the building."
Lots of truck stops have closed their drivers' lounges, restaurants and showers. They require masks. "Other places, it looks like nothing's happened. There are extremes. ... I've gone some places, and nobody's wearing a mask, maybe one worker. None of the guests and none of the people in the cars at the truck stop that are walking in are wearing masks. None of them are concerned, and it's like, 'What the heck is going on here?'"
Predictably, the attitudes of his fellow truckers vary as well. There are the drivers like Chet who have built extra steps, like disinfecting surfaces in the cab a couple of times a day, into their normal safety routines, and there are skeptics, too.
"I hear the guys talking, 'Oh, it's a hoax, it's all bullshit. It's this. It's that,'" he says. "It's a microcosm of the country, this industry."
- CHET GORDON
- The Chesapeake House Travel Plaza on I-95 in Port Deposit, Maryland, is void of people on Sunday night, March 22. "I made the empty men’s room image first because it immediately reminded me of the scene from The Shining."
- CHET GORDON
- Backing into Tri-Valley Beverage in Westmoreland, New York, to have beer products unloaded on February 6. The load originated from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Newark, New Jersey.
In late May, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, setting off massive protests. Chet was driving through Minnesota at the time but was routed on a loop a couple hours north of the Twin Cities. Since then, demonstrations have sprung up in every major city in the U.S. and, in some cases, internationally. Seven or eight years ago, Chet would have been in the streets, viewing the uprisings through the lens of his Nikon DSLR's. Every once in a while, he still feels the pang of missing the big news stories. But he's consciously begun redirecting his mind away from his old identity as a news photographer, and into his new career.
"I missed the daily stuff for a long, long time," he says. "But as this takes over your time and your brain, this has become my profession."
He still reads the major newspapers online, but his mind soon fills with maps, safety checks and trip paperwork. He usually reverse engineers his trips, working backward from the time he has to arrive so that he can determine the miles to cover each day and allow for the endless variables: traffic, bad weather, road conditions, crazy drivers and on and on. There are a million things to think about when you're pulling close to 80,000 pounds down the road at highway speeds.
- CHET GORDON
- Handwritten trip notes on the truck I use on a load from Laredo, Texas, to Hermiston, Oregon. Reverting back to my journalism career and prior military experience at times for this mindset, which helps to be sort of a CYA method for each trip. Particularly if there were any significant events or expenses on a load. I sometimes keep these handwritten trip notes pages filed with each load’s official paperwork like Bills of Lading, fuel receipts, scale receipts, equipment purchases, etc.
But even as he digs deeper and deeper into the life of trucking, he still has the urge to make pictures. A dashcam rigged up in the cab gives a driver's-eye view of the horizon ahead. Out of the truck, he makes stunning use of an iPhone8, GoPro and a pocket-size Canon G15. And should he need them, he's still got two Nikons onboard and a laptop for editing.
He hasn't lost the eye. It's just his vantage point that has changed.
"I'm not in the world as a journalist anymore," he says. "I'm not dealing with mayors and governors and police chiefs and celebrities and athletes and, you know, socialites and country-club morons with the khakis and the golf shirts. I would actually rather be with the labor-force people, the workers. Always have, always will want to be, because these are the people that will give it to you straight."
The best times come when he has a two- or three-day run stretched out in front of him. There's no boss to be apprised of his every move (onboard sensors send off all the information they need to monitor his progress), and no office to visit. All he has to do is wake up and drive.
"I tell people all the time, 'You want to know what it's like, you've got to come ride with me,'" he says. "I can't tell you what it's like. I can't explain it."
- CHET GORDON
- Chet Gordon of Greenwood Lake, New York, after cleaning out a trailer in Georgetown, Indiana, on October 15, 2019. Gordon, who previously was a newspaper photographer, photo editor and former US Marine, has been a long-haul truck driver with Prime Inc. of Springfield, Missouri, since December 2016.
Here's how to contact Chet Gordon or follow along on his cross-country adventures: