The Long Haul
In the middle of nowhere, laid-off banker Steve Wilkinson ’82 slid behind the wheel of a big rig
and never looked back.
Story by William Lobdell / Photos by Carlos Puma
From the passenger seat of the 18-wheeler, Steve Wilkinson '82 marveled at the view as
the majestic Rocky Mountains gave way to the plains of Nebraska and their endless cornfields.
A recently laid-off bank executive,
Wilkinson, then 30, couldn’t get over the
sense of freedom and wonder he felt on
his first trip in a big-rig truck. No meetings,
no reports, no office, no bosses. As
crazy as it sounded, he started to think:
maybe I could make a career out of driving
His cousin, a veteran trucker who was
driving, shook Wilkinson from those
thoughts with a surprise command, “Take
the wheel. I need a nap. Just keep it at
65, and you won’t have to change gears.”
So at 65 miles per hour on Interstate
80, Wilkinson—who had never driven a
truck—grabbed the wheel of a fully
loaded big rig weighing 37 tons. As his
cousin slipped out of the driver’s seat,
Wilkinson slid into a new career. He
drove the next 200 miles—white knuckles
on the wheel, eyes darting between the
road, his side-view mirrors and the constellation
of gauges on the dashboard.
As his cousin napped, Wilkinson—
nine years after graduating from Pomona
College—became more convinced with
each mile that this was what he really
wanted to do for a living. The open road
had seduced the banker.
“I was freaked out and amazed,” he
says. “I had a blast. This job was so different—
the freedom, the easy entry into
the business, and I liked being in control
of my own destiny.”
Now, 18 years later, Wilkinson is
telling this story as he barrels down
Interstate 10 outside of Blythe in his own
big rig with his nickname “Ca Dude” (a
nod to his California roots and passion
for surfing) painted on the driver door.
It’s nearly a seven-hour haul from Los
Angeles to Phoenix, and it takes most of
that time for Wilkinson to explain how a
psychology major from Pomona College
found happiness as a long-haul trucker,
living up to 300 days a year on the road
as he crisscrosses the country.
Wilkinson, 48, grew up in a conservative
family in San Marino. Both parents
attended Pomona, and his father carved
out a successful career as a stockbroker
and investment counselor. Wilkinson said
it just seemed natural that he, too, would
attend Pomona (his sister went to Scripps
College) and find work in finance.
“The whole time I was at Pomona, I
knew I would get a job in business and
wear a suit and tie,” Wilkinson says.
“That’s all I knew. I had blinders on.”
After graduation, he got into a management-
training program at Union
Bank, and after two years was promoted
to assistant vice president in one of its
branch offices. Wilkinson had a knack for
judging credit risks, and eventually found
himself at First Interstate Bank overseeing
a $400 million loan portfolio. “I was
very comfortable with being responsible
for that much money,” Wilkinson says. “I
knew our customers’ business well.”
Despite his success, Wilkinson was
professionally miserable, feeling trapped in
his career. He didn’t see any viable escape
routes until, in 1990, he was laid off.
“It was one of the happiest days of
my life,” he says. “I knew my career was
going in the wrong direction, but I
wasn’t doing anything about it. The layoff
was a blessing in disguise.”
Then his trucker cousin, Paul
Wilkinson, invited him to tag along on a
“He was looking for an industry to
get into, and I was hoping to discourage
him from trucking,” Paul Wilkinson says
with a laugh. “But he really did fall in
love with it. I actually questioned his sanity.
I was stuck; he had options.”
But after the cross-country ride in the
18-wheeler, Steve Wilkinson knew what
he wanted to do. He started at the bottom,
loading and unloading trucks. Then
he went on the road for nine months
with a veteran trucker, who gave him
driving lessons during their down time.
About a year later, he got his trucker’s
license, cashed in his 401(k) and bought
a used truck with 300,000 miles on it for
a down payment of $20,000. He says his
parents, though surprised, were happy he
had a profession he loved.
In many ways, it’s easy to see how
Wilkinson’s former career as a banker
influences his work as a trucker. His
cab—his office—is spotless, with not even
a straw wrapper on the floor. He keeps
meticulous records—from the inventory
he’s carrying in the truck to his gas
mileage. He knows, for example, that if
he drives cross-country at 62 mph instead
of 70, he’ll save $400 on fuel.
And he keeps a strict schedule, getting
on the road each day at sunrise and trying
to get off it by sunset. To make as
much distance as possible each day (he
usually crosses the country in four days),
Wilkinson doesn’t stop for lunch and
takes only sips from a Gatorade bottle,
which usually eliminates the need for
At 5-foot-10 and a ripped 170 pounds
from loading and unloading his truck,
Wilkinson dresses neatly in clean jeans
except for a short goatee. Imagine him in
a suit and tie and maybe a pair of glasses,
and you’ll see the banker he once was.
“I stick to the program and have
amazingly few troubles,” Wilkinson says.
His affable manner and attention to
detail have made him one of the top-rated
drivers for Bohren’s Moving and Storage,
an agent of United Van Lines. If there’s a
fault, it’s that Wilkinson is too smart.
“That’s a double-edged sword there,”
says Scott Vogel, a planner for Bohren’s.
“He’s definitely intelligent, but you don’t
want to think too much, if you know
what I mean. Sometimes you just have to
go with” the trip Bohren’s has laid out.
In a good year, Wilkinson, an independent
contractor, will drive 80,000
miles and make a six-figure profit. In his
worst year, he made about $20,000.
“I could literally flip burgers and
make that much,” Wilkinson says.
The fluctuating income isn’t the only
downside to trucking. There’s the
vagabond lifestyle, truck-stop living, kidney-
jarring rides, mechanical breakdowns
in the middle of nowhere, blizzards,
windstorms and the difficulty in developing
long-term romantic relationships.
Wilkinson, whose home base is an
apartment in New Jersey, has never been
married. “It’s no fun being alone, but
interestingly enough, when I’m out here
on the road, I don’t feel alone,” he says.
He has developed a tight group of
friends in trucking, and they serve as a
second family. Bryan Jensen, a trucker
from New Jersey, befriended Wilkinson
after running into him several times at a
“He’s not your typical B.S. artist you
get from the usual trucker,” Jensen says.
“The way he presents himself and his
intelligence definitely do stick out. Steve
will break any subject down for you, and
I’ll listen to him—even if I don’t understand
what he’s saying.”
The friends and six-figure earning
potential are nice, but Wilkinson became
a truck driver because he’s a throwback.
He won’t say it in these words, but long haul
trucking makes him feel like a cowboy.
Not the kind of cowboy who gets
drunk and starts a barroom fight, but the
steadier version—a hard-working, simple living
loner who is more comfortable
working under the open sky than in a
Talk to Wilkinson long enough, and
you’ll get a sense of the romance he finds
on the road. He’ll tell you about the
sweet aroma of melons ripening in the
summer fields along the California-
Arizona border; the pungent scent that
arises from the desert after a thunderstorm;
and the stench of burning brakes
from a fellow trucker coming too fast
down a mountain road.
He’ll talk about the soul-lifting spectrum
of color with hints of green, pink
and purple that he’ll see in a desert sunrise.
“It’s Mother Nature’s gift to those
who were diligent enough to get up
early,” he’ll say.
He often grabs the camera in his
cab to shoot photos of America as he
drives. He posts them on the Internet
others can get a feel for the beauty he
sees on the road.
“I love this country,” Wilkinson says
unnecessarily. “That’s a big part of why
I’m out here doing this. I’m going to do
this as long as my body will hold out.”
STEVE WILKINSON’S 10 FAVORITE DRIVES IN AMERICA
Arizona & California: Interstate 10 and the desert. “It’s so wide open and you
can see for hundreds of miles. To me, that’s just total freedom.”
Colorado: Interstate 70 west of Denver. “The interstate runs right down
in the Colorado River gorge. Spectacular.”
Kentucky: The Martha Layne Collins Blue Grass Parkway. “Just like in a book, rolling
green hills, horses and white fences.”
New Mexico: Interstate 40. “To see the mesas and volcanic terrain, it looks like an
ocean floor with no water.”
New York: Any of the bridges crossing over the Hudson River north of New York
City. “The Hudson River is more majestic than the Mississippi River.”
Oklahoma: Interstate 40. “In western Oklahoma, you see red clay soil and in eastern
Oklahoma, you see greenery everywhere. It’s the dividing line between the wide-open West and the East.”
Oregon: The Columbia River gorge on Interstate 84 in Oregon. “Most gorgeous drive anywhere.”
Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Turnpike. “Rolling hills covered with trees—one of the most prettiest sights you’ll ever
see, especially during the fall.”
Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park on U.S. 89 and Zion National Park between Highway 89 and Interstate 15. “You’ll be blown away
by the geography.”
Wyoming: Interstate 80: “You absolutely feel like you’re on top of the world crossing the Rocky Mountains.”