Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 2
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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 a truck.

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 cross-country trip.

“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 bathroom breaks.

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 truck stop.

“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 fancy office.

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 (www.myspace.com/truckerstevewilk) so 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.”

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.”

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