Life Stories

Long-haul trucker was like a tourist

Staff WriterSeptember 15, 2008 

— A lady long-haul trucker is a rare bird. The open road doesn't seem to be a place cut out for a gal, what with its grungy truck stops and stereotypically raunchy radio traffic.

But Patricia James took to the interstates like an 18-wheeler to diesel. She relished the long, solitary drives across swaths of America. She was like a tourist on a trip, snapping pictures with her digital camera as she traversed the nation's highways and byways.

When Patricia Lynn James died in June, her "Highway Angel" radio handle went silent. James was 41 when she succumbed to cancer that was first detected in her pancreas.

"You would not have known she was a truck driver," said Joan Hadden, James' mother. "She dressed like a lady. She kept her makeup on and her hair done."

Born in West Virginia in 1966, James moved to Raleigh after high school. She worked in convenience stores, eventually moving into management. But she wasn't content to stay put.

She dreamed of sightseeing, but James could hardly afford to flit around the country unless she got paid for it. There aren't too many jobs that fill that bill, but long-distance trucking does.

Growing up, she had mechanics on the brain.

"She knew more about cars than the men did," said her sister, Tina Brisson.

So she signed up about five years ago to be trained to drive a 40-ton hunk of metal stretching 80 feet from headlight to taillight.

Brisson questioned her sister's judgment, but James was not about to change her mind. Driving a big rig was the life for her, and she was certain of it.

"She would bring it to my house and I'd think, 'My God, how does she drive that thing?' " Brisson said.

On the road, James experienced her share of adventure. One night she phoned her mother to report she was stuck on a mountain after hitting a slick of black ice. She was pulling a trailer behind her truck when, suddenly, she slid backward, coming to a halt with a lake on one side and a cliff on the other. She weathered a hurricane inside the cab of her truck, and once had an unpleasant interlude. Leaving a truck stop, a man grabbed James' arm. Luckily, she had the flashlight she always carried for protection.

Whack! went that flashlight, and James continued on to her truck.

Most recently, she worked for Celadon Trucking, based out of their Greensboro terminal. Last year, she moved to Concord to be nearer her mother. Along with her sister, James helped raise her daughter's children. She was married but had long since separated from her husband, never bothering with a divorce.

James' schedule was grueling. She would be on the road for three weeks at a time, return home for a few days, then hit the asphalt again.

Because she spent more time in her cab than in her house, she decorated her truck, adding homey touches such as a bouquet of bright, artificial sunflowers, the kind you might pick up at A.C. Moore, and pictures of her family. There was a small refrigerator matched by a small television and a bed. No more, no less.

But to James, it was perfect.

She loved seeing the countryside and meeting new people. Strangers struck up conversations with her, intrigued when they saw a woman piloting an 18-wheeler.

She was proud to be a woman in a majority men's club. When a man questioned her vigor or strength, she was quick to respond that a woman could do anything a man could. That included shifting the load she carried when weigh station scales revealed too much cargo piled at one end of her rig.

"Men were incredulous that she could do it," Brisson said.

She never told her family what she transported. She said she couldn't. Whether that was policy or intentional mystique on James' part, her sister couldn't say.

At times, she got tired. When that happened, she'd pull over for some shut-eye. But she never got tired of being a truck driver.

She could chart her own course, and that was important to James.

It was up to her to figure out how to get where she was going. She might be in Kentucky and have to get to Texas; she might be in Minneapolis and have to reach the East Coast. She traveled through big cities and blink-and-you'll-miss-them towns few people had heard of.

No matter where she was, she always sent her sister a postcard.

Brisson kept them in an album. Now that James has died, Brisson is raising James' grandchildren. When they're older, she might read them the postcards.

***

Patricia James is survived by her mother, her estranged husband, a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

Life Stories

bonnie.rochman@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4871

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