Motorway journeys were different when mum was in the car. A clear road in front, dad would cruise just below 70mph in the left-side lane while my sister and I played ‘Eye Spy’ in the back. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere would quickly turn to fraught silence though, whenever she spotted a lorry on the horizon. Sarah and I would peer through the gap in the seats to see her arm reaching over towards dad’s thigh, with knuckles turning white as she gripped and said, voice shaking, “watch out for that big lorry up ahead please, Ray.”
As we got older, dad would look at us both in the rear-view mirror and give us an eyeroll, which always made us giggle. This secret, fleeting glance made light of my mother’s abject fear of oversized vehicles and instilled confidence in us. It made us feel that whatever happened en route, we (and our Volvo) could handle it. Mum, on the other hand, would always arrive at our destination a shadow of her former self, with the pallid complexion of a woman who’d just been forced to reluctantly ride the theme parks biggest rollercoaster.
Drivers who don’t harbour some kind of opinion about these so-called ‘kings of the road’ are few and far between. From the excited nerds who crane their necks to read the women’s names emblazoned across the front of every Eddie Stobart HGV, to the slow-moving pensioners dragging their caravans across country, who find themselves sandwiched between haulage giants, too petrified to overtake. We’ve all shat ourselves at one point thanks to near misses with these monolithic monsters, either merging onto a slip road at full pelt in a rainstorm or turning left on a bicycle at a busy inner-city junction. All those feel-good equality vibes and simplistic Highway Code rules we’re taught as learner drivers go flying out of the window once you pass your test. You soon understand that there can only be one top spot on the road-user’s hierarchy – and that’s the lorry.
This in-built reverence for the masters of the freeway reached its peak during my first conversation with Ryan Shorosky. The New Jersey art school graduate and bona-fide truck driver whose documentary photographs have been published in the New York Times, Vogue and Time magazine (among others) has systematically dismantled all my preconceptions of what it means to drive freight for a living. His decision to follow the same career path as his father had surprised the family. After studying Visual Arts, the assumption was that Shorosky would gravitate towards the creative industries. But with the possibility of assisting on shoots (translated as running errands for a creative director’s tepid flat whites) for years, he flicked the bird at the idea of playing second fiddle and applied for a trucker licence instead.
With a voice that wouldn’t sound out of place in the opening scenes of a Terrence Mallick movie, he began by busting a few myths about the profession and explained, “People have always had preconceived ideas about it. Truckers come in all shapes and sizes. They assume truck driving is just this boring, lonely, mundane lifestyle but actually, there are some pretty insane moments and crazy excitement. No one on the outside of the industry really understands it. It’s strange – like the most freeing prison. You have these extreme freedoms, but on the other hand it’s a suffocating constraining weight on your shoulders because you’re the one responsible for this 80,000 pound vehicle. You’re always worried about killing somebody because of some asshole cutting you off and regardless of what the truth is, as the truck, any accident will always be your fault. This extreme dichotomy never changes when you drive for a living; it’s always part meditative and part total anxiety. That’s just life on the road.”
Getting to that zen-like skill level in the American trucking game takes a lot of time. Unlike your average car driver, you can’t just hop up into the cab and get going as soon as you’ve passed your test. With so much at stake, novice truckers are tucked under the wings of old-timers who are tasked with showing the ropes to newly qualified drivers. Shorosky’s introduction was more of a baptism of fire. He remembered, “Just to preface you with what I was walking into during my first year of trucking; it all started with catching a Greyhound bus to Missouri. I’d landed a job with a big haulage company, but before I could get out there and drive, I had to spend a month living in a trucker motel with strangers. At 2am one morning, I was thrown in a truck with this mentor guy who was coming back through Springfield, Missouri. I slept all night in the back and woke up in Oklahoma City. This was the first load I ever picked up. All the time I’m watching him, listening to the jargon, trying to take it all in. He’s this super masculine ex-wrestler who went to college in the Midwest, and that first proper evening together we sat in the truck drinking beers while he watched the football and made these awkward homoerotic comments about the players. In my head I’m thinking ‘right, okay…so this is what I’m getting into’.
Imagine the dynamics of two grown men who don’t know each other, living in a truck together, where there’s barely enough space to move around. It makes for a very specific kind of atmosphere. Anyway, I wake up the next morning and there’s a bunch of Police surrounding us and we’re both like, ‘what the fuck is going on?’. We throw on our boots and jump down to see another truck parked next to us with the engine running. The Police ended up popping open the back of the trailer to find the trucker had hung himself. That first 48hours really set the stage for what I was getting into as a 25-year-old.”
I guess it’s worth bearing stories like this in mind, the next time you see a solitary trucker at a motorway service station café, mindlessly mainlining a Subway and staring out into the middle distance. Who knows what those eyes have just seen? Anyway, the horror didn’t deter the young Shorosky, who spent four months travelling across states with the Midwest wrestler before he was free to drive solo. Once qualified, it wasn’t long before he was cruising the interstate like a pro, blasting Slayer at full volume, transporting precious commercial cargo from state to state.
Photography was a way to break up the occasional bouts of monotony. A quick scroll through his Instagram shows a life at odds with his gritty recollections about the reality of life on the freeway. There’s a distinctive, soothing glow to every perfectly composed image. It’s a feast of saturated pink hues and shiny chrome, Stetson hat shadows and cactus covered skylines. As an outsider, he found solace documenting communities and far-flung landscapes. Forever in transit, his snapshots recorded the reality of life off the beaten track, without the need to stick around and explain. He laughed and said, “I needed to rewire myself and I did that through these raw experiences.”
There’s a tranquilising quality to every shot. A sense of serenity, respect and calm. He acknowledged that taking pictures was a way of escaping from the relentless focus he had to maintain behind the wheel and added, “As a trucker, you’re constantly watching what other cars are doing a mile up ahead, planning your next move. Most people don’t understand that trucks can’t just stop and brake like a car, so one of the biggest challenges is learning to always be on your guard. Every minute you’re calculating; working how you can shift down a gear in time to maintain a certain speed that will mean you’ll hit that green light at precisely the right moment. The clutch in a truck isn’t like the one you’re used to using in a car – this is serious leg work. If something goes wrong, it’s generally always catastrophic in a truck, which creates an environment where you’re always on edge. We have to work with the flow of traffic and be completely in tune with the vehicle – we can’t just speed up, or slow down on a whim, like you can if you’re driving something smaller.”
We touch on my mum’s lifelong truck phobia, which inspired Shorosky to share some trucker tips for highway harmony. Laughing, he said, “When you spend 7 days a week on the road, you really hone in on the true nature of other drivers. You learn to pick out which cars around you might potentially be a problem. Cars have this habit of assuming they always have right of way and expect you’ll quickly be able to slow down for them. I can’t tell you how many near-miss accidents I’ve witnessed where a car is seconds away from being crushed, just because they don’t realise that if they’re merging in from a slip road, they need to be the one to slow down and let the truck keep going.
When I go back to driving a car, it feels like a go-kart. Maybe these toy-like proportions are the reason some car drivers are so blasé. The best advice I can give is this: as a general rule of thumb, make sure you give trucks plenty of space. As a trucker, whenever there’s a car beside me, in front of, or behind me, I’m stressed out. As a car driver, the one place I don’t want to be, is anywhere near a truck – not out of fear, but out of consideration for the driver.
The truck becomes an extension of you. It’s literally, your shelter, your livelihood, 24/7. You learn about every inch of that vehicle. Some days you feel like a million dollars because you’ve had the confidence and skill to manoeuvre the truck and roll out of some hairy ass situation. Then five minutes later you’re struck trying to make a simple left turn, having a full-on panic attack. I’ve seen truckers close to tears because they couldn’t figure out how to park their truck. It’s crazy. But this is trucking!”
Think about how exhausted you feel when you finally pull up at home after a long road trip. Brain aching, bones creaking. Now imagine feeling like that every day. I’ll never curse again when I’m trapped behind a majestic, 18-wheeled beast on the motorway. It’s high time we all showed these ‘kings of the road’ some hard-earned respect.