'Trucking is my life': She climbed off the corporate ladder and into an 18-wheeler

Melissa Wolf stands for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.
Melissa Wolf stands for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.

On the CB radio, where over-the-road truckers swap updates and stories as they crisscross America with their cargo, she is known as "Wolfie."

The name chose her a few years ago, not long after she entered the industry. She was shooting the breeze on the CB when another trucker mentioned she appeared to be the only woman on the road that night — or at least the only one who was talking.

"You're like a little lone wolf out there," he said.

So Wolfie it was. She adopted the moniker as her CB handle, and in other ways too. On Facebook, where she is active in political groups, including one for leftist truckers, and TikTok, where she posts about life on the road as a queer woman, she goes by Melissa Wolf.

Wolf spends four weeks at a time in her brand new, bright turquoise truck, usually running up and down the midwest, her life a blur of warehouses and truck stops. At the end of every long stretch, she spends her four days off at her parents' place in Chino Valley.

When she moved into her new truck a few months ago, the odometer read 116 miles.

"These trucks usually go two million miles or more," she said. "So it's really a big baby."

Inside is everything she needs for life on the road. A full bed. A microwave. A Keurig coffee maker. A large TV. A refrigerator-freezer.

And her best friend Goose, an American hairless terrier who has been by her side since she switched careers in 2019.

As the new year ticks over, many people are thinking about making changes in their life: swapping jobs, reviving relationships, picking up new hobbies.

Since making her own big change, Wolf hasn't looked back.

"You know, I've kind of found my thing," she said. "I've been in a lot of industries and this is it for me. Trucking is my life."

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After truck-driving school, an easy transition

Wolf, who is 37 and originally from Los Angeles, spent years climbing the corporate ladder at Starbucks, the defunct bookstore Borders, and auto-dealer Carvana before throwing in the towel.

It was fun, but unrewarding, she said. She wasn't a fan of office politics, of being tied to a desk, of her manager always being right there.

"And I still didn't make as much money as I make now."

Trucking wasn't a foreign industry. Her dad was an over-the-road driver, and as a kid, she watched wide-eyed when he came home with his truck, awed by how big and loud it was. "It seemed like, man, you have to be really powerful to drive one of those," she remembered.

At the time, she didn't see herself ending up as a trucker. But after years of corporate work, she heard the open road calling.

Wolf spent four weeks at truck-driving school in Phoenix. There were a couple moments when she wondered if she was cut out for it, she said, but overall, it was an easy transition.

"I think I was meant to do it," she said, "but everybody's got bumps on the road."

Melissa Wolf poses for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.
Melissa Wolf poses for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.

Keeping the groceries cold, the flowers warm

The first year was tough. Wolf had to develop driving stamina, her body adjusting to a punishing schedule of 11 hours a day, six days a week on the road.

Not long after she started driving, the pandemic hit. Wolf said it was bad at first — rest stops shut down and there was nowhere to shower — but then actually pretty good. There was barely any traffic and truckers enjoyed a rare moment in the spotlight, treated like heroes for their essential work.

That's gone away in the past year. "We're just back to being big, scary, annoying trucks."

Wolf generally drives the midwest, covering a strip that runs from the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico. She likes the territory, mostly because it doesn't involve New York or Los Angeles.

"Atlanta's the only real pain in the ass that we deal with," she said.

To occupy her mind through the miles, she chats over the CB, catches up with family and friends on the phone, and listens to audiobooks, Spanish learning lessons and podcasts. And she talks to Goose.

Goose, an American hairless terrier, is always by Melissa Wolf's side out on the road.
Goose, an American hairless terrier, is always by Melissa Wolf's side out on the road.

She carries all sorts of things: tools, appliances, grocery items, industrial-sized rolls of paper. At her former company, she drove a temperature-controlled "reefer" truck, carrying fruit and vegetables and meat and ice cream. Some loads are more delicate than others: When driving bouquets of flowers through Minnesota, you have to heat the truck so the petals don't freeze.

The way truckers spend their time is tightly regulated. Wolf drives 70 hours a week and then rests for 34 hours, which she takes each week on Sundays. Within every 24-hour period, she must take 10 consecutive hours off, to shower, eat, and sleep.

Wolf finds the regulations frustrating, particularly the stipulated 10-hour break.

"Sounds great on paper," she said, "but not everybody sleeps that way."

As she sees it, it disincentivizes drivers from taking a break to sleep during their 14 hours on, even if they need one, because the clock just keeps on ticking and they know that at some point they will be forced to stop for 10 hours in a row.

Other irritations are more minor: the labyrinthine warehouses where you have to knock on a hundred doors to figure out where to unload, traffic congestion and the lack of parking.

But to Wolf, it's worth it. "There's so much freedom in it, and that's what it really comes down to."

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'Can you back your truck? That's what matters'

In 2019, when Wolf entered the industry, about one in 10 over-the-road drivers were female, according to the Women in Trucking Association. The figure rose to 13.7% in 2022.

"It used to be when I first started, the only other females I would see were part of married heterosexual couples, like you would see his wife driving with him," Wolf said.

"You would never see solo females. I would hardly ever see any LGBTQ drivers, male, female or other. And that has changed very dramatically in the past two years or so."

She has also witnessed a change on the CB, where typically "everybody's really tough and you get all the nasty and racist, bigoted, disgusting language".

These days, Wolf said, you sometimes hear people pushing back. "Giving them a taste of their own medicine for saying such nasty stuff, which is cool."

You do have to have thick skin, she added. But she has never felt unsafe, and feels people are generally taken as they are.

"Out here, it doesn't matter. It's like, can you back your truck? That's what matters."

On TikTok, she posts a mixture of updates from the road, social justice messages, and the occasional tribute to Tupac. She found a community on the social media platform after a lifetime of seeing herself as the black sheep, "kind of a weirdo".

"I mean that in a good way," she added. "I wanted to make videos to also help other weird people feel welcome, and then also to encourage women and minorities to get into trucking, because I didn't come from a wealthy family."

It doesn't require a college degree, and there are generally programs to help fund trucking school, she said.

"And so I saw trucking as a way up, like to get into the middle class or to the upper middle class."

Melissa Wolf stands for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.
Melissa Wolf stands for a photo at a truck stop in Paulden on Dec. 11, 2022.

It can be lonely out there

There is one other drawback to trucking: It can be lonely out there.

Wolf would like to meet someone and have kids one day. But her schedule makes dating near impossible, and over-the-road life offers two options for relationships, neither of them ideal.

"It's either I find somebody who's willing to be without me, and me without them, for four weeks at a time and then just be home for four days and then go back out again," she said.

"Or somebody that's willing to, like, drop their whole life and come aboard my truck."

She could financially support another person, she added. "But I also understand that would be a huge task for somebody. You know, to basically be my housewife in this super, super tiny apartment."

She could move closer to where her company is based, in Joliet, Illinois. She could take a local trucking job, though that doesn't appeal to her. She could go out more, but — eh.

"I am kind of a homebody," Wolf said, laughing. "I'm kind of wanting that perfect person to just walk into my life without having to do anything."

Truckers, many of whom are married or in long-term relationships and have kids, make it work.

This year, Wolf is out on the road for the holidays, running the midwest for Christmas Day and New Year's Eve.

Working the holidays is "a little bit lonely", she said, and sometimes annoying. Shippers and receivers tend to close on Christmas Day, so often truckers find themselves idle at a rest stop, with nothing to do, but unable to go home with a delivery due the next day.

She also sees driving at this time of year as a service.

"If I'm out here, maybe that means somebody else can be home with their family," she said. "My little, you know, sacrifice, is a lot less than the sacrifice of somebody that has a young family at home."

On the evening she spoke to The Republic, she had just showered at a truck stop in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and was settling in for the evening. Footage of birds was playing on her TV to occupy Goose.

"I have no clue where I'll be sleeping tomorrow night," she said.

Her truck was full of tobacco, rolling papers and Pringles, all of it due at a grocery wholesale warehouse at 9 a.m. the next morning.

After that, she could be headed anywhere.

Reach the reporter at lane.sainty@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What the holidays are like as an over-the-road trucker