June 26–Seeing sunsets, Oxford resident Brad Walden said, is a perk of life on the interstate.
A series of articles examining Interstate 20 as a community.
TODAY: Truckers and travelers
WEDNESDAY: Roadside businesses
THURSDAY: At home near the superhighway
Walden, 52, is a truck driver for BR Williams Trucking, which allows him to routinely take in the scenery of states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas. It was in San Antonio, Texas, where he watched one of his most memorable sunsets.
“It was like an explosion of orange, pink and blue,” Walden said. “It’ll make you feel small.”
Walden travels west and east on Interstate 20 six days each week, although it’s not his favorite stretch by any means.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to,” Walden said. “I don’t drive on I-20 when I’m not working.”
Walden’s combined love and aversion for I-20 reflects the dual purpose the road fills for eastern Alabama. According to state estimates, four out of every 10 drivers along the highway is, like Walden, a working trucker. That’s more than most interstate stretches, and a reflection of the road’s status as a freight route to Atlanta and destinations east.
Truckers who regularly haul goods along east Alabama’s section of I-20 are very familiar with the conditions of the interstate. A few big-rig drivers recently shared about their experiences with an Anniston Star reporter who met them at an Oxford truck stop.
38-44 percent: Local I-20 traffic that consists of “vehicles carrying trade goods”
40,000: Vehicles per day on Calhoun County’s stretch of I-20
10,000: Vehicles daily on local stretch of I-20 in 1978
1950s: Interstate system proposed
1965: I-20 construction had reached a few miles west of Pell City
1970: Stretch of I-20 from Eastaboga to Oxford completed
1977: Stretch of I-20 west of Heflin to Georgia state line completed
1985: “Last leg” of I-20 in Alabama, from Irondale to Leeds, completed
SOURCE: Anniston Star archives
It can be a scary stretch of road. State officials have acknowledged that Alabama’s roads are often in dire need of repair, though efforts to raise gas taxes to raise money for fixes have so far fallen flat. State statistics a few years ago found that Calhoun County’s stretch of I-20 was one of the state’s top spots for speeding-related crashes.
Truckers see those issues close-up, every day.
“All them darn holes are rough,” Mike Marshall, 53, of Monroeville. He drives on I-20 every day to haul groceries for K. L. Beeden & Sons.
A trucker since 2012, 29-year-old Donnie Black of Temple, Texas, likewise is no stranger to I-20.
Although there are lots of construction areas on the interstate, he said, a lot of construction workers are not present as speed limits are reduced to 45 miles per hour in such areas. Many drivers attempt to speed right through and risk rear-ending anyone — usually an elderly driver — actually obeying the speed limit.
“It just messes up the whole flow of things,” Black said.
Walden says the road would be safer if regular drivers understood how the big rigs work.
“They think just because their car can stop in a certain amount of time, they think we can, too,” Walden said. “But it takes more time to stop 80,000 pounds.”
But even truckers say drivers of the big trucks may be to blame for accidents as well. Walden pointed also to truck-driving schools that put drivers in trucks “long before they should be left alone to drive.”
“Left alone” is the classic default setting for long-haul truckers. Some of the drivers on I-20 love the solitude. Some have found a workaround.
Jasper residents Amanda and Dolon Fortner, a married couple and truckers for Birmingham-based Watkins Trucking Co., often drive their rigs and haul pipe and steel together to a variety of locations like Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, usually traveling one behind the other while communicating about road conditions on their CB radios. Amanda has been a trucker for 12 years as of July, five years less than her husband, and they both travel on I-20 about two to four times a week.
Like Walden, they, too, encounter drivers who use poor judgment on the road.
“Driving, period, is stressful,” said 36-year-old Amanda Fortner. “But I guess it’s not really the interstate, it’s the drivers and the congestion, people not using their safety features. Also, cutting trucks off too short. I’ve had a lot of people cut in front of me.”
For Clay County resident Lewis Ragland, 42, trucking offers an opportunity to be “your own boss in a way.”
“You’ve got nobody looking over you,” said Ragland, who’s been a trucker for about 13 1/2 years and currently hauls chicken feed for Virginia-based Mountain Milk Hauling. “And mainly you make more money than people working in manufacturing.”
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