In honor of Driver Appreciation Week, we shine the spotlight on Desiree Wood, a 10-year trucker and founder of REAL Women in Trucking.
Oftentimes when life throws us a curveball, we react and grow and evolve from it. That’s the case for Desiree Wood, who has been a professional trucker for a decade. She stumbled into the profession by accident.
Luck and happenstance
Back in 2008, due to a string of unfortunate circumstances, she found herself out of work and homeless. “Nothing was going my way,” says Wood. “I was having reservations about where my life was headed.”
She was in her 40s, her two kids were grown, and she found herself alone and confused. It snowballed into a sort of paralysis of depression, and eventually, she found herself in a homeless shelter.
In a complete act of desperation, she reached out to an old friend. Her friend collected money from their social circle and invited Desiree to relocate to Florida to live with her. The next thing she knew, she found herself in an unlikely place: trucking school.
“I grew up in an environment where there was no stability, where we moved all the time,” says Wood, who is 54, and is based in Lake Worth, Florida.
“I was craving a job that had movement.” After a few short weeks in trucking school, Wood found herself maneuvering a truck cross country as a student driver. That sparked the start of a new, epic adventure.
Challenges served daily
Wood quickly learned that being a truck driver is more than just knowing how to read a map, having a good sense of direction, and steering a commercial truck. “You need to be innovative,” says Wood.”When there’s a problem, such as a piece of metal sticking out of the trailer, how to fix it. Plus, you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty because you might go without a shower.”
While no single mom is a stranger to problem-solving, unexpected surprises came with the territory. Things that people with a more traditional job may take for granted. For instance, eating and showering.
“I didn’t really understand all the whole shower-bathroom situation, I never thought to ask about it in the beginning,” laughs Wood. “And here I am, learning that people pee in bottles. I’m like, well, how am I going to do this? But once you get out there, you just do it because you can either waste 30 minutes getting off the highway, trying to maneuver into a truck stop just to use a bathroom, or be late for your appointment to pick up your next load.“
The view from a trucker’s lens
While Wood grew up on welfare, she lived in areas before they underwent gentrification, such as Venice Beach.“I grew up in environments around people who are very entitled and don’t really know how much effort is put forward [behind the scenes] to give them something,” says Wood.
She began seeing the mundane very differently — for example, getting a hamburger from McDonald’s meant that the buns were shipped from point A to B from a truck driver and the beef gets processed at a farm and brought to the restaurant.
“I never thought about the truck driver’s role in all of this,” says Wood. “So I fell very quickly in love with not only just a job but defending or speaking up for the kind of invisible drivers.
A change for the industry and speaking up for drivers
It wasn’t long before Wood discovered the issues and problems many drivers face.
For starters, there’s the sheer hurdle of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry. There’s discrimination and harassment of female truck drivers. There have been a number of times when Wood was intimidated and even threatened to get tossed from the truck by male truck drivers.
When Wood tried to report it to her boss, she was told to keep her mouth shut. “That’s when I found that out that problem was widespread.”
Enter, REAL women in trucking
It was only after Wood connected with other women and built a platform on social media that she realized the need for advocacy. And in 2010 Wood started an informal group called REAL Women in Trucking. Fast forward to 2014, and the organization was formed into an official nonprofit.
“It’s been really nice that we can ask other drivers, ‘This is happening to me. What should I do?’ It makes you feel like you aren’t all by yourself, traveling with your dog on the road.“
Recent victories include winning a motion to intervene in the CRST Sexual Harassment Case that’s currently going on in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They also provided testimony to support the Dominic Oliveira case, which could either strengthen or undermine the arbitration contracts of truckers’ contracts with carriers.
Safety and parking are also important causes
Other issues Wood has been advocating for include changing CDL training, which she found to be highly unsafe. It turns out the turnover rate during training is 195 percent. Wood explains, “There are CDL mills where they basically get you to pay money, shove you through a three to five-week course, and you don’t really learn anything. You just learn just enough to pass the test.”
Wood is also involved in issues with shortages in truck parking. “There’s a growing trend where truck drivers are now being charged for parking because there’s a lack of space. That’s an expense that drivers aren’t being reimbursed for; it’s coming straight out of the drivers’ pockets.”
From company driver to owner-operator
Fast forward to the present, and Wood has moved from being a company driver to an owner-operator. Now that she books her own loads, she takes on jobs that pay better so she can work less.
“Now that I’m an owner-operator, there’s so much more money to be made because you know how to book your own loads,” explains Wood. Being an owner-operator doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges, far from it. Woods explains that she struggles with mechanical issues and misdiagnoses from repair shops, and that they are costly and put her out of service for long stretches of time.
Woods and her traveling companion, Karma.
Issues aside, Wood’s favorite part of being a truck driver seeing the country with her dog, Karma, by her side. She loves discovering places she otherwise wouldn’t know about. While you can’t exactly stop and explore destinations, you can take in the breathtaking scenery along the way.
A lover of the desert, Wood enjoys going through old Western towns and canyon vistas. Just a few weeks ago Wood was traveling through North Dakota, and she came across a field of sunflowers that were about 6 feet tall. “It’s just so beautiful!” says Wood.
Follow Desiree Wood
If you’d like to support REAL Women in Trucking, you can purchase the organization’s newly released coloring book.