Much has changed over the course of Idella Hansen's life, but one thing has remained constant: a love for driving.
The Camden resident first learned to drive a car at age 11. She had an elderly neighbor who liked to go to the roller derby, but he couldn't see well enough to drive at night. So he put her on the edge of the driver's seat of his 1941 Chrysler.
"If I saw an 11-year-old driving a car like that now, I would have a heart attack," she said. "But he made me go fast. I learned how to drive, and I've been driving ever since. It's just second nature to me. I knew then that that's all I ever wanted to do: drive."
Now -- at 66 -- she hauls high-value cargo for IBI Secured Transport in a team with her longtime boyfriend and driving partner, John Smith. Transporting valuable cargo means they are licensed security officers who carry .357 Magnums for protection.
During her life she has driven a wide range of equipment: log trailers, a wrecker, an open-top wood-chip van, refrigerated trailers, dry van, flatbed, a dump truck and a school-bus van.
"If it'll crank," she said, "I can drive it. It doesn't make any difference what it is. It can be a front-end loader."
Beyond the breadth of her career, Hansen started driving when there were even fewer women on the roads than the minority driving now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated women made up about 5 percent of the occupation in 2015.
"I just think that she's a superstar," said Desiree Wood, a fellow driver and friend of Hansen's. "And I know a lot of other people do, too. She deserves an enormous amount of recognition as a pioneer and a trailblazer that all women in trucking should look up to."
Hansen graduated from high school early to start driving a five-speed transmission straight tanker for her then-husband's family's bulk-gasoline plant. "To this day I'm not really sure I knew what I was doing," she said. "I taught myself how to drive. Everything I did was self-taught."
Settling in Morrilton
In 1968, a pregnant, 18-year-old Hansen and her husband moved from her native California to Morrilton, where his parents were. They eventually bought a cab-over tractor and a dump truck, and Hansen was back on the road. While her children were young, she stayed on local routes, which had her home every night.
She wasn't even deterred when she accidentally fell into an open-top trailer full of wood chips when trying to pull a branch out. It took an hour for someone to hear her and open up the trailer.
"I don't think you can drive a truck for as long as I have without a sense of humor," she said. "You can't let things bother you. You've got to laugh it off. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself."
By her late 30s, she had gotten divorced, her children were grown and she had been driving most of her life. She was a perfect candidate for over-the-road driving. Around that time, Prescolite in El Dorado realized that to win a government contract, they needed to hire a black person and a woman.
Hearing of her reputation as a good driver, Hansen was offered a job, "a great job," as she called it. She took her first driving test in a pair of heels. "From the very beginning," she said, "they treated me with respect and equality. I would still be there if they still had jobs."
"My first trip was to Pinebrook, N.J. I had never driven that much interstate all wrapped up in one trip in all my years working local."
While she has few complaints about this stint, she did face one challenge: Because they didn't have permanently assigned trucks, other drivers would often take hers because she kept it extra clean. So, she decided to buy some chrome decals with the silhouettes of naked men and put them on red mud flaps. "My truck was always there from then on. Nobody took my truck again. I ran with men on my mud flaps for years and years and years."
After a decade she bought her own truck and became an owner-operator until a stint at Tyson Foods in Springdale. While it was "an education" in electronic logs, PeopleNet communications software and driving an automatic transmission, "the [refrigerated] unit isn't for me," she said.
Soon thereafter she was offered her current job in secured transport, which has allowed her and Smith to work together. They stay out for three to four months at a time, traveling all over the country.
This doesn't stop her from staying actively involved with four different trucking-related nonprofit groups, including Real Women in Trucking. Wood, the group's founder and president, connected with Hansen over social media, and they quickly became friends.
"There's something about Idella that draws you to her," Wood said. "She's just, to me, very motherly and comforting and soulful. She's very charismatic, and people are drawn to her. She also, of course, has got a lot of driving experience."
Wood explained they connected over shared personal experiences, too: "She was a single mom for a lot of years, and I was, too. There's a certain amount of struggle, hardship and heartbreak you go through when you live that life, when you're the one putting the food on the table, you're the breadwinner, you're the mom, you're the dad," she said. "It's really an inspiration that she's still out here working the way that she does. ... And she quilts!"
"I tell my friends all the time that my grandma is a trucker. And they say, 'What?!'" said Hansen's grandson, Isaac Barr. "Everyone else's grandma is sitting at home, watching TV, calling other people on the home phone. They don't even have cellphones."
Less lonely with tech
Hansen definitely has a cellphone and praised the role social media and connectivity have had in opening up the lives of truck drivers and keeping them occupied. She said that now "I couldn't survive without my talking books!"
She admitted it's still a "lonesome job," but not as much as in the past. "One time, I was going across Columbia River Canyon. We didn't have cellphones. I was by myself. I saw a triple rainbow. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to show it to somebody. I don't have the words to tell you what it was like. I wanted to have the means to share what I was seeing. I stood there, and I cried because I couldn't share it."
Now, she said, that's not as big of a problem, thanks to camera phones and the internet, though sometimes she still gets lonesome, even with her partner in the truck. That's when she connects her ever-present headset and calls someone up, she said.
Hansen has seen a lot of changes to her industry over the years and hopes to leverage her experience when she stops driving. One idea is to become "a trucking tutor."
Right now, there is a relative gap in the industry for this kind of further training, Hansen said. There are drivers who have had to abandon training midway because of trouble with intimidation, exploitation or harassment by trainers. Often these trainees are left in debt to a company or left without enough experience to get another job.
In addition, there are more experienced drivers who'd like to work on something in particular, like backing up. As Hansen put it, "I don't know if you've ever backed up a trailer before, but they get away from you."
Wood and Hansen have long-term hopes to put together a certified training program like this within Real Women in Trucking.
"When I started, I got pushed out on the road so fast. I didn't want to be an irresponsible driver, but that was just the way that it was," Wood explained. "I still struggle with things and wonder if I'm doing it right. I would just love the opportunity to be in the truck with someone like Idella who could say, 'You could make it easier on yourself and the truck if you would do it like this.'"
Hansen attributed her deep knowledge of her line of work to the chances she has had to make mistakes.
"If you don't make a mistake -- get lost, make the wrong turn, pull in somewhere thinking you can turn around -- if you don't make those mistakes, then you're not driving," she said. "It's part of life. I still screw up. I miss turns all the time. It's not fun screwing up in New York City, though. That's nerve-wracking."
SundayMonday Business on 01/08/2017