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story.lead_photo.caption Palwander Singh arrives near sunset at Truck Stop 40, one of the largest Sikh-run rest stops, in Sayre, Okla.

MILAN, N.M. -- It's 7:20 p.m. when he rolls into Spicy Bite, one of the newest restaurants here in rural northwest New Mexico.

Locals in Milan, a town of 3,321, have barely heard of it.

The building is small, single-story, built of corrugated metal sheets. There are seats for 20. The only advertising is spray-painted on concrete roadblocks in English and Punjabi. Next door is a diner and gas station; the county jail is across the road.

Palwinder Singh orders creamy black lentils, chicken curry and roti, finishing it off with chai and cardamom rice pudding. After 13 hours on and off the road in his semi truck, he leans back in a booth as a Bollywood music video plays on TV.

"This is like home," says Pal, the name he uses on the road (said like "Paul").

There are 3.5 million truckers in the United States. California has 138,000, the second-most after Texas. Nearly half of those in California are immigrants, most from Mexico or Central America. But as drivers age toward retirement -- the average American trucker is 55 -- and a shortage grows, Sikh immigrants and their kids are increasingly taking up the job.

Estimates of the number of Sikh truckers vary. In California alone, tens of thousands of truckers trace their heritage to India. The state is home to half of the Sikhs in the United States -- members of a monotheistic faith with origins in 15th-century India whose followers are best recognized by the uncut hair and turbans many men wear. At Sikh temples in California cites such as Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield and Riverside, the majority of worshippers are truck drivers and their families.

Over the last decade, Indian Americans have opened trucking schools, truck companies, truck washes, trucker temples and no-frills Indian restaurants modeled after truck stops back home, where Sikhs from the state of Punjab dominate the industry.

"You used to see a guy with a turban and you would get excited," says Pal, who is in his 15th year of trucking. "Today, you go to some stops and can convince yourself you are in India."

Interstate highways 5, 80 and 10 are dotted with Indian American-owned businesses catering to truckers. They start to appear as you drive east from Los Angeles, Reno and Phoenix, and often have the words "Bombay," "Indian" or "Punjabi" on their storefront signs. But many -- with names like Jay Bros in Overton, Neb., and Antelope Truck Stop Pronghorn, in Burns, Wyo., -- are anonymous dots on a map unless you're one of the many Sikhs who has memorized them as a road map to America.

The best-known Indian American-owned truck stops are along Interstate 40, which stretches from Barstow, Calif., to Wilmington, N.C. The road, much of it alongside historic Route 66, forms the backbone of the Sikh trucking world.

It's a route that Pal, 38, knows well. Three times a month, he makes the seven-day round trip between his Fontana, Calif., home and Indiana, where he drops off loads and picks up new ones. Over his career, he has driven 2 million miles and transported items as varied as frozen chickens and paper plates. These days, he mostly hauls chocolate, rice and fruits and vegetables from California farms. During a recent trip it was 103 containers of mixed produce, with mangoes, bell peppers, watermelons, yellow onions and peeled garlic among them. All are bound for a Kroger warehouse outside Indianapolis.

PROMPTING MANY TO FLEE

Punjabi Americans first appeared on the U.S. trucking scene in the 1980s after an anti-Sikh massacre in India left thousands dead around New Delhi, prompting many Sikhs to flee. More recently, Sikhs have migrated to Central America and applied for asylum at the Mexico border, citing persecution for their religion in India; some have also become truckers. Estimates of the overall U.S. Sikh population vary, placing the community's size between 200,000 and 500,000.

In recent years, corporations have pleaded for new truckers. Last year, the government announced a pilot program to lower the age for driving trucks from 21 to 18 for those with truck-driving training in the military. According to the American Trucking Association, the trucker shortage could reach 100,000 within years.

"Punjabis are filling the gap," says Raman Dhillon, a former driver who last year founded the North American Punjabi Trucking Association. The group, based in Fresno, advises drivers on regulations, offers insurance and tire discounts, and runs a magazine: Punjabi Trucking.

Like trucking itself, where the threat of automation and the long hours away from home have made it hard to recruit drivers, the Punjabi trucking life isn't always an easy sell. Three years ago, a group of Sikh truckers in California won a settlement from Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., after saying it discriminated against their faith. The drivers, who followed Sikh traditions by wrapping their uncut hair in turbans, said bosses asked them to remove the turbans before providing hair and urine samples for pre-employment drug tests despite being told of the religious observance. The same year, police charged a man with vandalizing a semi truck at a Sikh temple in Buena Park. He'd scribbled the word "ISIS."

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Still, Hindi- and Punjabi-language newspapers in the eastern United States regularly run ads promising better wages, a more relaxed lifestyle and warm weather as a trucker out west. Talk to any group of Sikh drivers and you'll find former cabbies, liquor store workers or convenience store cashiers who made the switch.

"Thirty years ago, it was hard to get into trucking because there were so few people like us in the business who could help you," says Rashpal Dhindsa, a former trucker who runs Fontana-based Dhindsa Group of Companies, one of the oldest Sikh-owned U.S. trucking companies. When Pal first started, Dhindsa -- now a close friend but then an acquaintance -- gave him a $1,000 loan to cover training classes.

It's 6:36 a.m. on a recent morning when the Petro Stopping Center switches from quiet darkness to rumbling engines. Pal flips on the headlights of his truck, a silver '16 Volvo with a 500-horsepower engine. Inside the rig, he heats aloo gobi -- spiced potatoes and cauliflower -- that his wife prepared back home. He checks the thermostat to make sure his trailer isn't too warm. He takes out a book wrapped in a blue cotton cloth that's tucked by his driver's seat, sits on a bed-turned-couch and reads a prayer in Punjabi for safety on the journey: "There is only one God. Truth is His name. ... You always protect us."

Pal's not strict on dogma or doctrine, and he's more spiritual than religious. Trucking has shown him that people are more similar than different no matter where you go. The best of all religions, he says, tend to teach the same thing -- kindness to others, accepting whatever comes your way and appreciation for what's in front of you on the road.

"When I'm driving," Pal says, "I see God through his creation."

His favorite sights are the farms. You spot them in central California while picking up pallets of potatoes and berries, or in Illinois and Indiana while driving through the corn and soybean fields.

They remind him of home, the rural outskirts of Patiala, India.

CONTINUING TRADITION

Nobody in his family drove trucks. Still, to Pal, he's continuing tradition. His father farmed potatoes, cauliflower, rice and tomatoes. As a child, Pal would ride tractors for fun with Dad. Today, instead of growing food, Pal transports it.

He wasn't always a trucker. After immigrating in 2001 with his younger brother, he settled in Canoga Park, Calif., and worked nights at 7-Eleven. After he was robbed at gunpoint, a friend suggested trucking. Better pay, flexible hours -- and less dangerous.

Three years later, he started driving a rig he didn't own while getting paid per mile. Today, he has his own company, two trucks between himself and his brother -- also a driver -- and bids on shipments directly with suppliers. Nationally, the average pay for a trucker is just above $43,000. Pal makes more than twice that.

He uses the money to pay for the house he shares with his wife, Harjeet Kaur, 4-year-old son, brother and sister-in-law, nieces and parents. Kaur threads eyebrows at a salon and video chats with him during lunch breaks. Every week before he leaves, she packs a duffel bag of his ironed clothes and stacked containers of food for the road.

"I love it," Pal says about driving. "But there are always two sides of the coin, head and tail. If you love it, then you have to sacrifice everything. I have to stay away from home. But the thing is, this job pays me good."

Trucking has helped Pal find his faith. When he moved to the United States, he used to shave, drink beer and not care much about religion. But as he got bored on the road, he started listening to religious sermons. Twelve years ago, he began to again grow his hair and quit alcohol; drinking it is against the faith's traditions. Today, he schedules shipments around the temple calendar so he can attend Sikh celebrations with his family.

"I don't mind questions about my religion. But when people say to me, 'Why do you not cut your hair?' they are asking the wrong question," Pal says. "The real question is, why do they cut their hair? God made us this way."

It's 4:59 p.m. June 29 when he arrives in Sayre, Okla., at Truck Stop 40. A yellow Punjabi-language billboard advertises it as the I-40 starts to bend north in a rural region two hours from Oklahoma City.

SPREAD OVER SEVERAL ACRES

Among the oldest Sikh truck stops, it has a 24-hour vegetarian restaurant, convenience store, gas station and a housing trailer that functions as a temple -- all spread over several acres.

Pal has been coming here for more than a decade, since it was a mechanic shop run by a Sikh former trucker who settled on the plot for its cheap land. When he has time, Pal lingers for a meal. But he's in a rush to get to Joplin, Mo., for the night so he can make his drop-off the next day.

He grabs a chai and heads to the temple. Resting on a small pillow upon the altar is the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. An audiotape plays prayers on a loop. A print of Guru Nanak, the faith's founder, hangs on the wall.

Pal prostrates and leaves a few dollar bills on the floor as a donation for upkeep. He prays for God to protect the temple, his family and himself on the 891 miles that remain until he hits the Indianapolis suburbs.

"This feels like a long drive," Pal says. "But it's just a small part of the journey of life."

Photo by Los Angeles Times/IRFAN KHAN
Palwinder Singh hauls produce through New Mexico on Interstate 40 on the way to Indiana.
Photo by Los Angeles Times/IRFAN KHAN
Palwander Singh comforts his 4-year-old son, Devjot Kamboj, who was saddened to learn his dad had another cross-country delivery to make.
Photo by Los Angeles Times/IRFAN KHAN
Truck driver Palwinder Singh prays inside his cab before leaving New Mexico for Oklahoma.

Religion on 07/06/2019

Print Headline: Journey of life

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