Kevin Snider left Spokane on March 9 as scheduled to fill his 73-foot tractor trailer with frozen french fries and beef in Richland before beginning his regular delivery route destined first for New Orleans.
At that point, the novel coronavirus outbreak in Washington and the United States was just beginning.
Washington public health officials reported 162 COVID-19 cases and 20 deaths in eight counties that day. Spokane County still had no cases. The mad dashes to the grocery store for toilet paper and hand sanitizer were just beginning. And Gov. Jay Inslee was still days away from closing schools and seating at restaurants.
Snider arrived in New Orleans the weekend police cleared people from the streets of the city’s French Quarter following the closure of bars and dine-in restaurants and three deaths in the state due to COVID-19.
Even as more government officials advised against travel and handed down orders for people to stay in their homes, Snider stayed on the road, completing deliveries around the Midwest and making his way back to the West Coast.
That’s because Snider, a Riverside Transport Inc. employee, is considered a worker who is essential to the country’s infrastructure. But the 56-year-old has struggled to find supplies to keep himself healthy while on the road and trying to isolate himself in the cabin of his truck.
“If it wasn’t for us dealing with the hardships of the road and tolerating it, everything would stop,” said Snider, naming grocery stores and factories as the kind of places dependent on long-haul truck drivers to keep the supply chain intact.
With 400,000 miles under his belt since starting truck driving three years ago, Snider has come to enjoy the grind of a long haul. Before that, the most he’d seen of the country was between Washington and North Idaho while working as a traffic controller on Interstate 90 construction jobs.
“During 14 years I was involved in paving, probably every stretch of I-90 from Hyak to east of Coeur d’Alene,” said Snider, adding he’s probably walked that stretch of road seven times.
Now he drives across 20 states during his three-week routes and has become more familiar with the highways.
“My world really opened up,” Snider said.
But that has becomes harder day by day as he watches the news and sees COVID-19 numbers rise in each city he visits, he said.
As he prepared to drive north up Interstate 5 from California on Tuesday – more than two weeks since leaving home and with 5,700 miles of travel under his belt – Snider was no longer sure if it was safe for him to return to Spokane, for him and his family.
A lonesome journey
Snider already spends much of his working days in isolation. A productive shift for him is covering 600 miles during about 10 hours with his 14-year-old dachshund, Raider, as his co-pilot. On most days, he livestreams his drive on Facebook, narrating his route to kill the time for an hour or so with a view from his cab.
But gathering supplies, finding food and showering have all become new daily stressors as he tries to avoid contracting COVID-19. An increasing number of rest areas have been shut down, limiting bathroom access and overnight parking for truckers, though Washington has kept 45 open with new sanitation measures.
While Snider used to live off fast food during his long hauls, many restaurants have closed their lobbies and his truck isn’t able to fit in a drive-thru. He hasn’t found businesses that will deliver food to him.
As he traversed the country, he brought up the local news in each place he stopped.
“It just kind of scares you being out there as you see this going everywhere,” Snider said about watching case counts and death tolls rise.
He also sees places where the outbreak isn’t serious but people don’t take social distancing seriously.
“In some ways (truckers) have to really isolate ourselves now because we don’t have access to a lot of the things to protect ourselves,” Snider said.
Even when truckers are home, they only have a few days to stock up.
“We can’t wait around for Walmart’s shipment on Monday,” Snider said.
Snider left Spokane without any hand sanitizer because Costco was cleared out the day before his long haul. He found regular reminders of that on highway reader boards across the country urging people to keep their hands clean.
When he reached Dallas a few days later, he found a Walmart that would let him park his tractor-trailer in its lot – which is increasingly less common for grocery stores – and found a couple of cans of Lysol spray left on the shelves.
“During this ordeal, I wish (stores would) open up their doors a little bit more” to truckers, Snider said.
Stores are increasingly banning truckers from parking in their lots, and he doesn’t feel safe hoping on a bus or using Uber to get a ride to get supplies.
After dropping off his truckload in Louisiana that Monday, Snider stayed the night to pick up a load of sugar the next day. He headed north for a Kansas City, Missouri, Sam’s Club delivery that was three days away.
Snider found another Walmart in Kansas City with two containers of Clorox wipes in stock, which were lying on the floor. From there, he headed west to Riverside, California, with another load of meat products for Kroger.
He spent a night in between locations in Flagstaff, Arizona, and, still without hand sanitizer, decided to take a bus into the city hoping to stock up. He headed back to his truck with just coffee instead.
“And hightailed as quick as I could for what I thought was a Saturday delivery,” Snider said.
It was really a Monday delivery, which meant Snider spent 60 hours living in his parked truck, only emerging for food and supplies. When he showered, he made sure to spray all the bathroom fixtures with Lysol.
Once at the shipping dock, workers told Snider he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom inside. Instead, like many other shipment receivers, he was told to use the portable toilet to which all the other truckers were sent. Some won’t even allow truckers to step out of their vehicles.
All the shippers and receivers also questioned him about his travel, COVID-19 cases in his family and other contact with people who contracted the disease.
“We should be able to turn around and say the same questionnaire,” Snider said.
Snider headed north toward Portland with a load of salads on Tuesday for three Thursday deliveries between 1 a.m. and 8 a.m. He then continued north Friday morning, first dropping his truck off in Chehalis at RTI’s Washington headquarters. From there, he drove a company car to Olympia to complete his biennial state Department of Transportation physical, which allows him to keep working.
He finally found hand sanitizer at an Olympia Walgreens when he told an employee he was a truck driver and had none. She bent down behind the counter to give him a bottle and a “thank you.”
“I’m just doing my part to get the food I haul from place to place,” Snider said. “I’m glad I’ve still got a job and am getting a paycheck.”
But that doesn’t mean he has a place to call home. Snider lives with either his son or daughter when he’s not driving long hauls and he’s not sure he can return there with all the places he’s been.
Nowhere to call home
Snider’s home when he arrives in Spokane Tuesday likely still will be his parked truck. His only contact with family could be the same as it was on the road – a handful of phone calls a week.
His son’s house, where he normally stays while home, is frequented by other 20-somethings who could be potentially carrying the novel coronavirus. His daughter has young children. He’s just as scared of somehow transmitting the virus to all of them.
“And I worry about my mom and my uncle that she takes care of” in Clark Fork, Idaho, Snider said.
Another truck driver Snider knows used to stay with her family in California during her breaks from the road. But when they found out she’d been to Washington, she learned she wasn’t welcome anymore.
“If (families) find out some of the places we’ve been to, I think a lot of us are finding out we’re still living in our trucks because family members are scared of where we’ve been,” Snider said.
After several days off and a couple of trips for supplies, Snider likely will head back to New Orleans with another shipment. He hopes Dry Fly Distilling will have some hand sanitizer for him before then.
“I don’t know if I want to do these New Orleans runs with all this going on,” said Snider, who dreads the thought of falling sick 2,500 miles from home. “I’d rather be close to home.”
A few drivers have told him they’re retiring or taking an extended leave once they’re home. But Snider feels the magnitude of the service truckers provide.
“It’s nice to know we’re being recognized,” Snider said. “We’re out here making a living in dangerous trade. And with the situation going on, now we’re finding ourselves in a lot more precarious situations with more hardships. And yet we roll on.”
Once the outbreak subsides, Snider said he hopes people will give greater respect to truck drivers and what they do.
“I know everybody says give 6 feet” of social distance, Snider said. “Give us six car lengths before you pull in front.”
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