While other people celebrate birthdays or anniversaries with parties or perhaps a fancy dinner out, Gary Sarinana and wife Ana Ochoa spend special occasions on the road, driving an 80,000-pound Kenworth T660 truck through the backroads of the United States.
Sarinana and Ochoa, both 49, are a driving team for an international freight transportation company based in Ann Arbor, Mich. The couple started driving together eight years ago after Ochoa quit her job teaching high school Spanish to join her husband, who left his career as a U.S. Customs agent in 2001 to become a truck driver.
They spend 10 weeks on the road at a time, then return home to El Paso, Texas, for eight days off before heading back out. Holidays -- except Christmas -- are spent driving.
"This is a great career for a husband and wife," says Sarinana, a father of three college-aged children from a previous relationship. "We have the opportunity to travel. We've been to every state and almost every province in Canada. We've been fortunate to experience it together."
Sarinana says he's seen many other married couples come to his employer, Con-way Inc., to work and drive together. The American Trucking Association (ATA) launched a recent campaign to recruit couples to drive together, according to Monster.com. The ATA says that putting two drivers in one cab can double the miles driven and cut down on delivery times. Bonuses of the job? The pay (average annual income for driving teams at Con-way is $104,000) and the chance to work and travel the country together.
The lifestyle suits Sarinana and Ochoa well. The company truck has an attached sleeper with two bunk beds, two closets, two refrigerators and storage space for food and cooking utensils. Both are vegetarians and say they cook about 90 percent of their meals. By law, truckers are only allowed to drive 11 hours at a time and must take a mandatory 10-hour break to sleep. While Ochoa drives, Sarinana sleeps, and vice versa. Their freight typically includes nonperishable items such as dog food, automotive parts and paper towels.
In an interview with SecondAct from Atlanta, where the couple waited for their truck to be repaired, Sarinana talked about why he and his wife changed careers, their favorite destinations and how they approach working together as a married couple.
SA: How did you and your wife decide to become truck drivers?
GS: I decided first. I'd been with the government for almost 15 years, working as an agent with the U.S. Customs service, and it had gotten to a point where I was promoted and went to Columbus, N.M., which is kinda in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't see it going anywhere at that point. I just felt that it was time that I needed to make a change. I had a very structured way of working because of being in federal law enforcement: It's very political and you always have to watch your Ps and Qs. It was a very strict lifestyle, and I just wanted more flexibility in my life and more time to devote to family. I wanted a career where at least I was making a similar income. I was considering teaching, going into the medical field, or law, but those things were going to put me in the same position I was already in -- very structured, not a lot of time to myself, and very demanding. I looked at truck driving and was sold on it because I liked the fact that I could pretty much be my own boss. I don't have anybody looking over my shoulder or really answer to anybody. I just need to get the information and pick up on time and make sure we deliver on time and just be safe out there.
My wife, being a school teacher, she had her vacation at a certain time of year, she could only take so much time off, and basically she brought her work home every night and she wanted something where she wouldn't have to worry about that. So after about a year and half, my wife saw that I was making more money than she was making after 12 years as a school teacher. And we thought, why don't we do this together? So she decided to go to school for trucking, and I was her trainer. Once she finished school, we started teaming together. Now we have more freedom: It's just her and me, the truck, and the road.
SA: What was it like the first time out on the road by yourself?
GS: It was pretty scary. When I was with my trainer, I had that comfort of someone being with me all the time, knowing what they were doing. It was a little nerve-wracking in the beginning going out by myself and having to take everything I learned and apply it, dealing with things that I hadn't dealt with while training, like the weather conditions. Snowstorms, ice storms or heavy winds can sometimes shut you down. Traffic also plays a big part in being on time -- sometimes you can be stuck in a traffic jam for three, four, five hours.
SA: What's your biggest challenge?
GS: The biggest challenge is watching out for other people. You have to drive extremely defensively and expect the unexpected. There's a lot of responsibility with driving an 80,000-pound vehicle. It doesn't brake the same as a car, it doesn't stop at the same distance as a car, it turns differently because of the trailer [behind you]. Cars tend to cut you off. They pull in front of you with no blinkers. Sometimes when you have to make a right turn, you have to swing the truck a little wider than normal to get around a corner; a lot of times cars will try to sneak up in your blind spot on the right side and try to get around you, so you always have to be watching out.
SA: What are some of your favorite memories from the road?
GS: One of our favorite routes to take is running I-84 out of Idaho toward Portland along the Columbia River, which borders Washington and Oregon. It's just one of the most beautiful drives in the country. It's just breathtaking. Our other favorite area is driving east or west I-70 between Colorado and Utah going right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains through Vail, Colo. It's another gorgeous drive. But basically we love the beauty of the farm country. Seeing farms after farms after farms driving down these little two lane roads in the middle of nowhere. We've had the opportunity to stop at cafes and have great conversations with the local people, That's what's made this job a lot of fun and exciting and we never get tired of that. The highlight of our driving in the almost 10 years we've been out here is seeing the Northern Lights. It's just something you can't describe because it's the most beautiful sight of seeing all these colors and lights dancing through the sky. You never forget it.
SA: How do you balance being married and working together?
GS: This is how we approach it: When we're on the road together, we're coworkers. We're not husband and wife anymore. We help each other and we don't make any decisions without consulting the other because it affects both of us. But once we're off the truck and at home, we become husband and wife again. We don't bring the job with us and that's one reason why we got into this: We didn't want to bring the job home. And that's how we manage to succeed in this. We have our normal little disagreements on the road but nothing that causes any problems. We learn to compromise.
SA: How do you stay healthy on the road?
GS: We really work hard to stay in shape and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We've been vegetarians for three years and we do all our cooking on the truck. When we have the time, we do a lot of walking. I have weights in the truck and we have a little peddler so you can sit in the front seat and peddle. At truck stops I do push ups and squats. But mostly we do a lot of walking whenever we have the chance.
SA: Do either of you miss your previous careers?
GS: Ana does not miss it whatsoever. The only thing that I miss is the chase. There is nothing more exciting than making a big drug seizure or catching wanted felons at the border. There's a lot of gratification in doing your part to protect the United States. I miss that part of it. But on the whole, I'm happier doing this because I do it with my wife and we do have the freedom. I would never go back.