Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America, the new book from Amy Butcher, director of creative writing and associate professor of English, began receiving stellar reviews and awards months before it was to land on store shelves. Publisher’s Weekly called it “tender and gripping,” writing that the book “explores myriad issues with nuance and grace, including Indigenous rights, violence against women, religious hypocrisy, and environmental concerns.” Kirkus Reviews praised the book as “a searching and deeply empathetic memoir” and “a sobering reflection on verbal and psychological abuse” that “honors the healing power of female friendship and questions the nature of divinity beyond its constricting patriarchal manifestations.”
Last February, excerpts of Mothertrucker were awarded an Individual Excellence Award by the Ohio Arts Council, with judges calling the book “‘well researched,’ ‘very well-written,’ and ‘a positive antidote to the trauma of violence against women.’”
Published in November by Little A Books (in print and as an audio book read by Butcher), Mothertrucker is a story of domestic violence, fear, independence, and friendship. Butcher says it’s a book about “what it means to be a woman in America.” It chronicles her travels on Alaska’s Dalton Highway with Joy Wiebe, a 50-year-old wife and mother and the nation’s only female ice road trucker.
OWU Magazine is proud to share with our readers this excerpt from Chapter 4 of Mothertrucker:
On the Dalton Highway, Joy explains, everything is something else: cars are called four-wheelers, plows are blades, Joy is Joy Mothertrucker. When, eight miles in, she pulls the truck over along the shoulder, I worry she’s turning back—that already this drive we’re undertaking has proven too intimate—but she says no and points instead to a row of bulbous trees just off the highway.
“Candy Land trees!” she tells me. “Because they look more lollipop than tree!”
I counter with Dr. Seuss, but we both agree they’re strange.
These trees are Joy’s favorite. Everywhere, and on every branch, snow hangs in packed, tight circles, almost comically.
This is the boreal forest, Joy tells me—a stark departure from any other forest I’ve ever known, a place where trees grow relatively uniform in height but vary endlessly in width and shape. The forest looks like a patchwork, stunted spruce alternating between tall aspens and open space, the result of the way sunlight is always shining at an angle in the Arctic landscape, a dramatic difference. Each spring, the top layer of permafrost thaws only long enough for new roots to take hold, and then everything freezes up again, settles in for winter. The stunted growth is dramatic, gnarled and topped—on this particular morning—with perfect scoops of snow, like dollops of mashed potatoes.
We hop down from the cab, and I ask Joy if she’ll take my picture.
“That’s the point.” She laughs. I slip across the icy gravel and climb the wall of snow that has been erected thanks to the highway plow. I struggle in the wild wind to remain upright and unrounded. Joy laughs and snaps my picture.
“Again,” she says, stepping forward. “I think your eyes were closed.”
I want this as proof—that regardless of any fear, any sense I don’t belong, I have traveled to Alaska to sit within Joy’s truck cab and observe the place as she promised.
We’ve only traveled eight miles, but already things feel different, foreign, as if this part of Alaska is part of another America entirely. I am the wild and lucky recipient of Joy’s impossible generosity, and when she looks at me and laughs, I feel something warm inside me, like an animal, tight and burrowed.
We climb back in the truck and Joy points just up the road, where men’s deaths begin to announce themselves with frequency. She points and tells me Handlebar was crushed by a pipe at this shallow pass just beyond Graveyard.
“It sounds like you’re playing Clue,” I say.
“It does sound like that,” she admits, and then she rattles off some more names. Moustache spun out around Gobbler’s Knob, and Elixir died after a medical emergency caused him to crash his snowplow near Oh Shit Corner. She tells me Donut was one of the lucky ones; he survived after being buried alive in a sudden avalanche as he was descending Atigun Pass last winter. There was low visibility, she explains, so crews had to search for him via grid formation, charting with unique precision the endless expanse of snow-white earth.
“This area,” Joy says, sucking at her teeth, “it’s not like the rest of Alaska. Here, storms come up so quick, so fast, and suddenly you can’t see anything.”
I think of how much of life is like that: good until it isn’t.
Outside the window, there’s another cross.
“I think about it a lot,” Joy says. “How they all thought they were getting home that night.”
Elixir and Moustache and Handlebar, Buck and Spud and Cactus Jack. Getting home to their wife or to their children or to a heaping plate of chicken pot pie. To linen stretched over a tabletop, a tumbler of milk neatly sweating. To Jeopardy! or the evening news.
It makes her a better driver, Joy tells me, a better member of this community. She releases a squeeze of windshield fluid and pivots the wipers from side to side. She tells me these men didn’t expect to die, to go through their windshields, to collide head-on with another truck, to be crushed or burned or smashed. I listen, scared to be beside her—that much should be obvious—but it’s a different kind of fear than the fear I’ve felt for years.
Which is to say, quite simply, I do not fear Joy’s company.
Still, it is unpleasant. No one wants to die. I can’t help but think of what my handle would be, what they’d say when they found my body.
“I’d call you ‘Spice Girl,’” Joy tells me, “though I promise: you won’t die. But the way you doctored up those breakfast potatoes earlier? The way you seem to doctor up everything?”
She nods down at my backpack, where the cap from a travel-size bottle of Cholula pokes out.
“Me? I try to help everyone I can whenever I can,” she continues. “Like a guardian angel of the highway? There’s that idea, ‘Do unto others . . . ?’ I try to truck unto others, you know, the way I myself would want to be trucked.”
I think of all the verbs one might replace with trucked. Loved is chief among them. What would it look like if we all loved right?
“I’ve always got spare parts in the back, and extra food, blankets, matches, you know? All you need?” Joy continues. She rolls down her window to let a mosquito flee for the mountains, its black body sharp against the clean blue sky. “I don’t care what it costs: my salary or my own schedule. You save a life if there’s a life to save.”
She’s silent for a moment.
“You’re going to think this is crazy,” she says finally, “but I’ve always felt God made me to put me here. I think He built me to tend to this landscape, specifically.”
I want to tell her I agree—I do, in many ways—but I also wonder what it says about the men who’ve lost their lives out here. What was God doing there?
Everywhere I look, the world is an open wound.
Instead I look to the console, where Joy’s phone lights up the space between us.
“I thought you said we’d have no service?” I ask.
“You’d have no service,” she clarifies. She points down at her phone. “GCI,” she says. “They’re an Alaskan cell phone company, and they’ve been installing a couple towers up here these past few months.”
“The American wild isn’t so wild anymore,” I say.
Joy frowns in slight acknowledgment.
She picks the phone up, studies it. A man by the name of Jim Rocker has sent her photos of his petunias. The flowers fan out, hot pink and yellow, across the screen.
“Text him for me, ask him to show me his bean shoots,” Joy says. Then, “Not a euphemism!” She laughs. “There’s something special about his soil.”
She gestures again, and I take her phone and am surprised there is no passcode, surprised all the more by the wallpaper that blooms across her screen—the sherbet orange of a tundra sunset, as if she can’t get enough of this place, not ever.
I type out her soil inquiry, writing, Let me see those beans!
The morning sun warms the inside of our cab, and I feel overcome by a sense of ease. For a moment, I feel willing to concede that maybe there is a God, and maybe He did create this place, but maybe we aren’t the point, the heroes in this story. Maybe we are simply postscript, because God knew his creation was worth a witness: the stars and earth and mountains, the emptiness of this expanse, how it’s the lack of human spoil that makes this place so goddamn gorgeous.
Printed with permission from Little A, Amazon Publishing. Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America is available in print, ebook, and audio editions from Little A, Amazon Publishing.