Mary Ellen Dempsey never smoked, drank or swore but she drove a truck.
Over a 15-year period, the Stockton-based Dempsey logged 1.8 million miles piloting big rigs, hauling every kind of load imaginable over much of the United States. Then she discovered a career even tougher, writing about her exploits in a male-dominated transportation realm.
Her 275-page book, “Silly Woman, Big Rigs Are For Men” was published in 2011; it is available on Kindle and on audio books. A trilogy on lady truckers is in the works.
“I have no regrets getting to trucking,” Dempsey says. “I saw lots of sunsets and sunrises. I never thought what I did was anything special. I was simply trying to make a life for myself.”
Born in Sacramento, Dempsey, 72, says she led a regular life in “Leave It to Beaver” fashion. Life became rougher when she married a man she had known only six weeks.
They were married 14 years and lived very primitively in rural southeastern Ohio. The only job she could get was driving a school bus, which paid well, with benefits, but was only part-time.
She termed her early years a testimony to her own resilience. At a Parents Without Partners meeting, Dempsey met a woman who was driving a big truck and decided to explore it for herself.
“I’m a tumbleweed and never looked ahead at what’s going to happen,” Dempsey said.
“I just go with the flow. School bus drivers will always be in demand but nobody wants to drive a bus with screaming kids. I did that for three years.”
During her career, she drove double trailers up and down California, then drove tank trucks loaded with sulphuric acid between Martinez and Southern California., She also hauled trucks loaded with meat and cement trucks in Lodi along with produce across the United States. For about a month she drove a truck with a flatbed trailer, hauling construction trusses.
Dempsey said it is hard for a woman trucker to be respected and considered a good driver. What makes it difficult for some women to get trucking jobs is they often have to ride for months with male driver-trainers who may try to take advantage of their students.
“Aspiring women truck drivers have an uphill struggle as far as discrimination. You are required to drive with a trainer for three months. Most likely the males will not always behave respectfully. That’s what keeps the percentage of women drivers down,” Dempsey says.
She has discovered it’s a lot harder to write a book than read it. She likes the characters she is developing in her “high-heeled trucker trilogy.” She said she is about through with the first of the three parts.
It took her about two years to put together her book and she calls that experience a steep learning curve. She credits the feedback she received in writing club critique groups with helping her to make her prose marketable.
“My audience is truck drivers,” Dempsey says. “In ‘High Heeled Truckers’ my characters are out there, sassy female truckers.”
Over a 46-year span and five different times, Dempsey says she finally got her associate of arts degree in graphics design at Sierra College in Rocklin. She has two grown sons and a daughter, along with five grandchildren from 10 to 27 years of age. She has a niece who is a heavy equipment operator.
Dempsey says California highways are a serious mess. Even with the air-ride suspensions of modern trucks, it has proven too much for her to continue driving.
One of the hardest things about driving a big rig is learning to back up the truck and its trailers. Driving for 11 hours isn’t nearly as tiring as having to unload the cargo yourself once you’ve arrived at the terminal.
Her biggest regret? After all that cross-country driving, she never had the time to stop and look at the scenic points. But she did get to see this country and it’s amazing.— Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.