Note: This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on November 23, 2008.
Ah, life on the road. Who hasn’t dreamed of it? Especially we intrepid adventurers who live in the Last Frontier. No cares, no worries, none of that boring same-old, same-old. Changing landscapes, changing views, a true exploration of the country.
“Alaska’s Truckin’ Boly Girls: Life on the Road,” by Tok resident Sandy Boulanger, details that life some of us dream about — 17 years as a commercial truck driver, along with husband Boly, and, as the years progressed, three daughters: Sierra, Denae and Julia. From her first time behind the wheel to the accident that left her disabled and unable to drive again, Boulanger takes us on a wild ride throughout the Lower 48, Canada and Alaska, with lots of truck stops and side roads along the way.
Boulanger grew up as a farm girl in Oregon, familiar with trucks and tractors and chores. The youngest of three kids, with six years between the oldest and herself, Boulanger did everything with her dad, including hauling hay and caring for the stock. Travel was an integral part of her childhood, as her family traveled yearly to places far and wide for church retreats. Her life took a tragic turn at age 12 when her father died of a heart attack; Boulanger’s mother sold the farm and moved to the suburbs.
When her mom got multiple sclerosis, she relied heavily on Boulanger for care. Boulanger grew up fast, graduating from high school at 16 and began working full-time. But all the while she had the same wishes and dreams of every teenage girl — she wanted to go to parties and dances, hang out with friends, experience life. She saved her money, planning to escape her prison as soon as possible.
She bought a car when she turned 18, packed up her belongings and, with a male friend (for protection), drove the Alaska Highway to Anchorage. Here was her adventure: Moving as far away as possible and starting a new job and a new life.
A short stop in Tok brought Boly into her life, although briefly, as she and her friend continued to Anchorage the next day. But when Boulanger arrived in Anchorage, suddenly the reality of being alone in a strange place hit her, and she turned around and went back home.
A brief, unhappy marriage followed; her new husband came from a trucking family so they bought an old truck, fixed it up and sent Boulanger off to trucking school.
After being abandoned by her husband (for a waitress in a truck stop), Boulanger was devastated. And broke. She had no place to live, no truck, and no prospects. So when Boly called again, she helped him drop a load and got her first real taste of driving the big rig.
“This was it! The moment that I had been waiting for. What I had gone to school for. … I knew the manual and all the rules and regulations, but had very little actual driving knowledge. This was my big opportunity.”
The adventure was over much too quickly. And she didn’t hesitate when Boly asked her to join him.
They ended up in Tok and within a few years were driving loads of everything imaginable from Alaska to Florida and back again, dropping goods everywhere in between.
Even the three girls didn’t stop them; Boulanger stayed at home during her last few months of pregnancy and the first few months of nursing and caring for a new baby, but then loaded the kids into the truck and off they went.
Growing up in a big rig may not seem like much of a life for three young girls, but Boulanger did what she could to amuse, entertain, school, and protect her brood.
This is an unconventional family, much like most Alaskan families, who scrape and scrabble to make a living, taking the lemons life throws at them (both in the form of trials and tribulations, and in the form of broken-down trucks and Machiavellian nasty tricks and back-stabbing from owners, operators and fellow drivers) and make a life out of them.
In between gigs, there was the cabin in Tok, the joy of living in a quiet, undeveloped, peaceful home, as long as those times didn’t last very long (truckers get itchy to move after a few days off the road).
And much as I admire Boulanger for her strength and character, as much as I appreciate her need to write this book to support her family, I wish it had been better. The writing is awkward and uneven, obviously the product of a new writer. Dialogue is stilted and unrealistic, making the characters seem stiff and two-dimensional. Even though you know these are real people, they don’t jump from the page and grab you by the throat. Consequently, it’s difficult to feel empathy or camaraderie with them.
I was willing to overlook these flaws, knowing that everyone has to start somewhere, and looked forward to the details of raising a family on the road. I know how hard it is to have three daughters — I did that. And even though we stayed rooted in the same place for most of my girls’ childhoods, it was a struggle every day to keep them safe and engaged. How on earth do you do that when your base of operations is mobile? My kids fought over who was taking up more than their share of air on a 10-minute car ride — how do you keep them happy and quiet for days at a time in a tight space, when they can’t take much “stuff” with them? And school: How do you ensure they’re keeping up with their education? I wanted to know.
But Boulanger isn’t much with details. I never even learned her husband’s first name, and I went through the book twice looking for it. She spent far too little time on what I thought were important details, such as school and nutrition and entertainment, but did give the reader a detailed description of taking the girls into public bathrooms.
I never did get the information I wanted, and so left the armchair feeling a bit peckish, as if I’d not gotten enough to eat after a long day of hard work. Disappointing. But, if Boulanger decides to give us a sequel, she can add some flavor and frosting to the dry facts, and give this armchair adventurer a vicarious glimpse of the roads she’s traveled.
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at email@example.com or 347-2422.