Lessons from the cab on avoiding coronavirus isolation

Imagine being confined to a small space for days at a time. You don’t see your friends or family for weeks, months even. Communication is limited to the phone or internet. Without a plan to deal with such solitary circumstances, you can find yourself restless, bored and, most of all, lonely.

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in what for many Americans is a new world of social isolation, one that comes with its own lexicon: Self-quarantining. Social distancing. Sheltering in place.

But for at least one category of worker, long-haul truck drivers, the solitary life is par for the course. And so who better to counsel the millions of Americans who have been (or soon will be) cut off from their real-world social networks?

FreightWaves caught up with a few drivers who work for Market Express, a Portland, Oregon-based carrier, to learn how they combat isolation on the road.

Here are their strategies:

1. Set goals.

Bradley Austin, 39, has been driving for six years, first cross country and now on the Interstate 5 corridor, where he typically hauls one of today’s hot ticket items, toilet paper, along with other nonperishable goods between Portland and Southern California.

“I’m really goal oriented,” says Austin, who got into the business to earn money for law school, only to find he liked driving so much he kept on trucking. His ambitions, big and small, include driving a certain number of miles every day and saving money to invest in a rental property.

“These goals tends to distract me from whatever loneliness I feel,” Austin observed. “If I didn’t set goals, then I would probably feel a little bit aimless and that might lead to a sense of loneliness.”

2. Reach out and touch someone.

Phoning someone to stay connected might seem like a no-brainer. But Bill Kohler, a driver since 1996, doesn’t take the technology for granted. “The advent of the cell phone was the greatest thing for truck drivers,” says Kohler, who remembers when isolation was the No. 1 challenge for drivers — and a frequent cause of divorce. “Them and their wives didn’t understand what that separation was, when you are gone and can only call in morning or at night. It was a huge stress on a relationship that has now been removed.”

Now Kohler checks in with his three daughters at least once a day, his fiancee “consistently.”

“Even if you’re talking for only two minutes, it’s a real stress reliever,” he said.

3. Get off the internet and nourish your mind.

When it comes to reading material, Phil Kerek, 59, has two favorites: the Bible and the novels of Louis L’Amour. He listens to both while driving. The 40-year trucking veteran advises people to avoid consuming too much media, be it the 24/7 coronavirus coverage or CB radio, which he used to like but now avoids because of the “profanity, garbage talk and people not helping each other out.”

Austin has 200 novels on his iPad. The latest book he read was Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” “A lot of guys make the mistake of spending a lot of time online when they’re driving, which I don’t think is conducive to a healthy frame of mind,” he said. “It’s like eating cake all day — titillating but shallow.”

4. Eat well, and exercise.

Kohler always has plenty of emergency winter rations on hand, for the days when he’s stuck in the snow by the side of the road. Buy a lot of canned food, he advises.

Austin “calorie counts,” fasts once a week and counteracts the sedentary nature of the job with a daily 45-minute walk and weight lifting.

“A lot of mental health follows on physical health,” he explained. “If you’re physically active, it improves mental health and increases emotional stability.”

5. Accept the limits of your surroundings, and appreciate what you have.

Communicating with loved ones via Facebook, smartphone and Skype is all well and good, Kohler said, but doesn’t necessarily substitute for the real thing. “For some people that isolation barrier just comes down to: There’s nobody to touch.”

Over the years, he’s adapted to being on his own, Kerek said. “And I love seeing the country. But this is a profession that is not for everybody.”

Applying what he has learned on the road to the challenges of being at home for an unusually extended period of time, Austin highlighted the importance of infusing purpose into life’s daily activities. “I set myself small challenges,” he explained, “for what are essentially endless hours of driving.”