NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The flashing sign September 15 just before Arkansas’s I-40 Galloway Exit said: “Truck drivers (flash) … For free lunch (flash) … take Exit 161.”
Close to 700 truck drivers took the exit and found not only a free hot lunch but cold water and soft drinks under tents cooled by giant fans and live country music by Nashville recording artist and Truckload Carriers Association Highway Angel spokesperson Lindsay Lawler and her band.
For those truckers who couldn’t stay, there were sack lunches to go.
The event, held in celebration of National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, was held at the TravelCenters of America/Petro Stopping Center here as a partnership between TA/Petro and the Arkansas Trucking Association and is one of the numerous appreciation celebrations that went on September 12-16 across the country at carriers’ corporate offices, distribution centers, travel plazas, rest areas and “250-plus [TA] truck stops in the U.S.,” said TA/Petro Vice President of Fleet Sales Carl Boja, who came down to Arkansas for the event from TA corporate offices in Cleveland.
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas trucking lobby, said the group has put on a NTDAW celebration in thanks to truckers for 17 years. Originally it was held at a rest area but has grown every time; they know because they’ve had to add to the number of sandwiches they give away every year, Newton said.
This year, she said, there were more truckers stopping than ever before. She put it down to Lawler’s entertainment, the location and the partnership with TA. “We found our sweet spot to double in size,” she said.
The Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department provided the flashing sign, which no doubt drew quite a few drivers.
And just so there was no doubt as to what was going on, volunteers stood along the road in front of the TA holding up signs thanking truck drivers.
Dan Jones with Heartland Express said it was nice to see people “showing thanks for what we do.” It’s “a mess out there,” he said of being on the road.
He’s been a trucker for 25 years and said the traffic is getting worse and it’s hard to get respect from customers, four-wheelers and other truck drivers alike.
“We usually come this way toward Texas once or twice a week,” said James Windsor, an owner-operator who has been a truck driver for 35 years.
Windsor said he usually stops at the TA here “once or twice a week” during the day on his way to Texas and on this particular stop found the food, entertainment and games a nice surprise.
“Most people don’t know that trucking is really hard,” he said. “People should show respect.”
Calvin Wallace, a 44-year career driver who hauls for J.B. Hunt, said, “It’s nice to know people who appreciate truck drivers.” Truckers “are the backbone of this country. Trains deliver but they can’t get to where the truck does.”
Truckers were definitely the stars at the event, but there were also some music star hopefuls.
Opening for country singer Lindsay Lawler was 15-year-old Bree Ogden, who looks and sounds several years older. She sang and played guitar, getting good reaction from the crowd. She closed with Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” which she later said was her favorite song.
A sophomore at Maumelle High School, just west of North Little Rock, she said she had known Lawler for a year.
“I met her in Nashville,” Ogden said. “This is our one-year friend-iversary.”
“She’s wonderful,” Lawler confirmed. “We’re bringing her to Nashville.”
Asked if she planned to make a career of music, Ogden said, “For sure, yeah. I sang before I could talk.”
Lawler, whose appearance was sponsored by the Schneider Highway Angel Truck Stop Tour, sang surprisingly clear and strong given the asphalt and canvas surroundings. Though interrupted frequently by clattering trucks, a fire engine and police cars wailing down the adjacent road, she remained upbeat, talking to and joking with the audience. She was there, she said, to give drivers “time out of the cab.”
And they seemed to enjoy it.
“I come to the driver appreciation [event] every year,” said Keith Lilly, a 17-year driver who hauls for Trinity Logistics. “I just get to relax and have fun.”