The long haul: Ottawa trucker riding out pandemic on increasingly inhospitable highways
With many restaurants and restrooms closed, truckers struggle to find needed services
Matt Marchand climbed into the cab of his tractor-trailer March 5, and hasn't been home since.
The Ottawa trucker puts on about 200,000 kilometres a year, but he's never had a haul as long as this.
"I go as far south as the U.S.-Mexico border, and as far west as the Pacific Ocean," Marchand said by phone from Dekalb, Ill., where he was picking up medical supplies to bring back to Milton, Ont.
He left home in March, headed with a load to Montreal, then on to the Halifax area, then Orlando, Fla., and back north to Winnipeg.
Long-haul truckers like Marchand are exempt from the rule that requires others crossing the border to self-isolate for 14 days. But with a wife and three children, ages two, seven and nine, at home, Marchand has been staying on the road out of concern that he might unknowingly carry the coronavirus back to his family.
Instead, he travels with photos of his wife and kids in his sleeper cab.
"It's hard," he said. "I try to talk to them on the phone as much as possible, at least once a day. The oldest is upset because her birthday is in three days and I won't be there. In general, I haven't missed those days. My wife understands, but I can't do this forever."
For Marchand, who became a long-haul trucker after being laid off from his job as a building superintendent five years ago, the road during the pandemic has been especially long, lonely and increasingly inhospitable.
In the U.S., many restaurants have closed not only their dining rooms, but also their restrooms. Even some truck stops have locked up their toilets and showers. Marchand said he might drive 10 hours or more before finding a place to pull over.
"10 hours is a long time to not have a restroom." he said, noting many truckers have started keeping a plastic bucket nearby in case nature urgently calls.
Getting something to eat is another challenge. Since he can't manoeuvre his 21-metre-long trailer through a restaurant drive-thru, he sometimes has to get out to place his order. But that doesn't always go according to plan.
At a Taco Bell in Rochelle, Ill., Marchand parked his truck and walked over to wait patiently with the cars idling in the drive-thru lane.
"When I finally got to the window, I was told if I didn't leave, the police would be called," he said. "I don't want any legal trouble in the U.S., but the thought of just dropping the trailer in front of the drive-thru ... did cross my mind."
WATCH: Finding food in the pandemic
Things are slightly more hospitable north of the Canada-U.S. border.
Earlier this month, Tim Hortons opened the washrooms and order counters at 500 of its highway locations exclusively to truckers.
"We think it's the right thing to do," said Tim Hortons chief operating officer Mike Hancock. "We know that [truckers are] the lifeblood right now, keeping our country running."
There have been a few other bright spots, like the Culver's restaurant where Marchand stopped while passing through Fargo, N.D.
Though the dining room was off limits, a waitress came out to his truck in the parking lot to take his order, then returned with his meal.
"I couldn't believe it," Marchand said. "I never thought I'd see the day when we'd turn a sit-down restaurant into a drive-in for trucks."
With a the U.S. dollar at nearly $1.50 Cdn, he's been trying to make do with his own resources: an electric burner and cast iron pan, a convection oven, a microwave, a coffee maker and a fridge mean he can eat reasonably well on the road.
Stopping for groceries can bring its own headaches though, since most supermarket parking lots have little room for his 40-tonne truck.
"Most are built deliberately to exclude us, with barriers and curbs and the like," Marchand said.
To make matters worse, two weeks ago his truck broke down in Florida. The repair took four days, during which time the food in his fridge spoiled.
McDonald's restaurants announced earlier this month that drivers could use the company's app to order food for curbside delivery, however Marchand has discovered that the Canadian version of the app doesn't work in the U.S., and vice versa.
- A previous version of this story referred to Mike Hancock as the CEO or chief executive officer of Tim Hortons. He is in fact the company's chief operating officer.Apr 20, 2020 10:40 AM ET