“Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America” by Amy Butcher
(Little A, 2021. 257 pages. $24.95/$14.95/$4.99)
In April of 2018, author Amy Butcher, who had become fascinated (obsessed?) with the Instagram posts of an Alaska trucker named Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe, flew from Ohio to Alaska to drive the Dalton Highway (known to Alaskans as “the Haul Road”) with the woman she knew only from the internet and a few phone calls.
“The truth is,” Butcher writes in chapter one, “I’d been looking for a savior, and Joy Mothertrucker came to me like a dream through the well-lit lens of Instagram, each photo another door that, at night, I’d escaped down and through.”
She goes on to describe her savior. “Freshly fifty with the face of Kate McKinnon and a body like an exclamation mark — long, lean, and somehow commanding the world’s attention — Joy is the nation’s only female ice road trucker, a woman who has built a life driving big rigs on the James W. Dalton Highway and documenting its beauty: rare and natural, snow-glazed and blue. ... She seems like God to me.”
Aside from the absurdity (which Butcher admits) of placing that kind of weight on any other person, the author gets her facts wrong. Although the Haul Road can be iced-over and was featured on the popular reality TV show “Ice Road Truckers,” it is not technically an ice road, which is defined as a temporary winter road built on a frozen water surface. Wiebe was also not the only “female ice road trucker” or female trucker driving the Haul Road. While few women drive big rigs — only 7% of America’s long-haul truckers are women — there were and are others doing so on the Haul Road. Wiebe’s distinction was that she was the only one at the time driving a fuel tractor-tanker.
It gives nothing away — Butcher includes the information in an introductory note — to inform readers that Wiebe died in a tragic Haul Road accident four months after Butcher’s visit. Her rig caught a soft shoulder and went down a steep embankment, where it flipped.
There’s no question that Butcher is a very capable and often lyrical writer. She teaches English and creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and is widely published. Her education and abilities are a bit hard to square with the insecurity and personal crisis that led her to an infatuation with Joy Wiebe. While she’d apparently told Wiebe that she’d be writing her story, the book that resulted is actually a memoir, in which Butcher details the trauma of her own life and how being with Wiebe for a few days rescued her from her fears.
Butcher has a bit of a history in Alaska. She’s taught at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and there met a music teacher she fell in love with. The man she calls Dave later moved to Ohio to live with her, and the relationship became manipulative and abusive. Dave’s strict religious code convinced him that Butcher was an evil temptress and caused Butcher to question her own worth. If nothing else, her story demonstrates that domestic abuse crosses all social and economic lines and can be very hard for even women with financial independence, self-knowledge and a therapist to escape.
After arriving in Fairbanks on an April morning, Butcher first attended church with Wiebe and her family. Wiebe, a Seventh-day Adventist, was not only a joyful person but an extremely religious one, seeing God’s hand in everything. Her reliance on God for her care and safety fills her narrative.
The plan for the two women was to drive the 400-mile Haul Road to Prudhoe Bay, stay overnight there, and drive back. Because Wiebe was recovering from a leg injury, this was completed in her pickup truck, not a rig (which would not have been allowed anyway). The narrative of that journey provides the framework of the book, filled with conversation between the two, descriptions of the scenery, some history of Alaska and the road, and lots of backstory about Butcher’s troubles and Wiebe’s life before she settled into a second marriage and 13 years of driving the Haul Road. They also encounter other drivers along the way as well as women working in various jobs that service the road and the oil industry. It’s apparent that Joy is very popular with others, and that her enthusiasm is infectious.
Two days is a very short time in which to learn much of anything, about another person or Alaska. In her story of Wiebe, Butcher seems to rely largely on Wiebe’s own questionable expertise without having done independent research. Descriptions of sun dogs and permafrost, for example, are less than scientific. Butcher also compares the trans-Alaska pipeline to today’s controversies over pipelines crossing Indigenous lands in the Lower 48, arguing that lands should not be taken from Indigenous people; she apparently was unaware of the relationship between TAPS and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. She states that Alaska’s Native people live on “reservations.”
Still, there are moments in “Mothertrucker” of descriptive power, as in this passage as the pickup crests Atigun Pass: “The earth here is dystopian, nothing like the colorful cliffs I’d imagined. We are so high now there is no sun, only the steely gray of clouds swirling around our headlights and fogging up my side window.” Butcher’s “tour” of the road and northern landscape has its attractions, and readers needing escapes of their own may find inspiration from the lives of these two women. In the end, as one suspects will happen, Wiebe offers some relationship advice, and Butcher takes it.