By Cara Jepsen

“I like that,” a burly man in a red flannel shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots says to his companion, who’s dressed in similar fashion. “The way the light comes off of it, it’s just like diamonds.”

The two truckers are standing in a truck stop convenience store in front of a case of small crystal figurines. Their attention is fixed on a hummingbird that’s priced at $390. Around them are racks of Louis L’Amour books on tape, stuffed animals, rope, Zippo lighters, jars of bee pollen, toothpick cases, logbook calculators, harmonicas, Western shirts, chrome truck accessories, stuffed animals, and Spam. The convenience store is just one facet of the Bobber, a 22-acre truck stop in Effingham, Illinois.

The first thing you notice when you pull into the Bobber’s giant parking lot is the smell of diesel; some 25,000 vehicles pass daily through Effingham, where Interstates 70 and 57 meet and link Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles and Chicago to New Orleans.

The second thing you notice is the giant Lotto sign–with its lighted rainbow beams and pot of gold–perched atop the red-and-white fuel island. The third is how quickly the numbers spin as the gas pumps into your tank; it takes about half as long to fill up at the Bobber as it does in Chicago.

Inside, the red-and-white decor of the cafe matches the giant fishing bobbers hanging from the ceiling. The cafe, which is really a restaurant, has coin-operated televisions in some booths and the obligatory courtesy phones in others. The place has a homey feel that betrays the fact that it’s independently owned and operated. Indeed, the crystal on sale in the convenience store comes from Bobber owner Eugene Schaefer’s private collection. Two of the three owners are fishing fans from Menominee, Wisconsin –hence the truck stop’s name. They also own two other Bobbers in Missouri. The Effingham location has been in their possession for 28 years; they leased the restaurant for ten years prior to that, when the interstates were being constructed.

The Bobber’s attributes include the cafe, a CB shop, a knife shop (many truckers carry knives), a convenience store, a 24-hour garage with a full line of service (including parts and repair work), a motel with Jacuzzis in the rooms, a laundry, a TV room, a game room, a Goodyear tire dealership, truck scales, and six-dollar showers (or free with a fill-up). The Bobber recently added more parking spaces (bringing the total to 200), whirlpool tubs, and a buffet that attracts local residents as well as truckers, and plans for a Blimpie restaurant are in the works; one of the latest truck stop trends is on-site fast food. The truck stop employs some 90 people, including a nighttime security guard. (A recent issue of the Truckers News listed safety as a top priority for both truckers and truck stop owners.)

“When a guy comes off the road, [the Bobber] is something he looks for,” says Kay Wyckoff, who has worked in various capacities at the Bobber for over 14 years. “We offer just about anything you need when you’re away from home. We try to stay competitive with everything so that they are likely to choose us. They want good food, friendly service, competitive prices, and a good, nice place to stay.”

Schaefer says the Bobber has kept up with the times. “I wouldn’t have thought of putting in a fast-food place years ago, but it seems to help business if you do that. In the old days the showers weren’t clean like they are nowadays. They used to be open; now they have a door that locks. You just have to keep up with what’s happening. We have a card lock where a driver can come in, put his card in, fuel his truck, and take off without coming inside. These kinds of things keep coming up.”

Jeff Smith, a long-distance trucker who looks a bit like Kenny Rogers, says truck stops used to be “dens of inequity.” He is on the road five days a week delivering lawn mower parts to dealers east of Ohio. He’s been driving a truck since he got out of the Navy in 1978.

Smith, who lives with his wife and two small children outside of De Kalb, leaves for his route on Sunday night or Monday morning, returning home on Friday. He drives a 1993 Freightliner with a sleeper. It’s equipped with a VCR, a black-and-white TV, and a refrigerator that all run off the cigarette lighter. He and his wife, who also works full-time, make food on Saturdays–stews, chili, and casseroles–which they freeze and he takes on the road with him. He says the buffets at most truck stops are “overpriced and not too good” and that having a refrigerator has saved him a lot of time and money. At lunchtime he goes to the truck stop, warms up his meal, buys a soda, and returns to his truck, where he watches TV and eats.

He’ll use whichever truck stop offers the best discount or incentive. The Flying J chain offers points for every gallon of fuel (trucks carry between 200 and 400 gallons), which can be spent on goods from their catalog. Smith, however, says the catalog is full of “useless and overpriced” merchandise. Smith likes the smaller Western truck stops that give on-the-spot, penny-per-gallon vouchers for use in their restaurant.

Twenty-three-year-old Margo McCarter has waited tables at the Bobber Cafe for four years. She works days–four days on and two days off–wearing the red-and-blue Bobber uniform with its white-collar apron. She commutes from nearby Watson, where she lives with her five-year-old son. She averages about $50 in an eight-to-four shift. “It’s a good way to make money,” she says. “I was shocked when I got my tax return back this year and found out how much I’d made. And then I wondered, where did it go?”

Truckers want speedy service, she says. Like customers in any restaurant, most are nice and some are rude. The rude ones “make sexual gestures, or are demanding, or don’t treat you like a person but like a slave,” she says. “When you say hi, they grumble at you.”

She says the best tippers are couples and regulars. Her regulars have handles like Big Jay, Gingerbread, and TLC and work for companies like Yellow Freight, ABF, or Roadway. “They take an interest in how you are,” she says. “They ask you about your personal life. When you’ve worked here as long as I have, they find out things. I’m engaged to be married in May, and they’re always asking me about my fiance and my son. They’re always really curious and really easy to wait on.”

In fact, it was a group of regulars who helped initiate her relationship with her fiance. “I had just broken up with a guy that I had been seeing,” she recalls. “A bunch of regulars here started giving me a hard time, saying I couldn’t keep a man because I was so mean. This man who had heard it all came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. ‘What’s that?’ I said. ‘It’s an application,’ he said. ‘For what?’ ‘I want to date you,’ he said. It had his phone number on it. The guys here razzed me about it constantly. They bothered me so much that I finally went ahead and called him, and it evolved from there. I’d always said I’d never, ever, ever date a trucker. And now I’m marrying one.” Her fiance, Randy, was based in Ohio but changed to a company in Effingham last year.

Smith says truckers are “a microcosm, a cross section of people. There are single women, immigrants, you name it.” He also says there are many definitions of a trucker. “A trucker could be working for Roadway or UPS or in construction driving a gravel truck around the city. With over-the-road [overnight trips] there are a variety of jobs too. It’s just a matter of what you prefer.”

Over-the-road gigs range from cross-country trips to “pedal runs,” in which the driver picks up a loaded trailer, delivers to regular dealers over a period of about a week, and usually returns with an empty trailer, to shorter one- or two-day regional trips.

The maximum long-distance truckers are allowed to drive in one stretch is ten hours. After that they must take an eight-hour break, and cannot log 15 hours of driving in a 24-hour period. Smith says it’s easiest to drive in five-hour shifts. That’s why many truckers drive in teams, which allow them to work almost around the clock.

Many of the teams are made up of a husband and wife, although Smith says he is seeing more and more female teams, and platonic male-and-female teams. He says the married teams spend nearly all their time on the road. “They have the trucks set up, have their checks direct deposited, and their mail [forwarded] to them,” he says. “The truck is where they live, and some couples gross $115,000. But they do not live in a home.”

Truckers still use Channel 19 to keep track of what’s going on. It’s a good way to find out where the traffic problems are, where the police are. Smith has his CB on all the time but usually doesn’t talk. His handle is the Illegal Smile, from a John Prine song. One thing that does tick Smith off is cars that “act stupid.”

“This is my workplace. For people to just be out there joyriding or thinking the road is the place to be is ridiculous. I don’t think a lot of people understand that. They are oblivious to the fact that they are not the only ones there. Those are the ones you see in a ditch too.”

Of all the jobs Smith has had trucking pays the best. But he’s burning out. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “It’s just not working. I’m not at home during the week, when there are 100 things I could be doing that I’m not. My son is six. I’d like to get him started playing baseball, but he’s going to miss out. I don’t know how it’s done, but I’m going to have to do something different. It’s going to be hard to find anything that pays what I’m being paid now.”

McCarter too says she’s getting tired of waiting on tables. She wants to go back to school and become a physical therapist’s assistant.

“When I go home at night I don’t want to be nice to anybody, I don’t want to talk to anybody,” she says. “It’s hard, after working there for so long. It happens to everybody. One of my friends works here part-time and makes really good tips because she’s so friendly and bubbly. That’s because she knows she doesn’t have to come back to it the next day.”

For more information on Effingham see the Visitors’ Guide on pages 37-40.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.