It’s roundup time for the bull haulers

It’s 8 a.m. Wednesday, and Junior Kilgore is working on a plate of hash browns, eggs and bacon in the Coin Toss Cafe, a truck stop in Strong City. A waitress, pot in each hand, is pushing coffee.

“Could I get an iced tea, please,” Kilgore says with a grin, “I’m not old enough to drink coffee.”

“Not old enough in your dreams,” she shoots back. “I’ll get your tea.”

Kilgore, 54, hauls cattle for a living. He’s carried other four-legged critters, but it’s cattle that make the truck payments.

As an owner-driver he furnishes his own equipment. He and his banker own a big, yellow, 2000 Kenworth that hustles his 50-foot, double-decked Wilson aluminum trailer over interstates and muscles it through pastures, across streams and up slippery dirt lanes not meant for 18-wheelers.

Kilgore pulled into Strong City on a Tuesday night with a load of feeder calves picked up in Clarksburg, Tex. A couple of hours ago when the sky was changing from black to gray to rain, he unloaded them in a pasture north of town. In a few minutes he’ll be headed back to Texas… Pleasanton this time…for another load of young steers bound for Bazaar, Kan., about 15 miles south of where he’s mopping up the last of his egg yokes with his second piece of toast.

His trailer will be empty as he rolls 768 miles past Wichita, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio to a ranch about 100 miles this side of the Gulf of Mexico.

The only extra weight he’ll be hauling will be me, taking my first-ever, over-the-road ride with a cattle hauler.

“We get called lots of things, but among truckers we’re usually called bull haulers,” Kilgore said.

He makes the short, steep climb into the cab and eases into the black, air-powered seat behind his tilted-away steering wheel.

Home on the road

Kilgore’s 18-wheeled road-home and office is immaculate. It has two, high-backed contour seats with more moves than a La-Z-Boy. The door panels, walls and ceilings are covered with heavy, black, tufted naugahyde that muffles traffic sounds and nourishes Kilgore’s multi-speaker sound system. The dashboard is a maze of dials, gauges, toggle switches, levers and buttons … 10 on the steering wheel. Little lighted windows explain fuel consumption, miles per gallon and tell you how far you are from your designated cattle pen.

At night when the cab is bathed in red light, you expect an air traffic controller’s voice to clear you for take off.

Behind the seats is a small lounge with stowaway compartments, a nearly double bed, TV and refrigerator. A heavy black curtain can be unsnapped to block light for daytime sleeping.

Kilgore eases the rig onto U.S. Route 50 in no time the 600 horsepower Cummins diesel has us hitting a Cadillac-smooth 70 miles per hour.

After discussing the merits of treating people as you’d like to be treated, truck tires, truck stops the price of diesel fuel ($1.26 today highest he’s paid is $1.83) and how much fuel the Kenworth can carry (240 gallons) we cross into Oklahoma.

Moving at a young age

“I graduated from high school in Tyrone, Okla., in 1964,” Kilgore said. “There were five in our graduating class, and all our names started with J.”

As a youngster he also lived in New Mexico and Texas. His father R.L., (he’s R.L. Jr.), worked construction and moved with the job opportunities.

Being a moving target is nothing new to Kilgore. He attended five New Mexico elementary schools in one year … one of them twice.

His dad, “my best friend,” was killed working construction in 1959.

Traffic is light on I-35 in Oklahoma. Makes you wonder where America’s 1.9 million tractor trailers are running.

The lighted panel above Kilgore’s head indicates we’re making 5.2 miles on a gallon of fuel. Pulling a load of cattle that number will drop to about 4.7.

“Running your own truck is an expensive proposition, ” Kilgore says. “I have to make $200 a day to make my truck and trailer payments, insurance, tags, things like that”

This doesn’t include a salary or paid vacation.

Two years ago his brand-new, custom-ordered Kenworth with its 18-speed gearbox cost $119,500. The cattle trailer was $52,000. Insurance runs $900 a month and license tags and operating permits are $2,000 a year. He paid $465 for his last tire.

“We’re getting about $2.15 a mile to haul cattle now,” Kilgore said. But, on trips like today’s when he’s running empty, he’s paid nothing. The meter doesn’t start until the cattle are on board. So, for the round trip of 1,536 miles, he’ll net $1.08 per mile.

Around 6 p.m., we pull into Heitmiller’s Family Steakhouse, a non-truckstop, family-style eatery in Elm Mott, Tex., where the $8.95 chicken fried steak was bigger than but about as tender as a catcher’s mitt.

‘Toughest part’

Back in the truck, Kilgore called his wife Connie before getting back on I-35. The couple owns a small farm outside Abbyville, 10 miles west of Hutchinson. She had just gotten home from her paramedics job in a medical center.

“Hey Mom, don’t let a little thing like darkness stop you,” he said laughing, “why do you think that mower’s got headlights?”

They phone one another two or three times a day. They’ve been married 35 years.

“Being away from home is the toughest part of this business,” Kilgore said as we continued south in the twilight. “

The longest he’s been on the road without a trip home is 31 days.

“You gotta get it while the gettin is good,” he said. “Lotta hungry truckers out there, and if you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

Bull haulers operate like harvest hands, driving their rigs to where the action is. Cattle are moving all the time.

There are an estimated 100 million cattle in the United States. Between the day feeder cattle are born and the day they’re slaughtered or processed, most of them will ride in a truck four times. About 120,000 cattle feed on the lush native pastures of Chase County.

At his very busiest, cattle broker Tom Dial, who runs Livestock Dispatch in Cottonwood Falls, has arranged cattle pickups and deliveries involving 230 trucks in one day.

In the fall, truckers are busy hauling calves among New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and other southern states.

In the first couple of weeks in May, the southern cattle come north to midwestern pastures. From mid-June to early August, the cattle on grass will go to feedlots, mainly in New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.

After about 90 or 120 days in the feedlots, and weighing 1,100 to 1,200 pounds and called “fats,” they’re ready for their last ride to a processing plant.

Kansas plants process more cattle, 8.21 million head in 2000, than those in any other state.

From December to February, bull hauling slows down and most of Kilgore’s action is around sale barns in Kansas and Missouri.

As he puts it, “In this business, you can get wore slick.”

Wednesday evening we pull into a Williams Truck Stop in Robinson, Tex. Kilgore has been touting Williams as one of the better places catering to truckers.

While topping off each of his 120 gallon tanks, Kilgore proved to be as meticulous about his truck’s exterior as its interior. He checked under the hood, washed the windshields, mirrors and scraped insects from the truck’s grillwork.

His fuel bill was close to $300.

It was time to catch some sleep.

Legally truckers can drive for 10 hours and are required to rest for eight.

Most truckers refer to log book entries as creative fiction. But they are on the best-read list of most law enforcement officers.

Most truckers drive for more than 10 hours at a stretch. Everybody in the trucking business and those in pursuit of truckers know it.

“State troopers pull double shifts and drive at very high rates of speed, so what’s the difference?” Kilgore asks.

A good night’s sleep

We were parked in the midst of more than 100 tractor trailers. Most of the cab windows were dark, and others reflected bluish images from television screens.

After using a prescribed inhalant for his lifelong bout with asthma, Kilgore stretched out in his bunk and was sleeping soundly in minutes. After turning some knobs and pushing a lever, I got my passenger’s seat into a reclining position. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I wished I hadn’t eaten so much of that chicken fried steak.

It seemed like minutes but it was hours when a very loud alarm went off, and we were out on I-35 again.

We were due to weigh in at the peanut plant truck scales in Plesanton at 6 a.m. before heading to pick up the load of cattle farther down the road. We arrived in the darkness more than two hours ahead of schedule. We pulled in behind three cattle trucks already parked on the shoulder of the road and promptly went to sleep.

A hard slap on the driver’s door and a voice yelling, “Hit the road, hit the road,” happened about 10 seconds before Kilgore’s industrial strength alarm clock joined the racket. The trucks in front of us were starting to move; Kilgore, shirtless and shoeless, was climbing into the drivers seat, talking into his CB microphone, gently easing the gear shift lever forward. In seconds, we were moving toward the gate of the scales.

Semi-reclined, I was still looking for the alarm’s off-switch.

Feisty cargo

An hour later, Kilgore was backing his trailer into the business end of a loading chute on a ranch 12 miles south of Pleasanton on Texas Route 97.

There were 80 feisty, young steers weighing between 400 and 500 pounds fresh out of the pasture waiting to be herded on board.

Using a calculator, Kilgore had already figured how to load the cattle, using a series of individual pens inside the trailer to distribute their weight equally.

Like the captain of an airliner, the driver of a cattle truck is in charge of his cargo. He tells the shippers how he wants the steers loaded. He gives the foreman a list of groupings by size and the order he wants them sent up the chute.

The bad news is that he’s in the trailer to close the gates on the pens and stow the ramps as the cattle are being loaded. When each group of six or eight run up the chute, usually accelerated with an electric prod, The athletic Kilgore becomes Spiderman and gets out of the cattle’s path by climbing the trailer’s walls, using the many openings as hand and foot holds.

He’s been kicked, knocked down, run over and stepped on. He’s mashed fingers and torn open the backs of his hands and has friends who’ve left parts of their fingers on trailer floors.

“I only got to cowboy 15 minutes today,” he said smiling after he lowered the last trailer gate. He took off his gloves and coveralls, only slightly soiled, took a peek at his passengers through an opening in the trailer and was back behind the steering wheel.

It was barely 8 a.m., Plesanton, Tex., was already in our rear-view mirror, and we were headed for Bazaar, 768 miles up the road.

Now, with a full load, the truck weighed 80,000 pounds but responded quickly to the throttle. Stopping would take longer than accelerating.

Loading the cattle had re-charged Kilgore’s batteries, which never seemed to be very low, and he talked about his three careers.

After a year of college, he worked for gas companies, ended up in a foreman’s job working with helium in Bushton. He changed horses and opened an auto repair shop in Lyons, sold racing equipment, and he and his wife, Connie, got serious about drag racing. Both drove.

“I really liked the business, but after 12 years working 80-110 hours a week, I got burned out … plus everybody wanted their car fixed today. Traveling to races on weekends didn’t help, but we enjoyed it.”

Somewhere along the way he got a pilot’s license but hasn’t flown for several years.

While he was talking and I was smiling at a sign advertising “Billy Bob’s Beds” outside San Antonio, the truck shook like we’d hit a large pothole.

I asked what we’d hit.

“Volkswagen,” he said, laughing.

After closing his auto repair shop, he rode with a trainer/driver in a tractor for a week and became a big rig driver. He drove other peoples’ trucks hauling almost everything and has hauled in 38 states.

“One time hauling boxed meat to Staten Island, New York (truckers almost always add the state behind a city’s name), it cost $52 for two passes across the Verrazano Bridge.”

Every time a cattle truck passed, he’d look.

He bought his first truck in 1996.

He got into cattle hauling because he liked animals. At one time he owned a horse.

His biggest load ever was 188 calves … “That’s a lot of feet.”

“Soon as they put their hooves in my truck, I treat ’em like they belong to me, and they just might.”

In December, 1999, he “laid his truck down” (tipped it over going around a curve) north of St. Frances, Kan., with $48,900 worth of cattle on board.

“Lost a lot of money on that deal,” Kilgore said. “Cost $3,465 just to set it up and had $22,000 in down time.”

He drove almost a million miles between speeding tickets.

“After I got pulled over, I told the trooper I had driven nearly a million miles since I got my last speeding ticket and the trooper said, ‘Well, you didn’t make it.'”

In two years, Junior Kilgore has driven his yellow Kenworth 310,000 miles. The engine has run for 8,500 hours. That’s four years worth of 40-hour weeks, with no vacation time.

“I think it takes a lot of desire to be in this business,” Kilgore said.