It seems like everything retro is cool these days. This month, I got to have a chat with a dear friend named Karen Bartley of Vashon Island, WA. We talked for hours about the “good old days” of trucking, and after 57 years behind the wheel, you can bet she has a lot of great stories. In the early days of her career, her CB handle was “Cinderella Diesel” (at one time she drove a big pumpkin orange Kenworth, so it all kinda made sense), so I thought that was a good title for this article. Karen is an amazing woman who had a long and interesting driving career.
Back in the early days, before her trucking career began, at only nine years old, Karen would visit her uncles in the summer. Karen’s uncles had 50+ logging trucks and used to let Karen drive at the landing where they would load the logs. She couldn’t even reach the clutch without jumping off the seat, but this is where a young woman fell in love with trucks and trucking. Her uncles helped hone her craft by rapping her on the back of the hand with a wooden dowel whenever she grinded the gears. Needless to say, she learned quickly how to shift smoothly.
Karen got her first license at only 13 years old – it was called a “Farm to Market” license. But before her official driving career started, Karen enlisted in the Army. The short time she was there, she drove a truck with a dump bed, picking up laundry. But her Army career was cut short (eight months) when she developed a bleeding ulcer. After getting an Honorable Discharge from the Army, out on the road she went.
The first company she drove for was Parker Refrigeration out of Fife, WA. Back in the 1960s, there weren’t many women drivers out there, and a lot more was expected of the ones who were. Later, she ran a grain truck from Meriwether, MT to Pasco, WA three times a week – this is when she was forced to learn how to put on snow chains. Winter in those mountains is a learning experience for any driver, and there have been many who have failed the test – but not Karen, she passed with flying colors!
Telling me about her first over-the-road trip by herself, she went to Cleveland, OH. This was her first time out of the Pacific Northwest, and she got a little lost out there. She stopped in a rest area because she was so confused about her location, and then just cried herself to sleep. But in the morning when she woke up and looked outside, there was a welcome sight – the “big orange ball in the sky” – a 76 Truck Stop was at the exit just ahead of her, and the perfect place to get some directions. Admittedly, Karen said she got lost or went the wrong way quite often, but that did not deter her or slow her down. To help correct the problem, she got a recipe box and filled it with written directions to all of the places she visited. Filling out “recipe cards” and then filing them alphabetically, she wrote the directions on one side of the card and drew a map on the other side.
Back then, there weren’t fuel cards. Your company would send you money via Western Union and then you had cash to buy your fuel and whatever else the truck might need for that trip. IFTA hadn’t been thought of back then either. In Illinois, you had to send yourself a telegram for $15 to get a “Signal 30” – that was a five-day permit, and you tried to start it so that you could get into Illinois, get unloaded and get back out of the state before the permit expired. In Kansas, you had to buy 50 gallons of fuel (or you got charged for 50 gallons of fuel), and Texas required you to have a Railroad card. In Montana, you had to have a registered license plate for that state, as well as plates for the states of Nevada and Oregon. Remember those old plate holders that bolted up under the bumper and held three or four different plates – this is why they were needed.
Can you remember what it was like before cellular phones? Karen sure can. Hunting down a pay phone to call and get directions was always an adventure. The funniest directions Karen can ever remember getting were to a chicken farm in the Midwest. After writing all the turns down, at the end, the woman simply told her to follow the feathers. And, amazingly enough, she was right – she followed the feathers and ended up right at the chicken farm!
The next company she drove for was called CC Ankeny out of Whittier, CA. They had 52 trucks leased to Little Audrey out of Fremont, NE. Back then, Karen was hauling swinging meat to the Boston Meat Market and a lot of produce. She told me that those were the “good old days.” Then, there was the “Leopard” truck. Owned by a German woman named Engrid, this amazing KW was painted with leopard spots and featured an experimental 650 KTA Cummins engine, a 5×4 tranny, and 4:11 rears – this baby could run! Engrid, who owned and ran Mountain Desert Trucking, painted the truck herself. Karen remembers what a pleasure that truck was to drive in the mountains.
Onward and upward! She only made one trip to Alaska, and of course it was in the winter. There were several loads of diamond drill bits coming out of Kansas and going to Anchorage, and Karen got one of them. Once the loads were delivered, Karen and the other truckers she was running with parked their trucks and left them running while an ice train took seven days to build an airstrip. Once the airstrip was completed, they backed their trucks and trailers into a giant cargo plane and, with the drivers sitting in their seats, were flown back to Seattle, WA.
Karen didn’t miss the early years when there were no facilities for women. She would stop along a highway in the morning when motels would have maids cleaning the rooms and she would give them $5 to use a shower. She would get out her shower thongs and get cleaned up in a room cleaner than the showers she would find in any truck stop. It was a little bit of heaven when Bill & Effie’s Boomtown in Reno, NV installed ladies showers with a tub! Karen took her Lysol in, scrubbed the tub, and then filled it with hot water and enjoyed a bath.
Driving for Boise Cascade, she never knew what kind of trailer she might be pulling on any particular day. They had everything from flatbeds, tankers, “joints” (doubles) and box trailers, making every day a new adventure. One time, starting up Cabbage (the mountain east of Pendleton, OR), she went by the flashing light that the chain law was up, thinking she would be fine without hanging iron. She had almost made it to the top when her traction finally let go. Sliding backwards, she was lucky to get it backed up into a snow bank and stopped. But when she got out of the truck, it started sliding again. Grabbing a chain off the hanger, she was able to throw it under a tire and get the truck stopped – again!
Another slippery experience happened when she was once coming into Libby, MT. With powdered snow blowing, she came around a corner and found a sheet of ice on the roadway. As her trailer began sliding sideways, all she could do is catch gears to get it straightened out and beat the trailer down the hill. When she got to the bottom, she didn’t care that she wasn’t parked very pretty – she went to bed!
Crossing the mountains out west will leave you with lots of winter memories. One night while going up a mountain she came upon a truck stuck in a ditch and partially blocking the highway. Stopping wasn’t an option, and to make matters worse, a giant elk was standing in the middle of the road. Getting over as far as she could, she barely squeaked by the truck and the elk. Looking in her mirror, she saw that she had not hit the elk but had passed by it so closely that she had spun it around on the icy highway.
Karen drove for Hughes Brothers out of Pasco, WA before changing over to B & B Transport out of Maple Valley, WA. It was while driving for them that she met and then married Don Bartley on June 28th, 1980. They have been a team ever since. Together, they went back to Parker Refrigeration, which Karen says was her second favorite company to drive for during her trucking career. Parker was later bought out by Navajo Express out of Denver, CO (this would become her most favorite company to ever work for).
While at Navajo Express, Karen & Don took their company truck to a show in Santa Nella, CA and, as they say, the rest is history. That show was the beginning of a winning path. Over a seven-year period at Navajo, they drove three different show trucks and competed at events all across the country, winning 77 trophies. They cleaned up their trucks like they owned them, doing all of the waxing and tire lettering themselves, and personally paid for all the metal polishing. And when they couldn’t get anyone to do the polishing, Karen did it herself. Karen says they were always treated like family at Navajo and she loved driving for them.
Their third and final show truck was a black 1997 Kenworth W900L with yellow and purple stripes. Powered by a polished and painted 500 hp Detroit Diesel under the hood and a 13-speed transmission, “Double Trouble” was their daily driver and working show truck for five long years, and they loved it. Now retired, Karen and Don enjoy fishing, hunting and flower gardening, not to mention sitting on the front porch in their rocking chairs and just relaxing.
One of Karen’s proudest moments was on June 3, 2000 when she competed in the Colorado Truck Rodeo and won! She was presented with the Leo Wozniak Memorial Award, and was the first woman in 27 years to ever earn that plaque.
Over her long driving career, Karen Bartley has seen and done a lot. Looking back, she probably wonders how she ever survived! We would like to commend Karen for her achievements and wish her all the best. And whether she believes it or not, she was a trucking pioneer who helped set the bar for all of the women at the wheel today.