Not everyone has a fancy shop to work on their truck in – some just make do with what they have available. Such is the case for Jose “Ruben” Vargas (44) of R & E Trucking based in Knights Landing, CA. His current “shop” in Woodland, CA was once a hay barn, but he has found a way to make that space work, as he has customized his own truck and trailer there, along with some of his friend’s rigs, as well. This unique location has caused some of Ruben’s friends to tease him about his “barnyard” builds, prompting him to jokingly name his unofficial side-business “Barnyard Kustoms” – he even put a sticker on the side of his truck. However, there is nothing “barnyard” about his build. In fact, it was cool enough to attract our attention and get him this month’s cover feature and centerfold.
Born in Mexico, Ruben’s grandparents and parents immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s and later became U.S. citizens. Born in Woodland, CA in 1976, Ruben lived there until he was six or seven years old, when his family moved to Knights Landing, a small historical trading town 10 miles north. Established in 1843, Knights Landing, situated on the banks of the Sacramento River, was once a vibrant hub for trade. Today, the town is still very small, with a population hovering at only about 1,000 people, but this town is home to Ruben and most of his family, and they love it there.
As you enter Knights Landing from the south, on the main road through town, there is a big curve. Ruben remembers going to the local market in town at only seven years old to watch the trucks go past. As they came into town and rolled through that curve, they would hit their Jake Brake, and Ruben loved it. Some would stop at the market for a bite to eat or a drink, and Ruben always made a point to check out the truck and meet the driver. Sometimes, they would even share some of what they were hauling – be it watermelons, tomatoes or other fruits and vegetables – with this young and very impressionable boy. This is when Ruben fell in love with trucks and trucking.
After graduating from high school in 1994, wanting to create future opportunities for himself and see the world, Ruben immediately enlisted in the Navy. Sent to Great Lakes, IL for boot camp and basic training, Ruben, being an athlete in high school and an avid runner, found it to be a lot easier than he had expected (this was not the case for many of the other recruits who were not in good shape). After that, he was sent to the USS Anzio CG-68, a guided missile cruiser, and stationed in the Persian Gulf for security purposes. On the ship, he became a Gunner’s Mate (GM), responsible for the maintenance and care of all the small arms on the ship, but his favorite thing to do was shoot the .50 caliber guns, saying it was “a real rush” to fire a weapon with that much power.
Active from 1994 to 1997, Ruben returned home in June of that year, joined the Active Reserves, and then started looking for a job at the local warehouses near his home. He was hoping to find something in the maintenance department that could utilize his mechanical skills and training in electronics and hydraulics, but nobody wanted to hire him since he had no formal education or civilian certifications. That was very frustrating for Ruben, but he eventually got hired at Menlo Logistics – a contractor for Hewlett Packard (HP) in Woodland, CA. At this facility, where they manufactured and shipped HP computers and printers, Ruben was in charge of maintaining their conveyor belt systems. After he got bored, Ruben moved over to the Receiving Department and became the lead there.
Working on the dock and seeing all the trucks coming in, Ruben began talking to the drivers, which rekindled some of those childhood memories and led him to start thinking about becoming a trucker. After talking to a co-worker who oversaw moving trailers around the yard, Ruben started doing it for practice when he was not busy on the dock. Learning quickly how to back up, Ruben was a natural, but he still was not ready to take the leap. At one point he thought he might want to become a police officer, but when that did not work out, he found himself working on the shipping dock at the Target warehouse in Woodland, CA.
While working at the Target warehouse, he met a truck driver named Byron Gonzales. Byron drove for a guy named Steve Boyd (SB Trucking out of Woodland, CA), and he told Ruben if he got his CDL the company would probably hire him. That was all Ruben needed to hear. Going to the DMV and getting a booklet to study, Ruben had his Learner’s Permit three weeks later. After a month of training, Ruben got his CDL in 1999 and began driving for SB, hauling tomatoes and tomato cans, between Dixon and Woodland, in a rented International truck. Steve had three Peterbilts, but during the busy season, he hired extra drivers and rented trucks to accommodate the increased volume of freight.
Once the tomato season came to an end, they returned the rental truck and Steve put Ruben in his oldest truck – a white 2-axle 1976 Pete day cab with blue stripes – and put him to work pulling double flatbeds. As winter came and the work slowed down, Ruben started helping in the shop, doing truck maintenance, and learning how to weld. But it wasn’t enough. About this time, Ruben met another trucker named Manuel Ortega who was looking to sell his truck and retire from driving. Seizing the opportunity, Ruben bought his first truck in May of 2000 – a tan 1984 Freightliner cabover with a red stripe, powered by a 350 Big Cam Cummins hooked to a 13-speed – and R & E Trucking was born.
It took Ruben about a month to get all his insurance and permits secured, and then he started sub-hauling for Clark Trucking of West Sacramento, CA. Moving trailers and hauling plastic bins in and out of the fields, Ruben could not believe how much more money could be made running his own truck over being a company driver. Things were going great until the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened in 2001. Being an Active Reservist, Ruben got recalled to serve full-time in the Navy just a few weeks after the attacks. Parking his truck, he was sent to Hawaii to help provide protection at the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands in a remote location on the island of Kauai. He was there for almost a year.
During his time in Hawaii, Ruben not only made a good wage from the Navy, but he also took a part-time civilian security job, as well. When he finally got to go home, he had a good chunk of money saved and decided to end his military service altogether and bought a newer truck – a turquoise 1998 3-axle Freightliner Century Class with a big standup sleeper. The truck was an old Gordon Trucking unit, and it had been very well taken care of. Powered by a 370-hp M11 Cummins engine (turned up to 400 hp) hooked to a 10-speed, this truck turned out to be a great rig for Ruben. Unfortunately, he sold his Freightliner cabover back then, and now kind of regrets doing that.
Sub-hauling for a company called Konan Express out of Woodland, CA, Ruben pulled their vans and flatbeds for five years (2002 to 2007), running mostly in California. Wanting to stay a little closer to home, in 2007 Ruben switched to Access Transport and began pulling their flatbeds locally. Still driving that same Century Class Freightliner, Ruben did this for three years and then got tired of pulling other people’s trailers. In 2010 he bought his first trailer – a 1998 Transcraft spread-axle 48’ flatbed. At this point, he went looking for his own loads, and found a run that took him from Northern to Southern California a few times a week. Working hard, he eventually found some consistent hauls out of Los Angeles back north, and to this day, these are the hauls he still does.
In May of 2013, needing to be compliant with the CARB regulations, Ruben sold his trusty Freightliner and bought a 2011 Peterbilt 386 (the one you see featured here). It was just a plain truck out of a fleet in Tennessee, but that Viper Red paint really caught Ruben’s eye. He also liked the fact that it was something a little different from the typical long-nose Peterbilts out there. He imagined building it into something really cool, but few understood or supported his vision. In fact, many mocked him! But like I told him during our interview, “You got the cover and they didn’t, so who won that disagreement?”
We here at 10-4 Magazine love the classics, but we are always looking for unique, rare, or just different trucks to feature. It is not often you find such a slick aerodynamic rig, but this one definitely is. Powered by a 450-hp Cummins ISX hooked to a 13-speed, this truck also has 3:33 rears (not a ratio you hear very often). With a 252” wheelbase and a 70” mid-roof sleeper, the truck was purchased off a lot in Fontana, CA. Originally equipped with just one stack behind the sleeper, a large roof fairing and a few too many extra chrome pieces, the bright red truck was clean but not very cool. After entering his first show in Stockton, CA in 2014 (the Peterbilt 75th Anniversary event) and getting inspired and excited, Ruben went to work on his 386.
Over the next several years, little by little, Ruben did a lot of work to the exterior of the truck. Today, it has no roof fairing and boasts a Valley Chrome bumper with plenty of extra lights, a painted visor, window chops and rear Hogebuilt half fenders, seven bullet-style cab lights, weed burner exhaust underneath, and a set of 7” Dynaflex dummy pipes going up each side. The guys at Arroyo Custom Rigs in Merced, CA bagged the front and added dump valves, and a polished stainless deck plate from ATA was installed. Up front, an oval-hole punched grill from RoadWorks was added, along with an “Angry Rubber Duck” hood ornament (from the movie Convoy) and United Pacific projector headlights. To finish it off, the truck was striped with silver leaf, which has been partially sprayed over with a candy red, fading from red to silver leaf, from front to back, and then the entire truck was covered with pinstripes by Jake Blancas out of Fresno, CA.
Under the hood, the nearly stock Cummins ISX has had a few embellishments done to it. At some point, Ruben removed the fuel rail lines and polished them, added polished stainless air intake tubing from Dynaflex, and had custom King shocks, done in red anodized and chrome, made for the front suspension and the sleeper. Ruben mounted the suspension shocks upside down, and claims the ride got a lot better by doing this. Other than that, not much has been done under the hood, but this truck is no “show” truck – it works every day – so it only makes sense to do so much under there. However, the interior is a completely different story.
Last year, during the 4th of July weekend, Ruben shut down for a week and completely redid his entire cab and sleeper interior. Tearing everything out, he took his seats and all the door panels and headliner pieces to Angel’s Custom Interiors in South Gate, CA and had everything reupholstered in black leather with double red stitching. While that was being done, Ruben and his brother Mario, along with a few of Ruben’s kids, sanded all the plastic interior pieces smooth and painted them red. The floor was already covered with strips of an exotic hardwood called Tigerwood, so that was good, but they also added a polished billet steering wheel from United Pacific, billet pedals, and painted the dash panels black with silver leaf accents.
In addition to several watermelon lights inside that can be white or red, a unique lighting scheme was done to the ceiling of the cab and sleeper. Using a fiber-optic lighting system, which is basically a single light source that looks like a flashlight with several “threads” coming out of it, the ends of these light strands were then pushed through tiny holes in the headliner – hundreds of them – and they can be fully controlled. Ruben can change the color or the pattern of the lights at the flick of a switch, which look like a starry sky at night when just lit up with white.
No interior would be complete without a booming sound system, and Ruben made sure to check that box, as well. The 3,000-watt stereo features a Pioneer head unit, several mid-range Infinity speakers, two amplifiers, and two Phoenix Gold sub-woofers under the bed in the sleeper. Once the interior was done, Ruben took the truck to Fresno, CA where Jake Blancas, once again, pinstriped everything inside, including the door panels, the side pillars, and the glove box. At night, with all the lights switched to red, and the ceiling lights set on white, it is quite a sight!
Calling Ruben to see if he would be up for doing a photo shoot in early 2020 for our cover, he was completely surprised. The last time I had seen the truck (at the Truckin’ For Kids show in Southern California in October 2019) it had a matching 1999 Transcraft flatbed hooked to it. Ruben told me that he had just sold that flatbed and bought a curtain van, but it wasn’t ready to be shot yet. He asked if he could have a month to get it ready and, of course, I agreed.
The new trailer, the one you see here in these pictures, is an all-aluminum 2018 MAC spread-axle flatbed with a lift axle and a Quick Draw tarping system. Complete with a stainless package and extra lights, Ruben worked the trailer all week and then worked on it every weekend, in his barnyard shop, until it was done. Painting the frame and undercarriage red, including the landing gear (except for the feet which he had those chrome plated), nose cone and rear end, he then switched out the stock round-hole wheels with Peterbilt-style ovals to match the tractor. He also added extra lights to the back, painted suspension covers over each axle (made by Cory at DC Trailer Service in Woodland, CA), and then, like always, had Jake Blancas of Fresno, CA pinstripe everything.
Once everything was finished, we were cleared for takeoff – well, for the photo shoot, at least. Driving up to Woodland to meet Ruben was the first time my wife and I had been out of the house in a few weeks since the “shelter in place” order had been imposed on everyone in California due to COVID-19. Being out on the road was kind of surreal. Admittedly, there were a lot of cars and trucks on the road, but a lot less than usual. Taking every necessary precaution we could, we got the shoot done with minimal contact and exposure, which meant a little less socializing than usual during (and after) the photo shoot, but we still had a good time.
When Ruben first formed his company, he envisioned it as an operation that all the family could be a part of, so he named it after his father and mother – Ruben and Estela – R & E Trucking. Although the family never joined him, the name still works, because his wife is named Eva (Ruben and Eva). This is Ruben’s third marriage and Eva’s second, so between the two of them and their previous relationships, they have eight children! Prior to marrying Eva, Ruben had four kids of his own – Ruben (24), Adrian (20), Jasmin (15) and Fabian (14). Prior to marrying Ruben, Eva had three kids of her own – Abrahm (30), Fernanda (25) and Erik (18). After the two got married in 2010, Ruben and Eva had their daughter Estella (6) together.
Although Ruben is a one-man show with just one truck and one trailer, he does not do it all alone. For this reason, he wanted to mention and thank a few people. His wife Eva, who is a dispatcher full-time at a local trucking company, helps Ruben with his billing and record-keeping. His brother Mario helps him a lot with the truck, specializing in paint, and several of his kids, especially Ruben, Adrian, Fabian and Estella, help wash and polish the combo on a regular basis. He also wanted to thank his “compadre” Salvador Ramirez and his son Alex for their help, United Pacific and Dynaflex for all their support, along with Rod at Zephyr. Last summer, Ruben became a proud product ambassador for their polishing products, and since then his truck has been featured in their catalog and on some product packaging, as well. Lastly, Ruben wanted to thank Ralph at Hot Rig Apparel for putting his truck on one of his cool t-shirts.
With no aspirations to replace his truck anytime soon or add any more to his company, Ruben says he will rebuild the truck if the engine eventually fails. So far, it has been a great truck, and he does not intend to buy another one, unless, for some reason, he must. When I asked him about his thoughts on trucking, he said, “It’s been an amazing adventure since day one.” For those people that didn’t believe in Ruben’s vision for this truck and tried to put him down, he nicknamed it “Big Red” just like the famous racehorse Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown back in 1973, and is regarded as one of the best racehorses of the 20th century, because not everyone believed in him, either.
Being recognized for his efforts makes Ruben feel good. He has always dreamed about being in 10-4 Magazine, but never thought it would happen. Typically getting his magazine at the 3Bs Truck Plaza in Lodi, CA, Ruben is excited to open that box and see his truck on the cover. And, quite frankly, his level of excitement and enthusiasm gets us excited, too. We appreciate our readers, and it makes us feel good that they appreciate us, as well. And, whether you work in a state-of-the-art shop or an old barn, Ruben’s story proves that hard work does pay off.