It’s funny sometimes how you can have some mutual friends, and then circumstances happen and you get to meet one, and right away it seems like you’ve been friends for many years. This is the case when our dear friend Cathy Sherman made sure it was okay for her to give us Gary Straight’s phone number, as I wanted to do this story about him. Sometimes, as much as we might hate to admit it, Facebook isn’t all bad, because that is how I learned about Gary. Back in the day, we had to rely on luck and the CB to meet friends. Cathy has said for years, “Our neighborhood is 3,000 miles wide” – and she is right.
During our initial conversation with Gary, we all hoped that we could meet up one day soon. I didn’t think it would be just a few days later that it would work out that we could have lunch at the Stretch Truck Stop in Fond du Lac, WI, but that is how it worked out. He was on his way to pick up a car, and we were able to meet. For years I’ve said, “If you have trucked for a day, you have at least one story.” Well, Gary has trucked for about 45 years, and thus, he has lots and lots of stories. I enjoyed the conversation we had about how he got started in the business, the good old days, and other truckin’ stuff.
Scrolling through his wall on Facebook, there are so many beautiful pictures, selfies with friends, and people he has met along the way. I was also intrigued by his “Straightisms” – for example, #279: “Bad decisions, good stories, interesting life.” When I asked him about these cleverly numbered thoughts, he told me that some just come to him during life at the time. Some are funny, some can be offensive to a few, some are thought provoking, and some are just a variety of truths.
Gary’s grandfather was a rancher in Colorado. During WWII, his dad met his mom, who was a Kentucky farmer’s daughter, at Mare Island. After he got out of the service, they eventually ended up in Florida, as far away from snow and cows as he could get. In Florida, Gary’s dad become a law enforcement officer. Gary worked his way through high school at a drug store, but he was always fascinated by the big trucks rolling by and wondered where they were going. As soon as he graduated high school, he got in his Jeep and left Florida, heading back to Colorado, where he enrolled at Colorado State University.
His experience at the pharmacy in Florida helped him get a job at the University Veterinary Hospital while he was in school. That was until his brother came along and told him he was not going to be a college boy, he was going to be a “man” and drive a truck! It ended up being the perfect choice, as the truck helped Gary satisfy his longing to roam. Now he knew where at least one truck was going, because he was piloting it! The business he was growing back then was called High Plains Enterprises.
Back then Gary still had a fantasy about owning a ranch and having a few cows. He messed around with team roping and riding bulls, but he ended up being a wannabe cowboy, at best. He never earned a dime with livestock. His first truck was a 1986 Peterbilt 359 Extended Hood flattop with CAT power and twin sticks. A few of his other trucks back then included a 1962 Peterbilt, a 1967 Freightliner, and a 1973 Peterbilt. Back then, he pulled flatbeds to haul lumber and tankers to transport many petroleum products, but mostly hot road oil.
The trucks were running when he decided to pursue another passion. A self-taught photographer, Gary opened a studio, and that lasted for a few years, before the call of the road was too much, and back in a truck he went. Which brings us to Straightism #297: “Driving a truck is like doing time in an 18-wheel prison. I’ve busted out before only to realize I can’t make it on the outside.” I think many of us can really relate!
Zelda was a 1953 Peterbilt that Gary converted into a toy hauler long before he drove her from Florida to Alaska. Gary wrote a book about this trip called “Straight From The Road: Adventures in Zeldathepete.” A couple of this truck’s other nicknames were Junk Yard Dog, because she had parts from 1949-1969 trucks, and another was the Rockabilly Peterbilt. Whatever you call her, she looks like a pretty cool old truck to me, and her story is forever told in the book with her name.
In 1998, Gary started pulling the freight he loves and still hauls to this day – classic cars, tractors, and trains. He bought his first car hauler trailer sight-unseen, and he hasn’t looked back. The truck he has today is named “Thelma” and she is the girl he had with him the day we had lunch. At home he has a T600 big bunk project truck, but he hasn’t had much time to work on this white rig. Most of the mechanicals have been taken care of, and now it’s time to think about what she’s going to look like. One thing he’s fairly certain about… it’s going to have a patriotic paint scheme. There are a few trucks and one train that have been his inspiration for this over the last couple years.
In 2016 Gary was diagnosed with throat cancer. He told me, “Anger will destroy you. I didn’t fight cancer, I just surrendered to it, and with that mindset and the treatments, I beat it!” He was by himself most of this time because he didn’t want anyone hovering over him. During this time, Facebook gave him an outlet, which he used to write and share his pictures. He had time and nothing else to do. His friends list grew to nearly 5,000 during this period. In 2018 he was deemed cancer free, and still is today. Straightism #398: “Doc says there is plenty of iron in my blood, only problem is that it’s rusting!”
It’s been a long and rocky road sometimes, but despite the curves, the hills, the downgrades, the rough and the smooth highways, a few potholes, and city streets turning to country roads, Gary has been down them all – but he keeps going straight down every road he travels, sharing his wisdom and enjoying the company of the people along the way. Straightism #300: “Your enemies might hurt you, but your anger will destroy you!” I think Straightism #288 sums it up pretty well: “Being satisfied comes from getting something you want. Being content comes from being thankful for what you have.”
Out here in our 3,000-mile-wide neighborhood, we all occasionally are forced to travel the rough roads. But, sometimes, those rough roads make us appreciate the times when we are sailing down the smooth Interstate of life. As we get older and put more miles behind us, the friendships we make along the way become more precious. Even on the tough days, try to make the miles good and the memories awesome, and relish those “straight roads” when you can… we know Gary Straight will.