Zibby is joined by professor and author Amy Butcher to talk about her book, Mothertrucker, and the story of how she found herself in an eighteen-wheeler in Alaska with a woman named Joy who she met on Instagram. Amy and Zibby discuss the domestic violence situation that inspired Amy to make a change in her life, how Joy and Amy forged a deep connection despite so many differences, and what Amy did to honor Joy’s memory after her passing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mothertrucker: Finding Joy on the Loneliest Road in America.

Amy Butcher: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Zibby: From the first minute when I read the title of this, I was like, oh, I’m going to love that book. There was just something about it. Now that I’ve read it, there are so many meanings. There’s so many meanings for your subtitle and what that lonely road is. It’s so poignant. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about the book, how you found joy in more ways than one?

Amy: Absolutely. This book really began for me in 2018. I am a college professor in Central Ohio. I write a lot of essays around women’s issues and feminism, among other things. In my own home, I was experiencing a partnership with a man that — at the time, I wasn’t using the language that I should’ve been. I was using sort of codified language that it was an unhealthy relationship, a little toxic. I was dealing with this private situation. One night, I found on Instagram, using the explore feature, this account, @alaskamothertrucker. I had been traveling a little bit in Alaska, Southeastern Alaska, teaching at an arts camp in Sitka, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. I had a little bit of knowledge about Alaska. Essentially, what I found is that Joy was the nation’s only big rig driver on the James W. Dalton Highway, which I knew remarkably little about. Her photos were of this massive, blue eighteen-wheeler, these snowcapped roads. The more that I began to research what the James W. Dalton Highway was and what it was that this woman, @alaskamothertrucker — her real name was Joy Ruth Wiebe. What she did was drive structural materials and creature comforts and food 413 miles up the James W. Dalton Highway, which is known as the loneliest road in America, the most isolated road in America, and also the deadliest road in America. It is this road that is primarily gravel in many places, one way, that extends from Fairbanks, Alaska, all the way up to the industrial complex of Deadhorse, it’s called, and the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.

Joy was the only woman to be doing this drive in an eighteen-wheeler in this male-dominated industry, in this male-dominated landscape. She was this petite, funny, oftentimes sort of vegan woman, and just the anthesis of anything that I imagined up there. I was absolutely captivated by her. I was captivated by, I think in the way that so many of us are when we see someone on social media, this life that she seemed to command fearlessly, and again, just working this job that is incredibly demanding on the body but also commanding on the psyche, on her mind, the risks that she faced doing this drive two to three times weekly. I really became fanatical about following her, about learning more about her life, and ultimately reached out to her. As a writer, I’m always looking for an interesting story. Most of the time, you ask someone, hey, can I fly across the country to spend some time with you and write about you? It’s an easy no. It’s a laugh. Instead, Joy kind of chuckled. She said, “Sure. When do you want to come up?” Within two weeks, I landed in Fairbanks, Alaska, at four AM. By noon, she was picking me up and we were setting off together. Ultimately, the story really is about our friendship. As you have highlighted, there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s also about what it means to be a woman in America and these dynamic situations that they place their bodies in every day in pursuit of a life well-lived and a life that is lived in a way that is safe and free.

Zibby: That was an amazing description. One heartbreaking/ironic/memorable moment in the book was when your parents, naturally, were worried when you decide to go off on this adventure to Alaska. No cell service. What if something happens? How would they be in touch? How would they know? What if something happened? Your response in your head was, something bad had been happening to me all the time, and they didn’t know. This was my escape. I just keep thinking about that, what our loved ones fear, what they don’t know. How do you balance when something terrible is happening to you? How much do you tell? What if it happens slowly? This whole thing, tell me a little bit about that.

Amy: Thank you. That’s such a smart observation. The more research that I did hoping that I could relieve some of these fears — to tell one’s family, hey, I’m embarking on this trip across the country to meet, essentially, what is a stranger from the internet and then to take off in her truck up the deadliest highway in America where, as you said, there is no cell service — there is no Wi-Fi. There are no police. There are no rest stops. There are two separate little camps along the way where one can stop and get a meal and check the weather. Other than that, you’re on your own. There’s not even, in most places, shoulders or guardrails. This is a road that is incredibly treacherous not only for those conditions, but also everything that is exacerbated by the weather; obviously, avalanche and snow and blizzards and ice. As we find out in the book, even in spring and summer, the fog and the water, the rain, the flooding is really risky as well. The more information I tried to find on the Dalton Highway, the more dangers presented themselves. This was something that everyone was really concerned about.

I think in general, it speaks to this larger idea that the outside world is ultimately a lot more dangerous for women. That’s certainly true. We certainly understand that women face . What was really difficult for me is that there was this abundance of concern about the risk that I was facing by putting my body out in the world, and here I was in this relationship. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to confide in others that this partner that I had been with, at that point for several years, his behavior was escalating in such a way that he was physically backing me into corners, physically intimidating me, screaming and yelling at me until I’m on the floor sort of cowering protecting my head. There’s one moment that I write about in the book where we took our first road trip out West. We were camping in Mesa Verde. It was our first night. I was elated to be on this trip with him. All of a sudden, he slipped into this rage. We moved from the bonfire into our tent. I lay awake that entire night. He was screaming at me and then finally exhausted himself and fell asleep. I just kept thinking, I am going to die out here. I am going to die in this tent with this man that I love.

I did not know how to talk about that. I come from a background in which I have not personally witnessed violence in the home in this way. I use physical intimidation and I use verbal abuse as a form of violence. I knew remarkably little about domestic violence. In my head, as an educated thirty-year-old woman who considered herself a feminist, I thought that domestic violence, that abuse really only warranted that term if it was — I talk about this hierarchy. Because he was not outright hitting me, I didn’t have the right to be afraid or to be concerned about my safety. That felt frivolous or melodramatic. I was in this relationship with this man who — I talk about this in the book. He was a teacher of young people. He was a lover of the arts. He was really the brightest and the sweetest person in any given room. Yet within the confines of our own home, I felt absolutely terrified by this behavior that was escalating. Our culture does not talk about this. It doesn’t talk about the way that domestic violence so often builds in this way. I think in the last few months, there’s a lot of renewed interest. I’m thinking specifically surrounding the murder of Gabby Petito. I’m thinking of specifically the incredible series, Maid, the adaptation of Stephanie Land’s book.

Zibby: That was so good.

Amy: Which does such amazing and intricate work in exploring the nuance of these social systems that ultimately failed her. Also, what I so love about that work is the way in which she evidences this is a fist against the wall. This is a building of behavior that doesn’t immediately strike so many of us as domestic violence but is. Ultimately, it was this paradox of, I’m doing this thing that everyone is so concerned about my safety, but really — the research backs this up. Women are at greatest risk in their own spaces, in their homes with partners. That was certainly what I was experiencing and really had no way of addressing it or even calling it, again, what it really is.

Zibby: What you ended up doing was the ultimate escape, to go from cowering in the corner to basically flinging yourself into the universe and driving on this desolate road. It’s so perfect, really. It’s almost like fiction. It’s just perfect. Then as you point out in the book — then of course, I went on this big Instagram deep dive into Joy’s account and you and you finding out. Oh, my gosh. Then it was so tragic that — so you become BFFs with Joy immediately. She’s so nice and welcomes you there. She’s so open to this. You’re so open. You have this whole amazing relationship. Talk about what happened then.

Amy: We did this trip. This was April of 2018. It sounds insane to say that I flew across the country and suddenly, I am so close to this woman. There’s something about the nature of being in an intimate space with another woman. The Dalton Highway is, again, this really treacherous road. Joy had warned me that it would take us fourteen to sixteen hours at minimum if we hit ideal weather to do the drive up to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and the industrial complex of Deadhorse and warned me, if we hit anything, if we hit fog or rain or snow or ice or a blizzard, which we did, it can take us days. The road just shuts down. There is not the infrastructure up there or the support to adequately clear the road. I didn’t know what to expect. You’re right. In many ways, it made both of us so incredibly open to the experience and to getting to know each other. I did an interview a few months ago in which a woman kind of laughed about — Susan Orlean, the wonderful writer, has this quote about, if you really want to get to know someone, put them in a car. I had never heard that before, but it was so true. There’s just this openness. The landscape is beautiful, but you’re looking at it for fourteen, sixteen hours. Our conversation began around, what is it like to drive this road? What is it like to be the only woman performing in this way, working this job that is otherwise male-dominated? Ultimately, the conversation came down to what it means to be a strong woman and what our society sort of holds up as a symbol of strength.

For Joy, she began to talk about — she loved the highway. She was deeply religious. She believed that she felt closer to God up there. Everything else kind of was drowned out. She could just feel very close to that God. That wasn’t something that I necessarily shared, but it was such a beautiful, pristine environment that it was hard not to feel that. She was very convicted that we had been brought together on purpose. She kept saying — it really was a refrain of our trip. “God brought you to me. God brought you to me. We are soul sisters. You’re going to tell my story.” Again, the whole thing, you say it felt like fiction; it felt like I stepped into a story in which I was a character. There was something much larger happening there. As someone who is a little wishy-washy with faith and has a complicated history, I would lie if I said that I didn’t also feel there was something profound that was being orchestrated in some way. I was a part of something with Joy. She began to open up about, not only did this road make her feel close to her God, but also, it provided a financial means to support herself and her dependent daughter.

As a writer and as a woman, I think I understand what was being said there. The more that I began to ask about that, the more it became clear that Joy had also had a long and complicated relationship throughout her life with not one, but two husbands who were abusive. She had left this first husband because they had two sons and she did not want these boys to be brought up in a home in which they saw that this is what it meant to be a man and to treat a woman in this way. The job, in many ways, became something of necessity. As she said, “I make more driving this highway than I could ever make in Fairbanks in an office job.” In a lot of ways, I think the job was both. It was this way to feel close to God and to feel separate from men, and it was this way to provide for herself and her child should she need to leave her second husband who had also had a history of abuse. I think because that conversation was sort of a foothold, I was then able to explore, again, to this person who really owed me nothing, I began to explore what I was experiencing and to talk about it with her. Joy was really fiercely protective. She said, “You are me twenty years removed. I know what you’re doing. I know that you think that you can ride this out and you can endure this and it will get better. It doesn’t. It does not.” It really shook me because, again, this was someone who owed me nothing and who knew so little about my life beyond what I had told her. In that way, I think I was able to be more open with her than anyone else who knew me or knew my partner.

I returned from that trip at the end of April. My partner and I separated. I am one of the very lucky women who was able to separate without violence, without further incident. I feel very aware of how rare and how privileged that is. The plan was to return in September or October of that year, so three months later, four months later. Instead, I saw on Instagram, no less, that Joy had passed away on that drive. She was coming home from a trip to Prudhoe Bay. It was summer. It was August, and so you would think that the roads are clearer than they would ever be in Northern Alaska. Unfortunately, there was such a thick fog that Joy drove her truck along the shoulder as she was told to do because you can’t see oncoming trucks and the road is so narrow in so many places. Instead, her tire bit into the tundra and flipped. She was killed instantly. I set out to write this book about this mothertrucker. I called it my empowered, funny, road-trip story with this incredible, dynamic woman from Instagram. It became a project that is much different, but I would also argue much more important in the sense that the book talks about these risks that women take every day to secure their safety and their well-being and that of their children. I think the fact that all of this happened just weeks before I was set to return also speaks to volumes to, again, this idea about safety and about what we do to provide for ourselves and our loved ones.

Zibby: Like you said, I think it’s hard not to feel like there was some sort of fate at work. You find this woman. You sit with her. Her story needs to be told. Then as you’re transcribing, it ends. Her life ends. You were in exactly the right place. There’s something about it that just was — whatever your religion — it’s not religion. I don’t know. I’m so glad you got to know her. Now all of us get to know her. She’s a role model in ways. She’s a warning in ways. She’s flawed. It’s also instructive for the reader. It moves us. Then to combine your story with her story too, it’s hard not to read it and then take a beat just to rethink the way so many people are living, how you get through abuse, independence, what it even means. Then of course, it all just ends, but there she was looking at that — her last picture that she posted was so heavenly, I don’t even know how else to say, with that sunset, right?

Amy: It was the sunset. It was the sun setting on Artic Alaska.

Zibby: It’s just amazing.

Amy: It was something that she pulled over and snapped just an hour before she died. I also think grounding this in the context of 2018 — you could say the same thing, obviously, about now. Joy and I were so very different on so many levels, not only faith, but also politically. We had radically different ideas about ideology, about where our nation should be and who should be leading it. There were so many things that I think in any other situation, we would have very little in common. Yet I think it was really important for me both as an individual and a woman but also a writer to explore that this is this speak and so many women speak and so many women speak and are not able to voice aloud. One of the things I was really cognizant of in trying to write about was that at the end of the day, Joy and I are two white women. We are rumbling around in this truck on this built-up industrious road through a state that has, consistently, one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. It’s largely perpetuated against indigenous women and women of color. Also, trying to grapple with that, with the privilege that is being able to sit in this truck and talk with this woman openly and even be believed when finally I tell someone what I’m experiencing is something that for me as an educator and someone who works with women specifically here at a college in Ohio, I’m just very aware of how even credibility is, in many ways, a currency and a power that I have that so many women do not have. To the extent that it’s possible, I really wanted this book to examine all of those complex issues and absolutely be something that people, regardless of what it is you believe in any capacity, can see some aspect of yourself or a loved one in.

Zibby: How did you then regroup after this whole thing? What happened when you found out about Joy? What were the next steps? How did you get back into life and regroup and trust again? How do you rebuild, essentially?

Amy: As a writer, I’m always aware when I’m saying something that sounds scripted, but I really mean it when I say that I honestly believe that Joy saved my life. I think had I not met someone and been able to confide openly in what I was experiencing and the way in which it was escalating — Joy looked at me quite frankly and says, “It does not get better. It only gets worse. You’re sticking it out because you see how loving this man can be. You see the moments of tenderness and kindness. You see the fact that he’s grappling with his own behavior. At the end of the day, you are still afraid in your own home. You are being made to feel small and weak and feeble, and you’re none of those things.” I don’t know how to deal with the fact that I met Joy, she told me these things, it caused me to abruptly change the path of my life, and then she died. For a while, I did not know how to proceed with this book. In terms of my day-to-day, I knew instantly I had to fly back to Alaska. I had planned to, as I mentioned, go up in September/October and do the drive with her again. As a writer, you want to spend as much time with your subject as possible. I wanted to see the road in a different environment.

We had been calling and texting almost daily, certainly weekly, in the months between April and her death in August. I had planned to go back in September. Instead, there I am on a plane at the end of August going to attend her funeral. It was devastating. It was crushing. I also was able, however, in those moments to meet other women that she had inspired and helped. I was by no means an exception to the rule. Joy really was this kind, open, helpful, generous person with everyone she met. I was able to forge this incredible friendship with her best friend from childhood. The stories that I was told even then — Joy is bending paperclips to make a retainer for her friend because her friend’s parents couldn’t afford orthodontics. Joy is doing her best to help her friend. These stories, they’re cute, but they also speak to character and to who someone has been all along. While I was there for this funeral, I found out that there is something called a memorial trucking convoy. When someone who is a beloved part of the Dalton Highway dies on the Dalton Highway, the truckers that are available meet together in Fairbanks in a transport company parking lot and then proceed to drive up to the start of the Dalton Highway, specifically, this small town called Fox. That was a week later. I extended my trip. I stayed because I wanted to pay tribute to her in this way that everyone else that she worked with and loved was paying tribute to her.

I was lucky enough to be able to sneak my way onto a truck with another trucker and sit in an eighteen-wheeler as we drove up the highway to the start of the Dalton Highway. It was something like a hundred eighteen-wheelers creeping through Downtown Fairbanks with police and escort cars blocking off the road. All of Fairbanks was out on the side of the road in lawn chairs clapping and trying to get truckers to honk. It was just so utterly profound. I felt so grateful to get to be a part of that cultural moment, too, and what it means to Alaskans, what it means when someone dies on this road serving really what is ultimately all of America because she’s supporting the oil fields that keep America, in many ways, running. It was just profoundly powerful. Really, from that moment on, it has been my mission to help other women, to work to educate young women especially about what domestic violence looks like, and again, trying to as much as possible to move us away from this conversation where abuse is only physical, where it is only battering. This is a crushing thing to say, but there are so many ways to abuse another person. None of them are permissible. I think our society holds up this worst-case scenario. It is a worst-case, but there are so many things that happen so often before that. I really feel like it is my life’s work, and in Joy’s name, to do that work and help other women in the way that she helped me.

Zibby: How do you feel now? You’ve had this whole profound experience. Now your book is out. It’s going to be a movie, right? Isn’t it? How is that going?

Amy: Yeah. We’re a little caught up in COVID snags, but yeah. We had Julianne Moore sign on to play Joy, and Beanie Feldstein to play me, and Joey Soloway directing. It’s hard to say what’s going to come of it. I think it’s, in many ways, a risky project in the sense that it’s no Marvel movie that all of America will necessarily go see, but I think it’s a profoundly important story. Honestly, I feel really lucky. I have always felt — the first thing I said to my parents when Joy dropped me off back at the hotel in Fairbanks after our drive was, I said, “I am part of something. There is something at work here. I am just a messenger of some sort. I am just the scribe.” None of this has felt like something that I have been anything other than a witness to. Again, I think for someone who is not religious, it sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. The book came out November 1st. I have heard from hundreds of women and individuals who relate to some aspect of this story, who see some aspect of themselves or someone they care about in our story. I have received fan mail from a woman in her nineties who has never before written fan mail. I had another woman who has always wanted to buy a camper and travel on her own but has feared that and mostly, she wrote, feared the loneliness of traveling alone. She went out and finally did it and got this camper. There are so many ways to live boldly and bravely. There are so many ways to enact what Joy taught me. Ultimately, to have this network of individuals — to have any one reader who relates is enough. I have, in many ways, benefited from this chorus of voices saying, me too. I have been there. I have been in that relationship. I have stayed because it’s not as bad as it could be. I think this is what society wants for us, in ways, is to be partnered and to have this domestic life. That’s beautiful if that’s what you want, but I think ultimately, putting women’s bodies and women’s safety above all else, which is not something that I think we necessarily do.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Are you working on a new project? I’m going to read everything you write from now on.

Amy: I am an essayist at heart. I love essays. It’s been my lifelong dream to write an essay collection. I’m working on an essay collection, largely. I think writing about Joy has made me — the book is a strange little beast in the sense that it’s both memoir and sort of literary journalism, a profile of a really fantastic woman and even, in some ways, travel reportage. I’m currently working on an essay collection about other incredible women and about this idea of belief and the fact that it’s, in many ways, this currency that some of us are afforded and some of are not. That’s sort of what’s at play right now. Again, in many ways, I feel I will forever carry Joy with me. That feels like a profound gift.

Zibby: It’s amazing. We both are being published by Little A, by the way.

Amy: We are. I’m so excited for you. I did want to say, too, of course, I took a peek at the beautiful new website. It looks absolutely incredible. I’m so excited for you. Little A, it’s just been a dream team.

Zibby: Is Carmen your editor, or no?

Amy: Yes. I’ve worked with three in my time. It’s been so wonderful. They are just the most generous, whip-smart, supportive champions. I’m so excited for you. I have no doubt you’re going to have every bit of a wonderful experience as I have.

Zibby: Thank you. I love Carmen. She’s amazing. The whole thing has been great. I can’t wait for your essay collection. Thank you so much for sharing. I feel sort of privileged to be a part of this really important relationship and that it’s out in the world. I don’t know. I feel like everybody’s playing a role here in getting this story out to the people who need it. To be one little link on this chain is very nice.

Amy: I’m so grateful. A really important link. I’m so grateful to be a part of this and to be in such good company with all of the other guests that you have interviewed. To speak with you is just a dream. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Amy.



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