Author Amy Butcher’s book Mothertrucker was published on November 1. The memoir tells the story of Butcher’s road trip down one of America’s deadliest roads. KCAW spoke with Butcher about the book and her friendship with the late ice road trucker, Joy Wiebe.
It’s the spring of 2018, and writer Amy Butcher is riding shotgun in Joy Wiebe’s truck. Amy’s filming out the window from her phone. The road in front of them is dusted white with snow and mountains in the rear view mirror are likely closer than they appear.
“It’s like a postcard, no matter what,” you can hear Wiebe say to Butcher in the background.
“It’s gorgeous,” Butcher replies.
Butcher has a few videos like this from three years ago, when she got the ride of her life up Alaska’s infamous Dalton Highway, the narrow, lonely, 400-something mile road that truckers traverse to haul supplies and oil between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Butcher penned her trip into the newly published memoir Mothertrucker.
Butcher has taught writing at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp for ten summers.
“I began to use that particular trip each June and July, to springboard and, you know, go off after camp ended, and my teaching contract ended, to other parts of Alaska,” Butcher says. “In that process, I became really fascinated with Northern Alaska.”
Butcher says she was particularly interested in women’s stories and what it means to be a “strong woman” in America. That’s when she stumbled across the Instagram account of Joy Wiebe.
“Her Instagram handle was Alaska Mothertrucker, because her trucking handle that her her son helped give her was Mothertrucker,” Butcher says. “And basically what I learned was that she was the only female big rig driver on the James W. Dalton Highway.”
Butcher says that while there are countless women working in the industry, Joy was the only one driving an 18-wheeler hauling a fuel tanker on the dangerous highway — a job she did for 13 years.
“I became a little obsessed with her,” Butcher says. “Her life was so very different from the life that I live on a normal basis in Ohio, the landscape obviously was incredibly beautiful. And I just had this feeling, in many ways, that she had something to teach me and that traveling to this part of Alaska and riding with her and profiling her would just be endlessly fascinating.”
She reached out to Wiebe on Instagram, not expecting much in response. Instead, she got an invitation to take a ride.
“Joy was, to everyone that I have spoken with, remarkably generous and open-minded,” Butcher says. “And I remember she sort of laughed, and then she said, ‘Sure, come on up!’ So two weeks later, actually, I flew up to Fairbanks, met her in a hotel parking lot. And I went to church with her.”
Wiebe told Butcher the journey would take around 15 hours if the weather was good. Wiebe was suffering from an injury, and her doctor hadn’t cleared her to drive her big rig yet. So they hit the highway in her pickup truck instead. It’s a slow drive, the road is considered one of the deadliest, most isolated in America, and it’s about 75 percent gravel. Butcher says that was part of the draw for her as a writer.
“I’m thinking why in the world would you do this? Why would you subject yourself to this sort of outrageous danger two to three times a week, and the fact that she was the only woman to be doing this? I mean, all the more. She was incredibly petite,” Butcher says. “I couldn’t imagine…the job is so physically demanding. Not only because you’re you’re sitting for long stretches of time, but you’re responsible for tying down the loads, and maneuvering the snow tires and everything else.”
Butcher spent hours and hours in the cab with Wiebe…with nothing to do but drive and talk, and she learned that the two women had more in common than she anticipated.
“She was an Alaskan trucker, and a mom, and a wife and a friend and a devout Seventh Day Adventist,” Butcher says. “When I started, I couldn’t see anything that I might have to contribute. What came of our conversations in the truck, however, was that Joy had been a victim of domestic violence and intimate partner violence in both her first and her second marriage.”
Back in Ohio, Butcher was privately struggling in an abusive relationship at the time.
“My partner’s behavior was escalating in ways that really frightened me, and I didn’t know what to do,” Butcher says. “And unfortunately, that was something that Joy had ample experience with.”
For Wiebe, the truck was a lifeline, a financial security net, should she need to leave an abusive marriage.
“She said, ‘People see me, and they see that I’m a strong woman, and I handle my own with this truck and elsewhere. But there are things that made me the way that I am,'” Butcher recalls. “And she was speaking specifically to these relationships, which, again, she wanted these to be a part of the book, because for her, she said, ‘You know, I’m not all strength. And there’s also reasons I have to be strong.'”
Butcher says when she set out to write the book, she had no idea how frequent intimate partner violence is in America, but the statistics are staggering.
“One in four women in America will be victims to severe intimate partner violence, and one in nine men. And the numbers are incredibly high for LGBTQ individuals and trans individuals in particular,” Butcher says. “So it’s really been eye opening, but also absolutely devastating to learn how epidemic this is, and how little we really talk about it.”
“In my research, I read about the really high rates of domestic violence in in Alaska, specifically, among other places. And the fact that, again, the vast majority of these cases are committed against Indigenous women who very rarely ever see justice,” Butcher says. “So that was really at the forefront, and grappling with that openly, really, was a vital part of the book for me, and it’s a fine line, how do you talk about these issues without in any way appropriating or exploiting. But for me, it was so important to acknowledge and to talk about the fact that, again, I had countless resources and Joy had countless resources that other women do not have.”
It’s an intimate experience, sharing the cab of a pickup truck for that many hours, and Butcher and Wiebe became fast friends. Butcher left the Dalton Highway with the intention to come back several months later to do a ride-along in the 18-wheeler. But a month before her return trip, Wiebe died in a trucking accident.
“It really is hard to talk about how close I got to her over the span of a week. I know it sounds insane, but to spend that much intimate time with someone, and to have these really intense conversations, and also to be traveling this landscape that is so deadly that so many people do die on,” Butcher says, “I think you’re just really aware of the precarity of life. And the conversations that we were having, too, were just a constant reminder of how fragile everything is.”
Butcher says from the moment she reached out on Instagram, Wiebe believed God brought them together, which was always a little hard for Butcher to grok as an atheist.
“She really believed that she was closer to God when she was driving this highway, because it was so empty and she was so removed from everything else, you know, civilization,” Butcher says. “And she kept saying, “I believe God brought you to me. God wants you to tell my story.”
But in retrospect, Butcher can’t help but think something greater was at play that cemented the bond between the two women. Butcher and her partner parted ways shortly after her trip to Alaska. She credits one of her last conversations with Wiebe largely with helping her make that decision.
“And I owe her everything. I owe her everything, because she really strongly believed that I was meant to tell the story. And ultimately, I feel that what she told me, and the way in which she could tell me very frankly, ‘This, from experience, this doesn’t get better.’ I strongly believe she saved my life,” Butcher says.
“It’s been very strange, I think, especially for someone who identifies predominantly as an atheist, or as an agnostic, to have someone tell you this,” Butcher continues. “To me, there was something there that happened that I don’t know how to explain. And the book is, I think, largely sort of proof of that.”