A very big rig truck pulls up in front of a very small Boonville store every Thursday morning about 11. The truck and trailer are a lot bigger than the store.
The driver of this multi-wheeled monster climbs down out of the cab and the boys across the street sipping coffee at the Redwood Drive-In's outside tables look at each other, and one of them inevitably says something like, "I wonder how a little ol' gal like that can handle a rig that big?"
Stella Bonnet, 47 looking like 25, and maybe 5' 2" on her tiptoes and 105 after a big meal, has heard that one more times than she can count, not that it bothers her because Stella Bonnet is one of those rare persons who is on task, a crisply efficient, ultra-capable lady who knows she can do it, whatever it happens to be.
"Oh, that," Stella Bonnet says dismissively of the "little old gal" assessment. "I have a variety of comebacks, but what I really do is try to be smarter than the machine. It just takes a lot of practice. That's how I handle it."
Stella Bonnet gets plenty of little ol' this and little ol' that because she and her mega-truck do present a seldom seen visual on Mendocino County's highways and bi-ways.
"I know, it's unusual," she concedes. "I know I'm a minority out here on the road, but that's part of the fun of it, too."
Long before Stella Bonnet was the Stella Bonnet we see at the wheel of the multi-wheeled beast today, she was 20 and living where she'd grown up in New York when, she says, "I met a singing cowboy."
Uh oh. The worst kind. The kind of cowboy who figures cowboy isn't alluring enough to corral an East Coast city girl. He's got to sing too.
"I was sure it was love," Stella says, mentioning that her husband, who is not a cowboy or a singer downsizes the singing cowboy who fetched his fetching Stella west to Willits as "a pig farmer with a guitar."
"Anyway," Stella says, "I thought I was in love, that he was cool."
The cow poke lived in the hills outside of town among people who tended to prefer life outside the law, as many Mendo settlers before and since have also preferred life. Turns out the cowboy was more bookish than rawhide-ish. He worked for the famous Dick Kollin at Kollin's little publishing house called Oliver House, best known for its how-to books, especially its how-to grow herbs books. Stella's mom had a book store back in the Biggest City on the East Coast and Stella "thought mom would like that fact I was with book people."
Her dad, Stella says, "was more of an armagnac man" who certainly would have appreciated "the squeezin's" from Oliver House's how-to make moonshine book while Stella's mom shelved the moonshine manual "between the DiPrima and the Defoe" back in NYC.
"But," the big rig pilot says in a brisk tone of voice, "time marched on, and I lost interest in the cowboy's pigs and the drunken singers," perhaps because they had become indistinguishable although Stella's too diplomatic to say so.
Once free of outback entanglements, Stella Bonnet proceeded to become co-owner of a welding and fabricating shop. Ah ha, you think. Of course. Work a truly capable person like this one would be drawn to.
This venture did quite well until the male half of it grew morose and "ornery," driving the smarter, hardest-working half out of the business, and driving Mendocino Wood Furnaces into its final extinguishing flames.
Having always been mysteriously drawn to the teamster life, Stella was all set to drive truck — a small truck — for a Covelo outfit whose almost business was almost hauling supplies from the Bay Area to Round Valley. The almost job disappeared before it almost began, but love of the rare, lasting type magically appeared, filling the void left by the vanished Almost Trucking of Covelo.
Stella has been married to Jay Bonnet for many years now and, when she isn't wheeling her big rig here, there and everywhere, she's at home in Willits with Jay, their daughter Jenni, 15, and their son Luke, 12. Nearby is Stella's mom who has also forsaken New York for Ecotopia, and Stella's sister and her husband. Jay's mom lives just a double clutch down the road in Healdsburg. We're talking happy family here.
"The big rigs always intrigued me," Stella explains, as she bites into a Boont Berry sandwich. "I always wanted to try it. The kids were getting old enough not to need me at home all the time, I wanted to go back to work and, as it happened, the man delivering to the buying club I belonged to was retiring so...."
So after a year practicing on the big rig owned by a Willits friend and tagging along with other drivers, "watching them and paying close attention" Stella says, I went down to Ukiah, took the test, got my license and went to work for Mountain People's Warehouse, hauling to and from Mendocino, Humboldt and Sonoma counties."
Well, not directly. There was the little ol' gal stereotype to hurdle first.
"The man doing the hiring at Mountain People’s took one look at me and said, 'Nah, I don't think so.' But the guy I was replacing lobbied for me, told them he'd personally vouch for me and I've been with them for 8 years now. There was one other woman driver when I got hired, now we've got 6 out of 114. I love this job! I get a good physical workout, meet lots of nice people, and I'm hauling quality products."
Stella says learning to drive a great big truck "is like first driving a Volkswagon Beetle, then a station wagon, then a pick-up truck, then a long flat bed and becoming more comfortable as each vehicle gets bigger."
The big rig Stella has been driving to Boonville and points west each week for some time now is a 1998 International with a ten speed transmission. Inside its comfortable cab, 8 feet up over the road, Stella sits in an adjustable driver's sit behind an adjustable steering wheel, unperplexed in front of an array of gauges that seem more appropriate to a Boeing Air Bus than an earth bound vehicle. Behind her is an intimidating — at least to most people — 45-foot trailer ("just about the max for these roads — anything longer you couldn't make some of the curves") with its own walk-in freezer and a carefully loaded miscellaneous cargo of everything from fresh produce to shampoo to dog food, candles, to frozen tofu burgers.
The Stella Bonnet path to health and happiness is clearly not for everyone. "This is how it works," Stella begins. "There are two drivers for this truck. We both live in Willits. We cover 5 days a week in Mendocino, Humboldt and Sonoma counties. I go over to Auburn on Wednesday nights. Check my paper work. Talk to the loaders, check out my equipment. A friend of mine who works in the warehouse all night lets me go to her house to spend the night, a very short night. I get up between two and two-thirty Thursday mornings to check my load and drive over here to Ukiah."
Auburn is above Sacramento, translating as a four-hour drive to Ukiah before Stella makes her first delivery.
"From Auburn I head down 80 then over 20 through Lake County," Stella says in a no-big-deal voice. "It's a beautiful drive, and I like to drive. It’s also good thinking time. You don’t have to talk to anybody."
But getting from Auburn to Ukiah is only about a quarter or so of the weekly itinerary.
"I work Thursday and Friday, spending both those nights at home in Willits. By Friday night I'm empty. But we buy a lot of products from manufacturers in the Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Petaluma areas. I fill up with stuff in Sonoma County to back-haul to our Auburn warehouse. When I'm back in Auburn, I again go to my friend’s house and go to sleep. Saturday morning, very early, I bring a fresh load over to Ukiah. The other Willits driver meets me with my car. We trade vehicles. I drive his car home, he takes truck for the next three days — Saturday, Sunday and Monday. He drives the truck back to Auburn and drives back to Willits in the commuter car we own together. I drive the commuter car to Auburn Wednesday night and do it all over again."
And once Stella's behind the wheel of her 45-foot Mountain People's rig, well, there's a whole world out there on the road, some of it menacing, some of it downright terrifying.
"About six years ago I was driving from Petaluma to Union City. I was still fairly new on the job and it was five lanes of traffic in one direction. It was late winter. I looked down to the driver on my left and noticed that all he had on was red high-top sneakers, and I’m sure they had hearts on them. I’ll never forget the date: it was Valentine’s Day.
"I'm trying not to laugh at the guy. I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of my attention. I’m biting the inside of my cheek and thinking sad thoughts so I’m not acknowledging him. And he passes on. All of a sudden the clouds evaporated, the sunlight came streaming down, the pavement began steaming, thick Fellini-like fog appeared, visibility dropped to nil. Cars and trucks slowed way down. It got very warm and I rolled down my windows. Then I heard it: THUD. BOOF. CRUNCH. It was a multi-car and truck pile-up. Amazingly, my lane went unscathed. Cars to the left and cars to the right were at a standstill. There were no injuries, only aggravated people who had crunched into one another. There were enough witnesses so I didn't have to stick around. We got moving along at a nice pace. The sun was out. All was well, and there he was! The emperor with his new clothes in the slow lane, driving to his destination, red high-tops and a grin. That was scary."
(The dedication of this country's perverts is downright inspiring!)
More prosaically, Stella Bonnet not only has to drive the truck, she's got to make sure it can be safely driven. She constantly checks the air pressure in its many tires and adjusts its brakes herself. Those are tasks any dunce can master, but then Stella casually tells a couple of stories that reveal her as a kind of genius of mechanical improvisation.
"One winter day, down past Navarro," Stella remembers, "a little Subaru had slid off into a ditch. Nobody was out on the road. We have rolls and rolls of shrink wrap we wrap our pallets with so goods don’t jiggle off. The shrink wrap is about 18 inches wide and very strong. I rolled out about 20 feet of it, quadrupled it, twisted it, made it into a tow rope, tied it onto the frame of the Subaru, pulled slowly forward in my granny gear and was able to pull the car out of the ditch. With shrink wrap."
Shrink wrap. Who would have thought of that?
"Another time," Stella begins a second shrink wrap adventure, "I was going from Fort Bragg to Willits when I saw friend dead in a turnout. His throttle linkage had broken. Shrink wrap to the rescue! I twisted and twisted it to make it really small, hooked it through the linkage and he made it back home to Willits."
And there are the moments of pure terror.
"I've had tires blow out going up Highway One with a Winnebago coming down hill on a tight part and me having to suck the bank. My trailer tires are gouged by a rock and they blow out."
And the times that Stella Bonnet files away in a special little memory file of its own.
"One of my fondest memories, though, of my whole driving career, was the time my kids came with me one Mother's Day. Mother’s Day is always on a Sunday. I had to work weekends then. My truck had a sleeper, and they were playing in the sleeper and having a grand old time. We pulled into Mendocino early Sunday morning in front of one of the small cafes there. A cook saw us pull up and that I had my kids with me. By the time I got my delivery to the front door, he had laid a Mother’s Day breakfast out on a table with flowers and a wonderful meal for the three of us!"
And there's the mundane part of the job, the infuriatingly mundane.
"As truck drivers, we have an incredible amount of paperwork. The Department of Transportation and my company require numerous daily records. Sometimes I answer my truck phone saying, 'This is Stella Bonnet’s private secretary. She is in the employee lounge. May I help you?'"
There are estimated-time-of-arrival forms, pre-trip inspections, post-trip inspections in triplicate…
Stella sighs. "In my log book I state how many miles I drive, where I was every minute of the day and for how long. I record how much fuel goes in the truck and how much goes in the separate refrigerator tank. For the company, I have invoices for each business I deliver to, and a lot of detail to record about each of those stops."
Out on the open road, there is no paper chase but lots of impatient people in much smaller vehicles.
"Yes," Stella admits, "there are drivers who get angry with me. But for all the people who feel like I’m cutting them off when I pull into an intersection or out onto 128, I’ve already been waiting for 10 or 15 cars. If there’s the slightest gap, I need to go! And it takes me seven gear shifts to even get to 35 miles per hour."
There are lots of compensations, Stella hastens to say. Besides the pay and daily adventures of the road, there's food.
"One of the best parts of my job is going into the kitchens of some of our fine eateries. I’d much rather go in a back or side door and relate to the workers than go into a restaurant as a customer through the front door. I’ve had my knuckles smacked with a wooden spoon more than once for sneaking tastes from the bowl. At 7 in the morning on a Sunday, there’s nothing more satisfying than a freshly-baked huckleberry muffin from the ovens of Zack and Tomas at the Cafe Beaujolais bakery in Mendocino. Jacqui at the Garden Bakery in Ukiah makes some of the finest cakes and pastries in the county. Right here in Boonville the creative cooks at Boont Berry serve some of the best healthy food and chicken salad."
Stella Bonnet says she's likely to be out there in that great big International for another "5 or 6 years, but I'd be lyin' if I said I never want to retire."
Knowing that a person as calm, as clever, as sane as Stella Bonnet is behind the wheel of that village-size vehicle in one's rear vision mirror is, well, reassuring. Encouraging even.