When I call Steven on the phone, he's sailing down Route 60 hauling 20,000 pounds of Kleenex tissue in a weathered, bright red Freightliner Cascadia with more than 300,000 miles on the odometer. An endless expanse of Missouri farmland stretches out beyond his windshield. As a long-distance truck driver, Steven isn't your average 22-year-old, but he's not your average trucker, either. Beside him, the passenger seat has been replaced by a ruddy office chair with its back to the open road. A couple pieces of wood Steven screwed into the plastic molding of the cab hold it in place. Sitting on that makeshift desk is the one thing that keeps him sane: a gaming PC sporting a GTX 1080 and an i7 8700k. It's his portal to a world that, for nearly 300 days a year, Steven leaves behind.
"I just love it," he tells me. "While I'm driving I have to try hard to pay attention to the road because I just like to stare at it."
Two days ago, Steven decided to share his unique rig with Reddit. His post immediately went viral and became the most popular submission on Battlestations, a subreddit typically dominated by sleek $10,000 projects that make even the best home offices look like a cubicle in a Soviet government building. While the comments section filled with questions jokingly asking Steven if he plays American Truck Simulator or how he powers the damn thing, I wanted to know what makes a 22-year-old abandon his friends and family for the life of long-haul trucking, and how the hell a gaming PC became his trusty copilot.
American truck reality
On his 21st birthday, like the young protagonist of an RPG about blue collar America, Steven left for trucking school. "I really don't know," he says when I ask why he's currently hauling an entire town's worth of Kleenex 800 miles from Missouri to Oklahoma. "Honestly, I went into it with the idea of making a bunch of money over 20 years and getting out of it before it collapses or before I'm a 90 year old driving a truck. It's not permanent at all, I hope."
He then laughs. "I say that now, but I'll probably end up doing it forever."
As if he wasn't already a unicorn among truckers who are closer to retirement than they are puberty, Steven also leases his own truck from the company that employs him. It'll take years before he pays it off, but once he does he'll be a free agent with a 470 horsepower beast under him and a 600 watt one beside him. But right now, he's on a 'slide bracket'—running relatively short 800 mile trips at just $1.18 a mile. It's good money, but not great. He's on the road for nearly four weeks at a time and then home for four or five days. He wakes up at eight and drives for 10 hours every day.
But those two hours between 10 and midnight are happy hour, when Steven switches seats and plays games with his friends and family. "I strap on my Oculus Rift and I play Rec Room with my brother, my sister, and my sister-in-law, or we all hop on different games like American Truck Simulator VR or Payday 2 VR," Steven says. "It feels like I'm in the same room with someone. I'm not in a cornfield in Missouri, I'm in my house. I'd turn the truck in tomorrow if I didn't have this PC."
If you've played American Truck Simulator, your window into Steven's world is a romanticized one. You taste the freedom of the open road, the satisfaction of a job well done, but avoid the gnawing isolation that eats away at you each and every minute. It's a life of self-imposed exile as you journey from one destination to the next always as a stranger. It's why long-haul trucking is a "meat grinder" of an industry, one where most drivers quit after their first year.
"It's one of those things where a lot of people love to think that they're super introverted and they'd love to live on a desert island and never talk to anyone again," Steven warns. "Well, I'm the guy who just went to the desert island and I'm sending a message back to tell you you're wrong."
So why stick with it? "I really love that I'm my own boss," Steven says. "You know, if you went through every one of my jobs up until now and asked me what the problem was with those jobs it was always really bad management. I'm so sick of micromanagement and I hate taking orders from people."
It's part of the reason why, in his senior year, Steven dropped out of high school. "I have a big authority problem," he says honestly. "Part of what really makes me love this is that I wake up when I want to. My boss never bothers me unless I really mess up, and I don't mess up often. As long as I get the loads there on time and I make money, it's relaxing. I wake up, drive ten hours, play some games, and go to bed. I just don't see too many jobs being like that."
When Steven was 18, he had his first taste of what would become his career. His father was one of the millions of victims of the 2008 economic crash, losing his home construction company. At the age of 50, his options were limited and the pressures of providing for his family mounting, so he turned to long-haul trucking. Steven would play Euro Truck Simulator to help narrow the thousands of miles between them while he was gone. Ten years later, Steven's father took him out on his first trip.
"I remember telling my mom I would be gone for two weeks," Steven says. "After those two weeks I said, 'alright, are we almost home?' And he was like, 'What do you mean? We're still out here for another 35 days.' That's when it hit me. What do you mean another month? Are you kidding me? I can't even last another hour! It went from fun to terrifying in just a couple of minutes."
Despite that miserable experience, something about the lifestyle stuck. Because college wasn't an option, Steven decided to follow after his dad. Six weeks after his 21st birthday, with his Class-A license in hand and an employment offer from his father's company, it was his dad who would become his on-the-road trainer for two months. Knowing he needed something to help distract him from sharing a 100 square foot living space with his dad for 60 days, Steven spent his hiring bonus on an MSI Apache gaming laptop equipped with a GTX 1060. "I told my dad I can't be on this truck and not have something to do, it'll drive me up the wall."
That laptop became the secret to his success.
Once Steven was driving on his own, he set up a passable battlestation over his bed. It worked fine, for a time, but once he began leasing his Freightliner, he decided to go all out and build a custom desk by ripping out the passenger chair. He just had one problem: He had never built a thing in his life. "It was a nightmare, man, I didn't know what I was doing," he laughs.
"What people don't realize is that the seats in a semi-truck are pneumatic," Steven says. "They go up and down and left and right with air, and so what do you do with an air line? I've got 150 PSI going into this chair and it's actually connected to the rest of the truck. My air brakes work off the same tank as my chair, so if I mess it up I potentially put myself in the shop and lose a bunch of money. I was terrified of ruining it. What do you do? No one else does this—I was treading new territory and I've never built anything before, so I was sweating bullets every time I even tried to make a modification."
But with some wood, some screws, and a whole lot of courage, Steven figured it out—sort of. "Even now I can hear the engine shifting because I can hear the air coming out of it," he laughs. "I have an air leak in this truck now but if it works it works. I'm not too picky about it."
After every 10 hour shift, that PC becomes Steven's window back home—but only if he can find a decent internet connection. During a trip, his first option is to turn on his phone's mobile wifi hotspot and use his 4G connection to play games with family. But after 14GB of used data, Verizon throttles his connection, so updating or downloading games requires stopping at a truck stop and praying the wifi is faster than dial-up. "The truck stops are awful. It could be anywhere from five megabytes a second to five kilobytes a second and it seems completely arbitrary on which it might be. I've been in the heart of Dallas and had 500 ping and I've been out in the middle of Maryland in a field somewhere at a truckstop and gotten 15 megabytes a second and 20 ping."
Those nights when his ping is into the hundreds don't stop him. When games like Counter-Strike are out of the question, Steven instead plays XCOM 2 or Divinity: Original Sin 2 with his family—"something that is turn-based that doesn't rely on ping like a shooter does." He even has to sometimes call his family over the phone to talk while playing if his 4G connection can't handle Discord. Whatever the obstacles, Steven always finds a way to play games each night. He has to.
"When I'm on the phone it feels like you're talking to someone on the phone," he tells me. "But when I'm in Killing Floor 2 and I have 20 health and my sister-in-law is healing me, it feels like we're together in a room and we're not separated by 2000 miles but by 20 feet. It's not even really about what game we're playing. I'd play Minesweeper if it was multiplayer, as long as I have someone to spend time with."
But gaming during the workday isn't an option. Instead, Steven calls his dad and talks to him while both are driving their routes. Other times he hangs out in Discord with his Overwatch group and chats with them. "I just talk all day," he says. "I've never been more alone but more social at the same time. It's a really weird juxtaposition that I'm in the middle of a corn field right now and I'm about to lose my voice I talk so much."
It's during those long stretches that the loneliness can really creep in—especially when your only physical company is other truckers. "I go to these truck stops and these terminals and I try to talk to other truckers," Steven says. "But I don't want to talk about your Kenworth, I don't want to talk about a truck. I'm in a truck all day. I want to talk about EA putting microtransactions into Battlefront 2. I want to talk about which gaming companies are going out of business or what Nvidia is doing with their new graphics cards. There's no deep conversation with other truckers because you don't actually know each other. I need someone who can really stimulate me and the only way to do that is to have a computer. Everything just comes back to you have to have a computer. It's just miserable without one."
I ask Steven if he really thinks he'll make it 10 or 20 years as a trucker and what he plans to do after. He laughs awkwardly. "Honestly, it's so tough. It really is so tough. I've got a lot going for me: I'm young and responsible and I can put money away. If you ask Reddit, everyone one of them tells me to be a Twitch streamer. But I don't know, I have no clue."
This was the second time I asked Steven about his future and the second time he said he didn't know. Not once did he respond with unease, though, just that same lighthearted tone I heard the moment he picked up the phone. I suspect that, to him, it isn't about having it all figured out but just doing what makes him happy. It's the little things, he says, like not having to wear socks or being able to wake up whenever you wants to. It's a small but satisfying freedom.
And despite the hardships of his chosen career, Steven sounds undoubtedly happy. "I'll come around a hill at night and see a big city with all the lights on in the distance, or I'll go through the mountains of California and I can see a little train in the distance with a smoke pillar coming out of it—just these gorgeous sights. The mountains of Colorado and the Great Lakes up by Chicago. I've seen the whole country and I feel like a weary traveler or something. I go home to my friends and everyone has all these questions for me. I feel important and respected. I just don't think many people my age get to feel that."
During our hour-long conversation, 62 miles passed on his trip to Oklahoma. He isn't even sure if he already crossed the border when I ask. He has another seven hours to go until he'll pull over somewhere and boot up a game. Maybe, god willing, he'll have a stable enough connection to play an FPS. But it doesn't matter, really. Even if his ping is in the thousands of miliseconds, Steven will still find a way to play, because it's those little joys that keep him going. "I love having five pairs of clothes and that's it," he laughs. "I have my PC, my guitar, and some clothes and some food and that's all I need to be happy."