Back in the mid-1970s San Francisco, some 20-something friends were seeing what they could accomplish with photography and video.
“We were really into documenting different aspects of American culture we didn’t know much about,” recalls Lynn Adler, part of the film collective that called itself Optic Nerve.
They did a documentary on California rodeo cowboys. They did one on a California beauty pageant.
And with trucker shutdowns in the 1970s being in the news, Optic Nerve seized the opportunity to interview truckers and exhibitors in 1974 at the 10th International Truck Show in San Francisco.
“One thing that attracted us to the independent owner-operator is that was what we were,” being struggling independent filmmakers, Adler says. She continued to work in film as a partner in Ideas in Motion and in recent years has worked independently as archival researcher on feature documentaries.
Some excerpts from an International Truck Show video (see it below) indicate the Optic Nerve crew – asking truckers and exhibitors if they read Overdrive – was well aware of Overdrive’s role in the 11-day shutdown that had taken place a few months earlier.
Talking with drivers at the truck show “kind of got us motivated,” Adler recalls. So Optic Nerve planned a much more in-depth look at the careers and lifestyles of owner-operators.
They came across a small motor home available for cheap rent for six weeks. “So we drove across the country, five people in this motor home,” Adler recalls. “We basically camped out in truck stops, met a lot of people, ended up being invited to a lot of truckers’ homes.”
The five, armed with press badges from their hometown PBS station, were welcomed into truck stops to spend the night. “Which I have to say was not a lot of fun, with trucks going 24/7,” she says.
“We had a CB, we got into CB radio lingo, we all had handles,” recalls Adler, whose handle was Chili Pepper. “We had some very hysterical conversations. We’d say what we were doing and people were amused. That’s one of the ways we met people. They’d say pull over at this truck stop and we’d meet them. All I can say is it was a lifestyle for the young and adventurous. For six weeks I think we got very little sleep.”
Interviews also took place elsewhere, including truckers’ homes. That led to interviews in southern California, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Delaware and elsewhere.
“A lot of these guys have sort of an illusion of ‘I will be independent and get my own rig, and nobody’s going to tell me what to do. It’s like I’m not working a factory, not punching a clock,’” Adler says. But the reality was “sometimes you wouldn’t have any work. If they couldn’t make their payments, that was it, they could lose their rig.”
Truckers were eager to see their recorded interviews on videotape, still a new technology at the time, so they’d often come in to the trailer. They were served coffee made from “beans we ground, which were really strong.” The truckers, used to truck stop coffee, “were blown away by that.”
Their subjects often returned the hospitality. “We certainly were offered our share of pills. We did try some. We were trying to keep up with these guys.”
Spending that much time with the truckers, the filmmakers learned about CB lingo and truck makes, such as “K-whoppers.”
We all had our favorites,” she says. “Several truckers explained to me the difference, the reasons why they liked one over the other. Even now, out on the freeway, I’ll see a rig, and I’ll say, ‘Look at that rig!’ and people say, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was a kind of amazing experience and I’m very glad we did that project.”
Material gathered on the six-week jaunt was edited into a half-hour documentary, “On the boulevard,” that portrayed the everyday world of trucking through interviews with owner-operators. It had limited airing on PBS stations in the late 1970s and has been largely overlooked since.
“Boulevard” shows owner-operators talking about their struggles to survive, being apart from their families, taking pride in running without authority and dodging scales. As the narrator says: “They chase a dream of independence, trying to get away from it all, out there, on the boulevard.”