12 minute read

A Long and Winding Road

AT THE MIC, THE late Dusty Richards calls the race while crowds of people shout with expectation. And sprawled in the mud, camera lens focused between horse’s hooves and wagon wheels, a strikingly beautiful photographer searches for that perfect shot. The wild rivalry known as the chuckwagon races is held yearly in southern Arkansas. It’s only one example of where this brave photographer/truck driver, Patty Rustin Christen, can be found on any given day.

Patty and I ran across each other several times before we connected long enough to discuss her unusual and fascinating careers. Finally, I was fortunate to room with her at the Oghma Creative Media Summer Writing Retreat in Ponca, Arkansas last summer where she was busy focusing on business through the camera lens.

Having her company for a few nights gave me time to discover a complicated and courageous woman. She is driven not only by the demands of her talents but by what the world has seen fit to deal her. And she is not afraid to face that tough life with her chin out. This long, lean, and graceful woman claims she was a homely child. Something it’s difficult to believe.

“When you don’t fit in anywhere, it’s like running from the devil,” she told me. “As a suicidal teen I drank a cup and a half of sheep dip. Something that should have killed me. I dealt with trouble in dangerous and harmful ways and almost died in the effort.

“The only time I ever felt free and special was on a horse and one steer I trained to ride until he ended up in the freezer. That was his intended purpose. I paid the kids down the street my Christmas money to rent their pony. I would climb a fence and jump on anything equine I could get to hold still. My first pony, Timmy, was gone after my mom and dad divorced when I was five.”

As the years passed, Patty tried numerous jobs from working at her Dad’s United Cigar store, waitressing, home health care, and a stint with a rare and essential oil dealer where she learned about massage therapy. Yet, watching her go through her life now it’s difficult to imagine she once fought such problems. Today, nothing much slows her down.

There was that broken heart handed her by a Madison Square Garden champion a lifetime ago. “He told me he’d already seen everything, and I’d still not seen anything.” There’s the sound of a shrug in her soft voice, like she fought that disappointment off as well.

“With a broken heart, I joined the Army at twenty-two. I had hopes of using the promised tuition to attend the school of healing arts in Southern California when my tours ended.”

That dream was shot down when she was put to work repairing heavy equipment. A trouble shooter? Well, almost. She says, she was a glorified parts changer and greaser. Not that she’s ashamed to get her hands and face black working on a job. It just wasn’t quite what she’d wanted or expected.

In the thick dark night, we’re both silent, and I wait for the rest of her story. I know it’s coming. Her voice catches, and she goes on, as if knowing I’m listening and not sleeping. She’s right.

“Driving trucks is where I met my second husband, Hawk, and it all came together. You see, Hawk didn’t want me to just learn how to haul freight. He wanted to teach me all he knew so I would have choices should anything ever happen to him. Over the past twenty-six years I have loaded and hauled cars on twelve-car carriers and produce all over hell and a half acre, multi-million dollar show and racehorses....”

"WHEN YOU DON’T FIT IN ANYWHERE, IT’S LIKERUNNING FROM THE DEVIL.” 

She takes a breath, and I do, too. This is super great information. Out of the darkness, her voice picks up where she left off. “...tankers full of oil, dump trucks full of aggregate or hot asphalt on road crews, frameless end dumps full of scrap metal, a little flat-bedding, and now I haul grain in bottom-dump trailers. Each aspect of trucking has taken me places and allowed me the opportunity to briefly experience the people behind the construction cones, in the factories, fields, and warehouses.” Her voice lowers, and I think she’s finished, but she’s not.

“Since Hawk was not afraid of anything breathing, he took me on tours to see architecture in the ghettos where most people don’t go. He would feed a homeless person and ask about their story. He was neither intimidated nor repulsed by the disenfranchised which added to my wonder at hidden and forgotten treasures many never experience or don’t observe. He showed me a beauty of humanity in everyone. I learned it goes beyond a simple aesthetic. It may be a contrasted backdrop of the architecture in an individual’s life or current circumstances. Often fleeting, at times tragic, but it is there. It is not Vogue—it is life.

“It is a prostitute’s sequins back-lit by a streetlamp, a tear on the face of a drunk telling you about a lost love, the graffiti under a corpse in winter being stripped of his clothes by the equally cold, desperate living.”

I hold my breath listening to her beautiful words that tell her story better than I ever could. One thing she soon learned. There was so much beauty in the world she yearned for a camera to capture it.

She continues to describe some of those sights burned into her memory. “A large black man named Dennis holding my three-year-old daughter on a dock where we picked up watermelons in Georgia. The contrast of her little pink hands sticky with the watermelon he’d cut for her against his beautiful blue-black cheeks, the Georgia sun shining hot on their faces trying to out-smile one another. Faded laundry that appears bright hanging on the lines as you drive past weather-beaten homes on some obscure two-lane road in Texas. The pride of the ladies wearing huge hats on a sweltering day lined up to go into a church. The fresh haircuts of new recruits and the sweat pouring down men standing on asphalt that can radiate a temperature of 120 degrees as they build our road.

“I have been blessed to witness all of this and more but did not have a camera for the first sixteen years, leaving many of these snapshots only in my memory. When I did get a camera, I was working on a now-closed ranch in Missouri. I would drive dump trucks in the morning and check cattle in the evenings. It was heaven. I knew three things. I loved horses, I hated having a camera pointed at me and told to smile, and that we are all winners, even if it’s just for a moment.

“Herb Reed introduced me to chuckwagon racing, and I was amazed! There they were, all of the people I have grown to admire over the years of driving, from the characters to the politicians, the animals that saved my sanity and gave me a sense of beauty and freedom, and people competing in events that they may not win the ribbon in, but they were winning at life by trying.

I LOVED HORSES, I HATED HAVING A CAMERA POINTED AT ME AND TOLDTO SMILE, AND WE’RE ALL WINNERS, EVEN IF IT’S JUST FOR A MOMENT.”

“The people who attend these events are not all cowboys. They are a cross-section of my experiences. I soon made it a point to always try and catch them living, not posing. A candid snapshot of two old friends may not seem like much until one of them passes. Or a father dancing with his toddler daughter; a mother thanking her small son for opening her door; horses thundering down the track willingly giving their heart for their two-legged teammates and the finish line.

She continued to pursue that dream of driving a big truck. It’s hard to be exactly sure how or precisely when she made it because in the dark of the nights we were together came stories between us of how important time is to our lives. She’s a dreamer and a realist, a fact gatherer and a believer in the spiritual soul and in the wonder of lives. In spending time with her, I found a human being driven by compassion.

Yet she finally satisfied her dream to own and drive a Peterbilt semi truck. It could have something to do with her second husband, Hawk, but in all the storytelling I’m not sure. I know he taught her how to win at life by trying and to never be afraid of anything and that he has taken a celestial departure. And that’s all. For then she speaks of the father she loves who is a commercial fisherman. He is important to a life that has been jumbled and filled with unhappiness.

She is the mother of a daughter and two grandchildren she adores. She drops by their place once in a while to visit. Imagine their excitement when she does. After all, not every child’s grandma drives a Peterbilt.

Nowadays, after driving a seventy-hour week, she often has a photography session to work. “And it is daunting,” she admits. But in her words, she cannot give up “laying in the mud, so I can get the best shot or bent over, my butt in the air, one leg stretched completely to the left, my right leg cocked at the knee ready to shoot me off the track and away from danger. I steady my breath, inhaling the event. The world goes quiet and click, I have stopped time, captured something that can never be repeated.”

But she admits, it’s not all joyous, this climbing in and out of one of those trucks. Once she fell from inside the cab during an ice storm— “cow shit on my boot from my last event”—knocking the back of her head on every step, then the concrete below. This injury haunts her to this day, causing physical reactions she has to fight. You’d never know it to be around her. All you see in this lovely woman is how she smiles in a particularly charming way or brushes back her long hair to get a better look at what she’s seeing through the camera lens. Or how she spends hours working on one photograph to please her subjects.

“I CAN GO PLACES NO ONE ELSE CAN. I SEE HOW PEOPLE LIVE AND THE BEAUTY OF THOSE LIVES. ”

Today, Patty continues to drive that truck all over America, and she shares some of the sights she wishes we could all see through the lens of her camera. I ask her what it’s like to be a woman driving big rigs. “It’s pretty exciting, and men drivers are good to me.”

She grins into the joke, then turns serious. “I can go places no one else can. I see how people live and the beauty of those lives. They work in the fields and help feed all of us with what they do every day. They live in places other people should see but never get to. Their world is so beautiful, their lives so special. Without them we would not eat like we do or have the kind of experiences we have.”

When she goes home, she sleeps in a camper because she’s rebuilding an old pole barn which will one day be her home. Around it stretches pastures, grazing acreage for her other love, her horses, which she misses riding today—but someday they will be a part of the time she can spend at home.

She sums up her life candidly. “Being an ugly duckling opened the eyes in my heart, trucking allowed me to use them, and by the grace of God, my stepdad’s generosity, my mother’s love of learning, and my father’s genetic predisposition of adventure, a camera has helped me find myself by finding the beauty in others by capturing their moments.

“I can’t afford to quit driving. The bills still need to be paid. Maybe someday I’ll be accomplished enough to take some time off to ride horses again. For now, they’re happy in the pasture. I’m getting ready to go on the road and looking forward to the next time I get to photograph one of your readers making memories. I am quite simply blessed.”