Norval Ladsten of Mabel has plenty of experience driving a semi, marking over 8 million miles before retirement. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Norval Ladsten of Mabel has plenty of experience driving a semi, marking over 8 million miles before retirement. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS

Norval Ladsten knows the highways of this nation like the back of his hand. But that's bound to happen once you've driven over 8 million miles.

Whether it's hauling swinging meat to the east coast, boxed food items to California, or live dairy cows to Miami, Ladsten has done it all.

Norval and his wife, Loretta, live in Mabel, where he's now attempting to retire.

“I was 15 when I first drove a truck into Chicago,” he said. “That was back in the early ‘50s. I was born and raised a farm boy, and my dad had done trucking years before. He had trucks back in the ‘40s, when we lived in Prosper, then he went back to (run) the family farm.”

Ladsten also shared he had uncles who owned the Waterloo Decorah Freight Line, so he would be down there as a boy, riding in that freight truck.

“So I've been in trucks all my life,” he said. “I guess it just grew on me.”

Those early jobs often came from local haulers Harry Welper or Dick Rutledge, Ladsten said, and included trips to Milwaukee as well as the windy city.

“We'd haul out of the sales barns late at night,” he recalled. “For me it was mostly Friday night, since I'd be out of school through the weekend. I never thought anything of it. I'd been around cattle all my life.”

Ladsten also remembered that traffic in and around Chicago and Milwaukee was minimal compared to what it is today.

“In the ‘60s I was hauling a lot to California, and the traffic was terrible in comparison. But that's mostly because the interstates there were still two lanes each direction, where they're six lanes on each side now,” he said. “Traffic out there is about five times as heavy as it used to be.”

Norval sold his last semi last June, but was asked to drive it a while longer for the current owner. It's a 2001 Peterbilt, still boasting a classic hood/grill configuration.

“We spent four days in the factory when I had this one built the way I wanted it,” he said — pointing to a photo — “I had bigger ones.”

That truck went on the road in 2002 and just turned 2 million miles, Ladsten said. “I've done this for 58 years now, and I think it's time to look at the other side of the fence and see if there's something over there.”

Norval added he'd like to take some more time to tinker with his big green tractors (vintage John Deere machinery) and take in a few more things.

But “every week I still go to Colorado...”

There have been some marked changes in the trucking business. Regulations are now much more extensive, Norval said. Nodding towards the photo of his last truck, he added, “The biggest problem with that is, the ones that create the regulations have never sat in the seat of one of these. If they were out there doing it, they would quit. That's why there's getting to be such a shortage of drivers, because of all the regulations.”

Drivers need to learn the lay of the land – where it's safe to park overnight and where it's not, Norval said. There are also many areas where truckers are frequently robbed, he added.

In Oakland, Calif., one meat warehouse boasted armed guards who patrolled the dock. “You wouldn't get out of the truck,” he noted. “They'd unload your trailer, bring you the paperwork and shut your doors. They'd follow you out to the gate and unlock it, then tell you 'don't stop.' It's that way in Detroit at night... In different places, it's bad.”

One little known fact about driving a truck, Ladsten said, is that most people do not realize how many hours one might sit waiting to get unloaded or loaded. Those hours count against the time a driver is allowed to make miles during a day.

“I get paid by the mile. Other guys might punch a time clock, and they're free and clear to go home,” he added.

Safety rules apply, intended to keep overly fatigued truck drivers off the road. There is a limit to the “on duty” (driving plus loading/unloading) hours a driver can work before taking some time off, a limit to the hours spent behind the wheel before a driver must take a break, a limit on the number of hours worked during a week before a 34 hour “reset” is required. Logs must be kept.

“But I've always loved the transportation part,” Ladsten said. “You feel that you're doing some good. You're hauling food, helping feed the people. That's what it's all about, really. That's how your food gets on the shelf of the grocery store. It just wasn't put there.”

He knows that children sometimes do not know where their food comes from nor do they realize there are people on the farms who have to grow the food and harvest it, people who package food and ship it out, drivers who deliver it so individuals can find it at the local grocery store.

“And there are also people who work in the shops where we buy tires and fuel and so forth, that know that things would not move if it weren't for the truckers,” Ladsten added. “We need our railroads, but the railroads can't deliver to your local markets, stores and warehouses, like we do. They can load a whole (train) load of lettuce in California and ship it to Chicago, but that's as far as it's going unless you load it on a truck.”

Over the years, Ladsten said he has made a lot of good friends who have been in the trucking business, but more and more of them are retiring.

“But, I picked this deal and I've enjoyed doing it,” he concluded.