Colville trucker rolls through America and shares stories from the road

RaeLynn Ricarte

Katherine Weldrick can face a challenge getting her German Shepherd-mix dog named “Shadow” to move out of the driver seat of her big rig, but once she subdues the growls, the team is ready to roll.

“I have to say, ‘Please let me in,’ and eventually she'll scoot over,” said Weldrick, who lives a few miles east of Colville.

Shadow might not like being relegated to the passenger seat, but she has no problem holding up her end of the log on trips across the nation. The certified service dog takes out the trash and carries groceries.

“When I first got her, she was my dog. Now, I'm her people,” said Weldrick.

The team has racked up enough time on the road for Weldrick to earn the gold “Million Mile” badge from Werner Enterprises, the company based in Omaha, Nebraska, that she hauls for as an independent truck owner. That badge — other drivers wear a blue one — gives Weldrick special privileges, such as access to a “quiet room” where she can kick back in a recliner and grab a quick nap.

“We know this exceptional achievement takes perseverance, hard work and dedication and we commend you on your success,” reads the letter issues to Weldrick by Derek Leathers, president and CEO of the company, and CL Werner, executive chairman. “Every day, you continuously strive for the highest standards of safety and professionalism, and your passion for safety and driving excellence helps keep everyone safe on the roads.”

Weldrick's safety record is without blemish; she has never had an accident or a traffic ticket. The company praised her for being an “outstanding example to other professional drivers.” She became a long-haul driver in 2009 and has owned her Kenworth 10-speed tractor trailer since 2015. She had plenty of experience behind the wheel of a cattle truck as a team with her ex-husband before deciding to go to driving school and venture out on her own.

“If you've got it, a truck brought it,” she said of her profession's contribution to commerce and trade.

Weldrick and Shadow have been through all 48 contiguous states and seen a wide variety of landscapes, everything from lush forests to rolling plains and deserts.

“For the most part people are pretty friendly and it's kind of fun because you get to see everything,” said Weldrick. “The way I see it, I'm a paid tourist.”

Sometimes the winds have blown so hard, it was difficult to stay on the road. At other times, she had to back up for miles — not an easy task in a semi-truck with a trailer or two — because of flooding after a Florida hurricane. More than once she has pulled over to wait out a winter storm in Wyoming that was so severe the white-out conditions caused multiple car crashes.

“I don't drive when it's not safe to be out. I might get paid by the mile but the risk is not worth it,” said Weldrick.

A scary new factor in recent months has been skirting around the edges of riots in several states to avoid angry crowds and the carnage they create. Born and raised in California, Weldrick said the politics of that state are particularly unfriendly to business, so she decided about a decade ago to set up home base in Northeast Washington, which was always one of her favorite places to visit because it has four distinctive seasons.

Weldrick is out on the road for two or three months at a time, and then gets a week and a half off to rest at home. When gone, her best friend, Janet Toohey, who once teamed up with her for long hauling, takes care of the property they share.

“We talk every day,” said Toohey, who now drives for Rural Resources. “When Kathy has a good day, she calls, and we talk when she has a bad day. I loved being on the road with her and I miss it.”

Weldrick doesn't worry about pulling her rig over to sleep in a rest area or wide spot in the road because Shadow is with her. She also doesn't mind driving through congested cities, such as New York, where there is little room to maneuver because time has given her the skills and confidence she needs to get around any obstacle.

“At night, New York is beautiful. By day, not so pretty,” she said.

Backing up to loading docks that were not built for the size of today's trucks is the most difficult part of her job.

“That can be kind of rough,” she said.

Weldrick also enjoys being in some states more than others. Pennsylvania is not one of her favorites because she said those transportation officials appear to love stop signs so much that they are everywhere, including at the bottom of a steep on-ramp to the freeway.

“I do not know what is going on with that,” she said.

Her dislike of Florida is based on critters. One day she was walking Shadow along the edge of a roadway when an old man advised her to get the dog back into the truck.

“He said someone ran over a 16-foot alligator's tail and he was in a bad mood so he was out looking for trouble,” she recalls.

There have been enough gator threats that she never feels comfortable having Shadow wandering around a stop in the Sunshine State. However, Weldrick is proud of having delivered supplies to Florida following a catastrophic hurricane that left people without homes and even the basic essentials of food and clothing.

“When you pull up with a shipment like that, they are very glad to see you,” she said.

To view the devastation left in the wake of one of those major storms is sobering and makes her even more grateful for the temperate weather of Washington. In the past few years, Weldrick said the divisiveness of America seems to be reflected in the attitudes of more and more people. Drivers have gotten more inconsiderate and some even play games by slowing down to make sure she can't change lanes, or “brake checking” her, which means they stop abruptly in front of the truck, forcing her to slam on the brakes and risk unbalancing the trailer.

Weldrick has had mud and corrosive substances thrown on her truck, which is a source of consternation since she pays $200 to have the chrome rims shined. She makes sure the truck is looking good to represent her company well before heading out on the road. Sometimes people flatten truck tires at rest stops, but those instances of vandalism are still rare, she said.

“For the most part, people don't mess with you,” she said.

Read the full story in the October 21, 2020 Statesman-Examiner.