With a sweet demeanor, infectious laugh and 5-foot, 4-inch frame, it’s hard to picture Kari Paulson at the wheel of a mammoth machine traveling down the highway.
She doesn’t just haul the run-of-the-mill trailers. When she makes her 585-mile roundtrip run in Kansas, Paulson is pulling triple trailers for R&L Carriers.
Paulson is the first female driver out of 100 drivers from the company’s Kansas City terminal to pull triples and 48-foot and 53-foot van combos. The company has 7,500 drivers nationwide.
“I feel like when I did the triples, vans and stuff like that and got that under my belt, now all the veterans acknowledge you and look at you and know, ‘There’s a woman who can pull her own weight,’” the 38-year-old said.
It was a sense of accomplishment, but after 17 years of mostly hauling over-the-road freight, she has already earned a respected place in the trucking community.
Paulson grew up on a dairy farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, learning the value of hard work as a child.
She said her love of driving was instilled “from hoping on the tractors and driving at a very young age.”
Her father would show his three daughters how to drive everything from a truck to a tractor. “We’d hop in the pickup, hop in the car … and you’d better have paid attention the first go-around because he wasn’t going to tell you a second time. As farm kids growing up in the day, we were just jacks of all trades.”
Though she took certified nursing assistance classes, Paulson knew she was destined to drive one day.
“When I grew up, I just always had a passion for driving. If I couldn’t work with cows, I had a passion for driving a truck,” she said. “… The highway just kept calling. I just found myself driving after work, driving to other towns. We’d hop in the car, drive and drive.”
She rented a tractor-trailer, headed down to the DMV and got her CDL when she was 21. She was married the same year and the two did flatbed driving for a year with a company that she called a “learner’s bliss.”
“When you’re hauling siding, you don’t look back because it seems you can never tighten it enough, it’s always leaning one way or the other,” Paulson laughed. “I guess with flatbedding there are no limitations to where you go. Always expect the unexpected.”
Once, in the hills of West Virginia, Paulson hauled a load of lumber along mountainous roads.
“It was in the middle of the night and the way you’d twist and wind around these corners … it’s almost kind of like a horror story. You were almost waiting for someone to come across the street in the middle of the night,” she said. “I parked out there for the night [and] I remember sleeping with the vents open.” Then the mooing began.
And where other drivers may have been startled, it made Paulson feel right at home.
“There were cows mooing, and they were all grazing around the truck and trailer. It was open range. Oh yeah it was great,” she said.
Paulson and her husband went on to work for other companies and officially drove team for 15 years. But hiring on with R&L was the dream job.
“I called once a week for 11 months to get that job,” she said, and the dedication paid off. Paulson said the variety of runs, from over-the-road to being home every evening, was appealing.
“If you wanted to choose to raise a family you had the option of not having to bow out of the company” to find more regional work, she said.
“The I-80 corridor was basically our second address,” in all kinds of weather, Paulson said. That first winter, they constantly had to bring out the chains.
She remembers during one storm in Wyoming the wind was so fierce, “We had to drive the trailer tires on the rumble strips on the road to keep us from moving. That was probably the most intense time I’ve had.”
Almost two years ago, she and her husband divorced. It was a turning point for her career.
“I was kind of a fish out of water; everyone knew me as a team driver,” she said. But she heard a supervisor complaining about the lack of drivers who were LCV-certified to pull triples. “I said, ‘What do I need to do to be certified?’ I wanted to better myself.”
She watched the training videos and passed the test using the set of triples and the combo 48-foot and 53-foot vans. Today, she drives a 2016 International ProStar, hauling anything that’s not perishable.
“Next thing you know after I got certified, I became valuable. I felt like I was worth something,” she said. “They needed me to run triples to Oklahoma,” filling in for another driver. “In the OTR trucking part, you felt like you’re just blending in with other drivers.” She wanted a challenge, a boost to her skill set, she said.
“The toughest part is probably in the wind … If you haven’t pulled a set of triples in a few days you lose a little bit of that feeling,” she said. “If that second trailer is moving, that’s when you got to kick the cruise off and slow down. When you’re on the [Kansas City] Turnpike you can’t just jump off anywhere, you’re stuck. They don’t want you pulling into a town with 120,000 pounds.”
While all truckers have to be alert to four-wheelers and even some fellow truckers, Paulson has to be hypersensitive to all those around her.
“Because everybody is in their own world, you’ve basically got to drive everyone else’s vehicles for them. If you’ve done it long enough, you pretty much know what they’re going to do,” she said.
In November 2015, Paulson was also the first female driver at the terminal to receive the one-million-mile safe driving award. She earned a plaque, jewelry box, coat and a ring. She will have been with R&L for 10 years on December 18.
“It feels good to be recognized not only as a driver, but as a woman. Most companies don’t give you a ring that says one-million miles safe driving,” Paulson said. “With all the challenges and obstacles and people out here, the companies and rules of the law, challenges of every day drivers, what you go through as a driver — it’s awesome, it feels good.”
All her accolades are fitting, and ironically match those of her boyfriend Jim Lopeman Jr. He was the first male driver to pull triples out of the Kansas City terminal, as well as the first for million-mile honors.
“He is 100 percent supportive of me and my goals,” she said, adding he encouraged her to get certified to pull triples. “He encourages me in every direction to benefit myself and my career … he is truly one in a million.”
In Lathrop, Missouri, Paulson has nine acres of land that’s also home to three horses, goats, turtles and her three dogs — a Bernese Mountain dog and two Shar Pei’s. Brebear, 10, has a special fitted seat in her truck, to go just on short runs these days, Paulson said. Brebear, born on a run through Nashville in an R&L truck, is an unofficial mascot at the terminal, she said, laughing.
“I love to ride my horses; that’s my detox. I ride the horse out in the woods, trail rides. I just take it all in [and] enjoy the peace and quiet,” she said. Her favorite horse is Star, a Missouri Fox Trotter, a gaited breed with stock horse stamina. “He’s just a big love muffin and loves to give hugs. You can go out there, wrap your arms around his neck, and he’ll turn and squeeze. Animals just know.”
While she’s already made history, Paulson still has big dreams for her future.
“I have a desire to turn to ice road trucking and I’d love to go over to Australia and do the train when you see multiple, multiple trailers. The longer the better. If I could put five trailers back there and they wouldn’t pull me over, I’d do it,” she said.