If you think you spend a lot of time behind the wheel getting to and from work, consider the schedule of Steve Purks. The King George County man drives a truck for Walmart. He leaves his home near the Westmoreland County border on Monday morning and returns on Friday night. In between, he drives 625 to 700 miles a day, which totals about 12,500 miles a month and more than 135,000 miles a year. To put his haul in perspective, Purks drives enough in one day to get from Fredericksburg north to Quebec or west to St. Louis, Mo. Not only does the 59-year-old take command of an apparatus that weighs almost 90,000 pounds with the trailer attached, but he also does it safely. Walmart recently rewarded Purks with a brand new blue Peterbilt truck, outfitted with all the amenities he wanted, for driving 3 million safe miles.
That equals 12.5 trips to the moon. “This is a rare milestone for our drivers, as it recognizes consecutive, not cumulative, safe miles and takes more than 20 years to reach,” said Ryan Curell in Walmart’s corporate communications. Purks is one of about 250 Walmart drivers nationwide to receive the honor. “With the daily driving out there today, that is really impressive,” said Todd Cribbs, safety manager for the Walmart Distribution Center in Mount Crawford near Harrisonburg. “We’re so proud of him. Steve is absolutely a class act.”
Needless to say, Purks does a lot of dodging to keep him and his big rig out of harm’s way. He downplays his skills, saying luck and being in the right place at the right time have kept him safe. But when pressed for tips, he said this: “Don’t follow too close. Leave yourself an out. You wanna be safe, so give yourself enough room.” That’s especially true in bad weather—and up until this week, his regular route included three trips from the Shenandoah Valley to the snowy mountains and lakes of upstate New York. “I try to stay away from as many people as I can, especially in weather,” he said. “You don’t want to get caught in a cluster. Something’s gonna happen.” His wife, Lynn, said she’s been with him on weekends when he taps the brakes, and she asks why he’s slowing down. In a few more seconds, she sees the reason—either an accident or a broken-down vehicle. “He has a sixth sense,” she said. “He sees stuff farther down the road.” Purks has had four incidents in the 26 years he’s driven for Walmart, but none were his fault.
One woman recently ran into the side of his truck near Martinsburg, W.Va., then proceeded to keep going, even though half her door was ripped off. When she finally stopped driving, she started walking—right down the middle of Interstate 81. That’s just one of the crazy sights seen from his cab. “You don’t even wanna know what I see,” he said. He’s noticed other drivers drinking or doing drugs, putting on makeup, reading a newspaper or typing on a laptop. “The biggest thing now is texting, they’re on the phone all the time,” Purks said. Even after all these years on the road—and Purks drove for Southland for 13 years before he joined Walmart in 1992—he still shakes in head at some of the antics around him. People cut him off at every turn or pass him on the shoulder. He’s been on an interstate, with a tractor–trailer in the lane beside him, when a high-speed motorcycle squeezed in between the two trucks. Purks spends the nights away from home in his truck, parked either in a Walmart lot or at one of its distribution centers, where he showers. Sometimes he eats out and other times he reheats burgers he’s grilled or food his wife has packed. The cab of his new truck features leather seats and captain’s chairs. In the back is a bunk bigger than a full-size bed, a flat-screen TV, microwave, mini fridge and toaster oven. The recognition from Walmart is his second big achievement this year—and Purks like to talk about the first one, at length. In January, he was inducted into the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Virginia State Chapter Hall of Fame. Purks has been hunting longer than he’s been driving and says he’s bagged about 200 gobblers. Because of his years of service and time off for safety, he works 10½ months a year. He spends five days at Nags Head with his wife—and the rest, he’s wearing camouflage. He hunts waterfowl with his trusty Labradors, Breeze and Diesel, and he enjoys introducing teenagers and females to the outdoors. He’s taken Julie Abel, president of the Rappahannock Spurs chapter, on turkey hunts, and she and member Mark Fike discussed nominating Purks for the state’s highest honor, induction into the hall of fame. “We only needed two letters of recommendation to submit with our nomination [and] we had seven within a few days,” Abel said, adding she wasn’t surprised that he was also recognized at Walmart. “In a nutshell, he works and plays by the same ethical code—to do the best you can do every day.” Purks plans to drive for another five or six years before retiring. His wife smiled dreamily at the notion of them finally being able to spend time together. Purks also had a look in his eye, but his was mischievous. “I’ll get to hunt more,” he said Ryan Curell in Walmart’s corporate communications to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.