Why take such risks, her friends asked? They didn't understand, Gebhards said, that she enjoyed the work -- that when she was sent back to Idaho last June with her ribs broken and head concussed, all she wanted was to drive again. "I will not work for minimum wage changing sheets in a hotel," she told me. And so it was out of pride -- and necessity, as the hospital bills deepened her debt -- that she returned to the oilfields in August.
I first called Gebhards around this time, and we spoke periodically after that. By November, she'd taken a new job trucking freight -- paper, dog food, mobile homes. One night, she delivered Coca-Cola to Missoula, Mont., where I live. She spent the night in her cab, while a man and woman, unaware of her presence, screamed at each other in the parking lot. I called the next morning, hoping to meet, but Gebhards was already gone.
She didn't like the job -- "I'd rather have a home base and not be all over God-knows-where" -- nor did it pay as well as oilfield work. By December, she was hauling again, for a man who owned a truck in Sidney, Mont. When she arrived, he hadn't found housing for her but suggested she join him in his bed. She refused and slept on the couch until he found her a trailer. It lacked heat and plumbing; at night, her water bottles froze by her bed.
I didn't hear from Gebhards much during this time. Later, she told me that the man had "sold his truck and moved out of town overnight." She took a job with a company in Watford City, N.D. The winter grew colder, the snowstorms heavier. A mist seemed to hang over the prairie and glaze the roads when the wind blew. The way her truck swiveled on ice made her think of salmon swimming downriver. Only once, in a storm, did she call for help, after sinking a back wheel into sugary snow. The man who pulled her out said she was the third person he had helped that day. This relieved her. "I think that's my biggest fear in life," she told me. "To be the helpless female -- to have to be rescued."
Gebhards went home to Idaho in February for medical exams and didn't return to the oilfields. Her doctor said she needed more physical therapy before she could continue hauling. She visited her daughters and began tiling again, though the work now hurt her neck. In May, she came to Missoula, and we sat on a blanket beneath a tree as her daughter warmed up for a rugby match.
It was our first meeting. Gebhards has a pretty, angular face that crinkles when she smiles. Her fingernails were painted silver. "I'm just sort of taking it a month at a time," she said. She wanted to go back to North Dakota. "I guess I saw myself being out there for a while, making a pile of money, getting my finances taken care of, and then buying the camper truck of my dreams. I'd like to live somewhere and then go somewhere else when I'm tired of it. I'll go to the mountains when I want to ski. When I'm sick of snow, I'll go to the desert." She didn't know how long it would take her, or if her body would hold up. "But that's the way I've always been. If North Dakota is the key to getting me to that spot, I'll put up with just about anything."