SOLOMON, KS—Awakening to the lonely howl of a distant coyote early Tuesday morning, C.J. Hoppel climbs into his 18-wheeler and sets off westward across a barren stretch of unbroken prairie, the whipping wind his only companion as he pulls a rig full of Entenmann's baked goods and snack cakes across the plains.
"This load's gotta be in Arizona by sundown tomorrow," says this 63-year-old cowboy of the American road, gesturing toward his 500- horsepower Peterbilt tractor-trailer packed to the brim with Raisin Loaf Cakes, Apple Puffs, and Ultimate Cinnamon Pastry Twisters. "But I should be able to cover 700 miles today, so long as the weather holds."
Clad in well-worn workman's denim and sturdy boots that have withstood two decades of fudgy brownie hauls, Hoppel is, by his own admission, too restless a soul to put on a suit and spend his days pushing papers around a desk. For him, there is no greater satisfaction than rising before the sun and putting in an honest day's work moving 10 tons of prepackaged, preservative-filled Entenmann's products across the country to the company's contract wholesalers out west.
Hoppel's route is long and arduous, cutting through thousands of miles of diverse terrain. But this stoic old warrior of the open road has traversed these paths hundreds of times before, and it is said that each line on his weathered face tells the story of another successful chocolate-chip muffin run.
"I lit out from Philly two days ago," says the gravel-voiced Hoppel, who left the Entenmann's distribution facility with nothing but a coarse thicket of week-old stubble, a single can of long-cut dipping tobacco, and 30,000 single-serve packs of mouthwatering Enten-Mini's Butterscotch Cakes. "I might even get a little ahead of schedule if I can cross the Colorado by nightfall. "
For Hoppel, however, the most treacherous part of his journey lies ahead. The daunting mountainous stretches of I-70 have long been known to cupcake and cruller haulers as a savage roadway forever haunted by its legendary jackknife accidents and hostile weigh-station operators.
"The road is rough up there and the passes get real steep," says Hoppel, who over the years has safely guided more than half a million All-Butter French Crumb Cakes up the dangerous slopes. "Especially that two-mile grade coming off Widowmaker Ridge. Lot of doughnuts been lost around that turn."
"But I'll see her through," Hoppel adds. "Always have."
Although he admits it's a tough and lonesome life out on the highways and byways of this land, Hoppel says he enjoys solitary work, and that he only truly feels at home while sleeping under the stars along the shoulder of an off-ramp or roaming the desolate back roads with 50 pallets of gooey cinnamon swirls as his only companion.
"I suppose most people don't know or care how the Choco-Cherry Cheesecake makes its way onto the shelf at their grocery store," says Hoppel, his eyes fixed on the horizon, staring in the direction of his final destination, a still-far-off Circle K warehouse in the greater Phoenix-Scottsdale metropolitan area. "But to me, nothing's more exciting than barreling 'round that final bend and knowing I'm almost home free."
"And as soon as I get there, I'll do what I always do," Hoppel continues. "Turn my rig around, load up with tampons, and head back east."