It’s 3am in Sterling, CO and the Eagle Travel Stop gas station is packed. Outside temperature is hovering around zero, maybe just under it.
Windshields are frozen. The cars sit idling outside while the workers are inside filling up their thermos and grabbing gut bomb burritos. Like other wage laborers doing infrastructure everywhere across the nation, the 9001 gang are at the gas station getting their breakfast many hours before the rest of the community wakes up.
Did you know how many biscuits and gravy they pump out at that hour of the night? Before this shoot, I had never seen a gallon of milk sitting on the counter. This the second one of the morning says the service clerk, who could not keep up with the refills.
What I noticed about gas station coffee is it is crucial. More than water. More than a candy bar. For most, it is the least expensive and fastest option for liquid. And it boosts the body with much needed caffeine on the worst of the swing shifts.
We grab some great shots of the early morning rush and head for the jobsite. We jump in the car with the new hire. He is young in the game and doesn’t drink coffee. But he knows enough to buy all his food here before he’s on the jobsite.
Nothing is open at this hour. Gas station coffee is pumping through all our veins. No doughnut shops, $5 cup of Starbucks, or barista to write names on holiday cups. It’s the American gas stations that are fueling workers’ bodies.
I wanted to make Metal Road to shed light on two related, yet often hidden issues: manual labor in the US and Native American Histories. Laborers are often the most economically oppressed people doing infrastructure jobs, but the workers are strong and resilient. My hope is their labors will not go unnoticed any longer.
In making Metal Road, I gained a better understanding of work ethic and loyalty that lies dormant inside some of us, particularly in Navajos who live in areas with very high unemployment rates. When given the opportunity, they prove themselves to be skillful additions to any workforce. I have an admiration for the individuals with the commitment and raw will that it takes to be a laborer. I can’t do it; compared to the men and women in the film, my focus and will power are fleeting. It was brutal filming them prepare to work in the freezing temperatures at 3AM. So in making a film about railroader life, I wanted to reconcile our Native histories with contemporary Navajo heroes who grind out a living everyday. People talk about having the courage to try new things, new careers, etc. But what about the courage to put in your time into one job? Yes, taking those first steps to work is important and it lifts the soul up in self-worth, but it’s the ten thousandth step that counts.
And so maybe one day the minimum for laboring 30 years outside with dangerous machines and loud noises will be decreased, because now you must meet the same qualifications as an office worker in the same company striving for retirement benefits. As a Navajo filmmaker, I want to impress upon the viewer that the next Indian you see at a gas station in oil stained clothes might be returning from a 17-hour shift that keeps the world’s largest transportation system operating.