Keith Ballinger, 62, has enjoyed the view from the driver’s seat for nearly 30 years. He’s currently a driver with Timi’s Tours in Moweaqua, in central Illinois. Previously, he drove for Sturgis Bus Company in Black Hills, South Dakota; Mountain View in Tucson, Arizona and Prairie Coach in Dell Rapids, South Dakota.
Bus & Motorcoach News caught up with Ballinger to talk to him about why he loves driving a motorcoach, his career highs and lows, and his passion for the business.
What’s the biggest tip you received and the story behind it?
There was a client that was very, very generous. He was a real estate tycoon from Colombia who was interested in our country’s westward expansion. He and a few of his cabinet members and their wives flew into St. Louis with the sole purpose of following the river route and seeing the lands that Lewis and Clark explored and traveled in the early 1800s.
On the eve of last night following an 18-day trip, his accountant privately asked me what kind of money drivers make. After a short discussion, he handed me an envelope. He encouraged me to open it. When I did, I was floored. I told him I couldn’t take it. He interrupted me by saying “that gift” was his way of extending gratitude for doing the things I did for everyone. That “tip” matched a year’s pay.
What’s your go-to phrase?
“The struggle is real.”
How did you become a driver?
After retiring from the military, I worked at a YMCA summer camp, and they needed someone to drive one of the camp buses. So I got my Class C license, and it went from there. Two years later, I was driving school buses, and that eventually moved into the motorcoach world as an “activity driver.” I’ve been driving buses since 1992. Today, I can drive anything on the road as a CDL holder. I am self-taught at every level.
What are your previous careers?
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where I served as an in-flight medical specialist and did SOT (Special Operations Team) work. I received a commission and spent the remaining years doing work for various warfare communities (SPECWAR, Surface, Subsurface and Air), and then retired.
Later, I went to seminary and received ordination as a minister. I still do some ministerial things outside of “church” for groups.
How many miles or states have you driven a bus?
I know exactly how many miles I have in a motorcoach because I track every mile. As of Oct. 31, 2020, I have 1,813,178 miles. I have driven in 49 states and all the Canadian provinces, including the Yukon and Northwest Territories. I have also been to Mexico to do the Copper Canyon tour.
Along with buses, I’ve driven tankers in the oil fields along with flatbed, and box trucks.
What’s your favorite destination?
The Alaskan run, because of the diverse driving conditions and geography. Getting to see it behind the wheel, on several boats – inland passage, river paddle boats and the Stan Stephens cruise out of Valdez. The vast differences across the continent are amazing.
What’s your least favorite destination?
The Interstate 94 corridor from the Minnesota-Wisconsin line to Billings, Montana — BORING, and the weather can be brutal during winter travel.
From the driver’s seat perspective, what’s your favorite bus feature?
Air suspension in the driver’s seat.
The best compliment you’ve received?
“Thank you for keeping my child safe.”
How many years have you been a bus driver?
I began driving buses in 1992.
What’s your best piece of advice?
As in all things in life, use your eyes and gut intuition to evaluate a situation. One’s primordial instinct is generally right the first time.
From the driver’s seat perspective, what’s your favorite bus?
I’ve driven Van Hools, MCI and Prevost. I’m fond of MCI Js.
What’s your career highlight?
Getting to the point others see me for who and what I am — my legacy, if you will — to live life to its fullest measure so that there is no remorse. To experience what God has given me to live with.
Now, having said that, time is really the only thing that can’t be returned. I would hope that the people I’ve met would testify that I was willing to be present in the moment with them.
I choose to do this work. My office is a window to the world, allowing me to see the geography of North America. The people on the bus are my family. Just like the South Dakota slogan, “Great places, Great faces.”