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The miles mount up, thousands upon thousands of them over the years, as John Whittaker drives his daily trash route around the Salt Lake Valley.

Whittaker's run starts on the dot at 6:24 a.m. That's when he climbs into his Peterbilt front-loading garbage truck in Midvale and heads to the alleys around the Capitol Theatre and Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

From there, he drives a long, horseshoe-shaped route that takes him to the south end of the valley and then up to Kearns, where he finishes his day. He visits libraries, rec centers, retirement homes and golf courses along the way.

In 11 years on the job with the Salt Lake County Sanitation District, Whittaker has racked up at least 275,000 miles. He's never been in an accident — except for the time when a guy ran a yield sign and slammed into the rear of his truck.

That spotless driving record, plus kudos for customer service, has earned Whittaker, 54, a plane trip to Dallas next month. There, he will be recognized as national truck driver of the year in the public sector by the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

Whittaker deserves the honor, says Lorna Vogt, associate director of operations at the sanitation district.

"He is one of those sanitation drivers who is always there doing his job to the best of his abilities," Vogt said. "That's what he does. He's just the kind of person you want to have working for you."

Whittaker loves his job. The cab of his truck is a sort of a port in the storm. He likes solitude. Supervisors rarely call him on the two-way radio. He likes his time behind the wheel so much that he almost never takes a vacation unless told to. Whittaker has 390 vacation hours in the bank.

"If we could clone him, we'd have a bunch of him," said Andy King, Whittaker's supervisor.

The job is also interesting, if for no other reason because of the antics of other motorists. From his seat high above the highways, he sees things other drivers in lower vehicles probably would miss.

"I saw a guy pouring milk and cereal into a bowl. I saw another guy putting shaving cream on his face," Whittaker said. "I-15, that's where all the action is."

Whittaker used to hang sheetrock before he became a trash hauler for the county. His doctor, though, told him he was getting too old for taxing physical work. So on the suggestion of his cousins — and drawn by the possibility of a generous retirement program — he started with the county. After a decade, he feels like he has two families: his own and the fellowship of his workmates.

"Heck, yeah, I like it. I enjoy it quite a bit," he said.

The award means a lot to Whittaker, since he doesn't think the public values the service he and other trash haulers provide.

"I always wanted to be recognized for the work I do and [for] my driving skills," he said.

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