Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Loneliest Road in America

Duane picked me up outside of Austin, Nevada, on Highway 50, the 'Loneliest Road in America.' But this title isn't based on any specific data. No one has waited at rest areas or little highway towns and conducted surveys on emotional states. They call it that because a 1986 article in Life Magazine started what the Nevada tourism board would successfully finish-synonomizing a length of painted asphalt with one of our deepest fears. The road "officially" begins in Fallon, Nevada, or Delta, Utah, whichever your orientation, and stretches straight across the northern Southwest, four hundred and nine long, dry, and generally desolate miles. There are only three inhabited towns on this strip, and other than these tiny nodes of civilization, it is just bleached salt-flats, erratic vegetation, and rolling hills of multicolored sand that reach as far as the eye can see. It is not uncommon to go an hour, or longer, without seeing another vehicle.

When I saw a smart new cargo van crest the hill, I didn't think it was going to stop (most newer vehicles, I have found, have a tendency to prefer not having a sweaty and potentially homicidal hitchhiker lounging on their leather seats), but as the van slowed to a stop beside me I could sense this driver was a little different. There was music blasting, some kind of electrical groove-type beats that ruptured the stillness of the morning air, and he didn't bother to turn it down as he pulled beside me and shouted through the open window.
"Where you headed?"
"East," I yelled back, "Utah."
His response was lost in the circulating sound waves, so I just opened the door and got in. "Name's Duane," he shouted as he punched the gas and tore down the hill.

We were soon sprinting out into the flats beyond Austin. Duane had one bare foot dug deep into the accelerator, and the other curled into his lap. The windows were open, the engine whined, and Duane was completely unwilling to turn down the music. We couldn't piece together a conversation until he steered onto a dirt pull-off an hour later and killed the engine. I finally got a good look at the guy. He wore dark sunglasses, a tropical button-up, and a floppy nursing home sun-hat with long strings cinched under his chin. Deep creases ran from under his glasses, the kind of worn channels you'd expect to find on someone who smiles too much, and they stretched down to disappear into a neatly trimmed and gray-speckled goatee. We exchanged pleasantries-I told him I was going to see the canyonlands in southeast Utah before returning home to Vermont, and he told me he was from "Be-zerk-ely, California," and was going to "intercept" his woman in Denver. I didn't really know what that meant and I didn't have to ask because he had already jumped in the back and was tossing around clothes and stuffing them into open drawers, washing dishes, and straightening the sheets on his fold-out cot. He said that he liked to clean house each morning, that it made the nights more enjoyable.

So I just sat on the step of the van's open door and looked out at the Nevada desert, a flat expanse of gray and brown sand pouring into ponds of sulphuric white, all interrupted by patches of scrawny sagebrush. It had been like this since Carson City, just a terrestrial moonscape, with about enough vegetation to hide a malnourished jackrabbit. A wasteland, yes, but a tantalizing one. The day before, in Fallon, I had walked a three mile stretch of straight road, waving my thumb at the few cars which blew past. The progress was immeasurable; the road was filed into a sharp pinpoint somewhere to the east, piercing a line of distant buttes as if plunging into a tunnel. The sun was uninhibited and the sky overbearing, but it was the silence that was really impressive. It was deep and profound, the kind of raw static that hurts your ears because they aren't used to the strain. But it wasn't lonely-not with beauty in every direction, the heckling sun, the whispering breeze, and the trusty white line at my feet. There is a difference between solitude and loneliness.
"Ready?" Duane interrupted.
"Oh. Yah. Sorry," I said jumping to my feet. "It's easy to daydream out here."

And then we were back on the road, straight as a runway, 85 mph, music pulsing, Duane drumming, me staring out the window watching a pair of buzzards criss-crossing in big swooping loops, like string-less black kites lost in a current. The land was becoming slightly more lush- oceans of russet and green earth pouring into distant buttes and illusory mountains the color of dark lavender. Serenity at its fullest. But as we crawled down the highway towards Ely, and the Utah border, Duane lost his calm. I wasn't sure what was happening at first. He had started talking about his mother, and how he missed his family. Tears welled up under his sunglasses and they began to spill down his cheeks.
"My aunt used to live right down that road, you know." He pointed down a gravel path which ran off into the desert and disappeared along a distant ridge. "We used to come out here every thanksgiving for the whole weekend...everyone." He choked himself up. "And my father, he was a real war hero, got the medal of valor over in Korea. Everyone looked up to him...my mother, my sister... the relatives...," he sputtered, "but they're all gone now." He was belligerent; tears soaked into the collar of his shirt, his voice heaved and wavered. I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there listening. I'd gotten used to people venting at me while hitchhiking, its part of the price you pay for a free ride, but I had never encountered a crier before. He went on about how his father gave the blessing at the Roses-something-or-other, and Bob Hope's funeral too, saying they were "good friends" after the war-I was catching every other word as the music blasted and the road hummed by. But then he went silent, his face tightened up, and he stared straight ahead at the rigid highway.

An hour later, as we passed through Ely, a small mining town of one story buildings and dusty store fronts, Duane loosened up. He started bouncing to the tunes again, as if the uncomfortable emotional episode was years in the past. I played along, nodding to the music as the little town disappeared in the rearview. I wouldn't have known what to say anyways. I can't even talk about feelings with my own mother.

About a hundred miles west of the Utah line, Duane asked if I would drive, and as soon as I settled into a steady pace, he fell asleep in the passenger seat, leaving me in a refreshing silence as I rolled across eastern Nevada. The highway soon climbed out of the flat basin and into ridges of golden and red sandstone which sprouted from the burnt earth like pyramids, seriating the blue horizon with sharp, jagged teeth. Islands of thick ashen clouds hovered above, their flat underbellies parallel to the earth. I could see why one might call this terrain remote, even hostile, but how can one be lonely with such primitive sublimity accompanying the body's every sense?

A truck driver once told me that you're not a true man of the road until you fall in love with a diner waitress. I had laughed, thinking of the irritable and hair-netted greasers that littered my diner memories with an almost caricature-like distortion-no, no thanks, I had thought, I'll keep my options open. But a few weeks earlier I had been in Bismarck, North Dakota, and it was raining, and cars rolled by my soggy sign despite my best little-lost-boy eyes. I was 1,800 miles from home, filthy, and sick of walking, tired of standing in the hot sun and the pouring rain, tired of apathetic travelers, unfamiliar faces, and lurking in the shadows of city parks and highway overpasses for a secluded place to sleep-or wait, deep into the night until even the crickets stopped and the mosquitoes drifted away. I ended up in a 24-hour neon diner, an insular light amidst a strip of box stores and gray, dismal concrete.

And there was this girl, and I swear she was dancing across the checkered linoleum floor, smiling and giggling as she filled tawny mugs with dark drip coffee. It was as if there was nowhere she'd rather be on a rainy Saturday afternoon than in velcro loafers, smiling and talking to strangers. She was young, maybe 19, and had a spark in her eyes that only young girls have, the kind of tender flicker that still believes in love stories and high school sweethearts. I remember her shiny auburn curls pulled tightly into a pony tail, bound tight except for a few crimped strands which flirted in front of her eyes and bounced freely as she laughed.

Before she had even come over to my seat at the counter, I was ready to drop everything right then, to make North Dakota my home. I figured with my carpentry experience I could find a construction job, stockpile some healthy American debt on a little house and a V8 pickup, marry this girl and have a houseful of children. But I only ordered a coffee, and sat there watching the rain pour over the well-lit windows, illuminated against the dark summer afternoon. I would have given anything for a familiar face.

At some point, the rain slowed and I walked back to I-94, flagged down a rusty red jeep, and rolled off towards Montana.

I realized then, looking over at Duane sleeping in the passenger seat, that loneliness isn't particular-and any road will do. His just happened to be Highway 50. I soon reached Delta, where 50 splits south, and kept on driving. Duane continued to sleep. The deep creases on his face were swollen red and his body had finally succumbed to an idling stillness. I wondered if he would ever "intercept" his woman, or if there ever was a woman, or if it even matters. I woke him in Crescent Junction, Utah, and stood awkwardly on the roadside while he wrote his phone number on a slip of paper. Then he hopped behind the wheel and disappeared towards Denver. ¤ 

Prostitution, drugs, and diesel fuel

I never used to think too much about truck stops. A fill-up, coffee, maybe a short jaunt to stretch the legs, and then it was gone from my memory as fast as it could vanish in the rear-view. But that was before I decided to travel around the country by thumb, before I fell in love with the Midwest, before I spent the night nestled behind a hulking Peterbilt outside of Dickinson, North Dakota. Of course it could have never happened. I could have easily been passed-by back in Bismarck by that red Honda, or the Jeep in Duluth, or even the '85 Aerostar in Mackinac City, and I never would've ended up standing on the graveled shoulder across from the Tiger Discount.

The Tiger sat on an acre or two of dirty asphalt, planted clumsily at the crossroads of I-94, 36th Street, and nothing much else but a few hay fields and an industrial power plant. I had just caught a long ride out of Bismarck, escaping an electrical storm that was still discharging across the flat eastern skyline, and was hoping to reach Montana before nightfall. It was looking good too, a steady flow of traffic, a healthy inventory of International, Kenworth, Volvo, and Freightliner idling in formation along one side of the parking lot and only another sixty miles to the state line. But it was hot, and I decided to sit in the shade of the building for a while before hitting the on-ramp.

It wasn't a large truck stop. It didn't even have a restaurant or service garage, only a blockish convenience store and an addition in the back which housed showers and a locker room for the truckers. Fueling islands sprouted from the grease stained blacktop on either side of the store, state and U.S. flags stretching up like saplings, their cloth hanging limp in the static summer air. Inside, a duo of gigantic women were working the register. They were clearly sisters, almost identical in charm and rotundity, and I watched them for awhile as they snarled at customers, barking prices, and waddling to snatch cigarettes which they slapped down on the counter in exhausted grunts. But I was eager to reach Montana, and soon made my way back across the road, laid my pack against a sign post and threw my thumb West.

It wasn't long before my initial confidence dwindled into the feeling that I might be spending some time at the Tiger. Cars were speeding past, trucks lumbering by, wearing wonderful license plates of destinations I wanted to go Montana, Washington, California. The sky began to turn from a soft Carolina blue to a thick, smooth cobalt, the color of the ocean in pictures from space. Burly truckers in tank tops were filing out of their cabs carrying dainty toiletry kits, headed for the showers inside.

But for some reason I wasn't anxious. I felt like I could stand there all night and just relish the beauty of this insular palace. Now I don't want to come off as a screwball with some kind of a truck-stop fetish, but the place really did fascinate me. It had its own quirky and capricious culture a mini civilization that is always in flux, never sleeping, never stopping a pulsing node of the road, a hodgepodge of randomness, a spontaneous neon bulb, a place where anonymity finally meets itself. That's really what it was. A light bulb on the summer porch of the Midwest, where buzzing motorists, June bug truckers, drawn in by the promising beacon, bat and bump around the place, stick to the wall, then chase some light further down the road.

There's no use hitchhiking after dusk. The darker it gets, the more you look like a serial killer advertising on the road's shoulder. So I walked back across the road and sat on a bench outside the store, watching the sun dive into the smoldering western horizon. An elderly couple was walking a pair of shelties on the grassy knoll by their camper. Three middle aged rednecks were drinking beer on the tailgate of a new Dodge pickup. A slick black BMW with tinted windows pulled up nearby, a sleazy looking grease-head with a beautiful blonde in the passenger seat, and picked up a trucker in a black leather vest, WWF t-shirt, and long straggly hair. They pulled away and returned after a few minutes, the trucker walking off to his rig content, a little nose fuel, most likely, for the long ride ahead.

The sun had dropped away completely, a murky cloak of ebony had swept across the sky, suffocating the last swathe of pastel light, a smoky salmon splashed over dark lavender and cornered it against the flat plains. I walked to the back of the lot, toward the hay fields on the eastern edge, to scout for a secluded place where I could sleep. Next to an old broken down van and unhitched tractor-trailer I found a nice nook of grass with an uninhibited view of the big night sky. Night time preparations. Teeth-brushing, sleeping bag unrolling. I pissed on the tire of the van and a surprised female head popped out. I mumbled a dumb apology and grabbed my pack and bedroll to move further down the periphery. The van door opened again and a skinny deer of a man shuffled across the lot and climbed into a Freightliner. A light flicked on in the van and a silhouette bobbed around near the front. Ahhh, I thought to myself, the lot lizard (Truckstopicae americanus), I'd heard of these. A primarily nocturnal critter, they are often found lurking the perimeters of interstate truck stops, knocking on cabin doors, smiling and looking pretty-but some have even adapted further to their environment, avoiding the dangerous asphalt wasteland through the use of CB radios and slang terminology, coaxing their prey to some furtive nest on the shadowy outskirts.

The dull purr of idling engines resonated through the night air, mixing with diesel fumes that seduced me into an intoxicated stupor. I slept well; dreaming of feral truck-stops of prostitution, drugs, and diesel fuel; comforted by the prospect that some of America's seedy past has slipped through the cracks. 

Lonely Nights: a fiction piece

He's not from around here and he knows it. Cars splash by, their wipers frantically racing across the windshield, and then disappear into the night. He walks the muddy streets with timid caution, as if at any moment they might stop short and drop off the edge of the world. Under the overhanging roof of an illuminated gas station he stops and unwraps his tattered road atlas. He knew he was in Wisconsin, not too far from Duluth and the Minnesota border, but there were no signs nearby that could tell him where exactly.

He doesn't have much, just a pack and what's on his thin, wiry body. He looks older than how he thinks he feels. He lies about his name, changing it to suit his particular attitude. See, when you're moving so much its tough to tack down at any specific point who you really are. It's like your identity becomes fluid, or flexible, and each town is a chance to be someone else, so he just goes with it. He wants to go home, back to Oklahoma, but he's afraid of marrying someone from high school and becoming his father. So now he just smiles at pretty girls in the street, hoping they will remember him, or at least ponder his existence for more than a fleeting glance. He has more than once fallen in love with a diner waitress in a small, empty town, and then vanished quietly along the painted lines of the nearest highway.

It's getting late, dark, and cold. He asks the clerk, who's outside smoking a cigarette, if there is a campground or park nearby where he could put down his tent. She tells him to try down by the lake, so he walks in the direction she pointed and occasionally ducks under buildings and large trees for a break from the rain. It's nights like these that he thinks most about Oklahoma, about the little town he knew so well that he had to get out. It wasn't that he disliked the place or anything, he just can't stop moving, not even for a few days. He remembers how earlier that year he stayed in Missoula for a close to a week and woke up in the middle of the night with a convulsing need to be somewhere else. He packed up his tent and walked through the night to the next town.

The RV Park by the lake has a sign that reads "No Tent Camping," but he is wet and tired. There is a covered picnic area with tables and he sits there looking out at the lake as strings of lightning flash across the night sky. He sees a small building, a public restroom, and as rain hammers down on the roof he shaves his chin in the murky, scratched mirror and then washes his hair in the sink with a bar of soap. He wonders where he will sleep. He doesn't want to wake up to a policeman rapping on his tent like back in Mackinac City. He really doesn't like policemen; they always see him for something he isn't.

But all he wants to do is sleep. He walks out into the rain towards a grassy pier which juts out in the bay and finds a lone picnic table. He crawls underneath where the ground isn't so wet and unpacks his bedroll. The table encloses him like a cocoon but he doesn't feel trapped. In his pack is a half loaf of bread and he rips off a chunk and leans back, resting his weary head. He thinks about Oklahoma, about home, but he knows it'll only last till the morning when the sun rises and burns away the night's dampness. 

Cowboy Up

I'm in a pickup truck in Kit Carson County, Colorado, about 100 miles east of Denver. I haven't seen a Subaru or a Thule rack in days-just dusty Ford's, cowboy hats, and rolling crop grids that shimmer in the August heat. Manny is balancing a cigarette on his lower lip as he holds the wheel and sings along to a Conway Twitty tape that's crackling through the blown-out speakers. Back at the truck stop in Limon, where I had sat for close to three hours, Manny was the only one to pull up to my thumb. "I can get ya as far as Siebert," he had said through a toothy smile.

He's a tall stick of a man, maybe in his late twenties, with a taut red face pinched around a thick blonde mustache and over sized blue eyes. Above his sweat-stained tank top and I can see daddy tried... tattooed on his collar bone, and along his right bicep, Cowboy Up is printed in dark italics. Blue jeans hug his skinny legs, tight enough to make a teeny-bopper blush, and tuck effortlessly into a pair of red and black Tony Llamas. Empty beer cans clank around the cab floor, rolling back under the seat when he punches the clutch. The truck is a mess; a tan F-250, late 80's, with the flat bench torn out and replaced with two bucket seats. All the interior panels have been ripped out, exposing greasy tan metal and electrical wires which hang like tangled vines at our knees. In Genoa, where we had stopped for beer, Manny had to pop the hood and pour gas in the carburetor to get the starter to catch.

We're driving on the dirt portage road parallel to I-70 because the pickup won't drive on the highway. "She starts tremblin' up around sixty," Manny explains with a grin. But I don't mind much. It's the kind of golden summer day where even a dusty road shoulder looks beautiful and exotic. And the land really is golden like they tell you back east-wheat for miles in every direction, almost ablaze under the blue sky.

Siebert is a flat grid of trailers and plastic houses wrapped around a grain elevator and railroad tracks. Each yard is fenced off with crooked fencing and strewn with fisher-price play sets, kiddie pools, and barking dogs who leap at the fence as we drive by. There is no one outside. "It's been hotter than hell this summer," Manny says as we pull up to a light green mobile home. Two small dogs bark in the yard until Manny kicks one of them in the ribcage. I meet Krystal, who's pregnant and smoking a cigarette on the couch while a baby sleeps next to her. Spandex pants and an over sized t-shirt make her look like a bloated frog. "You can't be in here while he sleeps," she says, but Manny just wants to borrow a few smokes before heading out back. I wait in the mudroom, which is also the kitchen-a skeletal room with two heaping trash cans, a half case of Pepsi, and a few piles of dirty dishes. House flies buzz around the windows. A mangy looking sheltie lies under the table.

The baby wakes up anyways, and Manny dangles it above his head while it giggles and then he smokes a cigarette with Krystal on the couch. I sit in a Lazy-Boy, drinking and watching the baby wobble and stretch for an emaciated kitten sitting on the window sill. The faux-cherry walls are hung with images of western landscapes, cowboys, and Jesus. Above the couch is a shelf lined with mementos-an effigy of mother Mary, a caste of an Indian's head, an artistic cowboy boot made of blue and white china, a portrait of the baby. The carpet is littered with children's toys. A wood-framed television buzzes an outdated Gary Allan song. "You can crash here tonight if you want," Manny tells me.

We're back in the truck driving to a friend's house. The sun has dropped and the air is less sticky; the town is silent. We pull up to a double-wide where two men are outside at a plastic table smoking cigarettes. One of them has a dog on a leash and he brings Manny inside the house to show him something while I sit drinking with the other, an older man with a tanned, grizzled face. He stinks like cheap bear and sweat, but I probably do too. His work pants, t-shirt and baseball cap are a uniform brown, greasy and faded like spilt coffee. "I don't get it," he says, "yur just hitchhikin' to hitchhike?"

Manny comes back outside deciding we need more beer. We jump in the pickup and tear down a straight dirt road between fields of wheat and corn to the nearest store still open. He guns the truck through empty intersections, spitting dirt long, deep tracks in the rear-view. "Yup," he says, "got another fifty horsepower out of her with a few Pulstar spark plugs and a welded piston." At the convenience store in Cope, Manny has to pour more gas in the carburetor. He turns the key, flames burst from the cylinder, and he lets out a WHOOP as he jumps behind the wheel.

Halfway back to Seibert, Manny asks if I want to drive, and I do. We stop, piss, and switch. Its dark and the beam of the headlights are tunneled straight ahead by the walls of corn on either shoulder. The steering wheel jerks and tugs as I spring over washboards and maneuver the maze-like grid. I feel like I'm hydroplaning. The rushing dirt road blurs out my window, but the speedometer only reads thirty-five. At that point I would have torn through a field if Manny said it was OK.
We're back at Krystal's trailer, safe, and it's late, and June-bugs are slapping at the aluminum door under the glowing porch light. Some house down the street is hooting and hollering but I can't make out what they're saying. Manny goes straight into the back bedroom while I sit in the living room drinking more beer and watching country music videos on the television. The twangs of George Strait's steel guitar soon tangle with Krystal's excited moaning in the next room, but I'm too drunk to care.

They come out a half hour later to smoke a cigarette and Manny shows me his collection of cowboy boots. "I can give you a ride to just about the Kansas line in the morning," he says.

The next day I'm sitting in the Lazy-Boy anxious to get back on the road while the baby is climbing over my legs and the rest of the room, banging a cordless phone on the coffee table, and sucking on a cigarette lighter. Krystal is on the couch, smoking and drawing a tattoo in a sketchpad with loopy cursive reading Love Hurts. She occasionally glances over with a scrunched face as if trying to figure out why I was still sitting in her living room. It smells like cigarettes and musty diapers. Flies buzz, the baby shrieks, Manny snores, Krystal hums some lullaby. My head throbs. I feel like I just got sucker punched by America.

When Manny does wake up it's almost noon. He comes out of the back bedroom in only his jeans and cowboy boots. His eyes are red and his thin blonde hair is matted into sweaty tufts that jut out at wild angles. I figure I look no better. "Ready?" he asks, and I collect my pack as we walk to his truck which doesn't start again.