Tuesday, October 25, 2011

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. 

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