I can hear my audiobook about the moon landings chattering away. The hum of the engine.
The thump-thump of the wheels running over tar bumps in the pavement.
I’ve been on the road for ten hours.
Left from Ohio. Now that I’m in Kansas, the sun is setting.
The light is blinding.
There was a gentle roll to the landscape back in Indiana and then Illinois. Dead grass and green trees on either side of the road.
To be honest, they basically looked the same.
Over the giant metal girder bridge over the Mississippi River into Missouri.
Past green signs for Mark Twain National Forest.
And now hours of Kansas with its eternal tracks of farmland.
Dark lines mark the expanse of earth on either side of the highway.
I’m driving west and sun is setting.
The sun sets for hours on end in Kansas. There’s nothing in its way.
The sun visor is worthless. Sunglasses are useless against the blaze.
End to end, the horizon is all the colors you would see in a fireplace.
A fireplace the size of the sky.
Hurts to look at. Must truck straight into it for just under three hours more.
Though the road is so straight you could probably clamp your eyes, hold the wheel in place and do OK. Or wedge the steering wheel in one position with a folded jacket and nap. Elon Musk, I found you a budget cutter.
But no, you can’t really do that. Gentle corrections must always be made on this road that looks straight as a Roman column.
Squinting through purple-green after images. Watery, sun-tired eyes. Watching for cows.
Squint through the sun till your eyebrows & cheeks cramp up.
Blind. Still driving.
And when I can’t see what Kansas looks like anymore, I notice what it smells like.
Often, cow droppings.
But it is better when I pass a wheat farm.
“In wheat, Kansas can beat the world,” as the quote goes.
The Wheat State, it got named that.
Oceans of blonde wheat on either side of the road.
Why wrestle for originality?
Those, on either side of the road, are the amber waves of grain.
Now America the Beautiful is stuck in my head.
I sing it alone in the car. Keeps me awake.
The wheat farms often have a bakery.
The bakeries fill the whole evening with the aroma of baked bread.
To drive west through Kansas in the evening is to squint through a blinding but beautiful sunset, and smell baked bread.
Hours later, sun tears running down my cheeks, I pull up to the house of a childhood friend.
He was the host of countless penny poker nights & basketball games. Pool parties.
We do tequila shots.
I show off Rhodie, the truck.
Friend compliments the squarish body & old-truck-smell of the ’94 vehicle. It was manufactured in the final years before every vehicle on the road was shaped like a muffin.
It’s a workhorse. A couple new parts & it’s trekking across the nation. Haul supplies to a lodge-building project out in the middle of nowhere.
Friend brings out leftover loaded mac n’ cheese to eat. It’s a blessing.
Craft beers & catching up after.
I’m behind schedule. I’ve got hours left to drive.
Night & morning.
We have a Tex-Mex Kansas breakfast. Hot coffee and burritos loaded with scrambled eggs, bacon, salsa, & guac.
I started trucking when the work day ended. Made it into Ohio after midnight.
Billy & his wife, who I have not met yet are asleep.
But they left the door unlocked for me. I have instructions for getting to the guest room.
Wow, I get to wake up and see family (& new family) I haven’t seen in years.
I let myself into the condo in the complex. Head on the pillow, memories of Billy’s visits back in the day arrive before sleep does.
Yes, back in the days of dueling with telescoping lightsabers, Billy was always the Sith lord with the red blade.
When the game wasn’t Star Wars, it was Robin Hood on logs that fell over the brook back behind my family’s old house.
When it wasn’t Robin Hood, the game was any war from the American Revolution to Vietnam. Though come to think of it, I don’t think we ever played Korean war games in plastic helmets out in the woods.
I don’t know if any kids play make-believe Korean War.
The condo is empty when I wake up. Billy & Mrs. are at work.
A make-yourself-at-home note on the counter from Billy makes it clear, once and for all, that I slept in the correct condo last night.
A day of naps and listening to music. Glad not to be driving.
Then Billy & Sarah are back from work. Hugs, catch-ups & dinner time ensue.
The next day, I need to grab some hole-free workboots from town.
Billy recommends Menards.
“How does their theme song go?” Billy asks.
They’re not in my region. I don’t know.
“Anything you want at Menards,” Billy sings.
And I offer, to the tune of My Favorite Things:
“Whistles, and pencils, and new playing cards, these are my favorite things at Menards.”
It’s a hit. We riff on lyrics in loud baritones, sung in no scale Eastern, Western, avante garde, or otherwise. It’s cacophany.
“When the Israelites were promised the promised land!
They marched to Menards hand in hand!”
We can’t get enough of these songs.
“Boys are so stupid,” says Sarah from the backseat, after the final verse.
Impeccable comic timing. It sends Billy & I into fits of laughter.
But despite the promises, Menards doesn’t have the workboots I need. We try two more stores before I get them.
We decide to test them with a hike down by the river.
Down by the current we skip rocks.
More dumb jokes about Menards.
Kinda stuff we did a decade and a half ago.
The goofing around groove is easy to find again.
Next we’re back at his condo. He’s got a pond view. We bundle up, pour whiskeys, and sit in camp chairs next to his duck pond.
“You’re married,” I tell him. “That makes you older & wiser than me, regardless of our actual ages.”
We clink glasses. Sip the whiskey.
“I love marriage,” Catholic Billy muses. “It makes me think about what it would be like to be a monk.”
I swallow Tullamore D.E.W. and laugh.
“No, as in what they actually give up when they do that. I used to think, ‘how hard could being a monk be?’ Now I know.”
On the condo bookshelf, among volumes of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, is a framed card.
The card reads:
“There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint.”
Could this really be the Billy who once broke into a distillery with then-fellow hellions to steal a barrel of whiskey?
This couldn’t be the same Billy who once teamed up with his friends to run metal wires across the train tracks and fasten them to fences on either side. They hoped that the great metal engine would catch the wires and uproot the fence.
They had visions of metal posts and chainlink fence-ends plowing great V-shaped tracks into the Maryland earth, making grooves running for miles, metal sparking and screaming all the way.
A whole town down the line monkey-wrenched by late tankards of milk, gas, and oil. But the train snapped through the wires and bouldered onward unfazed. The anti-climax bummed out the jokers & smokers bunkered in the hedges, Billy among them.
That was back in the mullet & Marlboro days. This is now.
Military school & marriage. It will modify a man.
We talk about life late into the night. Grab our guitars and jam.
Trucking the final ten miles to my first stop on the way out west.
I’ve been driving since just after 5pm.
I’m charging towards a wall of milky fog.
The fog is slithering all over the road.
It’s rising up my windshield as I drive farther.
Yellow diamond-shaped signs with ‘Deer X-ing’ are posted every few miles on this road.
I hit a high wall of fog. Now I’m driving blind. High beams make it worse.
I ease off the gas even though I just want to plow through these last ten miles and get some sleep.
But there could be a deer standing in this stewy, soggy fog.
There could be anything in here.
Mind phantoms dance in the fog.
Shapes that look like an animal or a human face with a giant forehead. Big teeth.
It’s like picking shapes out of storm clouds.
The green glowing numbers on my speedometer flicker.
Every light on my truck dies.
I’m bowling blind through the night. Release the accelerator completely.
The lights return.
Then the needle on the speedometer jumps from 40mph to 60mph.
But my pedal pressure is the same as it has always been. The RPMs are the same. They are not whining louder.
Though the fog makes it hard to tell, I am driving the same speed.
The needle quivers and dives down to zero miles per hour.
But I’m still going at a speed that feels like 40mph.
Now the speedometer licks up to 40 but then crashes to zero. Whips across the entire dial to point at 100mph.
All lies. My speed is not changing. The needle is possessed.
The truck is old.
She’s mechanically sound, but she has emotional problems.
Just under ten more miles to Warren.
I got sick of hearing my music and wanted some quiet.
Running in silence. Deaf to the engine hum after these hours.
Rhodie, the truck, starts beeping.
I slap the dash. The beeping stops. The engine starts hiccuping and coughing. It makes the ride bumpy.
If I break down, I can pull the bike out of the bed and get to town.
And then…what? Nothing will be open. Still. I can bike somewhere. I can do something. Or I can pull over, pull my sleeping bag out of the back, and nap in the cab till dawn.
Let some cop rap on the window with his flashlight. Demand to search the truck.
Rhodie, get it together.
We are this close to town. Get me a few miles more and tomorrow, I will buy you everything you want and anything you need. Fluid top off, new spark plugs, spa day, you name it.
The lights flicker again.
Those clunking sounds in the engine jolt the driver’s seat.
Little farther, please.
I pull off the road, cross a bridge, and drive through a brick downtown.
My Airbnb is only point eight miles away.
I park in a garage across the street as instructed by the host. Grab the two most important bags from the bed. Pull the bike out too. Pull a tarp over the landscaping supplies and food. They’re not as attractive to thieves as the bike would be.
Two backpacks and one guitar on my back, I bike to the Airbnb.
The first floor door is unlocked. That’s weird.
I walk the bike up three flights of stairs.
My Airbnb’s room is unlocked, too. I call into the room to see if the unlocked door is because the host or last last guest is still inside. Or if someone broke into this Airbnb.
No answer. Tiny kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all empty. All closets empty. There’s a key on a red piece of yarn on the table. I lock the door, and go to bed.
I find a note on a chair I didn’t see last night explaining the unlocked doors. Honor system.
The place is very clearn. The bedroom and kitchen are squished into one room. The closet-sized bathroom with a plastic cubicle for a shower crammed into it. It looks retrofitted. Like the apartment didn’t always have a shower.
Showered and shaved, I’m walking on the same street I drove down last night with brick buildings on either side. I pass a stone statue. The bridge over the river I drove across. I want to check the bed of the truck for missing items.
A woman in a parka and gloves is walking past me. She says good morning and smiles. I say it back, surprised. Two more people do this.
In the parking garage, nothing is missing from the truck bed.
This town. No litter. Nobody sleeping behind dumpsters. No locks on the Airbnb. Every stranger says hello.
Clearly, they don’t know about evil in Warren, Pennsylvania.
I need to do one more day of work before my vacation begins. I work from my laptop on a cafe all day. It has a few tables and big leather chairs with a coffee table near a gas fireplace.
“I don’t recognize you,” the barista says when I order an Americano and breakfast burrito.
She is surprised to see someone new. I’m surprised she expects to recognize her customers.
I explain the truck. The journey west. The land. She beams.
Halfway through the workday, I step out to buy a phone charger.
When I come back, the manager makes eye contact with me.
“How’s your road trip going?” she asks. “How’s the truck?”
I ask how she knows about those things.
“Word gets around fast here,” she says.
The coffee shop empties out. I’m still working.
“Are you closing?” I ask the manager.
She is wiping tables down with a rag.
“Oh, we closed ten minutes ago, but you looked so busy we let you stay. I just can’t let you back in once you leave.”
I thank her. Finish work. Bag up the laptop and cables. Say goodbye.
It’s time to check the truck’s fluid levels.
Test a couple of theories about what caused last night’s moodiness in drive performance.
I come back to the parking garage with my bags.
A yellow parking ticket is tucked under the wiper blade of the truck. Thirty-five dollars. Payable by mail or online.