Packing up, left Baton Rouge at 6:15 PM. I move across the bridge, west to Lafayette. I’m passing through Nachitoches, town of Christmas lights. No time to stop and gawk. Low hills, the lights of towns nestled in the little valleys. I stop to shoot one such town at the limits of my camera.
Through Shreveport, I get onto US 71. C calls back: she’s got the night off, sent home from third shift because of production line issues. Her warm feminine voice in the speakers and assiduous overwatch from Google Maps would be with me through the night. Two lanes wind through northern Louisiana. The land rises and falls, Gilliam and Hosston, cell phone service comes and goes as I approach the Arkansas border.
This is the old truck route and a weigh station on the Arkansas side says they’re tired of fixing this road all the time. This is about as rural as it gets in the United States.
Hugging the west bank of the Mississippi, passing through Fouke, Arkansas, the garishly floodlit Tony Alamo Christian Ministries is on the west side of the road. A pang of embarrassment surges through me, to remember Tony Alamo, maker of sequined jeans, cult leader, diddler of little girls, tax evader. He’s now serving 107 years in Terre Haute – this chump can call himself a Christian. I suppose anyone can call himself a Christian. Part of the burden, to follow Jesus is to seen among such people.
Near Mena, I stop to stretch my legs. In the Men’s room, a sign says “Please do not flush paper products in the toliet. In another hand, a bit of graffiti notes: “You misspelled toilet. And you should be using toilet paper for septic systems. This stuff could be used for a writing tablet.” Another bit of graffiti, in a third hand reads “Welcome to Redneck Arkansas”.
Curling around the east side of Texarkana, cutting back on I-30 to find US 71 again, crossing the Red River. Stop at DeQueen at the corner of 70 and 71 to stretch my legs and get caffeine. The truck has become my little spaceship again, moving north. It’s a little colder, not much, still no snow.
Gilham, Grannis, Wickes, each town’s poles features electric light Christmas decorations: snowmen, Christmas trees, reindeer and the like. Houses draped in lights, rooflines and eaves defined in the dark. Downshifting into each town, keeping to 45 miles per hour, then upshifting as the town peters out.
The moon is full, illuminating a thin cover of clouds. No stars, only Jupiter appears in a little gap of sky. In this light, the terrain can be seen, like a child’s landscape made of successive layers of colored paper. At Acorn, the Ouachita forest begins in earnest. The road winds through ancient mountains, now worn down. I am pretty much alone out here in the night. The occasional car comes over a ridge, we turn down our bright lights, then flick them back on. Tall trees arch up over the road. The cell phone only works near towns: I talk to C, knowing the phone will stop working in a few minutes.
In the valley below, Fort Smith appears, I had no idea it was so large a town. Trying to find my way through to 540, I end up on 71-B. C talks me back onto the right road, my own angel, far away, yet as close as my car stereo, zooming in on Google Maps.
I stop to get more coffee at a Waffle House, a scruffy figure in a variant of Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks painting. Here 71 becomes I-540, a good divided road with two lanes on each side. At Fayetteville it turns back into 71 and the caffeine loses its grip on my brain. At Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart, featuring more hotels per resident than I’ve ever seen, I pull off into a rest stop for an hour of sleep at 6:30 AM. C says she’ll call me in an hour.
Sitting upright, my head leaning back, I fall asleep immediately and dream of Julian Assange in his prison cell. At 7:30, I wake on my own, refreshed. Across 71 is a large pond, with geese calling. I put the truck in gear, wait for the Bentonville commuters and roar across 71 to the other side, to photograph the geese on the water. I set up my tripod and start shooting. The light is good, but weak, a strange pink coming through the clouds and trees to the east.
C calls. I’m already up. I cross into Missouri, into a land of sedimentary rock, thin brown grass and cattle. West on I-40 for a few miles at Joplin, I cut back north onto 71 again for a long haul, due north to Harrisonville. C goes to sleep. I listen to Kansas City NPR, the usual suspects, and a talk show bemoaning Kansas City’s lack of public transportation options. Next door on the radio dial, a college station furnishes more nourishing fare of a musical sort. Here 71 ends and 435 begins: the ring road around Kansas City.
Lord God, Kansas City is a big old burg. A storage facility is cut into the limestone. At last I merge onto I-35 the road to Minneapolis. Now it is nothing but miles and the odometer. The wind blows, the edges of my truck whistle all the way to Iowa. Here and there, as I move north, a little snow appears in the shadows of the grass.
At a rest stop in Iowa, a young family packs an infant and a girl perhaps three years old into car seats. I find a child’s doll in the men’s restroom. I come back out, the family’s still there, almost ready to leave. I wave at them and get their attention. “Did you leave a doll in the men’s restroom?” The father yells, “Yes!” and hurries back to the building. The doll’s owner sits imperturbably in her car seat. “I’ve raised three kids.” I said “and I can only imagine the hell of losing that doll between here and Minneapolis.” We laugh, that rueful laugh shared only by veterans of the parent wars. The mother and I strike up a conversation until he comes back. They’re headed to Minneapolis, too. “The snowline is about halfway through Iowa” she says.
The sun begins to set as I come through Des Moines. C calls me, another marathon phone session begins. She checks the weather radars, things don’t look good. We figure the Interstate will be okay though. A hundred miles south of the Minnesota state line, a heavy sleet begins to fall. The red and blue lights of accident sites, cars and trucks slid off into the deep snow. The yellow lights of plow trucks, the hiss of salt falling onto the road, the way becomes dangerous.
A wind begins to blow, my wipers are going constantly. Ice forms on my side mirrors. A sheet of black ice appears in the road and I slide down the embankment, into the median between North and South I-35.
A quick check: the truck is still running and there’s no getting out and no point in spinning the tires. I’m in at least 50 cm of snow. I call 911 and report my position. Within two minutes, a Good Samaritan stops on the southbound side of the Interstate. I wade through the snow, cross the road and get into his car. He has a local phonebook: we call the nearest towing service. Another car slides off the road on the northbound side. I thank the Good Samaritan profusely, cross the road and wait in the truck. I’ve got water, blankets and enough fuel.
My consulting firm calls. A surreal conversation ensues: have I checked my email today? The project director needs to talk to you about onboarding tomorrow. I explain I’m stuck in deep snow, with cars sliding off the road all around me at the Minnesota state line. I will check my email at the next stop, when I get out of this predicament.
The patrol car arrives first. I wade out into the snow again, up the embankment. A pleasant, tubby man, he works both accident scenes, the usual show of driver’s licenses and plate checks. The tow truck arrives, efficiently pulling my truck up the embankment backwards, now facing the wrong way. The patrol car stops traffic northbound to get my truck turned around. I pay the tow truck 97 dollars in cash, just about everything I had in my pocket.
I get back to my truck, try to find my phone. It’s disappeared. I have the tow truck guy try to call it, to locate it. It doesn’t ring. The Bluetooth link from the phone to the truck stereo is still engaged. I feel around for the phone, on the verge of tears. The tow truck guy leaves, getting on to his next engagement. I finally find it, fallen down into my bag of toiletries, and call C.
I put the truck back in gear and limp north with no more damage than a hairline crack in my windshield at the bottom. I pass car after car, slid off the road. To my left, a semi carrying a load of new cars slides off the road into the embankment, crushing another car at the bottom. Nobody could have survived in the car below.
My mind resorts to tricks it hasn’t used in many years. This is an Incident. It happened, and an inventory of my body parts and possessions is complete and accounted for. Though others have died, I am alive and responsible for my actions and I will have my little much-needed emotional breakdown when I’m on my hind legs and can afford it. The road is very bad. The truck is still slipping. Ice has formed on my wiper blades and I dare not get out and clean them until the next exit, the town of Albert Lea.
I drag my laptop and bag into the truck stop, retrieve the day’s email and make my calls, trying to suppress the symptoms of latent PTSD boiling up like lava. The director is a great guy, some people are obviously competent. I call Tara at the consulting company, clue her in. She asks for an email when I get to my hotel.
I call C back, and curse the snow and ice. I’d chosen this gig because it was as close as I could get to her, and she knew it. She sagely observed I was not making much sense and should probably just get a hotel. No, I replied, work will redeem me. I need to get up there and start. I’ve been horribly sick, I got better, yes I’ve only had one hour of sleep in 25 hours, but I simply can’t stop here or I’ll come unglued.
I stand smoking in the falling snow and sleet as I let the truck run to heat the windshield. The rime of ice loosens and I scrape what I can from the mirrors. Finally putting the truck in gear, I crunch through the ice, fishtailing up the ramp back onto I-35.
The remaining 120 miles into Minneapolis were a nonstop horror. I called ahead to the hotel and the night clerk said he’d be there. After making a wrong turn onto I-35 W toward Minneapolis instead of I-35 East toward St. Paul and getting turned around, I finally arrived at 11:30.
The air was crisp and frigid, the wet sleet falling thin and evil in the parking lot lights, even the sound of the descending aircraft was muffled in the falling snow. I pulled up as close to the door as I could get, loaded the noisy luggage cart with absolute necessities and pulled the truck into a parking space, pulling my windshield wipers up and away from the glass. Finally trundling the cart into the elevator and upstairs to this room, I climbed into bed and fell asleep instantly.
The first day of work was anticlimactic. The usual finding of an empty cube, arranging for passwords, meetings with various and sundry, it’s like Groundhog Day, over and over, the same curtseys and hellos and handshakes. At moments during the day, my eyes closed and I began to dream instantly, tiny flashes of sleep and remembrance.
My left wrist aches as I write this story. I have a bad habit of driving only with my left hand. When I give it a break, moving it slowly, letting my right hand do its share of the work, normally it feels good, but just now it aches like hell. There’s no real catching up on sleep though, I got 10 hours last night and got up to write this before I forgot it all.