On the Road to Norfolk, VA
May 12, 2001
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Our truck left St Paul on Wednesday morning, the 9th of May, freshly packed with the ramp slung underneath, locked snug in it's new case and out of the way; I put a skinny padlock on that long door on the side so we can still get through tight places.
It was a beautiful day made all the better by a sturdy tailwind. Driving through greening Wisconsin hills wearing blue-blocking sunglasses is like cruising into a French painting, colors all thick and intense, landscape all in motion. Never was much of a sunglasses kind of guy but you get used to those burnt-orange shades so quick that when you take'em off it looks like the film is over-exposed and under-developed. Maybe it's a defect in my own personal color-saturation software, but real life suddenly seems washed out, lacking punch, like maybe you got some bad film. A bleached look. Wearing those things, you realize a lot of the grandeur and the richness in the big epic Western movies comes from saturated color. If you want to make a movie about despair and bleakness, nothing intensifies a hopeless situation like washed-out colors. I am suddenly an expert on these matters, from buying one pair of tan sunglasses. So maybe it's true that money can't buy happiness, but at least it can sometimes buy amusement.
Into the direction of the morning sun you see the wind on the surface of the grasses along the road, moving the shiny side of the blades like it sometimes skitters small waves across a lake on a blustery day. The landscape of farms and woods was utterly still, like it usually is out there, except for that shimmering of the new grass sweeping over the hills and through the gullies. You get a good view of these things from sitting up that high, and as much as a person hates to admit it there are, once in a while, times when driving one of these things is actually fun.
You are struck by the contrast between the quiet countryside outside and the din and racket inside the cab. The roar of that big engine-- big enough that it takes 52 quarts of oil-- and the transmission and two differentials and eighteen tires inflated to 100 pounds of pressure against the concrete, and the sporadic cackling of the CB radio mixed with the blasting high-energy electric blues of a Roy Buchanan disc cranked full on, and with the high wailing whine of the turbocharger over the top of it all; this sealed cacophony moving through a pastoral setting seems an incongruity bordering on the improper. It's like a motorcycle in a monastery; a chopper in church. Maybe that's why it seems like fun, and maybe a person shouldn't try to analyze stuff like this.
I come up behind a refrigerated trailer with stainless steel back doors. A lot of the time those doors have a pleated look, a diamond pattern, but these are flat steel. But they aren't really that flat-- they're wavy and they're clean, so that the big yellow reflection in there is like something you'd see at a carnival fun house. A liquid truck, morphing and stretching into bizarre shapes: now a bug-eyed insect, now a teeny little grille with a great huge yellow spinnaker billowing out above it, now a child's yellow and black finger painting smeared all over. It's like what a wired-up and freaked-out hippie might see looking out the back window of a VW van with a truck bearing down: "Wow, dudes. Oooo, this is way cool... We are gonna be eaten by a big yellow clown. Far out."
The CB cuts in with a driver playing his truck radio into his microphone, which guys sometimes do when they hear something they like and want to share. It's generally regarded as a nuisance. This is a country tune, that modern country stuff, the main theme of the song being that we need more rednecks. When it's over another driver comes on with an observation: "Well, I thought we needed more rednecks m'self.... but if they're gonna play their music over mah CB radio, I ain't so sure about it any more."
You pass through a forest where a storm has recently gone through the same direction as the traffic. Trunks have been broken off and some have been uprooted and they lay downstream, as it were, looking like some really huge truck had gone through so fast the concussion of it took trees down.
Past the Wisconsin Dells and towards Madison the land flattens out and the population thickens and you get into the part of the business where you know why they have to pay people money to do this. Interstate 39 joins 90 and 94 and then 94 heads east and southbound traffic intensifies from both Milwaukee and Madison. A cloud formation moves in from the west, a vast flat-bottomed flotilla of puffy white cumulus clouds, the tops shining in the sun up there. It's like a fish's view of a massive convoy floating overhead, thousands and thousands of barges loaded with Redi-Whip.
And then a most remarkable sight up ahead. I am in the left lane, passing a string of slower trucks up a slight slope, and there is a dead animal lying on the left shoulder. It's tawny and seems at first to be a young deer but something about it is wrong; it's not laying like a deer carcass, and at about four truck lengths away it suddenly becomes a very large cat. I pass close over it, lying right beneath my door, and it's long tail lies curved behind it with a distinct tuft at the end and there is suddenly no mistaking this creature and it is a cougar. A mountain lion. My flabbergasted eyes have never seen one in the wild, anywhere, and it is stunning to see one on the freeway in southern Wisconsin. There have been rumors about their presence in remote parts up north and a few years ago a hunter friend was tracked for a whole afternoon by one in the woods up there, but they aren't a creature given to hanging around the super-slab. At least I never hear about it. I puzzle over this for hours and think about calling the DNR and the State Patrol but of course don't.
At Rockford, Illinois, I take I-39 again to avoid Chicago and stop at the Petro at exit 99 near Rochelle. On a rough patch of highway there a driver observed that it was "about time they flipped this road over." A west wind is whipping across the great parking tarmac and the sky is taking on that yellowish tinge out there that bodes trouble. The rib-eye steak isn't bad, the coffee's fine; I get a wye connector so that I can wire up the CB radio to both antennae and load up on Lorna Doone shortbread and mixed nuts and diet cola and I'm good to go to southern Indiana.
But outside the sky has darkened further and the wind is whipping pretty good; the radio sounds better and is chattering with warnings and admonitions. There's a patch of clear sky to the south and to the north is nothing but a stormy darkness so northbound trucks are pulling in and southbound trucks are leaving. The yellow to the west has the look of nausea about it and there is a lot of talk about tornadoes. In the mirrors you can see heavy rain falling at a 45-degree angle just a couple of miles behind, and the wind rocks the trailer like someone trying to wake you up but I'm already awake, awake and grateful for every pound we put in there on Tuesday. In half an hour the sky closed in and a good rain cleaned off my Wisconsin bugs.
Sixty miles later it was raining hard again but the sun was shining through a big hole and there was a sharp small rainbow about a mile and half to the east, hopping cleanly from one tilled field directly to another field a couple of miles north, against a heavy backdrop of black clouds. And then another rainbow formed above it. Multiple phenomena: rain, wind, sunshine, black sky, rainbow, rainbow, all at once. Quite the deal.
I stopped too late to bother with dinner. Had a beer and three bags of peanuts and slept like a baby, except I didn't cry all night or pee the bed. I could lie about it and say I dreamed about mountain lions, but I didn't.