Russ Ringsak

Headin' west to Laramie

May 26, 2001

We left Norfolk on a fine Sunday morning, the truck and I, cruising north through the older part of the city, through Ward's Corners, once called the "Times Square of the South." With the tallest building in the area topping out at three stories it's kind of a stretch, and with the swampy ground around Hampton Roads it might have taken too much engineering to stay in the competition. They kind of gave up on that name.

In Virginia stopped at White's at Steele's Corner, naturally, and revisited the immense crocodile and the other macabre goodies there. The wild boars, the knives and guns, the menacing fish and Great White Shark; a dark gallery of interesting ways that your precious flesh could be torn asunder. Dozens of good reasons for a person to not lead life too recklessly. The talk in there was about road stupidity, as it often is in the 'professional drivers only' section of a truck stop. The general high ineptitude of auto drivers and various recent encounters with cars seemingly bent on self-destruction; an incident in Florida where some old geezer blew right through a stop sign in front of this driver and caused him to leave some serious rubber on the highway. These incidents are not amusing to truckers, especially when tires cost over $300 apiece and he's got 18 of them. A smiling robust-looking lady driver there asked the room in general "Y'all know who lives in Florida?" and when nobody knew she said, "Old People and their parents."
When the laughing died down another driver said, "Y'know how we know for sure that the toothbrush was invented in West Virginia?" West Virginia is to Virginia as my state, North Dakota, is to Montana.

Again the pause, and he said, "'Cause if it had come from anywhere else, it'd be called a Teethbrush."

Took aboard 261 gallons of diesel and the Sunday roast beef special with green beans, cole slaw, coffee, mashed potatoes and gravy, and headed south on I-81, bound for I-64 and the wide open spaces out west. The truck took to some heavy labor, needing all the way down into 8th gear on some of the long 7% grades, and then crossed the breathtaking high pass over the New River Valley and looked out over miles of green West Virginia hills; hard to imagine a place so beautiful being made fun of. Billboards are rare along Interstate 64 and it's my pick as the country's sweetest freeway. When you finally do hit development, as at Charleston, it comes on strong. Brawny steel bridges, giant factory and warehouse spreads, the sky rent with angular stacks and towers of refineries, and down alongside the barges in the Kanawha River, great piles of stone, gravel, sand and coal. A lot of heavy lifting going on down there, as the freeways ride high and join and split and curve above it all. The brilliant golden dome of the Capitol shines polished in the middle of the hard work, as if to say "There is order in all this chaos, and it resides herein," but of course the experienced person like myself believes the order to be out here and the chaos to be under the dome, no matter what dome it is or who thinks they're in charge at any given moment.

In Kentucky ("Welcome to Kentucky -- Education Pays") you gradually ease down through the flatter outcroppings, driplets seeping through the limestone, working on making farmland for the next era ending in a "-cene." You cruise the lush hills, also free of billboards, and stop at the Olive Hill truck stop, exit 156, and order the two smoked pork chops and three vegetables for $6.95. She comes back and says there's only one pork chop left and how about the one and some catfish, so you have a Southern version of Surf 'n Turf. It's terrific. You ask the lady at the cash register when they're going to send some cooks up north to teach us how to do it right, and she just smiles. Stop overnight just east of Lexington and get a good early start on Monday, cruise on west and find more drama in the incredibly high and delicate crossings of the Ohio River at Louisville.

The gentle rolling continues though southern Indiana, through the farmland and the unsung oil fields with the old pumpers lazily cranking up and down, unnoticed; had breakfast at a town called Dale. They couldn't decide on what kind of dale they wanted: Spring, Rose, Lons, Mon, Chippen, River, Oak, Elm, Pine, Annan or Brook; so they just called it plain old Dale. Magnificent St Louis comes on with a quickening of the pace and a distant view of the Arch but you can't get too taken by the sightseeing or you miss your hard right downtown exit to I-70 right along the Mississippi shore. On the west side of the city there is a monster backup; been there for years. Three lanes funnel into one, and when you get into the single lane and look over into the blocked-off part, it looks abandoned. The wind has brought in all sorts of debris to lie there on two perfectly usable lanes of highway. Finally you get to the end of the faux construction and see a pickup with yellow lights on the top and about four people in reflective highway gear, listlessly moving around. Hard to say what they're doing. A few small 2-wheel pieces of equipment, air compressors and so forth, sit around, none of them running. You suspect the government has rented some tools and hired actors just to keep the complaints down, while millions of private-sector man-hours are lost, month upon month, sitting dead in traffic. Woman-hours, too. I can't remember ever going through St Louis without grinding along in 2nd gear for an hour.

From there it's pretty much flat through Missouri and Kansas all the way to central Colorado. Signs beseech you to stop, that it's really more interesting than it may appear: "16-inch Porcelain Dolls -- Fresh Fudge -- Toffee -- Caps and Mugs -- Shot Glasses -- Ozark Land. Stop Now." "First Amendment Adult Book Store -- Next Exit -- No Booths -- No Sleaze." Near Emma, Missouri, you pass a wreck of a car driven by an old man with his elderly lady, looks like it was assembled from many trips to the salvage yard, and it's hung entirely with ornamental doo-dads, inside and out. There is so much there you can't focus on anything; the inside is criss-crossed with beads and small animals hanging in mid-air. Odd amulets are stuck all over the outside, maybe campaign buttons or badges, hard to say what they are, against the multiple faded colors of the car itself.

And after driving hundreds of miles of atrociously rough road you come upon a big construction site and what are they putting money into but a couple of new weigh stations, one on either side; two more harassment stops in the never-ending bureaucratic gouging of truckers. It's not like I haven't been examined five times already in the last two days.

A sign near Abilene advertises the Greyhound Hall of Fame. Spend the night east of Salinas, got up later than I wanted to at 5:00. Leave without breakfast and come upon the "Czech Museum and Opera House -- You'll Love It." "Wilson -- Czech Capital of Kansas. Festival -- Last Saturday in July." And the "Garden of Eden" and the "Smoky Hill Winery -- Wine Outlet -- Made From Kansas Grown Grapes." The land begins to break slightly into long low waves and you see cattle grazing in the morning sun, the light directly on their glossy orange-red flanks, brilliant as wildflowers.

Surprising to see a couple hundred miles more of oil fields through Kansas. Not all are in motion and you have to look to see them; been through here before and didn't notice 'em. More roadside temptations: "Live Rattlesnakes -- Pet The Baby Pigs -- Live Donkey -- Buffalo -- Pheasants -- Quail -- Raccoons -- Coyotes -- Peacocks -- See The Largest Prairie Dog In The World." "Don't Miss The High Plains Museum -- America's First Helicopter." "1887 Opera House."

Stopped at the Mitten Truck Stop in Oakley, Kansas, and had breakfast with a cowboy and driver called Caballo, who got the name not because he was good with horses, he said, but because he was big as a horse. He'd worked a million-acre ranch in New Mexico and told me secrets about training horses and breaking a fever, and he said horses like to play ball. You can buy a rubber Horse Ball at a good tack shop; it's big and has a loop on it. They pick it up and run with it; roll it, kick it. He thought highly of most horses and said they were smarter than they get credit for.

We climbed to 8640 feet without really noticing it, and then dropped down into the broad valley between the Laramies and the Snowy Range, and were met at the edge of town by a big parade, an honor guard, the University marching band and high-stepping cowgirls with batons; convertibles full of suited dignitaries in hats. Drove right down main street, huge crowds on both sides. They had a special rodeo in my honor and had me sky-dive onto a bucking horse, then jump from there onto a Brahma bull. Then a big mock gunfight and a fake hanging. Cut me down just before I turned blue. Laramie's a great place. We had a good time there.

There are similarites between Norfolk and Laramie. Military backgrounds, a lot of rowdy and downright murderous behavior in the early days, now settling into an atmosphere tolerant of boutiques and coffee houses. And there is a famous shot still showing in Norfolk; a cannonball embedded in the wall of an Episcopal Church, sent there by a British ship in 1776. Almost exactly 200 years later a rifle shot was fired through the plate glass window of the Buckhorn Bar in Laramie and hit the mirror on the beautiful back bar, just above head height. It's also a large hole, and also famous.
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