To Charlottesville, Through Rain and Kielbasa
November 15, 2003
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It was drizzling when we loaded up late Tuesday morning, November 4, and at the first truckstop in Wisconsin I bought parts to hook up the CB radio. By the time I rigged a new wiring hookup and an antenna—usually it's all on there—it was nearly two o'clock, ending any hope of making Charlottesville by Wednesday night. So the push was off and it became an easy ride. And a three-day intermittent rain kept the windshield mostly bug free all the way to Virginia.
The truckstop is at milepost 4 and at mile 8 there sits the eastbound weigh station, which was open according to westbound embedded CB radio reporters. And as I got there the OPEN light changed to CLOSED and I sailed on by, nearly euphoric from such a dumb thing as not having to shift down and get in line and crawl across the platform. What made this so special was all the years of being dragged down into that line just before the sign went CLOSED and seeing trucks who had been behind me go cruising by. Thinking if I had only been five seconds later I'd be three miles up the road instead of sitting here at the chickenhouse. It was the first time it had happened the other way around, and I figured it was statistically long overdue. The world of mathematics, wherever it is, owed me one.
I sail by Madison at rush hour in a light rain, traffic thick and moving fast, especially around the split of Interstates 90 and 94; makes me proud of my fellow Americans, the way they can drive this close together at 70 miles an hour on a shiny highway. Three lanes merge to two, left lanes a smidge faster than the right, drivers moving in and out, a linear dance of strangers inside machinery. From the high air seat you view it almost as a spectator; a bench mark above the bedlam. Feels like you're bombing along with The Blue Angels. Or running in a buffalo stampede, wherein a single gopher hole can send a horde of speeding giants flying hoof over horn.
Precipitation gets heavy at the Illinois line but the pace stays up and we become a long crowd water skiing in the rain at night, the road splash coming up to meet the downpour, converging at the wipers which flop back and forth like a clumsy solution to a serious physics problem. A comic mechanism from Rube Goldberg, where you get a clear view for a quick half inch behind the blade and the next time it goes by the view's on the other side. The motion is more jerky than an early movie, not quite as fast as the moving stick men we used to draw on the edges of textbook pages in Civics class.
Take the exit to I-39, the Chicago Runaround, past the big waterslide park and curve to the left and head south, cross the line into Ogle County and stop at the big Petro stop out there among the square farmhouses on the flatland. Get dinner, hit the Super 8, check e-mail and zonk out. In the morning head south, past the big farm of tall wind generators on the west side of the road, where not one propellor in all the whole herd is turning. In fact they are all facing different directions, as if collectively looking off to the flat horizons, their gigantic three blades akimbo, for a sign of wind somewhere, perhaps a leaf moving on a distant willow. They seem birdlike, towering and mute, as if saying, if they could, "What's going on? ... How come we aren't moving?" You would have expected they would all come to rest facing the last wind they had, instead of these random headings. Did the wind stop so quick they just spun around? Did a slow tornado come through, leaving them disorganized? You'd like to be there when a breeze finally comes on, to watch them react to it. Slowly coming around and putting their big beaks to the northwest and looking, as the big wings start to rotate, like a bunch of pompom cheerleaders working out a routine. And then you wonder if a tornado has ever gone through a windmill farm.
As I cross the Illinois River I see a tug down below pushing a stick of barges, three wide and four long, around a sharp bend; kind of like trying to back a 53-foot trailer into a narrow city alley, only without brakes and with no chance to back up to get a better angle. It looks like that rig barely fits in that river, even after all the rain. In a car you don't get to look down into rivers much; all kinds of things going on below the guardrails that you are protected from.
Pass under a giant string of power lines, 12 pairs of thick wires hanging in block-long catenaries heading northeast for Chicago, changing the scale of the landscape the whole way. You look at that heavy wire, each one fat as a kielbasa, and you intuitively know there is no field of wind generators anywhere that is going to make all that copper hum. Not even when they get hit with the tornado.
This runaround is about sixty miles longer but that's only an hour, and going through Chicago will easily take twice that and you get hit with toll booths the whole way. You could not design a worse method of collecting taxes than by toll booth; nothing you could think of would waste more land and be less efficient than bringing all that tonnage of freight and all those vehicles to a dead stop, make change, have everyone behind start up and slow down about twenty times before they get to the booth. The tons of fuel and man hours lost in this process, repeated millions of times a day across the country, is beyond the imagination. If you were plotting to make the country waste its resources on nothing at all this would be the ultimate evil scheme. Self-inflicted arteriosclerosis. People talk to me about driving a full size pickup and I say if the government ever really wanted to get serious about saving fuel they'd first tear down every toll booth in the country, and then I might give it some thought. Toll booths come from only one thing and that's chicken politicians. This is not a rant. This is the obvious stone truth. This is why I waste ten gallons of diesel fuel to go around Chicago; I'd waste more if I went through, and it'd cost the nation an extra hour of my valuable productivity.
Pick up I-74 east at Bloomington and Normal. Pass the exits for Rankin and Fithian and then see a billboard for Danville, Illinois, "Home of Gene Hackman." Crossing the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River there's a sign for "Possum Trot: Steaks - Ribs - Chops," and in the morning overcast I see a man standing in a bass boat in the backwater, casting to the edge of the reeds there. He has no idea this action will be mentioned in a public forum, but it's an interesting contradiction, a man casting for bass beneath the heavy traffic of I-74. He probably does know he's tormenting a certain segment of truck drivers; maybe he's one himself. I remember fishing as a kid and they'd tell you to be quiet or you'd scare the fish, but now I think that fishing itself is supposed to be a soothing pursuit and part of that would be less talk. So it follows that if traffic soothes you that's where you fish. I don't know much about possums either, but I suppose they could trot. They don't look like they could gallop.
The land changes when you hit Indiana but not in a big way. The pool-table flat becomes long mud waves, like an enormously low wave length, half a mile frequency with an amplitude of three feet. Tree lines appear, and even the occasional forest, and a billboard says "Smokes For Less - Cartons Really Cheap - Next Right." It's a routine drive, spiced with beautifully decrepit barns along the way, passing under the Darlington Mace Road and the Jeff Gordon Boulevard, right past the spillway of the wide Eagle Creek Dam and onto I-265 around Indianapolis and then south on I-65. And just before I pass "Tattoo Charlie's—While U Wait," I come to another scale house that says OPEN and goes CLOSED right in front of me. A charmed trip, and just how lucky can one man get? Or was it just mathematics, finally trying to even the score?
Right after that is James Joyce's Truck Sales, and a few miles later comes the exit to Cementville and Hamburg. I cross the strapping Ohio River at Louisville and snake through the single-lane ramps to eastbound I-64, a sweet freeway if ever there was one. Across Floyd's Fork and past Waddy, Kentucky, and into West Virginia and Virginia, all limestone outcroppings, soft hills, green pastures looking biblical, thoroughbreds out there showing what grace and power are all about. Moody mountains, deep canyons, high bridges named after Medal of Honor heroes; running along the Ohio and the Kanawha, over the New River Gorge, past the lower reaches of the Alleghenies and across the Appalachians, past Clifton Forge, Nicely Town, Longdale Furnace and Big Butte. By the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University, and past Raphine, Steele's Tavern, Stuart's Draft and Mint Spring. Over Afton Mountain, so foggy they put flush taxiway lights in the shoulders of the highway, and into beautiful old Charlottesville, home to early presidents.
Our show played at the Charlottesville Performing Arts Center, on the grounds of the high school, set back into a lovely neighborhood of tight streets and thick trees, a great place to raise kids and a living nightmare to a semi driver. Our crew had to get out of their van and walk me through the streets, moving traffic aside so we could clear low branches. When we got to the loading dock a brass band came out to practice and they had terrific pastries and coffee waiting for us backstage. Which of course was all better than a rainbow at the end of the trail.