December 15, 2003
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Now the return trip from Charlottesville was on the same interstate highways and past the same signs and over the same deep-set Appalachian ravines, but the trip home had an easier feel than the trip out. No rain, for one thing. Westbound Sunday morning on I-64 in the green rolling mountains of Virginia the truck was humming the old Eighteen Wheels Singing Home Sweet Home tune, running a slight upgrade on a sweeping curve to the right, and up ahead, parked on the wide shoulder, I saw a red Pontiac Firebird shining in the sun. A young lady with coal-black hair and wearing a long colorful dress stood with her left hand on the right rear fender, bent over at the waist as if examining a particular wildflower on the edge of the road. A young man in a suit waited in the driver's seat, gazing off in the other direction. I assumed they were on their way home from church, and as I got closer I saw the lady was not examining the flowers at all but rather was tossing her cookies into them. A pretty strong stream, too.
I speculated about where they might have been the night before, and if perhaps this was something the man's getting used to. I vaguely hoped she had the flu or something, but he sure wasn't out there offering comfort. But if she wouldn't have been doing that I would have forgotten that exact broad curve on the side of that bright green mountain on that beautiful November day. Because of her I think of it now and then.
On the west side of the mountains comes the ride along Paint Creek leading to more long upgrades followed by the inevitable downgrades. A driver says his truck has one of those Rolls-Kinnardly engines: "Rolls down one hill and Kinnardly get up the next one." It levels off and passes an old oil field in the woods, a few pumps going slowly up and down; been by here many times and never noticed it. I-64 crosses Skitter Creek and Cabin Creek and then takes a dramatic flight over busy Charleston, curving elevated above downtown offices and neighborhoods, curling around the golden dome of the capitol and crossing the Kanawha River twice; the city rail yards, barges and refineries laid open beneath you as if you might be there to strafe the place. A thought a person can blame on too many movies, I suppose. Forgive me, Charleston, but it's Hollywood that made me think that way. Perhaps I can sue.
Near the exit to Nitro, West Virginia, a car passes with a bumper sticker that reads NOBODY'S PERFECT -- AND I'M NOBODY. A billboard tells you that "gambling is no way to make a living" and another wants you to "become an organ donor and give your heart to Jesus." It gets dark in Kentucky before I reach Indiana. I crawl back into the sleeper at a rest area and before dawn slide through downtown Chicago in the company of light traffic, a rare experience. Make it to our St Paul truck rental yard Monday afternoon, and it feels good to be back. Lately I've quit wondering what it would be like to have been raised in some favored place like Kentucky and have become grateful for simply hanging around long enough to pass through there once in a while.
We have a short break and then I leave for San Diego on Tuesday the 18th. There are a number of interesting routes one could take from here, even on the interstates, but in November I like to take the chicken path and go around the Rockies, no matter what the weather forecast says. South to Oklahoma City then west on Interstate 40, which on that Wednesday could have been called Peterbilt Alley for all the eastbound Petes pulling reefers out of California's Central Valley. Petes and Kenworths, the open road choice of owner operators, are as ubiquitous in the Southwest as the Colts and Winchesters of a hundred years ago. And in that same hundred years the commercial unit of measure has changed from the bushel and the hundredweight to the truckload. I turn south at Flagstaff and drop 6000 feet of altitude down to Phoenix, jog further south to Gila Bend and it's I-8 straight west to the coast. A good trip for the open country enthusiast, ending in a stiff climb over mountains so new they are simply piles of boulders, thousands of feet high. They hardly have moss on them.
I make the long descent through the suburbs and arrive Thursday evening just a few blocks from the fine old Santa Fe Depot, the western response to Grand Central Station. It sits on a remarkable confluence between the Pacific Ocean and the Vallecito Mountains, at the end of a freeway and overlooking a deep water harbor, a railroad yard, an international airport, a Navy base and the downtown of a major city. Our venue is the San Diego Civic Theater, its stagehouse backed up to the City Hall, and in the morning a cheerful crew has us cleaned out in no time. I stash the trailer at the football stadium on Friday, fetch it back on Saturday and on Sunday am headed north up the coast through L.A. to San Luis Obispo, a town that makes one pause to consider the concept of paradise. It has all the standard California goodies and a most comfortable midwestern downtown bacon-and-eggs cafe to boot. They let us leave the rig at Cal Tech, where the theater is, and I flew home and came back Thursday.
Tom Gohman flew in on Saturday to assist with the coast-to-coast leg to New York. We left San Luis Sunday morning, switched driving every five hours, and by Monday evening we were just short of Memphis. 2050 miles in 35 hours. We overcame a slow start on California highway 46, when we stopped for breakfast near the place where James Dean was killed. There is an old trucker dictum: "The only way to make any money in this dang business is to keep that left door shut." Once we hit I-40 we opened it only long enough for breakfast at the Big Texan in Amarillo.
East of there we passed Groom, Texas, the location of the "largest cross in the Western Hemisphere," and your town's water tower would fit easily under one of the arms. It's of bright metal square beams rotated and welded together at 45-degree angles, rather than with the faces flush, and it's visible from 15 miles in all directions. It makes you wonder about the largest cross in the Eastern Hemisphere. There is also a leaning water tower along that stretch of highway, the Britten Water Tower, leaning so far over it looks like one good mule kick could finish it off. Eat your heart out, Pisa.
The land greens up somewhat and begins a low rise and fall across the line in Oklahoma, where actual brush and trees can be seen growing in the sand. Past Oklahoma City I-40 becomes the Tom Steed Memorial Highway for a while and a billboard says "Next Exit - Smoked Turkeys and Ham Sandwiches." My co-driver tells me about how his Dalmation has developed a taste for hot sauce. He's an old-fashioned dog, the kind that eats leftovers. Ketchup never bothered him much but when hash browns were offered that had been laced with Tabasco Sauce he'd take a bite and then head for the water dish. Back and forth, a long process with cooling-off periods before he'd get it all down. But lately he kind of looks forward to hot sauce. He perks up when he gets a whiff of hot peppers. Snarfs it all down and sits up ready for more.
Here's the exit for the Seminole State College and for the Correction Center, same exit. People have to use that sign for motivation all the time: "What's it gonna be, kid? You gonna straighten up, or not?" An hour down the road is the exit for Muskogee and before you know it you're at Fort Smith, Arkansas. I have complained about road construction on I-40 in that state for the last twenty years and now there's a sign that says the project is complete. Amazing. I thought it was a permanent federal program, like farm subsidies, but it's actually done. And it's smooth most of the way. Life just keeps gettin' better, doesn't it?
At some point along here a truck passed us and I drifted to the right onto the rumble strip separating the roadway from the shoulder and it made the big noise and I acted like something was wrong with the truck. "What's that noise?" I said, "I think it sounds like the compressor or something." Tom deadpanned: "It's just a small problem with the steering wheel holder." I guess most problems with trucks can be traced directly to the steering wheel holder.
We find a motel and have an easy trip of it the last thousand miles. On Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania there is an exit for Hometown I'd never noticed before, and what a conversation-starter that could be for its residents out in the big world. It reminded me of a story told to me by a friend who studied architecture at Penn, way back there in the sixties. He said on the first day at the freshman dorm one of the guys there was very cool indeed, had the shades and the walk and the cool threads and the nodding head like he was listening to music all the time, was big on jazz, and he especially talked the talk. Called everyone cat in the third person and man in the second. He asked this other new guy: "Like, man, like - like where you from, man?" The kid said, "Hicksville." The cool guy looked at him as if that wasn't exactly a straight answer and finally said, patiently: "I know, man—I know.... but what I mean is -- what is the name of the place?"