December 19, 2005
Thanksgiving morning found me in a motel on a high hill over Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, on the way to our show at Michigan State. I had left St Paul a day early for the run to Lansing, mostly because of an uncertain weather forecast. On the tailwinded drive through the Wisconsin forests I was overtaken by pickups carrying fresh deer carcasses; I took notice because Iíd just been deer hunting for the first time. Something I had avoided all these years, not from any high principle but out of honest laziness. The hiking, the hours of standing and waiting in the cold, the gutting and dragging of a heavy animal out of the woods; it all seemed work out of proportion to the fun of firing a shot or two. At the local range you always got plenty to shoot at and you never had to haul anything away.
But the fact that it was at a neighborís place and that the state was encouraging people to reduce the deer population, especially near the city, drove me to do my part. I waited the first day in a blind and saw nothing. Walking a low ridge on the second day, I downed an eleven-point buck, a big guy, with one well-placed 20-gauge slug from over sixty yards. He had come at me on a dead run, taken a hard left and crossed a narrow neck between two ponds, then paused briefly on the far shore to turn and look back, in a fatal instant of curiosity. A righteous rack now hangs in the back porch and the basement freezer is full of lean meat. Hunters have told me itís a lifetime deer, a term suggesting my own time may be getting short. I may never reach the bottom of that freezer. It would be a small victory for the buck if I didnít. His rack is sure to outlast me, in any case.
Anyway, walking out the back door of the motel at daybreak I got a jolt. It was about ten degrees out and a slicing wind, of a chill that had to be minus ninety, was sweeping from the west across the frozen ridgetop gravel lot. It had a ferocity to it that went directly to bone. Everything in the foam cooler on the floor of the cab was frozen into one rock-solid block of ice, metal, glass and plastic, like an art piece of found objects. I twisted the key and the truck groaned once, slow, and then again, real slow, and then not at all. Went back inside and called for emergency road service. He said heíd be there in an hour. I opened the laptop to check for mail and found I had somehow left its power supply behind. I called to have it taken over to our technical directorís house in Minneapolis.
Then I went for breakfast. It had been mild the day before and I had only a thin cap, and on my block-long walk down the hill the harsh wind set about casting my ears into little flags of pink ice. I soon thought I might be able to snapíem off and putíem in my pocket until I could find some Superglue. At a heated convenience store at the bottom I bought a proper winter roll-down stocking cap and then walked another block into the wind to the Pine Cone truck stop restaurant, where I had warm sausages, warm eggs and warm toast for $4.35. And endless hot coffee, $1.35. The guy next to me at the counter had a newspaper and he and the waitress were talking about how everything was going to hell in a bucket. Nothing but bad news, more proof of the downward glide into national misery, all laid out there in neat columns, tragedy upon calamity, permanent widespread gloom delivered and certified. I enjoyed the meal and hiked back up the hill to the room.
Two big mistakes, not leaving the truck running and not checking my packing list, had left me with no truck and no computer. Rendered useless, I was, to myself and society, and I had not a smidgeon of doubt that both errors would be quickly covered for, and they were. The power supply was already on its way to Mr. Rivard and a red Dodge 3000 pickup showed up next to the truck. It had a Cummins diesel engine, dual rear tires and a big generator in the back. Jumper cables as big around as keilbasa and two shots of ether couldnít start the beast, so he pulled it, loaded trailer and all; it fired up in about thirty feet. Amazing. It was like a being in a Dodge tv commercial. The natural state of the Class 8 truck is to be in motion, or at least idling somewhere. Frozen mute is unnatural, and it came coughing to life as if liberated from a bad dream.
When the eighteen big wheels were rolling again on the eastbound interstate I thought about that guy and the waitress and their mutual carping. Itís recreational, of course, casual, even friendly, and I do my share of it as well. But when I do it I like to keep the carping specific. Overall, itís impossible for me to get down on a system wherein you can take a tiny phone from your pocket and get your frozen truck started and have your power supply sent to Michigan to meet you by way of a jet aircraft, all in the middle of blistering cold and high winds, and all as easy as ordering a cup of coffee. How the Plains Indians ever made it through the winters has amazed me since I was a kid in North Dakota, and a one block walk down the hill between bare ears brought that amazement back.
As I-94 turns to the south and heads into Illinois it passes beneath miles of a long fine webbing of wires; two levels of it, the thicker ones swooping high from the girdered towers and the thin ones running down at the power-pole height, about the same elevation as the highway lighting. From a car one gets so used to reading signs and seeing buildings at roadway level the overhead wiring becomes nearly invisible, but from a truck itís harder to ignore. Somehow it didnít seem bothersome that day, thinking that if a giant broom came and swept those cobwebs away everyoneís house would get real cold in a hurry, and the football games would all go dark.
Stopped to get robbed at the cash boxes - Illinois truck tolls have tripled - did I mention that before? - and crossed under Half Day Road and Pfingston Road, a name that, if you pronounce every consonant forcefully, allows you to spray. Cruised on into Chicago at a most unusual sixty miles an hour, the only big truck moving on Thanksgiving Day, knee deep in the Ion, the Scion, the Eon, the Neon, the Prius; the Focus, the Fusion, the Quest, Vue, Vibe, Insight, Rendezvous, Accord and Tribute; became one with the Matrix and the Element, the Spectra, the Sunfire, Eclipse, Solstice, Equinox and Infinity. Sailed among the Aveo, the Aerio, the Terazza, Stratus, Freestyle, Accent, Elantra, Tiburon, Impreza and Amanti, all of them heading to Grandmaís for the big turkey dinner, no doubt. Was overtaken by the Civic and the Golf, the Sable and Escalade; and the Tahoe, the Torrent, the Frontier, the Venture, Ridgeline and Odyssey; the Explorer, Mountaineer, Trailblazer and Wrangler; the Uplander, Highlander, Freelander and Outlander. And then coming up real fast from behind was, look out, it was an Ascender. A real Isuzu Ascender. Be mindful of the spelling.
Went under the Pratt Avenue bridge, past Dempster Street, and suddenly there standing to the left of the ten-lane was the very dramatic Chicago skyline, shining in the winter sun. Itís the skyline that got it right, strung out along Lake Michigan, a mile-long towering wall of glass and masonry three blocks deep, the buildings rising together as the worldís most powerful architectural choir. All of one piece, like the wall of a huge quarry. (At night it becomes a larger-than-you-can-imagine sparkling black curtain, and you are given no clue that backstage, in the darkness beyond the curtain, lies an immense lake; that there are fish swimming out there.)
South of downtown I run alongside an outbound shiny metal train in the median, looking over at a few people riding in a coach; to the right stands the big U.S. Cellular Field, a wimpy name for such a strong building, now home to the World Series champs. Comiskey Park, the previous occupant of the site, was a name that fit the City of Big Shoulders. Money talks, but lately it talks in a lame voice.
A large red billboard says, "ITíS VALENTINEíS DAY - CALL YOUR SISTER. Sheíll Love You For It." Iím thinking, Valentineís? What happened? Itís Valentineís? But the board is in tatters, the message faded. Youíd expect someone would have rented it since last February.
I-94 turns east along the south end of the big lake and what had been a cold but sunny day turns blizzardlike with snow flurries and then morphs into plain old road ugliness when the sidewind gets serious and the snow gathers. Trucks appear in Michigan, drivers done with dinner at home and back on the superslab, probably for an early Friday delivery. I lock the drive axles together for traction and we, the truck and I, settle into a nervous 35 mph as the surface starts to ice up. The snow thickens further and the wind gets rough with the trailer and I peer into the horizontal streaming of white dots, thinking this has the trappings of a long afternoon. The first victims are quick in coming, one in the middle and one in the ditch, the guys just getting out of their cars as I pass.
But it doesnít get as nasty as Iíve seen that stretch get, with multiple truck wrecks and all that mess, and after some slow hours the I-69 sign to Lansing appears out of the snowy darkness. I take the rising exit to the right, loop around to northbound and seem to find myself in another country. Itís only twenty feet higher but the sidewind is gone and the snow stops and the road ice disappears and now everyoneís driving 65. An easy cruise into Lansing; meet up with our tour manager, find an open restaurant. Itís an early load-in tomorrow morning but today itís Thanksgiving, and Iím not complaining about anything.
© R.Ringsak 2005