June 5, 2006
There are reasons why this article is so late in appearing (notice the absence of a personal pronoun there, suggesting the article itself is to blame) but reasons offered in explanation inevitably sound like excuses, which of course is how this very sentence itself is beginning to sound. So we must move on before the writer (again hiding in the third person) further embarrasses himself.
But now notice how the 'we' draws the innocent reader into the problem, as if you were partly to blame; if not for the lateness of the piece then at least for the cowardly attempt at an excuse. This we call political doubletalk, and it was thrown in for instructional purposes. When you see or hear this vague all-inclusive 'we' in real life, read or listen no further. This is the same 'we' you hear in 'weasel.' Shut off the television or put down the newspaper and go tend the flowers, or get an oil change, or write a chatty note to someone you should have written a long time ago.
So. Tom Gohman and I are driving Hank The Truck from the Beltway out to the Bowl. We left Saturday night at 10:00 and with good weather and a moderate level of road construction, made Oklahoma City Sunday evening. Arrived in Gallup, New Mexico, Monday evening. The strategy is to get close quickly, to allow time for unpredictables, and then lay up out here in the uncrowded bliss of the Great American West.
It's Tuesday now and we're in Williams, Arizona, wherefrom they run steam-powered passenger trains to the Grand Canyon. A trip I would very much like to take, but of course I can't because, like I say, I'm so late writing this piece. And somehow it's this way every year we go out west to the City of Angels. (They are able to call the place that with a straight face, which to me is another manifestation of the fine sense of humor we enjoy in this country. Truckers know it by the less poetic Shaky Town.)
Wednesday we'll sneak in closer yet, just shy of the California border at Kingman, where we'll fuel up and take care of paperwork and truck maintenance and make ready for our big Hollywood landing on Thursday. It will be a one-day operation there, loading the show in Friday at daybreak and loading out late that night; one of our rare recorded shows, to be heard nationally on Saturday. To broadcast live on Pacific time we have to start the show at three on a Saturday afternoon, and sometimes that works and sometimes not. The engineering hasn't yet been developed that will allow us to do a show at 6:00 PM and broadcast it at 3:00 PM the same day. But with the astounding state of technology these days it would not surprise me to hear that people are working on the problem.
Some miles of poppies were blooming in the Interstate 40 median back there in Middle Tennessee on the day before Memorial Day, and I heard they were also up in the yard back in Minnesota. They bloom only briefly and always when we are on the road, so I never see them in the garden. I recall that we sold paper poppies as schoolkids to raise money for the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, for vets' families, and I wonder if kids still do that. I suspect not. But I always thought it was a good thing.
It also seemed a good thing that we were asked to memorize "In Flanders Fields." I found out it was written by a Canadian field surgeon, Lt. Colonel John McCrae, taking a short break from the hell of dealing with battlefield casualties in the Ypres salient in WWI. He wrote the fifteen lines in twenty minutes, sitting on the back of an ambulance near fresh graves in a field of wild poppies, and without a word handed his pad to a bystander, a young sergeant-major. The sergeant later said, "The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. . . the poppies were actually being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene." Another officer sent it to British newspapers, and Punch published it in December of 1915. It begins, you recall, with the chilling lines: "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses row on row, That mark our place; . . ."
I went again this trip to Arlington National Cemetery and saw a number of teenagers from a school somewhere, moving along with more vigor than we older types but at a more subdued pace than is their norm. For all its shaded tranquility, the place gives off a tremendous formal power, one that resists description and is nearly overwhelming, even to the young and irreverent.
There are hundreds of remarkable places in this remarkable country. If asked, I say the two trips a person should do for sure are to Arlington and the Beartooth Pass.
On our trip through the lush southern June we ran from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River in only two states. The combined length of Virginia and Tennessee is about 814 miles on Interstates 66, 81 and 40. These two touch nine others: Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri. (By comparison, Texas is 878 miles wide on I-10 and borders four: New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.)
We passed Buck Snort, Tennessee, where a billboard says, "Catch A Rainbow," and shows a smiling guy holding a trout of many colors; crossed the wide and languid Tennessee River, where barges sat near the thick trees on the eastern shore; saw the sign for Mousetail Landing as we passed a single-file trio of Morgan Runabouts, the beautiful little open two-seat boat-tail three-wheelers made in England from 1910 to 1952 (there are only 250 in this entire country); and suffered briefly the never-ending roadbuilding leading up to the mighty bridge across the Mississippi at Memphis, a bridge so high it would seem they expect to someday see the Queen Mary sail by on its way up to Louisville.
The land levels on the west side of the Big River and actual flat farms break out, in contrast to the rolling picturebook greenery of the Tennessee horse pastures. Arkansas immediately along the freeway is a bit on the tacky side, but the farther views are easy, especially since they paved the Hundred-Mile Pothole and you can gaze out there without that relentless bounce. At the Oklahoma border the land, as if on cue, turns a rich orange. In an eastern suburb of Oklahoma City we find a low-dollar motel with just enough room in the parking lot to squeeze a rig into.
An Oklahoma cab driver once told me, on hearing I was from North Dakota, that he mustered out of the Air Force up there in Minot. He said he had suffered enough bitter cold. He had an electric engine heater he had to plug in every night, so the thing would start. He said, "I decided to head straight south until somebody asked me what that plug was for. I got to Tulsa and the guy at the gas station said, What the hell is that plug stickin' out of your grille for? And I've been here ever since. I like it here."
On the road in the morning we realize we could have waited for the west side of town, where there are a lot of options and plenty of room. The trailer doors of a rig in front of us read: CHAMPION LOGISTICS GROUP INC. - PROVIDING 'VALUE-ENHANCED' LOGISTICS SOLUTIONS. And I'm thinking what the heck ever happened to the Red Ball Express and Ajax Trucking and Waggoners. It sounded like it'd be more honest to just call themselves CHAMPION SLICK-TALKING TRUCK WEASELS.
The soil changes back to tan in the Texas Panhandle, where irrigation booms cover fields of timothy and alfalfa in measures of long bowstring arcs; a herd of black Angus lay beneath a stretch of them, perhaps waiting for someone to turn the water on. A billboard says "Live Nude Dancing," a fairly straightforward message, that one, except it makes you think of the grisly alternate.
We cross into New Mexico and pay a whopper of a fee for the privilege, 45 bucks; they still haven't become part of IFTA, the complex organization set up to distribute fuel taxes evenly across the country. The great red rock ramparts caught in the low light at sundown are like a long postcard passing the side window, rising straight up and falling off to the north, with taller ones beyond, sloping away to ever more luminous mysteries.
Crossing into Arizona there stands a series of boards announcing the usual sandpaintings and blankets and kachina dolls and then one that says: ENTERING ARIZONA INDIAN COUNTRY -- BEAUTIFUL SCENERY -- BRING YOUR CAMERAS. And of course we immediately come upon a small sedan parked on the shoulder and a guy standing there holding his camera up and obediently framing a no-doubt beautiful view.
How long would it take, we wondered, to cross the country if one accepted all suggestions and took all offers? It already seemed we were taking too many, and we agreed that if there were to occur a global catastrophe the last two surviving species would probably be cockroaches and truckers, their immune systems stiffened by generations of unhealthy living.