This is the very last installment of our regularly scheduled hitch-hiking program. The past has hereby officially caught up with the present tense, in a mild and happy manner, where everything goes alright and Home Is Reached. All entries from here on out will be made up of either the future (which by then will be the present tense) and the past (which has yet to be documented in its entirety).
Bear was a fat little black dog with a white stripe, like a skunk. He had a dog bed down on the passenger-side floor-mat, but now my feet were there, and he stood awkwardly in the space between me and the driver, staring at my feet. Finally he squeezed between my pants-cuffs and settled down with his nose on my shoe.
“You like Christmas music?” asked the driver, his big fingers on the radio dial.
“I love this station,” he said, turning up the volume. “It’s so soothing.” Light jazz remakes of Christmas songs filled the dark truck cab. I watched the road roll under the front of the truck, bouncing a little on my tall truck seat, with its super-deluxe shocks and ultra-adjustable everything. I reached a hand down and fiddled with the button for lumbar support, feeling the seat inflate against my lower back. The man seemed almost content to just zone out and watch the road. My eyelids grew heavy as the I watched the yellow line come out of darkness and slip under the truck. Have yourself a merry little blah blah…
“So you just travel around?”
I was wrong.
“No,” I said, giving him some garbled answer. The cliff notes of my life. We were headed over the passes in Northern California, and dark, dry pine forests flanked the highway, spotlit momentarily in the truck’s headlights. Suddenly, I smiled, remembering. My long, ridiculous journey was almost over. I was hurtling through the dark night in the direction of home. My chickens were as good as hatched. And it all seemed worthwhile, now- that super-zen devil-may-care attitude I’d managed to cultivate. As if nothing could go wrong. As if no matter how stuck I felt, I’d still make it home in the end. And nothing had gone wrong. And I was as good as home. I wanted to laugh out loud. It all works out in the end, it all works out in the end…
The man and I talked for a good chunk of hours, mostly about his relationship with his wife. They’d been married fourteen years, no kids together, and their children from previous marriages were grown and gone. She used to come with him when he worked, he said, and it had been incredible. Someone to share the road with, someone to talk with about whatever came into one’s mind while accumulating all those empty highway miles.
“Or not talk, too,” he said. “sometimes we’d just be in our own thoughts, and ride along for hundreds of miles that way. It was just nice to have the companionship.”
By and by his wife had wanted her own occupation, something that was soley hers, and had gotten into dog breeding. Now she stayed at home while he was away, and they’d go a week at a time without seeing each other.
The man’s ringtone went off. It was the sound of a baby crying. He pulled a headset from the window visor and put it over his ears.
“What’s up, baby cakes?”
They talked for a while, and he hung up. His wife called back in twenty minutes, and again half a dozen times after that, throughout the evening. I am always amazed when I ride with truckers who do this. They try so hard, in spite of everything, to maintain some sort of connection- even though they are never at home, even though it’s just a voice screeching out of a little electronic box, thin as a flaking pie tin. I wonder how real it is.
“It’s like we live separate lives now.” Said the man. He had been thinking the very same thoughts. “We talk every day, but we don’t share any of the same experiences anymore. She’ll have a problem with this dog or that dog, she’ll get a migraine, she’ll pay this or that bill. I’ll hit some bad weather, I’ll have a problem with a load, I’ll get held up in traffic. It’s all separate now. And we she has a migraine, I’m not there. I don’t share that with her. So when I get home, it’s like…”
“It’s like you’ve grown apart.” I said.
“Yes,” said the man.
“I have a theory,” I said, “that if you don’t share the same physical space with someone, you may as well not exist. I’ve decided that’s why long distance relationships don’t work. As soon as you’re not in the same physical space, you start to grow apart from each other, growing instead into whatever physical space it is that you inhabit. And then when you finally see each other, even if you’ve talked on the phone every day, it’s like you’re total strangers. You may as well have not talked or thought of each other the whole time you’ve been apart.”
The man seemed to consider this.
“Telephone conversations aren’t real,” I said.
His phone began to cry again. He picked up the headset, fumbling with the cord in the dark.
“What’s up, baby cakes!”
We stopped somewhere in the dark mountains to get some dinner. It had begun to rain. I walked across the wet truckstop parking lot, my head floating above my body. I felt like I was wearing moon boots. Too much time on the road, too much time on the road… Inside the truckstop I balked at the bright florescent lighting. Glossy racks held cheap ceramic trinkets, wind chimes and fleece blankets. Snow-globes with deer in them. There were stacks of workboots, dvds in plastic anti-theft cases. A whole bin of discounted candy bars. Giant-size baby ruth. Candy orange slices. The men shuffled up the aisles, dark-eyed, fingering tins of peanuts. Looking like their faces had been frozen halfway between startled and asleep. I stood staring at a rack of snack-chips. The store needed to restock. There was only one bag of barbecue potato chips left, and no cheddar popcorn. I thought of getting home, of changing my clothes. Of wearing a different pair of pants. Of taking the wilted cabbage heel from the bottom of my pack and throwing it away. I could feel myself fishing it from the depths of my pack, now empty and deflated. I heard the thunk as it hit the bottom of the trashcan, and a wave of pleasure swept through me. Too much time on the road, too much time on the road…
The man and I had subway. I ordered a salad, because surprisingly, subway is one of the only fast-food places where there is absolutely nothing that I can eat. Not. A single. Thing. Everything has bread in it. Unless I want to eat the insides of a turkey sandwich, or scrape the tuna salad off its half-pound bread-log. I actually did that once, and it was sort of heartbreaking. So I got a salad, but I wasn’t really hungry anyway. And it was late now, almost midnight. The man was stopping soon, for the night. He’d said that he could leave me in a town on I-5, before he split off on his little country road to Bingen, or, if I wanted, I could come along with him, but he wasn’t going all the way until morning, stopping for the night just over the Oregon border. I knew he wasn’t a creep, and nothing sounded better than that top bunk, with its thin mattress and plastic walls. So I said yes, my heart jumping at the word “Oregon”.
We finally pulled off in the wee hours of the morning, after exhausting all of our topics of conversation. His in-laws, her in-laws, their kids, their ex’s kids. Where I sleep at night. I climbed up on the top bunk and curled up gratefully under my tired sleeping bag, putting away a chapter of my vampire book by lamplight before shoving in my earplugs and drifting off. The man was watching a movie on the bunk below, and I thought down to him, Sleep, sleep, you truckers never get enough sleep, as the foam expanded in my ear canal and slowly squeezed out all the wide world, with its noises and people and bright, endless highways, leaving only the sound of my own breathing and the distant rumble of the idling truck.
He got up too early and I pilfered a granola bar from the truckstop for breakfast. It had nuts in it, and fruits, all stuck together with some sort of glaze that made threads when you pulled it apart, like a rice crispy treat. I appreciate anything that resembles a rice crispy treat in any way. I ate the bar slowly, watching the morning world through the truck windshield. The morning world was full of pines, and dry grass, and bright clear sunshine. The brightest, clearest sunshine, it seemed I had ever seen. There had been sun in Arizona, sure, but the air had had a sort of haze to it- because of the fires in California, maybe, or because of Phoenix. The air here, in southern/central Oregon, was something else entirely. Cold, smelling of pine, and clear like it’d been steeped through a piece of flannel. With little trails of white cloud, startling for all their intricate edging and tiny detail. If I’d felt peaceful yesterday I was the Zen Master today, chewing my granola bar and staring out at the road, silent.
The man and his wife began their morning ritual of back-and-forth calls over the course of an hour. He drove, she called. There was someone at the door. She called back. He was still driving. She went to the store, got some coffee, took care of the dogs. She called. He was still there, behind that big wheel, facing the road. She had some breakfast. He sat, Christmas music down low. I opened my vampire novel and retreated into it. I’d decided that I didn’t want to talk today, that I’d used up all my words the night before. I needed to let them refill, like water trickling into a reservoir. One way to do that was to not talk, to stare out the window, and to read Stephanie Meyer’s absurd new plotline, which included vampires and broken-down motorcycles and was even more badly written than the first book. Edward wasn’t even in this one. He’d dumped the seventeen year-old girl and left town. All she had was her friend, who fixed cars. Sometimes she’d jump off cliffs into the ocean, because she’d found that when her life was in danger, she would hallucinate the sound of Edward’s voice, telling her she was a fucking idiot and that she’d better stop doing whatever she was doing or he’d hold her down by her wrists until her heart stopped.
Oh, those Mormon authors and their thinly-veiled BDSM.
Finally the phone stopped crying and the man looked over at me, tossing out a line of conversation like he was casting for trout. I muttered a word in response, and he looked back at the road. He switched stations, tapped the dash, hummed to himself. He threw out another hook, and I ignored it, staring intently into my book. I felt bad, but I just didn’t have any words left. I was used up. Empty. I’d been hitch-hiking for too long, and finally the fuel-light on my dash had come on. My car had stalled. I’d given him a good five hours the night before of solid listening/nodding/suggesting/encouraging, and now his appointment was over.
This happens sometimes, when I ride with someone for more then a day. No, it always happens. We just kind of turn away from each other, like a curtain has dropped between the seats. We’re over it.
We stopped once to eat, at a taco bell filled with light and the elderly. I ate a chicken bowl and a crispy taco, declaring the ground beef pure of gluten, which I’m sure is not the case. He ordered an unfamiliar foodstuff, a sort of burrito wrapped inside a burrito, the second burrito being deep-fried, and I handed it to him as he drove.
Central Oregon is the size of one day. The day was full of Central Oregon, Central Oregon and more Central Oregon. Around each new bend, was Central Oregon. I had no idea. I never went to Central Oregon. I had never been down this lonely stretch of state highway. Around mid-morning the world outside my window had become such a fantastical place- golden grasses waving in the wind, small towns clustered together in space, nothing to fill the air. Vacant pasture for hours and then a single stoplight, a small wooden church. One old Victorian, perched on a dry road. The highest point for miles. A flat-faced diner, a junk-shop. And the pure golden sun beating down on everything, the air as still as glass.
I am going to move here, I thought. I am going to move here one day.
I wondered about the winters, the summers. I wondered about the people who lived there. I wanted to leave my body and find myself on the dirt sidewalk, walk up to one of the houses and knock on the heavy door. I wanted to step inside and see what there was to see. Would the air smell like sage? Or dust? Would they have a pitbull? A piano? A cupboard of canned peaches? An attic full of framed photographs? A grandfather clock? Old people, the last humans on earth with possessions that do not come from walmart. And they sit inside peeling Victorians, miles from anyone, waiting to die…
All too soon we were through those small towns, we were on the other side of them, they were gone. And it was just the grassland and the sky, uncluttered, an arena for light to play. My spirits were flying high above the truck, my nose was dancing along the lines in my vampire novel. My ride was bored, thinking about his wife, imagining what he’d rather be doing. The day passed like this, in minutes and hours, the middle part of Oregon unwinding like a movie reel. When evening finally came I watched the sun set in the side-view mirror, and it was like an aircraft carrying neon colors had crashed into the horizon, in slow motion. The prairie was on fire. The only other thing besides the ground and sky came once a day, and it was this. A fireworks display to the death of light.
It went on and on and on, and then it was dark. Not too long after we pulled off the highway and suddenly I knew the Columbia river was nearby, I could sense it. The border between Oregon and Washington. And straight west from us was Portland. Ninety miles. I almost jumped, startled.
The man and I said our goodbyes.
“Sorry I wasn’t much of a talker today, I’ve just been talking too much.” I said, by way of apology, after I had climbed out of the truck and stood, planted on the good firm ground, looking back into the cab.
“Oh, no, it was me who wasn’t talkative,” he said, over the seat. I turned that over in my brain. That must be his way of saying he accepted my apology, and was over it.
“No really,” I said. “it wasn’t you. I just didn’t feel like talking. And I’m really stuck in this book I’m reading.”
He nodded, a little sad.
I gave him a wave goodbye and walked into the truckstop. The man only had four more hours to go, four more hours of driving until he could stand up and walk down the manicured walkway to the planet where his wife lived. Tired, he’d set his cooler down on a kitchen chair, and awkwardly drop his jacket on the table. His wife would be everywhere, on all the furniture and all fixtures, in the spacing of the framed photographs and the way the plates were stacked. She’d be in the drape of the curtains, in the way the numbers were worn on the phone. She knew what time the mail came, the houseplants lived because of her. And where was he?
At the truckstop I bought another dark-chocolate candy bar with mint in it, and a sausage breakfast sandwich. And a banana. I sat on a gravel median outside assembling dinner, sliding the sausage off the biscuit and onto my weird, crumbly rice bread. I was on the “car” side of the truckstop, and hardly anyone was fueling up. The night had gotten cold, and I wrapped my scarf around me and buttoned up my wool jacket. I’d made a new sign. PORTLAND, it said, in big, triumphant letters.
Hours passed. My faith was unflagging. My heart danced around in my ribcage. Right around the time I began glancing around, sizing up clumps of trees across the road, thinking maybe I should just get a good night’s sleep and try again in the morning, bright and early, a car stopped directly in front of me and a man peered out the rolled-down window.
“You need a ride?” He asked. “I’m going to Vancouver. I can drop you in Portland.” It was the shiniest, newest car this side of the Willamette river. And the rest, my friends, is HISTORY.