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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Perils of Travelling by Car

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Dateline: Fairview, PA. This was the kickoff piece for my series of two dozen chronicling a cross-country trip my wife and I took in 1989. I wrote it on Sept. 3 and it appeared in the Schenectady Gazette a fortnight later. What’s not in the article is the first big argument Susan and I had, which had to do with the dead radio described below. Seeing that we were crammed for the next four weeks into a vehicle too small to accommodate proper sulking, we learned quickly to be very kind to one another.


IF YOU'RE THE SORT of person who begins a vacation by packing and getting out on time, I envy you. Vacation prep is an agony for me, and to pack for a long one is terrifying. Which is only to explain why my wife and I ended up on the New York Thruway, headed west, about six hours later than we'd planned. When we stopped at Niagara Falls it was dark and it was late and we were tired. This is when the awesome loneliness of travelling by car becomes apparent.

Daylight is deceptive, giving you a false sense of access to the sights that whisk by. The car itself is another cheat. You sit encased in a flimsy suit of tin moving much more quickly than is good for you all the while feeling a sense of imperviousness. At least I do. That's the reason automobile junkyards are fenced in, you know: so we don't get reminded of just how vulnerable we really are in those sedans.

Driving at night you're detached, studying only a hundred or so feet of pavement ahead, lulled into monotonous thought by the soft glow of dashboard lamps. If you've got a companion, so much the better, and my wife and I made noble promises about sharing the driving while keeping one another company. But our itinerary, covering about 25 states in 30 days, required a daunting amount of time at the wheel, and it's exhausting time.

To keep our first appointment, in the Chicago area, we had to hustle on through the Middle Atlantic states. We already were exhausted from a too-short night of pre-travel sleep, and Susan pooped out soon after relinquishing the wheel at Buffalo. So it was me and my constant driving friend, the radio. As we crossed into Pennsylvania, the radio went dead.

I'm pretty good with fuses and such, and can do light electrical repairs that don't require soldering or knowledge of transistors. This radio had been through three cars, one of them totalled, and survived into our Volkswagen Camper. It was accustomed to loud music and rambunctious driving, and I fed it top-quality tapes. It probably died of the electronic equivalent of gout.

The autopsy was performed at a rest stop in Erie. It had a Viking funeral. Well, not really, but I was in fact carrying it when I joined a weary throng to watch someone's car go up in flames in the parking lot. At two in the morning, a car fire becomes a splendid definition of hell. “Back up! Everyone back up!” someone shouted. “It might blow!”

Few bothered to move. The hood was up and the car's engine blazed happily, the orange of the flames a lively contrast to the bloodless intensity of the mercury-vapor lamps overhead. Emergency vehicles arrived and the crowd finally scattered. I tossed my radio carcass in a roadside wastebasket, angry at the bad timing, disappointed by the lack of further fireworks from the burning car.

A confession is required here, and I'm reluctant to make it. But I do own and listen to a Citizens' Band radio in my car, never daring to intrude on the conversation of truckers. I turned it on as we left the lot and heard one driver chuckling to another about the car fire. “There's one less four-wheeler,” he said.

Truckers behave as if they own the highway, and as far as I'm concerned they do. Over-the-road men have to ply long distances regularly and quickly, and rightly see the “four-wheeler” as a meddling dilettante. Truckers have their own universe, both on and off the highway, and if I stood any chance of hearing tunes for the rest of the night, it would be through a trucker's good graces.

So I gingerly took up the microphone and made my plea. “Can anybody tell me where the next truck stop is?” I asked, adding unnecessarily, “My radio died.”

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe suggests that all airplane pilots model their speech after the West Virginia accent of Chuck Yeager. There must be a similar trucker's archetype somewhere. The jargon of the CB is always delivered in a raspy, nasal twang, sometimes in a sing-song.

“There be a truck stop comin' up in Fairview,” the answer came. “Gitchoo a radio there.” (CB argot may be the last vestige of the subjunctive mood in the English language, with phrases like, “We be headin' into that there Buffalo town” quite common.)

A truck stop is an empire unique to itself, and might just as well have its own constitution and government. The fueling bays are each the length of an 18-wheeler, and you'll find a dozen or more side by side. Inside is a restaurant that serves anything at any hour, reinforcing the timelessness of the occupation. There are showers for truckers and a general store that sells food, clothing, truck supplies, magazines, tapes—and radios.

I'd never visited one before. A few brave four-wheelers were parked in the lot, and I think we all knew one another by our nervous smiles. We acted like guests in someone else's church. Of course, I expected at any moment to see a trucker jerk a thumb in my direction and order me removed. “He drives a four-wheeler,” I could hear him say. “He's no OTR man.”

So I moved quickly to the radio display and made my selection. All around me truckers in boots and cowboy hats looked through racks of reflective lenses, highway maps, account books, snack foods. I began to relax a little. My fear gave way to admiration. We shared a goal: stay awake and get there. Only they did it more often.

As I headed to the checkout counter I passed a rack of blue jeans. “Long Haul,” the label said. “Trucker's Cut.” I bought a pair.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Sept. 16, 1989

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