Flight (July23-August 11)
We lie, as if inside a tomb. The black dog is curled faithfully at my side and the old dog who snores at my feet, are prepared to dwell in Hades should my deeds in the upper world fate us to camp there throughout eternity.
“Get da hell over here.” Funny. The devil sounds like a Chicagoan.
“Don’t talk to da kids like dat.” That’s odd. He has a wife.
The black dog’s foot presses my forehead, nudging me awake. I poke an arm from beneath the blankets and peel the curtain back to check the sky. Pieces of it, which are shaped like confetti, show between the branches and leaves of primeval oak trees, and they are lost-in-the-void gray. Off to the right a campfire smoulders to life as a man and boy feed it wood between doing chores. A sleepy kid dressed in sweats and flip-flops wanders to the water pump to wash mud from the reel on his fishing pole, then fights an imaginary foe with the slight rod like Little John at the bridge. How strange to be hiding mere miles from my father’s house in a park as tame as a suburban back yard.
I emerge from the trailer into smoky rituals, into darkness made palpable by fires which burn in humid air. Within the haze are voices and arcs of colored lanterns which appear to have no support in the black forest. By day, children in wet sneakers pursue the mystery of luring fish to their deaths in the shadows of a floating dock. Tiny ones drop chunks of bread into the mat of grass which obscures the lake’s bottom, chunks which are bigger than the silver dollar bluegills that wait below. Older ones parse their ration of worms, drop hooks into the deep and wait.
The computer sits on a table in a repair shop in Rockford, Illinois. Its yellowed case looks pretty sad next to a new model that is being prepped. Worse, it’s dead. The technician has just pulled the back panel and as he wipes a finger along the edge of a card, he pronounces it filthy and says, “Give me until morning to see what can be done.”
Last night I dreamed that my left leg had been replaced. The new one was transparent, like a novelty telephone, and inside I could see push buttons, colored wires and plastic drinking cups which served to space the assorted gizmos: I phone the repair shop.
“I have some good news and some bad news,” the technician says, predictably.
“I have it back to running like it was when you brought it in yesterday. What happened was I plugged it in to an incompatible monitor and it automatically shut down. It came back by itself this morning.” The computer lives. I sigh and my heart moves up an inch or two in my chest.
“But,” he continues, “the display is shot and I can’t find any identification on it – and without that I can’t order a replacement.”
“It’s just an LCD screen. There are millions around. How can it be impossible to find one? Aren’t there catalogues? Can’t you narrow it down by size, by type of connector?”
“No,” he says. “It’s stupid, but these things are custom.”
“That’s like saying you get one pair of sox when you buy a pair of shoes and that you have to throw the shoes away if a sock wears out.”
“Kinda,” he says.
“What do I do now?”
“Buy a separate monitor.”
The computer is no longer portable. Its blue screen is black and a great hulking box like a TV set is wired to it. Dinner outside (there is no longer room inside the trailer) comes with an entertainment bonus. I watch my newest neighbor wax the roof of his twenty-seven foot motor home.
I hook up the trailer in the rain and traverse homey, not homely land. About fifteen miles east of the Rock River the land goes as flat as a garage floor. Room has been made for a tiny congregation of white headstones where a field of corn meets one of soybeans. Farm houses are white and barns are red. How is such uniformity enforced? The town of Sycamore revolts: two-story houses with wrap-around porches have been bathed in beige, sand, cream and gray paint. It’s as my friend from Cheyenne, who labors unsatisfactorily in Kansas City, said: The Midwest is inconsequential. Cute, but inconsequential. The bacon cheeseburger I consumed at lunch was terrific though.
“Wyoming!” the clerk at the gas station says. “I lived in Wheatland thirty years ago.”
“Wheatland is a nice place,” I say.
“It’s a hole,” she says. “Oh, how I hated it.”
“What was so awful about it?”
“We’d pick up people’s dead animals and sell ‘em for pet food. Where’d you come from?”
“Now, I liked it there,” she brightens, “at Frontier Days, I mean. We still had to shoot the busted animals and haul ‘em away, but we got to watch the rodeo fer free. Some years it wuz the only fun we had.”
“Really? How’d you get into work like that?”
“Oh, you know. I was just out of college, got pregnant right off, and my husband was already in pet food, so that’s what we did.”
“You did get out of Wheatland, though.”
“Yeah, we went to Greeley, Colorado.”
“Greeley is a nice town,” I say.
“I hated it,” she says. “Oh – It’s just that I was young and too far from home.” She shrugs. “We still make dog food, but I finally tol’ him I wouldn’t haul them dead animals no more.”
Outside the trailer a great front of clouds hangs blacker than the night and the mist has condensed to a fog so deep that it fits me like a shroud. The few vehicles parked on a fairgrounds west of Chicago appear like wrecks in the confusion.
“It looks like we’re in the line to hell,” I tell the dogs.
“Sweetheart, you know what you outta do? Pull into police stations at night and ask to park your trailer there. They’d love it, you being a single woman.” My advisor might be a mannequin for King Farouk. His slip-on beach shoes are tiny in the shade of his belly. “Pretend you’re scared,” he adds with a friendly leer.
“Where do you two stay?” I ask his wife, who sits in the passenger seat of their van. She is dressed casually in white shorts and a T-shirt like her husband.
“We drive at night and sleep during the day in grocery store parking lots,” she answers.
I peer inside the jammed-full van. I can’t see where they have room to sleep. “This is it, then? This is where you live?”
“We have a house in Florida but we don’t live there. Our kids do. Well, they’re his kids, not mine. We just show up, buy them groceries and leave.”
“Nah. We couldn’t get them to leave, so we did,” he explains. “Works out great.”
I go back to the truck and trailer, get out the campstove, set it on the tailgate and boil water for tea. Suddenly I’m aware that the old dog is missing – he has likely wandered off to beg breakfast. I rush through ‘campsites’ where die-hards have pitched tents on the packed gravel, where people rest in lawn chairs, where others sell their wares casually by pretending to rearrange their loads. Sellers search for added stock and early buyers dive on items like ravens on roadkill. It’s wonderfully fun, I decide, and my heart thumps a bit. I’m anxious to get inside and set-up, to sell some of the belongings I hadleft at my Dad’s house over the years, to make money and fly west, but the old dog might as well be invisible in the junk and trucks so I aim for the main road to head him off, if he’s strayed that far, and to search the rows of vehicles from the back forward.
“Have you seen a big dog?” I ask an old geezer who is balanced atop the entrance gate. “Old, slow, and kinda sway-backed?”
“See that delivery truck with the sign painted in red? Think I saw a dog there. Could be yers.”
It is. I run up behind the old dog and shout his name, but he’s tired and confused and it isn’t until I touch his back that he recognizes me.
Black and white cows that wait beneath a canopy of trees become restive when a truck and livestock trailer arrive. The driver gets out and fiddles with a lock on the gate. The cows bellow, presumably about their urgent udders; he gets back in the truck and drives away. I bet he forgot the key. I wait at a damp picnic table, without coffee, for the clouds to go away but I know that they won’t. The dogs doze, content to be quiet after a weekend at the crowded flea market. Me too. But it was worth the fatigue I now feel. There’s money to take me west and I need not concern myself with it again for a month. Kansas City, where my friend from Wyoming continues to be lukewarm about his new job, is my intermediate destination.
“The people at the office are so dour,” he complained on the phone last night. “And they run me like I’m a truck.” My friend is a product of the Western notion that nature is a blank canvas on which to paint one’s character. He says things like, “Any native of Wyoming can entertain himself quite well with a wad of paper and a string.” He misjudges what he’s up against in the Midwest, where there can be no pause in the battle against disorder. The belief that those who fight nature the hardest will win the most from it is too hard-held.
Signs hyphenate the blacktop: Florid Road, Poignant’s Gravel Pit, Catfish Buffet->. Avenging grass rips veins in the asphalt around a shut-down factory. A common farm house is made special by three chestnut horses, cut with gold light by the low sun where they graze in the yard. The state road I follow descends a steep hill to the Illinois River bottom, which is narrower than I expected.
There appears to be but one campsite, situated on a grassy oval just north of the Corps of Engineers lock, and it’s empty. What luck, I think, as I circle to place the picnic table between the trailer and the river. A Caterpillar tractor rolls up so I lean out the window and say, “This sure is a small campground.”
“We have a campground but this isn’t it,” says the Cat driver.
“It looks like a place to camp,” I say hopefully. “I want to watch the river. We don’t have big rivers like this.”
“Wyoming?” he notes the truck plates. “I wouldn’t care if you stayed here but it’s not up to me. The Corps of Engineers owns this place. The campground is back up on the rise. It’s nice. Only thing we haven’t got is showers.”
“How often do boats come through? Will I see any?”
“There’s a barge sneaking up on you now.”
Six rusty containers, like really big sheet cake pans with blue lids, emerge from the upstream gloom. A yellow tug drives the six-pack to the east, away from the lock.
“The river is eighteen feet over the dam right now, so of course, he doesn’t need to use the lock,” says the Cat driver.
“Eighteen feet over the dam?” I think of the ankle deep trickle called the Rio Grande.
The Cat driver goes about his business as I walk the river bank with the dogs who wear themselves out chasing moths, birds and invisible things which call from the corn. Tiny sharp-winged birds, with white bellies and black backs, skim the water and inhale rising insects. Two boys try for catfish. A man drives up, walks his dog for thirty seconds, and leaves. Arrays of lights at either end of the lock come on. It would be difficult to sleep here after all.
I enter the campground the wrong way and find myself at a locked gate, unable to back out. The Cat driver shows up to open it and we coast onto a freshly mown lawn prettied with barrels of petunias and rows of salvia and impatiens.
“There’s plenty of dry split oak for a fire,” he says. “If you need anything, someone will be at the control house all night.”
Twenty years of living out west have conditioned my response. Water, green grass, pretty flowers, great trees in abundance and hardwood to burn. “Sure is luxurious,” I tell the dogs.
Upstream from the lock the mercurial surface of the Illinois River is broken occasionally by the hulks of sunken trees whose reaching roots, like the arms of lost men, slide half-seen past unreachable banks. The canopy of great trees crowds the gentle sky and I wait for stealthy canoes to emerge from the edge of its shadow. Peoria, Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Michigamea, Tamoroa; the Illini, self-designated vir perfectissimus, men with copper skin and “legs that seem drawn with an artist’s pen,” who tattoed their backs from neck to heels and cut off the noses of faithless wives.
Downstream, a cluster of barges hangs forever in the gloom. I squint and the faint image moves perceptibly, bends so that it appears as a dark bar and a white shimmer above the gray laminar waters. The sun sets, the quarter moon brightens. The sharp-winged birds consume mosquitos and fish rise to eat, too. Two men emerge from the control room and lean on a railing by the river. Is this work or do they watch for pleasure?
The barges close on us, very real and rusty. Several cabins in the four-storey tug are brightly lit and a gas flare over the stern flickers on the water like a dragon’s tail. The first time I stood on a mud-rutted winter plain east of Denver and met a drilling rig face to face I thought the non-stop pounding of the engines would make me crazy. But just as they did then, the throbbing diesels thoroughly tranquilize me. The sound of the receding engines is outdone by the potbangers of the natural world. ‘Tstststststst, ranh, ranh, ranh, psssss-psssss-psssss-bzzzzzt. An owl speaks up. Nature talks on a party line.
There have been but three cars go by since we arrived last night, two at about 4:30 AM and one that just now slowed to honk at the Cat driver who has been whackin’ weeds in the ditch beside the road since 8 AM. Finally satisfied with the ditch, he enters the campround eyeing fugitive blades of grass around the water pipes and under electrical boxes. I hurry to pack, to escape the ugly snarl of the whacker.
“You takin’ off so soon?” he says.
“It’s lovely here, but I’m homesick for red dirt, blue mountains, and funny little plants that never need trimming.”
“My son just left for Kalispell, Montana,” he says, “to work as a mountain guide. My wife and daughter went along, too.”
“To help him settle in? That’s nice,” I say.
“No, see, they all went permanent.”
I pause. “You’ll join them soon?”
“Naw. Naw. What would I do with no corn to plant?”
Americans. We confess everything in five minutes as though our lives were not worth contemplating, as if events could not be examined and incorporated into a personal history but instead must be dumped on strangers, as if doing so will end the pain. Poor man.
Just above St. Louis, the Illinois River, where it is subsumed by the Mississippi, is overtaken by astounding human effort. Tens of barges compete for channels and more wait to be loaded, junked or repaired. Trucks slow for nothing, to keep their dates with the whited concrete elevators that line the sliver of ground between river and road. Shall I brave St. Louis with the low-slung, lurching trailer attached? Where’s the bypass?
Semis come and go from the rest area off I-70 where we’ll spend the night and I lay my head down to the cadence of engine changes. The dogs sleep in the fall of air below the roof hatch. Tonight, the truck and trailer face west and questions about the future face me. One thing is clear, I’ve just dropped out of the middle class.
I slept extraordinarily well considering the racket around me, waking a few times to the sound of airbrakes and the black dog’s foot in my face. Still, I feel a bit down. As I stroll back from the restroom the image of my shabby trailer and dinky truck cast against towering, pristine tractor trailers by the morning light confronts me. What have I to worry about?
Tonight I will sleep in Missouri, where Swamp Thing was born, so I pick a site deep in the woods just to increase the mood. It’s dusk and the groves of young trees are filled with the buzzing sounds that I heard as a youth when I drank too much at rock concerts.
A voice calls to me through the gloom, “How’s your dinner?”
“I wouldn’t call it dinner.” I drag a spoon through instant potatoes and chili. “Let’s call it sustenance.”
A big boy in hiking boots, khaki shorts and a denim shirt bounds across the road grinning like a chipmunk.
“Gosh. You’re from Wyoming?” No one doesn’t like Wyoming, I realize, or Wyomingites, or Wyomans or is it Wyomingans?
“Sort of,” I inform him.
“I was out there once, in May of ‘91.” He consults an air map and outlines his itinerary with a forefinger. “First I went to Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills, then to Cody, Denver and home.”
“Not to Yellowstone? I’m surprised.”
“I tried – drove to the east gate two days in a row but it snowed and the road into the park was closed by rockslides. Just driving over there from Cody made me nervous. I mean, I am from Kansas.”
A younger man, tall and sturdy as woodsy younger men should be, lopes over from their camp. He sits down across from me at the picnic table and fiddles with my gas stove. “I have one exactly like this,” he says. “First it wouldn’t stay lit, now it leaks.”
“Hey,” the big boy interrupts. “The ranger talk starts at 9 p.m. We’d better get going.”
“Will you come with us?” says the young, sturdy one. “It’s about owls.”
As we follow an asphalt path through the woods three abreast, I have the apprehension that we’re going to link elbows and skip, but we make it to the lecture area with our dignity intact.
“I’m ready to get serious about camping,” the big boy says once we’re seated in the bark-strewn amphitheater. “What have you found to be the most necessary equipment to take with you?”
“A trailer,” I tell him while pondering what their relationship might be. The big boy doesn’t act like the boy’s father or vice versa.
A blocky gray-haired ranger, who I assume is a man until she speaks, says, “First, let me start with our camper award program.” She holds up a square of cardboard with badges and buttons taped to it. “If you camp in five different Missouri state parks and get this form signed at each one by the person who writes your permit…”
Oh no. It’s bureaucratic camping. Why can’t people just drive out to the forest, say, “Gee, this is nice,” and leave it at that? Suddenly, the plaintive yips of the black dog call to me through millions of board feet of hardwood.
“Excuse me,” I say to the men. “I have to go quiet my dog.”
I’m so furious that the light from my flashlight bangs every which way against the road and trees until it finds a set of luminous marbles about a foot and a half above the ground at the rear of the trailer. Damn him. Another glowing pair – the old dog, hovers at the front. I boost the old dog into the trailer and open the windows: an ocean of black noise rants at me. Insects reh-reh and tstststs. It’s the repetition that makes the sounds so horrifying. Ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching. Bzt, bzt, bzt. Yikes. I dash out, unclip the black dog and race him to the trailer as if a giant cicada will snatch me away. Damn bugs. Why don’t they shut up?
The doors of anxiety open with the dawn. I peek out. The trees are still there, the sky is still gray, and a handful of birds play their broken records. Gee, I’m in a good mood. Kansas City is nearby, so I call my friend.
“I got your message,” he says, “at three this morning when I got home from work.”
“What the hell were you doing ‘til three?”
“Finishing another sucking presentation. Where are you anyway? I was afraid you’d be fed up with Missouri and out to Salina, Kansas by now.”
“Some park called Keister’s Knob or something. Here’s the plan. There’s an RV park thirty miles east of you off I-70. I’m going over there tomorrow. You can drive out and spend the night: we can leave the dogs at the trailer Saturday. It’s too miserable to drag them into town.” I swat a mosquito and blow down my shirt, which is soggy.
“Isn’t it awful?” he says. “No wonder all my friends in Wyoming said I’d hate it here.”
“How do you stand traveling alone for so long?” asks my friend. We sit in his car at the RV park with the air conditioner cranking. The dogs have melted into the grass near the trailer and although we can’t hear the trucks on I-70, non-stop headlights sweep the dark, wet sky. “I’d lose it,” he concludes.
“Just being indoors is too much for me anymore. And I like living this way,” which is the truth. “I get to pick where I live, every day. Think of it.”
“What about money?”
“That’s a problem wherever you go.” I’m a little defensive on this subject for sure. “I could stop somewhere, rent an apartment, get a phone, and have utilities to pay. I’d have more bills, not more money.”
“To tell you the truth, this job pays better, but with the move and living in a city I’m sliding backwards. I may have to get a second job.”
“How, when you already work twelve hours a day?” We sit quietly, relishing the artificial cold that releases us from the feeling that hot wet socks are stuck to our faces.
“Have you talked to your dad or brother?” he whispers.
“No. How many times can you apply for membership in your own family?”
The truck odometer rests at 10,775.0 when we stop for the night at a rest area in Kansas much like the ones I remember from our family trips. My dad liked to drive at night and we never knew where we’d be in the morning. Sometimes it would be in a wayside like this, but often it was behind a gas station. My dad was convinced that they were safe places to sleep, he could fill the gas tank when the station opened in the morning, and my mother, brother and I could wash up in the restrooms. My mother wasn’t happy about my father’s midnight selections but she went along with them until the morning we woke up in a migrant labor camp.
Lightning low to the northern horizon flashes pink under thick clouds. A young pine tree with lopsided branches shaped like toilet brushes grows indistinct in the dusky light and little traffic goes by on Highway 54. I feed the dogs at the foot of a historical marker which denotes a trail “established in 1868 during General Phillip H Sheridan’s winter campaign against Indians in Texas and the Indian Territory,” used later as a cattle trail to Dodge City.
“When I get to New Mexico,” I say out loud. What wonderful words. I’ll find a cool private spot and rest. “Tomorrow,” I say and my spirit does a happy dog dance. “Tomorrow I’ll find a new home.”
Meanwhile, central Kansas looks like it has been sucked into a war. Big time winds coax movements and noises from the trailer that are hard to ignore: I name things that ride the wind and the trailer is not on the list. Aided by searing shocks of lightening, I venture into the dark to free the truck, steady the trailer with jack stands and secure the awning. The dogs hustled into the back, I sit in the truck cab and watch for funnel clouds: what I’ll do if I see one, I don’t know.
Eventually, fatigue overrides fear and I crawl into the trailer and lie down. The dogs sleep instantly, ignorant of our peril. I doze, wake, doze, wake, each time to new shakes and twists of the trailer’s hull. Boom boom! Boom boom! pops the roof from changing pressure. A semi pulls in close-by. Hogs squeal as if they have arrived at the slaughterhouse door, as if they see the Devil in a butcher’s apron.
A grizzly bear, an elk, a mule deer, two black bears, several owls, two hawks and numerous pheasants watch me eat from their life-after-death destination inside a cafe in mud-caked, cloud-weary, scenery-deficient Kansas.
“Was that a typical storm?” I ask the waitress, a teenager in jeans and dental braces.
“Well, yes. It didn’t rain much though. It usually rains pretty hard.”
“The wind too? The lightning?”
“Oh sure. More coffee?”
“That your rig out there?” a farmer having coffee with a buddy asks. I nod. “Where’d you put up last night?”
I tell them about the rest area and the hogs. “I never thought about hogs being scared in a storm. I swear they were screaming, making the most awful sounds. I couldn’t sleep.”
“They ain’t scared. That’s just hogs,” he snickers.
“They scream cause they’re stupid,” his buddy snorts.
Hogs are smart. They know. Eat and die. Bacon and ham. I push away my plate.
The big trucks and I play connect the dots with the elevator towns of southwest Kansas. A bulldozer tears up the scent of sage as it works to widen the road and one speck of sky is very Mary blue. Sheep graze in a wrecking yard. At Liberal, Kansas, just before the Oklahoma border, where the welcome sign has the nerve to say, Oklahoma: Discover the Excellence, big bad pick up trucks outnumber cars and trailers outnumber houses.
And the water vapor separated from the rest of the atmospheric gases and behold! Clear blue sky and brilliant white clouds appeared. The Okie State Patrol has just eighteen miles to seperate out-of-staters from their cash, and they do.
South of Dalhart, Drive Friendly! Texas are acres of doomed cattle penned in a feedlot, handsome beasts consuming and excreting to the last minute.
“In 1876 Casimero Romero moved to the Canadian River area from New Mexico, bringing fourteen wagons and sixteen thousand sheep. Rancher Charles Goodnight made a pact with him and other pastores in the 80’s according to a sign posted in a peaceful stand of cottonwoods where I’ve stopped for a rest. I think it’s more likely that Goodnight met up with the pastores in 1876 on his way to Palo Duro canyon to establish a ranch and that the sheepherders and cattleman agreed to stay away from each other then. The sign adds that Romero sold out in 1897 but the rest of the story is obscured by a spray of bullet holes. All in all, it was a fairly peaceful intersection between New Mexicans and Texans who overlapped on the distant reaches of the plains like flotsam carried by waves onto a beach.
Before the highway sneaks up on Tucumcari, New Mexico, the blue horizon waits just beyond dreamy red sand hills where shaggy, silvery-green sage anchors earth as fine as pink cheek powder and as red as dry, crushed blood. Mesas change in color from purple to rust as we speed closer. What a difference a day makes. I sit in my lawn chair in the sharp light of a dime-sized moon and high, gray clouds drift across its disk. The dogs stare into the dusk and guard our happy home. Young cottonwoods lean under a dry wind, which shakes their crumpled leaves and lifts away the loneliness of the last month. Tonight, the moon reflects a kinder light.