Northern Midwest Map

With sleep, all shall be better. The first day of a 6,000-mile trip involves crying, driving slowly, and stopping for farewells to friends. For five years, I lived in Milwaukee. All totaled, I called Wisconsin home for 12 years, including the college years. My home range territory extended as far as Madison to the west, Chicago to the south and north to the hilly rural areas. Today, my drive takes seven hours to Madison, a trip of 75 miles. West of Madison, I rest my new Ford Explorer and myself in a big, muddy truck stop.

Leaving Milwaukee required packing everything I own, leaving a job I enjoyed for years, selling all furniture, and saying “good bye” to everything I knew. Once starting, the process the cadence overtook me. With furniture gone, with boxes secured on the trailer, I continue without slowing. Stopping would not change my feelings about leaving. Fear and tears push me until I pass Madison in a thick fog. At the truck stop, I rest. Reading a bit by candle light; sleeping in the back of the 4×4 utility truck I bought. I left five days earlier than planned. Now, I ask why. Prior to departure, I said, “I just don’t have enough tears to cry for three more days”.

I took pictures of friends for weeks. Each time travelling a familiar route, I said, “My last time on this road”. I drove by old apartments, old grocery stores, and old shopping centers to say “good bye”. I said “good bye” to inanimate objects, old thoughts, and old memories. I will change. The world will changed.

I broached an emotional limbo, neither at home nor on the road nor settling in a new home. I slept on the bare floor of a once furnished home. I worked in a familiar office fully redecorated for my replacements. I no longer possessed a desk, phone, computer, a bed, a dresser, or a job. The faces around me reflected my absence. People and things nibbled away at my former space. I watch my shadow fade. All traces of me disappeared from my own office. There stood a new desk. Everything shifted. I left. The world filled in the missing parts. I saw what the world, my world, looks like after I left. This was no longer my world. I faded. I bore no more. Watching brought grief and sadness – no physical hint of me exists.

West of Madison, good-byes become hellos. I am On The Road. My heart will discover the joy of a new adventure and a life near the sea, again.

Nearing the Mississippi, the fog grew thicker. On the highway, the fog hid all save two dashed white lines. Sleeping did not cause the fog to disappear. Sleep is magic. Sleep changes things: darkness to light; storms to bright sunny days. Sleep turns grumpiness into spirited enthusiasm. I trust sleep. I lay down in a foggy, muddy truck stop with a heart slowed with grief and sadness. Sleep shall bring me a bright sunny day; clear and light.

I wake to mud and fog. And darkness. I wake in a truck stop unable to see any buildings, any sky light. I wake tired and frustrated. Travelling thousands of miles alone in a truck, sleeping in a truck, driving through isolated areas now seems dreadful. I drive my truck down the middle of the road. Straddling the dashed white line ensures I do not stray. I measure progress as the lines whisked by. I woke to a 6,000 miles drive, alone.

I play music loudly.

I hear on my CB radio: “Wow! shit, this guy is going really slow.” A semi blew by me doing at least 20 to 30 miles and hour faster than I. The wind shook me. I pulled right of the line to where I belonged.

His buddy passes in another semi, I regain my manners. I sign with a quick flash of my high beams that his rig was clear of mine. In thanks, he flashes his taillights thanking me and pulled in front of me.

♦ ♦ ♦

The first driver says: “Hey did that guy flash you in?”

“Yup.”

“Did he flash me? I never thanked him if he did. I hate to be rude. Damn. Well, it’s too late now.”

I pick up speed from 45 to 65. In the fog, I struggled to stay on course. Now these two trucks give me a target, something to follow. And something to listen to. I listen to their banter.

“That little four wheeler is staying with us.”

“Yes I am, sorry about being in the middle of the road. I was following those little white lines.”

“We call that White Line Fever. “

I offer no argument. Two truck drivers pass me at 4am. Two guys I will never see again. To them I was a happy, adventuring motorist moving to Alaska.

“What you got back there anyway? That’s a big load for a girl.”

“Everything I own is in this truck, on top of this truck or wrapped underneath that blue shrink wrap on the trailer behind this truck. I was thinkin’ of strapping an old rocking chair and mattress on for effect — I would look more like an Okee, I thought.”

“Where you headed?”

“Well first, Jackson, Wyoming then north to Alaska.”

“I am going to Casper, Wyoming.”

“Is that on my way?” West is west. Milwaukee sits on the interstate. Going west means getting on a westbound lane then driving. I had a day or more before getting anywhere near an appropriate turn off.

“Oh sure, darlin’ its on your way.”

I ride behind two truck driving 65 miles an hour in a thick fog. These guys knew where they were going. My fear, the fear that brought me to the middle of the road was deer. A deer on the front grill wrecks anything smaller than a semi. They may have to clean the front of the cab. Semis typically leave such meetings unharmed. Two trucks and their taillights guide me through a thick fog. Two trucks and their taillights keep me safe from deer and cops. The two trucks talk to me.

“I am stopping in Minnesota. But later this week I am running a northern through Montana. Maybe I’ll see you up that-a-way.”

“I should be in Montana Friday or Saturday.”

“That’s when I plan to be pulling through there. Real pretty country. You been out this way.”

“Once” I said, “I drove to Jackson last winter with an old boyfriend for a week of skiing. But that’s it. The area is all new to me.”

“Follow me and I’ll show you what this place can offer,” said the Growler. Although, his offer rich with double meaning, sincerity existed. He wants to shows me the landscape.

The “Growler” earned his name by growling from his throat each time he keyed his mic. He makes the sort of sound I hear from people imitating Elvis.

“Hey did you ever get that coffee you wanted?” the second driver asked the Growler.

“No.”

“There is a little place off a couple of exits up. We can all stop there. Hey little four-wheeler, wanna stop?”

There are times when people act against all instinct. Curiosity, loneliness, fog, tiredness, who knows what goes into such actions, but it is as if all those watching know better. I hear my mother: How could you? Truck drivers at four in the morning on an empty highway! The voice that mothers uses for such statements has a tone all its own. We know that tone, the social equivalent to scary music.

I stop.

I had slept four hours in a muddy foggy truck stop, I had not talked to anyone without crying in 24 hours. I’ll be OK. I have gone in and out of truck stops for years. I get gas. I get a drink. I walk across the yard and I have always been OK.

“People call me the ‘Big Guy’,” says the Growler.

“People often call me ‘Mickey’ ” I offer.

The second driver never offers his name during the conversations that lead us off the exit and into the truck stop.

The Big Guy is big. He stands a full 6’7” and proportionate; big, dark beard, dark hair. The other nameless fellow is smaller and older. Until we had all collected in front of the cashier, he remains anonymous.

He greets me with gentility. They unfold out maps. They show me where I am going. They show me their respective destinations. Absolutely nothing bad happened.

Safely back in my Ford Explorer, I allowed myself to think about following the Big Guy for the 14 hours. We will travel the same road at roughly the same speed through Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and on to Wyoming. His massive rig will lead me. We talked on the radio and stopped for coffee. Now we would be traveling and talking for the next full day.

♦ ♦ ♦

Through the fog of the pre-dawn morning, I watch glow in the sky. Had the night been clear, we would be guided by a setting full moon. We occasionally see stars directly above, yet not the fences along the interstate. I drive between the two semis. The Big Guy goes first. He keeps the path straight, the road free of deer and be our Guiding Light. The anonymous driver follows me. He lets me know how my load was doing.

I carry eight pair of skis on a roof rack. Some clamped in a proper ski rack, others tied with line and bungee cords. Most are in nylon ski bags. On top of the roof rack, I installed a box. A plastic box stretching the length of my roof, wide enough and tall enough to store duffel bags, ski boots and other luggage items. Peeking through this array are two antennae, one for my cellular phone and one for my CB.

Behind me, I pull a trailer. Originally, an open utility trailer measuring 4×8 with a tilt bed, removable sides, and a snowmachine mounting bracket. I loaded with boxes, SCUBA tanks, and a few household items. I took the trailer to a marina and paid them to wrap it with heavy blue plastic, and then heat it until it shrunk forming a tight thick barrier against the road. Nobody in Milwaukee had seen this. People use this blue shrink-wrap to protect open boats during winters and road trips, but nobody had used it for trailers and household items. On the long tongue I mounted a spare trailer tire and five gallons of gasoline. I am the Okee of the nineties; plastic, nylon, bungee cords wrapping a 1993 Ford Explorer 4×4 utility truck.

I carry a stove, food, a bed to sleep in while off the road, candles, lanterns, everything I need to be self-sufficient. The driver behind me inspected how this load handles 65 miles an hour.

The three of us travel toward the setting moon. As the light of dawn was coming into the sky, the moon very suddenly becomes visible. Great and orange cutting through the fog inches above the horizon. The fog create dark bands across its front. The orange is not the warm orange of the sun during alpenglow or an Atlantic sunrise. It is the orange of Halloween; cold to look at and eerie. The fog forms black bands cause the moon to take on an appearance reserved for October, story books and photographs someone else has taken.

It is of the moon, the fog, my load, and Alaska that we talked. And we talk straight through to sunrise when the anonymous driver left us. Shortly thereafter, Big Guy and I stop for breakfast. To me, this feels wrong. No longer do I need my mother’s voice in my head. Before… during our first stop, I was just another traveler. I stopped because I knew that the two drivers had only just met each other. I knew that I was safer with the two of them than either one alone. Now, I walk in alone with the Big Guy. We had started to get to know each other.

It is not the violence of rape or battery that brings me fear. Sitting across the table from someone who might now expect a different type of relationship; sex. Expectations of sex because I talked on the radio and stopped to have breakfast. Unlike the first stop, I must careful in a different way. What I think of as friendship and camaraderie, might be seen at the normal first step to something wholly else for this 6’7” man.

During the first stop, my truck was never out of sight. I always stayed in sight of the two drivers and the proprietor. I was skittish and acted skittish. This breakfast stop is be different. It cannot be clear to the others there I was not this man’s regular traveling companion, his woman. The rules changed when I walked in with him. You can grab a lover’s arm in public while not encountering the wrath of every man in the joint. You cannot grab the arm of a stranger. That brings anger to a full restaurant. Nobody at the truck stop knows that I am a stranger. Nobody knows that I may need help. I walk in with him, sit with him and order with him.

Talking on the radio allowed me to develop trust and confidence in someone I know nothing about. I feel close to him as new friend. I want to let friendship begin. I am safe in my separate vehicles. I have my cellular phone and door locks and a hatchet and a flare pistol and I could drive away. Now I changed the rules. I cross a line. This is not the raw stupidity of stopping at a truck stop with strangers. That could get me hurt or killed. Walking into the truck stop with the Big Guy involved trust. I risk trust.

Afraid of the wrong look, the wrong gesture. I am afraid of touch. Any wrong action shall be a violation. Not as bad as rape. I open doors to burglary: “Come in and steal my trust of humans”. Problems will either be extremely subtle or blindingly fast.

Unlike the first stop, I park my truck near to his. Granted I park between his truck and the cafe. During daylight hours, during breakfast time, it would be inappropriate for me to park illegally in front of the doors – as I had done hours before.

We sit. We order. We talk. We talk about his wife, his experience working on tugboats in Puget Sound. We talk about my job, my sailing experiences. Although he occasionally makes a flirtatious or crude comment on the road, I sit across from a perfect gentleman. I enjoy his manners, courtesy and grace. I opened the doors to friendship. I let in a friend. I recognize love in this man. He loves his boats, his traveling, his freedom, and his wife.

It doesn’t have to happen this way.

With him, I felt safe. During the night, I felt safe following his taillights. He guided me from a dark tunnel of fog and tears. He talks to me about his adventures. He reminds me of my joys. The Big Guy carried me across the emotional border that I sought at the Mississippi River. With him, my attitude turns from grief to joy. He succeeded where sleep failed. Following his taillights, I came into a bright, beautiful day.

During the hours that pass on the road, we talk of the sea and of diving. We talk of traveling. We find that we are cut from the same cloth. His life lead him to the sea, to the water, to traveling in a manner similar to my life. Something separated us. I had gotten an education and followed pathways leading toward business and 9 to 5 work. My heart yearns to be working outside and on the sea day in and day out. I want to do what he is doing. His path went a different route from high.

Other than his being 37 years old, the tug work and driving truck, I still know little about him.

“How did you meet your wife?”

“We were pen pals.”

“Really, she was living in Wisconsin and you in Washington. You guys wrote, fell in love and married?”

“Yup, something like that.”

Which translates to: Yes, but I would never use the word love if I had to say it.

“How did you find her, or know to write to her?”

“I signed up for a pen pal program.”

“I thought those went away with the opening of the frontier.”

“Nope.”

The man talked for hours about everything. Now, his answers got short. I wonder if my translation was wrong. Maybe they didn’t fall in love, may be it wasn’t simple. It isn’t my place to ask. The rules about violation go both ways. Silently, I ask: where do you find pen pal programs? I prefer the safe territory when we both talk and laugh.

I tell him jokes and stories. I play music from my CD play over the CB – corny stuff like Gene Autry singing “Back in the Saddle Again”. We listen to a Lakota Sioux radio station then discuss the dance music.

He leads me from the highway into the Bad Lands of Nebraska. This beautiful piece of the world is totally unknown to me. Millions of acres of sculpted land, carved by water and erosion. Unlike anything, I had seen growing up in the granite hills of New England.

We eat lunch separately while driving. He eats peanut brittle and a sandwich. I nibble on a Powerbar while drinking water. We stop enough for either gas or my peeing. I need to pee every 150 miles. I have to stop every 300 miles for gas. His truck could go for 1,000 miles between fuel stops.

As the sun moves around the west again, I wander back to unsafe territory. This time I talk. I tell him about my frustrations and fights with my father about college. I wanted to go to a maritime academy or the Coast Guard Academy. I talk about my reading problems, my struggles in school and my eventual start in business. I talk about my travels and sails. I share my dream that my move to Alaska allows me to reconcile my passion for working outside, the sea and travel with my passions for business. With fourteen hours you can get fairly detailed about a life story, and I tell him mine. I tell him about failures and successes.

He starts speaking slowly.

“I was a big guy in high school and like you I wasn’t doing very well. My parents didn’t keep me going or encouraging me and I slipped a bit. At 17, I started a 14-1/2 year sentence in Washington for murder.”

“Murder? Really? It was manslaughter or something right?”

“No, I was convicted of first degree murder. I had gotten into a fight. The fight got nastier and we both brought out knives. My problems was that I ended the fight and the cops never found his knife.

“Yeah, I was seventeen when I went in. It took a while to settle down but I finally got my GED and took classes in engine repair, diesels, and other stuff. The prison had a pen pal program and I picked my wife because her birthday was two days from mine. We wrote and after I got out, I started working on the tugboats. I couldn’t move to Wisconsin for a while – parole – and I liked working on the tugs.”

These tugs were immaculate. He carries pictures. He had shown me “before” and “after” pictures of the engine rooms during a stop. Impressive. They are neat, color coded. I could tell he loves to work on engines and to fix things. My last boyfriend was an auto mechanic and shared the same quality.

“Well I have been driving truck since moving to Wisconsin. We own a little house out near the yard I work from.”

He had told me about his children. I thought them young for a man of 37. He tells me about his Jeep Cherokees. The irony I hear is that his wife doesn’t like to travel nor being on the road. Regardless, she wants to buy a motor home when he retires and see the country.

“Has your wife traveled with you in the cab?”

“Oh yes, she used to do that a lot, but now with two little ones at home it is difficult. I get home every few days to spend time with them, but she doesn’t come on the road much any more.”

“Well, she is still one of the lucky ones! You come home every couple of days, you call her every night, and you love her. I wish I had only some of what she’s got. In an odd way I am envious.”

“Yes, I do love her and I think I am pretty lucky too. Well now anyway, the first part was pretty tough.”

♦ ♦ ♦

As we neared Casper, Wyoming we both prepare to say “good bye”. Good bye, now a familiar phrase to me, carried no sadness. I left the Milwaukee for a new life. George, the Big Guy, is now part of the adventure. He is the first of the many people I meet west of Madison. His light guided me, his grace brought me this far.

This time “good bye” means “Thank you”. It means, “I’ll see you again a hundred times in the stories of others”.

Of course, I cry when I hug him. I walk up to him wrapped my arms around him, bury my face into his chest and hold on tight. As I relax, he lets me go.

Authors Note

I moved to Alaska in March of 1995. This story dates from the fall of 1995 or spring of 1996, written during my first winter in Anchorage.