This is from a stint as a truck driver, dating to September 2008
I drove my truck down an interstate exit near the Missouri / Arkansas / Oklahoma tri-state border onto some forgotten back roads likely to have not seen maintenance since the Reagan Administration. It was the blackest night. There were no stars to suggest a vast universe and no wind to animate the landscape. The narrow, serpentine black ribbon of road I could see in the headlights before me was framed by walls of imminent trees leaning in from either side. Sounds of branch whips and gravel pops enclosed the truck. I was running on tiny slivers of sleep and was desperate to keep myself awake. The sounds were like coffee.
The GPS had trouble keeping the path, so I relied on a more traditional method. With paper map in lap, I pierced through listless Arkansas into Missouri, spilling onto even worse roads. In this dark, map or GPS satellite were useless. There were no structures, no openness, and no landmarks. Then…a dot of light — a bar, closed, under a buzzing, yellow street light. I pulled over and went to sleep.
The next morning was decorated by happy sunshine and was thick with bird song. The trees were no longer looming in close but, instead, were friendly, standing tall, swaying in a relaxed breeze. The sky was a noble blue.
The place was Eagle Rock, Missouri, at the western end of Table Rock Lake. And staring at me through the windshield was the intended destination I sought from last night: turns out it was the bar under the street light. This bar was beginning its day, too. Employees arrived and were doing employee things.
The owner of the business — tall, lanky with an enormous round stomach and a long salt and pepper beard — helped me unload my truck. I mentioned that the country around Table Rock Lake was pretty in the morning. He said that he used to live in Los Angeles, but that he lives here now. He likes here more. I wanted to keep talking, but he had a business to run. The bar was open all day and night. Eagle Rock needed its drinks.
After the unloading, I hopped down to a local trash heap of a pawn shop, filled with polished guns, racks of obnoxious hats, rows of TVs from yesteryear, and the scent of fresh coffee and old plastic. I was seeking audio cassette tapes. My truck had only an audio tape deck for entertainment and every time I stopped somewhere I quested for cassette tapes to help pass the time on the road. In this shop I found Los Lobos, Los Umbrellos, an unofficial copy of the soundtrack from “O Brother Where Art Thou,” and someone’s home recording of a bluegrass jam session.
At a moment while flipping through multiple copies of Kenny Rogers cassettes it hit me how alone I was; a deep sinking feeling as ominous as the black of the previous night. I had been on the road for weeks, zigzagging across North America according to the whims of expedited shipping with nothing but cassette tapes, local NPR stations, and my truck, “Old Horse,” to keep me company. I had been deprived of regular human contact during that whole time. I found sudden difficulty in recalling a meaningful conversation, an empathetic response, even a hint of the mental insides of some other primate apart from myself. All of this fell on me like a waterfall. I put Kenny Rogers down and headed back to the bar.
The inside of the bar was freshly lit and brightly painted, only having been in business for a week at that time. Customers piled in and created a lively scene for mid-morning on a Thursday. People of European descent, of Native American mixture, and a Mexican man nicknamed “Santos” were all beginning Thursday as most of us probably should — with a drink. I got myself one, pulled up a stool, and listened into the murmur of human conversation.
Speech patterns were curious blends of flattened mid-western vowels and southeastern drawls. A young woman behind the bar had everything in her voice to suggest she was from Chicago. “Santos,” in a white t-shirt and cargo shorts, kept hitting his Ts perfectly against the back of his teeth and seemed proud of his R rolling. An attractive older woman in a crimson bikini top and jeans deployed an array of diphthongs so long and drawn out I could have sworn she was from Alabama.
And then a group of men at a back table audibly erupted. The sound was a loud, staccato, repeated hammering of the vocal chords, a collection of individual noises which emanated from each man at that table. The sound reigned across the room and then, as suddenly, it stopped. Laughter! I had been alone just long enough for this most pleasant of human exchanges to appear like something from a species other than my own, like the growl of a cat or the rattle of a snake. I felt outside of humanity at that moment. From that disconnected vantage, laughter consisted of a burst of pained grimaces, rapid vocalizations, and the baring of teeth. It was a cold, unfamiliar behavior, containing a utility that seemed lost to me.
How much longer would I drive this truck across this empire? How much longer could I stand to do so? I finished my drink, walked for a bit among the non-looming trees, and eventually returned to the road.