That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Gone Walkabout, Day Five: In Which Important Lessons Are Learned

Posted by kozemp on December 14, 2009

Yes, I am aware that we skipped a day there. I’m going to go back and do day four after I get home – it’s a lot of ridiculous stuff and I would be hard-pressed to do it justice out here on the road, especially in my current state (i.e. completely drained of all energy reserves). For now, we continue with just road days – check back in late Wednesday or so for the full recap on my 40 hours of actual vacation in and around Kansas City.

Moving on to the body of today’s ravings:

As I’m sure we all know, my primary concern in all things is your safety. Yes, YOU, reading this right now. Your safety. It keeps me up nights.

With that in mind, let me give you a very important safety tip.

If a person you know – a person you care about, even – says to you, “hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s drive from Kansas City to Chicago by way of Des Moines,” look into their eyes, take a deep breath, and kill them. You must kill them before they kill you, or worse, before they cause you to kill yourself.

Anyone who suggests such a thing clearly has evil intentions.

I left Kansas City at 7:30 yesterday morning and had hit the snow line by about 8:30. Everything I saw was completely covered with snow until I was just outside Chicago around 4:30.

That is eight solid hours of driving through a winter wonderland. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. In Missouri and most of Iowa it’s not TOO bad. There is terrain there, at least. The road goes up and down, there are hills and bluffs and the occasional rock face. In Missouri and Iowa people build farmhouses reasonably close to the highway. There’s stuff to look at.

And then in Iowa there is the issue of the wrecks.

By the time I got to Des Moines and got onto I-80 there was serious snow on the ground – I’d estimate more than a foot. And it wasn’t long before coming over a hill I saw up in the distance a car abandoned on the side of the road. As I got closer, though, I saw that snow had actually been plowed over the car, meaning it had been there for some time. I didn’t think much of it, but then I saw another one. And another. And another.

By the fourth one I was pretty well away from Des Moines, and that stretch to Iowa City is pretty desolate. It isn’t like there are gas stations every mile or so you can walk to if your car breaks down. I started to wonder – what happens to the people in these cars? Do they just start walking off the highway towards the farmhouses in the distance? Do they just abandon the cars entirely? Does someone pick them up?

Then I saw a car, in the snow, abandoned, but this time it was upside down and covered with police tape. Lying there, on the side of the highway, upside down in a 5-foot snow drift, taped off.

Driving past, I said out loud to myself, “what’s up with THAT?”

Shortly after this came the first abandoned tractor trailer. Again, out in the middle of Iowa nowhere, off the side of the road, snow piled up around it. The snow had drifted up high enough to block the driver’s side door, and the other door was flush up against the embankment at the side of the road.

The first thought in my head was: is there a dead guy in there?

The second thought in my head was: I have wandered into a Stephen King story.

Then came the second tractor-trailer, this one on the median, this one upside-down. THE ENTIRE THING. Cab and payload both, laying upside down in between the lanes of Interstate 80, covered in snow.

I said, again out loud, “what the FUCK is going on here?”

Between Des Moines and Iowa City I saw a total of about a dozen of these, mixed between cars and tractor-trailers. Just left to rot in the snow by the side of the road. I know this isn’t standard procedure because I drove past two crews working to haul cars back onto the road that had ended up out there earlier in the day.

I started to wonder: does the Iowa Department of Transportation determine if you are somehow a “evil” driver, and then leave your wreck out there for all to see as a warning, like the Royal Navy hanging pirates at the mouth of a port? Are they automotive scarecrows of some kind?

I though the creepy haunted highway stuff was bad, but I didn’t know what bad was – I had no CONCEPTION what bad was – until I left Iowa and found myself on the Illinois Tollway.

(“Tollway,” seriously?)

Interstate 80 in Illinois – the Tollway to you, pal – is a highway connecting Chicago to the Iowa border. It is the worst road I’ve ever seen. Oh, yes, I’m planting my flag there. It is worse than the pre-construction 309. Worse than the Schuylkill. Worse than the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday night. Worse than Route 1 through Princeton. Worse than anything you can think of. It is the worst road in the history of the universe. You heard me. It is the worst road in 14 billion years.

“But, John,” you say, “I’m looking at it here on this map and it doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Oh, are you?” I say.

“Yes,” you say. “It’s pretty much straight for the whole length, and my contour map shows that it barely changes elevation at all.”

“Well, okay,” I say. “But let me ask you something.”

“Sure,” you say.

“Do your nice little maps have A FUCKING FOOT OF GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING SNOW ON THEM?” I ask.

Remember earlier, when I noted that in Missouri and Iowa people build farmhouses close to the highway? That’s an important contrast, because in Illinois for whatever reason they don’t do that. So, while you’re driving on a highway that is for some reason almost completely deserted, the only thing you can see, aside from the occasional dead tree, is just a solid field of white. Perfectly flat. In every direction. Almost out to the horizon. It’s just your car and the road, and everything else in the entire world is just white.


It’s hard to accurately get across how desolate this drive is. If there weren’t so much snow it probably wouldn’t have been so bad, you could at least see the fields and whatnot, but the snow smears everything together into one solid mass. At one point I had to get gas and when I pulled off the sign on the exit ramp read “GAS 4 MILES.” The gas station was FOUR MILES from the highway! And care to guess what’s between the highway and the gas station? Anyone? Any guesses?

That’s right – more snow and more white.

For the first half hour or so I figured I was just going through a blank spot or something, that eventually SOME semblance of civilization would appear. And I was right, it did – you start seeing buildings and stores and whatnot about 20 miles from Chicago. Until then, you have to deal with 140 miles of stone white nothingness.

I did not handle it well.

At one point it got  so monotonous and so mind-numbing that I saw a sign for US 30 – known better to most of us as the White Horse Pike – and I was SURE that I had fallen asleep at the wheel and was dreaming that I was back in Jersey. It took me a couple seconds to actually remember that US30 goes all the way out here, that my uncle lives off it in Indiana.

You can only stare at a solid field of white for so long before it starts seriously messing with your mind. About 100 miles from Chicago my iPod (set to album shuffle) served up Darkness on the Edge of Town, and while listening to the end of Racing in the Street – admittedly one of Bruce’s most unhappy songs – I thought, “if I just turn the wheel a little bit to the right…”

I shook my head and said, “I’m going crazy.”

(Important safety tip #2: do not listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town while driving cross-country. The River isn’t a great choice either.)

By this point I was at the point of cracking the windows (in 31 degree weather) and blasting the radio so that I wouldn’t get hypnotized by the road again. I’d been driving for seven straight hours. My leg was killing me. I had to do something.

I saw a sign for an upcoming rest stop that had a Starbucks.

Now understand that I am not a fan of Starbucks. I don’t care for any of the usual stupid crap people get mad about with Starbucks (globalization, homogenization, whatever) – I just really dislike their coffee.

I saw the sign and said, “the hell with it, I’m gonna fucking die out here.”

I limped into the rest stop – quite literally limped, after seven hours in the car my leg had stopped working completely – and found the Starbucks. It was across from the Panda Express. I am not making this up. The rest stop, which is technically called the DeKalb Oasis (not making that up either) has a McDonalds, a Starbucks, and a Panda Express. Like you do.

I limped over to the Starbucks counter, and when the guy came over I simply said, “black coffee. Large.” I paused for maybe a quarter of a second before I remembered my manners. “Please.”

The coffee guy looked at me and said, “do you want – ”

Before he could finish his sentence I opened my eyes as wide as I could and gave him a look clearly indicating that if he kept talking my next sentence was going to consist primarily of the loudest and vilest profanities I could muster.

He said, “large black coffee, right,” and turned away faster than I would have thought him able.

Tomorrow – home.



One Response to “Gone Walkabout, Day Five: In Which Important Lessons Are Learned”

  1. slerock said

    HA!!! You should have put on Christmas music like “Sleigh Ride” or “Let it Snow” or “Winter Wonderland.” Then you most certainly would have done a service for the world and killed the Starbucks barista (or baristo since it was a guy?) Come home, John. The road isn’t good for you. To wit, ignore the commercials on TV trying to get you to go to tractor-trailer school and “drive the big rigs.”

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