Friday, June 25, 2004

SATMATC 13: Pennsylvania

I'm getting old, kids. I'm forgetting people's names, names I didn't think I'd ever forget. I'm forgetting parts of the trip, too, which is even more worrisome.

I remember seeing telephone or electric lines pulled down by snow and ice, and thinking that maybe we were right to get out early.

I remember half glimpsing some sort of weird rotating mall in Syracuse, NY (I think).

I remember a lot of really bad roads.

I remember it starting to snow, and the roads getting rather slick.

That was our first eight hours of travel, with me at the wheel. Just after dark, we stopped to fill up with gas. I was still uncomfortable with Shea driving, so I bought myself a quart of beer to calm me down (ie make me sleep). Surely, I thought, this guy can drive on snow. He's from freakin' Alaska! So I settled into the passenger seat with my quart of beer, tried (as usual, unsuccessfully) to make a hammock for my head out of the seatbelt, and fell asleep before I got the cap off the beer.

Only to be awakened 45 seconds later by Shea screaming "fuck!" (our vocabularies were not too varied at that point, being that we'd been raised by landscapers and mule packers--you must forgive me if this seems repetitive), and my stomach attempting to lurch sideways out of my body. This was doubly worrisome because it was obviously lurching towards the right shoulder of the road, and since I'd been on relatively good terms with my stomach, I could only conclude that this was no spontaneous break-for-the-fence maneuver, but rather a move born out of submission to physics--that is, my gut was in the same place, and the rest of the car had lurched seriously towards the median of the highway.

All this occurred in the time it took me to open my eyes and see a trail of brake lights ahead of us, two lanes wide and extending to the horizon. Shea had been driving way too fast (he was later to say "you can drive that fast on snow in Alaska"), and breasted a hill to see what might have been the biggest traffic jam he was ever going to be involved with. He had jerked the wheel, causing us to fishtail violently, but somehow managed to keep us out of ditches and out from under the semi-trailers ahead of us.

I took over the driver's seat, and stuck the unopened quart of beer in the back seat. I might as well have climbed in the trunk and locked myself in, because I didn't drive more than a hundred feet in the next four hours.

After about an hour of sitting in the driver's seat, listening to Shea make his case for how he really hadn't almost gotten us killed (an ineffective argument, I might add), I decided to get out and take a look around. NOTHING had happened--no traffic had moved, no police had come by to hassle us, and the radio stations sucked. It was a cold motherfucker, and the snow and ice were terrible, but eventually I was driven from the cabin by sheer boredom. I grabbed my quart of beer, and stuck it into the snow beside the car. I walked up, as far as I dared, and talked to a trucker who was taking a leak on the side of the road. He was friendly enough, but didn't have anything to tell me--nothing had been out on his radio yet, and he wasn't really that inclined to stand outside in the cold and talk to some kid from Oklahoma. I walked back to the car.

Five minutes later, Shea fell asleep and began snoring. I checked the gas tank-half a tank. I got out, grabbed my beer, and set a course for the horizon.

Now, I know it doesn't take me long to finish a quart of beer, especially if once it's finished I can put both hands in my pockets, but I was not anywhere close to the top of the hill when I finally put that sucker on the yellow line, so's I'd see it on my way back to the car. I kept on truckin'.

I met a family from Ohio who were just plain freaking out about the whole thing. I mean, it had been two hours or more, and Mom and Dad were getting asked all sorts of astute and impossible to answer questions by the kids. Questions we were all asking: "why are we here?" and "how long have we got?" I think the parents were equally as glad to talk to someone they could look straight in the eye, and not in the rearview mirror, as they would have been to someone who could have told them what was going on.

The feeling was not mutual. I wanted a fucking explanation for this. I trudged onward, on the left shoulder of whatever godforsaken interstate crossed PA (70? 80?), in the snow. I was cold as fuck, but bored to death, and wanting an answer.

Was this normal, I thought, between unwelcome flashbacks to certain Hunter Safety Course films about alcohol facilitation hypothermia, or have we once again stumbled into the middle of a weird set of circumstances? I had no frame of reference; as had been the case with this entire misadventure, we were in a different world, just familiar enough to be irritating.

After what had to be a third hour, I stopped and thought it out. Worry was creeping up on boredom, specifically worry about running out of gas there on the fucking interstate. Fantasies of hot food were also leading the pack.

My decision was made for me by a ruckus up ahead. Well, not much of a ruckus, but when you spend as much time staring at taillights as I had done over the course of the trip, you begin to get this almost kinesthetic feeling when those taillights start moving or behaving erratically. I turned on my heel, and began trucking back to the car.

We had less than a half a tank of gas when I returned, just ahead of a state trooper who was driving down the middle of the road, yelling at people to move off to the sides. He was followed shortly by, of all things, a salt truck, which peppered (sorry) all of us with rock salt. We started moving, five hours later, with a quarter of a tank of gas and two growling bellies.

I knew better than to stop at any gas station within the next 20 miles--those parents with the screaming kids would be there, or some simulacrum of that parents/kids unit, and probably a hundred people who were in the same gas bind as we were. We pulled over somewhere around Harrisburg, I think. Or maybe it was Pittsburgh. See how I forget shit?

We ate a very, very late dinner at a really awful seafood buffet place with a gas pump out front and a bunch of greenish people dressed as pirates. We filled up with gas, and I slept, finally, in the back seat.


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