Note: Here’s another snippet of my youth. I don’t know why I’m writing so much about myself these days. Perhaps all those people who have, throughout the years, told me it wasn’t all about me were wrong. Maybe it is all about me. If not, I gotta get back to writing fiction. I’m feeling a need for a spurned lover to take his revenge. In the meantime, here’s a story that is true down to its last word.
How to convey something that I know, down to my very soul, to be true? How to put into words something that no one is gonna believe? How indeed?
I reckon I’ll get right to it and see what happens, see who believes what.
I’m out hitchin’. I’m twenty years old. I’m a robust young man in the prime of his life. It’s early morning. The sun has just cleared the horizon to the east, and I’m heading west on Interstate 80, a brand new super highway. I’m on my way to San Francisco, the year is 1970. As I write this, I don’t remember where I slept the previous night. Probably in some bushes off the side of the road, snug in my sleeping bag.
I’ve been eating, at least as well as one can while on the road. Perhaps my last meal was the night before. Perhaps it was only an hour earlier. I can’t remember, but I do know that I am not hungry. There are two of us in the car, me and the guy that picked me up that morning. We’re shooting the shit as the vast, flat lands of Nebraska speed by.
The guy tells me he’s getting off at the next exit and that it’s out in the middle of nowhere. He suggests I get out at a rest area that’s coming up ahead. There’s nothing there yet … no restrooms, no nothing; the road is too new. But if someone pulls in there, my chances of getting a long haul would be a lot better than if I stood at the entrance ramp outside of Nowhere Town. I agree and my host pulls into the rest area and lets me out.
I look around. The land sure is flat. I can see for miles and miles, all the way to the horizon, so far away. Then I notice there is one thing at that rest stop: A small plaque telling me that particular portion of Interstate 80 was built on the old Oregon Trail. Big deal. I had never heard of the Oregon Trail.
This sucks. No one is pulling into the damn rest stop. I’ll never get to San Francisco. Only one thing to do, get back out to the highway and stick out my thumb. It’s about a hundred-yard walk, so I heft my bedroll and start walking. I’ll have a ride in a few minutes. Maybe if I’m lucky, the guy will offer to buy me lunch.
But then something funny happens. One minute I’m filled with vim and vigor and the next, I’m getting really tired. Funny, but not worrisome. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Get out to the highway. That’s where the cars are, that’s where your next ride awaits you.
With each step, I’m slowing down. It gets to where it takes all my willpower to take one lousy step. My feet weigh a ton each. My bedroll weighs two tons if it weighs an ounce. I’m almost to the highway. Gotta get there. Standing here ain’t gonna get me anywhere.
But it’s no use. I’ve come to the end of the line. I couldn’t take another step if my life depended on it. I just want to collapse. It takes all my strength just to keep upright. My feet are mired in the asphalt—cemented in place. I feel my soul wanting to leave my body. I won’t be heavy any longer. What a weird thing to think.
Just then a car pulls up next to me. It’s coming from the rest area. The passenger window is down. The driver leans over and offers a ride. I want the ride, but I can’t move. But if I don’t move, I know I’m going to die. How do I know that? With my last bit of energy, my last ounce of strength, I reach out and open the car door. But that’s it. I’ve got nothing left. The only thing I can do is fall into the passenger seat. The guy doesn’t wait until I’m all the way in before he accelerates. It’s a good thing that he did. It closes the door for me. I sure as hell couldn’t do it.
He wants to know where I’m headed. I answer in a weak whisper. It’s all that I can manage.
The guy’s really moving. The land is flat and there are no other cars around. We’re tearing up miles. But the funny thing is, the more miles we tear up, the farther I get from the rest area, the stronger I get. My strength is returning. Four minutes and five miles later, I’m restored. I’m once again a strapping, youthful guy with his whole life ahead of him. I don’t know why I think that, but I do.
I put the whole thing out of my mind. Never to think of it again. It was just something that happened. I’m looking forward to my sojourn on the West Coast. I love hitchin’ up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. I always meet interesting people who take me into their lives for a few minutes, a few hours, or even for a few days. Whatever.
Fast forward twenty-seven years.
I’m now middle aged, forty-seven years old. Out of nowhere, I start having this recurring dream. In it, I’m on the plains of America. The sky is blue, very blue. The sun is warm, it’s summertime. Things are quiet. I hear not a sound. I stand behind a covered wagon, I’m at the tailgate. I’m feeling weak, very weak. It takes all my willpower, all my energy, just to keep standing upright. My folks and my sister are at the front of the wagon. They are dead. We tried to cross the continent on our own. We did not provision properly. We ran out of food, I think. The details are murky. Maybe something else killed my family. I don’t know. All I know is that they are dead and I’m dying. I want to bury my family, I should bury them. But I just can’t. I’m standing, holding on to the tailgate for support. But not for long. In a few seconds, I’m going to fall to the ground and die. I don’t think I am scared. The last thing I see in that life is the rough, grey, weathered wood of the tailgate and the tall, brown grass of the prairie as it comes up to meet my face.
The dream comes again and again and again. Then, one time, for the first time, I look around in the dream. I look behind me. I see the prairie. It hasn’t changed. And I know, with a calm certainty, that I am standing on the exact spot where I stood rooted to the ground on that day in 1970. It’s the same damn place. The exact same place! The same two square feet of earth—just different times.
After that … after I came to understand what had happened to me as a twenty-year-old kid, back when I was on the road … the dream has never returned.