I wrote this in the morning as I went to work. It was something I was planning on writing for a flash-fiction contest I was in, but never got around to doing it. (I won with another entry.)
The farther away I got from MT, the more distant my memories became, the less insistent I felt. I wanted to capture as much of the feelings I could while I still had them in my mind.
They call it “Highway Hypnosis.”
Driving along 210 out of the mountains and into the rugged flat, you can read the prehistory of the Earth. The rims in the distance form a shore of a million year old sea. Your truck would be deep. Ancient fishes and mollusks would slip by in silence, with curious eyes locked on a drowned artifact, misplaced in time.
The road stretches out, straight as a compass line or a bullet’s path, into the east. The heat rises from the ground in shimmers. The air catches flashes of skunk that linger and fade at 85 miles an hour, whether or not your A/C is working. With the window down you get hit with the dry scent of hay and sweetgrass.
Your truck will pass them, sometimes one, sometimes in clusters. Markers for the dead. Rusting white crosses on metal poles along the highway, adorned with dry, crisping flowers, or faded plastic wreathes, bleached away by the relentless sun.
You won’t find them along the Interstate. The feds take them down as soon as they go up. State highways are where you’ll find them, like mushrooms among the dead logs in the high country. And like them, they prefer the colder roads, the shady places, where the highway curves and sways like a frozen snake.
You have to wonder, do the hands that placed the wreathes ever come back? Do they tremble on the wheel as they round the same curves that took away a piece of their hearts? When they park and walk to the cross, does their stomach flip and roll like the cars that became the tombs of their brothers, their sisters, their children?
Not so many out here though, on the long straight road. Sometimes you’ll see one or two, near the rare fen or bird sanctuary, where the water will freeze and reach over the road, coating it in black ice under white powder. Can’t see it in the day, and at night it’s like a hand from a grave, pulling your car off the road and into death’s embrace- if you don’t pay attention.
And sometimes even if you do.
No black ice today, even though the heat mirages make it look like the water has already washed over the road. No rain for months has left the reeds’ roots drinking chalky mud.
You can get lost out here. The road is straight- you don’t need a GPS to know where you’re going, and there’s always a truck stop every fifty miles or so. You get lost in your head. The sound of the engine and the vibration of the cab persists throughout the hundredth playing of “Hotel California” you’ve heard on the radio. If you’re taking these roads it usually means you are going to be driving at least two hours, but chances are good it’s going to be more like five.
You can try to glance around, but the landscape is what you would expect from a million year old barren sea bed. There might be a green patch of alfalfa and those giant sprinklers on massive silver wheels fighting drought once in a while, but otherwise you’re alone in a flat plain that may as well be Megiddo for all it matters. It’s sure hot enough for the final battle out there.
If the satellite radio is busted, you’re left with oldies, or talk. Don’t know what’s worse. Heard the Eagles so many times I know their names and married their cousins. The bluster on the AM winds up all sounding the same- rapid fire indigence broken up by dramatic pauses of dead air. Then the host hawks a product. Repeat. It’s almost as monotonous as the rattle of the engine.
Still the road stretches. Little elevation changes don’t help, it’s still straight into the endless day, with the sun at your back and your shadow pointing the way. It stretches away from you no matter how fast you go- you’ll never catch it.
Sometimes you’ll see a broken down trailer home, rusted and open as a sore. The horse fences have long since been trampled into the dust. A homestead at home in the bottom of an extinct lake, an artifact misplaced in time.
The dead hand only had to reach so far and press with a feather touch when you’re going 85.
You can only count so many flips before you can’t count anymore. One or ten, it’s all the same.
Will there be sun bleached purple plastic on my rusted white cross?
The call it “Highway Hypnosis.”