Friday, June 12, 2020

11/12/16: Des Moines to Brooklyn, IA - Exploiting Fecalphelia

Destination: Iowa 80

Even on top of a bivy, sleeping on a cold trucker’s lounge floor isn’t restful, especially with a full-blown cold. So waking up at 5:30 to medicate, caffeinate, and migrate to the interstate wasn’t as much an inspired choice as an inevitable chore.

East Des Moines was brisk, but with no wind and with hot coffee keeping me warm, standing at the nearby I-80 ramp beneath a stunning heartland sunrise was pleasant. Even inspiring.

Saturdays’s self-motivating message: “Self, end this trip today. Or at least get two hours down the road to your friend, the massive Iowa 80 truckstop. With your early start, anything short of Walcott is an unacceptable failure; a shameful embarrassment to any self-respecting hitchhiker.” Screw you, Dr. Drew. Suck it, Tony Robbins! You have nothing on me.

Despite the lack of sleep, a cold, and Luis’s twitchy memory conspiring to make me want the trip to die, my mood was stellar! Great music was pumping thru my shitty headphones. There was a magnificent midwest sunrise, a prickling cold, excessive amounts of coffee, and even a friendly shouted chat with a random woman staying at the adjacent hotel. All this combined with the paradoxically sweet smells of exhaust, asphalt, dirt, and cigarette smoke to form a unique sensation; one of intoxicating grittiness that’s distinctive to hitchhiking. The familiar feelings that morning served to remind me of all the astounding little adventures and experiences I’d had over the previous eight and a half years and kept me in an upbeat and enthusiastic headspace that I’ve only found perched on the side of the road.

Even climbing Machu Picchu, riding chicken buses thru Latin America, or sailing the Amazon, I’ve never replicated the primal sense of mysterious anticipation as a completely unscripted day; one completely driven by chance encounters yet to be found, dawns as you set off walking or set up shop next to the ditch.

I’ve mentioned that often and will again because it’s been close to the core of everything. There’s an addictive freedom-based anticipation to these days that can’t be replicated in any other way: being completely and consciously unsure how the day will turn out. No day has a template. Each dawn is a mystery, never knowing whether you’ll end up sleeping in another (or even the same!) patch of weeds, in a random field surrounded by coyotes, in the cab of a truck, inside a truckstop, or aboard a million dollar houseboat. “Maybe today will end at a stranger’s house 300-miles in the opposite direction? Maybe I’ll even find myself first clinging to the side then struggling to sleep between the cars of a moving freight train. I can’t wait to find out!” All these things have happened to me, personally, since May 20, 2008. I’ve woken up to curious elk in a rural Wyoming field while aiming myself toward Yellowstone, Idaho, and Portland only to find myself dropped off in Denver before sunset! I’ve set sail for Maine and docked in Boise!

This is what Steinbeck meant about “the trip taking you.” I wish I could share that sense of engaged-in-life euphoria; the sense of simply being fully, unpredictably, and fundamentally alive. I mean “really” alive. Not just doggy paddling to survive but embracing and engaging life on an almost primal level. Sadly, I can’t. Steinbeck nailed something else: only those who’ve experienced it will understand. I regret that I can only share it typed. Living it is transformative.

So, while my head was stubbornly set on Chicago and excited to get there, in the back of my mind was the learned-from-experience possibility that, however slight, I’d find myself on the way to Vancouver, San Diego, or Cabo by nightfall. As the last day of my last “real” hitchhiking adventure began, I was comfortably, even enthusiastically, in my element. All this despite everything. Most of all myself.

Saturday’s trail magic began when a dingy old semi ground to a squealing halt 50-yards up the ramp. A latino named Jesse bounced out the passenger door and shouted that they’d take me all the way to Chicago! “Seriously? That’s it? I’ll be home in time for early Giardanno’s”, I thought before he said, without irony, sarcasm, or humor, “I need a helper.”  “Wait. Is he kidding?”, I wondered. Also, in the excitement of an easy fix, I neglected to ask which part of Chicago. In short, like a giddy damn fool I got in the truck without thinking just like the day before with Twitchy Luis.

Impatient to get out of Council Bluffs; impatient to get to Chicago. Impatience is the death of reason. Ahh! But if you survive the stories you can tell! This ride was quick but ended near the top of my all-time favorites.

Driving the truck, which was worse inside than out, was a Russian named Nikolai. Both he and Jesse were in their 30’s and the first thought after, “what a shithole” was, “A Russian AND a Mexican! This is a vagabonding hippie’s wet diversity dream!” I climbed over clothes, boots, and empty fast food bags to reach the bunk, slid more mounds of scattered shit out of the way, and settled in for what should have been a quick 5-6 hour ride to my finish line. Instead, what ensued was simultaneously sketchy, dangerous, and literally (proper use!) obscene.

Nikolai shouldn’t have had a license let alone a CDL and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d forgone that little bureaucratic detail. The first thing he immediately did was fling his RIGHT foot up on the dashboard. Now, I’ve thrown my LEFT leg up there to settle in and get comfortable. But never my right! How can anyone think they can effectively drive like that? Nikolai’s forthcoming exhibition did nothing to convince me they can. Worse, once he was comfy, snug, and cruising at the mind numbing speed of 50, he began a lengthy and intense texting session. It lasted at least 30-minutes and his eyes rarely left the phone causing him to swerve in and out of both lanes nearly clipping cars nervously trying to sneak by!

Physically dangerous? Check.
Driver oblivious to it all? Check.

This ride quickly became a question of survival. Then it went from interesting to dangerous to downright bizarre. Once Nikolai’s passionate texting session ended he thankfully, but briefly, turned his attention to the road. Then, suddenly and out of nowhere, he snatched up his phone once again and decided it was time to watch porn! To his credit, it was Russian --which every connoisseur will acknowledge is high quality. How do I know it was Russian?  Because he didn’t bother with the courtesy (reckless dignity?) of headphones. While most pornographic sounds are universal, his chosen protagonistas crossed the frontier from vocal to verbal. Shakespearian? Tolstoyian in their lust? I don’t speak Russian, but between shrieks of thespian passion, their dialogue made me think that perhaps these lovely vixens thought themselves worthy of AVN Award consideration.

Later on, I wondered if maybe our freshly elected president had received a them, personally. It still makes me happy to think he had. Let’s just pretend it happened, OK? But, in the moment, their presence in the driver’s seat wasn’t helping Nik’s ability to navigate his lanes and the dangerous swerving continued.

I was flabbergasted. Not only at the fact that he was watching porn in the company of two other dudes, something socially adjusted men just don’t do, but that Jesse didn’t bat an eye. In fact, it’s entirely likely that he may have been watching “Natsha Gets Petersburged” when he pulled over to pick me up. That’s a thought that bothers me to this day.

I watched everything silently from behind (typing that feels dirty) and, while I didn’t see any acts of highway maintenance or consummation, this was clearly some version of their normal. From my perspective, even after years of hitchhiking and traveling extensively through Latin America, there was nothing even relatively normal about these two. The closest thing I can think of was porn playing on every TV inside that bar in Guatemala! 

Then my imagination seized control and I suddenly began hearing, “I need a helper” in a fresh creepy context. I envisioned being ferried to a remote industrial park in Chicago’s ghetto as an indentured servant then having to plot and navigate a foot course to the Red Line through the midwest’s Mogadishu. Or, worse, maybe Nik was using the porn as a way to work himself up to something special he had planned for me? In my active and creative imagination, who could say? Ten minutes into this ride, my spidey senses weren’t tingling, they were throbbing. (That felt really dirty.) They never stopped.

For the second time in two days, an improvised escape pod was required. And now. Breaking free from the horror stories, I finally channeled my successful escape from Luis the day before, checked Google Maps, and saw that another set of truckstops was mercifully approaching an exit or two up.

By then Nik had moved on to a Russian three way; two girls if you’re as curious as I was. He couldn’t drive for shit but he sure could pick his porn. I said, “Hey dude, as much as I appreciate the ride, the truckstop coffee and chicken wings are fucking with my gut and I’m about to shit all over your bed. You’d better drop me off at the truckstop.” It’s funny what the thought of liquified feces seeping into a man’s bed will inspire him to do; how it can snap him into the moment, clear the mind of even pornographic distractions, and motivate him into clear, decisive, and effective action. And his own lane.

Horrified, Nikloai immediately closed MoscoviteFuckfest.bang, lowered his leg to its proper place on the floor, quickly accelerated to something approaching the speed limit, and drove in a (relative) straight line straight to the exit.

The mystics say lying’s a sin. Maybe. But, I think Jesus and George Washington’s ghost understood. What was my alternative?

“Hey man, between your leg, the texting, and all that admittedly primo porn, you’re swerving all over fuck. Plus, you and Mr, Needahelper over there are creepy as shit and I’m not convinced you don’t intend to sodomize then compel me into forced labor as payment for your freak show of a ride. Fuck you sketch monkeys. Let me out.”

Outnumbered? Blunt honesty from the windowless bunk of a moving semi looking at home on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Yes. I’m sure the truth would have set me just as free!  Judge me however you like, couched jurist, but exploiting base disgust, fecalphelia in particular, has been 100% effective in my clinical trials. Ask your doctor and local moralist if it’s right for you; I stand by my remedy and enthusiastically prescribe it if you’re ever in a similarly precarious spot.  No need to thank me. I’m here to help.

Apparently they wanted me and my fictitiously explosive bowels out of the truck as much as I wanted to be out. Nik barreled down the exit ramp, turned right onto the road, cut off a car turning left into the truckstop, and didn’t even bother approaching the building; he just abruptly stopped next to the parking lot. Jesse didn’t even let Old Yeller groan to a halt before hurling the door open and clearing my path to freedom and my supposed digestive liberation.

“What an asshole,” I thought after a rushed thank you and goodbye.

“Wait. I was full of shit about having to shit. Well, yeah, but he didn’t know that! As far as he knows my code-red colon would erupt anywhere between here and the nearest toilet! Yeah! What an asshole!”

Yes. You and I probably would have done the same thing. Subjective personal moral judgments are funny things.

Yep, This day was off to a fascinating start and it wasn’t even noon! After a quick lap inside the truckstop to refill my water bottle and grab coffee, I lingered outside at what encouragingly proved to be a busy spot. The Kwik Trip featured a Denny’s and was snuggled in next to a choice of ideal nesting spots if I was stuck for the rest of Saturday. The Porn Truck of Swerving American Diversity hadn’t taken me far but it definitely improved my situation.

The exit back to I-80 was just on the other side of a medium sized truck parking lot so, still eager to finish this trip Saturday, I didn’t loiter long.  On the way to my next perch, I noticed a truck whose cab was decorated with an obnoxious number of confederate flags and various Make America Great paraphernalia. Nothing particularly remarkable about that less than a week after the election; what stood out was its decal saying, “Homer, MI.”

“Hey! This guy’s from my neck o’ the woods! I might even know him! I’ll hang around until he comes out and see what’s up.”

I didn’t know him. But meeting this guy provided a perfect exclamation point on the general theme of this trip. To sinfully mix my metaphors, he’d become another seed for many expansive ideas that would explode over the next few years as the Trump presidency unfolded and our general combative divisiveness only continued to grow.

Up Next: The Cyborg and the day's redeemed!