As we drove north up I-94 toward Kenosha on Friday, I decided to count the number of purple semis I saw. There were two before we even hit the state line. But it turns out there were actually only two purple trucks, just outside the Chicago suburbs — the others were red and blue, with mudflaps emblazoned with flames or those naked back-to-back girls with the perky butts. Lisa decided early on to count red barns; she fared much better.
Even counting Dairy Queens would have gotten me farther than counting purple trucks.
I have a thing for trucks, though. Or truckers, maybe. Road trips always pique my curiosity in a lifestyle that demands more time behind the wheel than anywhere else. After just a few hours in the driver's seat, my neck and back are impossibly sore, my butt's fallen asleep and I find myself bored with every last song of the 12,000 stored on my iPod.
Driving back from my sister's graduation in Des Moines, alone in my rental car with the luxury of a prepaid fuel bill, I decided visit the World's Largest Truck Stop, a neon and fluorescent behemoth at the corner of I-80 and nowhere in particular. The closest I'd come in the past was a pit stop on a Megabus journey. I danced in my seat as we exited the highway, delirious at the thought of finally experiencing this wild place, then deflated as I resigned myself to Jack Links and a bottle of SmartWater from a smaller station across the street, nearly a four-lane highway in itself. So close — yet so far.
I drove to the far end of the parking lot before I found a spot and tripped, bewildered, toward the door. The people streaming in and out of the automatic sliding glass doors were Precious Moments collectors and Fred Phelps disciples, or had been exiled for so long in semirural Middle America that they'd just melted into overweight lookalikes of them.
(I can say that. I'm from Kansas. These are my people — sort of.)
Inside, the World's Largest Truck Stop was an all-out assault on the senses. The gift shop was abhorrent — everything I would never dream of buying, not even ironically…except pink suede Minnetonka moccasins, maybe, or that dreamcatcher with the dragon's tears — and I wanted to run away. But down a short flight of stairs, I found myself completely awestruck: a cathedral-ceilinged shop the size of a grocery store. Full of…trucker stuff.
Chrome everywhere. And truck parts, and bumper stickers, and decals. And truck décor: Seat covers and cabin lights and mud flaps…oh my. I can't even…I don't know.
Oh, and there was a huge truck inside the store.
Lights flashed all over the place; heavy metal tried to blare through the ceiling speakers but barely succeeded in anything but a hoarse, tinny whisper.
I wandered through the aisle with the drums of Armor-All, the stacks of parts I could barely pronounce — let alone determine a use for — haphazardly browsed the titles in the bargain bins of movies, and mostly just stared at the massive, leathery men clad in black T-shirts.
I'd never seen so many of them in their natural habitat.
Sure, we waved at them from the school bus during field trips — finally at eye level — giving them the universal sign for "Blow your horn!" And that's about as close as I ever got.
If this sounds like a near-zoological fascination, you're not far off. The anthropology of it all just kills me.
I mean, which came first? Does the trucker lifestyle turn you into the kind of person who's into eating Slim Jims and watching porn in roadside shacks; or are you attracted to the job because you're already kind of a trucker…but without the truck?
Are there lady truckers?
And could I be one? Even for a year?
And if I could, how does one even go about getting licensed? (Is there a parallel parking portion of the test?)
Would I ever make it out there on the open road? Could I learn the CB lingo? Figure out how to operate air brakes? (Figure out what air brakes even are?)
Would I be the kind of driver that lets the tires go until they fly off in deadly black rubber shards, scaring the shit out of innocent Honda drivers as rolling shrapnel bounces off the road and into the windshield?
Could I swing cleaning up every few days in a coin-operated shower around a bunch of men who look like they could kill me? (Or worse?)
Could I treat myself to a fancy dinner at the Country Kitchen or Cracker Barrel every few weeks, just to stay sane?
A friend and I met an older woman this past weekend on the ferry back from Washington Island from Davenport, Iowa, who looked at me like I was a lunatic when I told her I was a huge fan of the World's Largest Truck Stop, just a few miles down the road from her hometown.
She and her family were camping for the weekend, nibbling off-brand Triscuits from the box as they shouted over the flip phone to someone back home; we were staying in my grandparents' bayside condominium, about to enjoy cocktails on a patio while we poked at our nonresponsive smart phones.
And I was all about truck-stop culture?
I told her I couldn't quite explain my fascination, and that seemed to be enough for her to drop it and inadvertently choose another uncomfortable topic — our recent unemployment.
There's a time and place for everything. It's probably not in the cards any time soon for me to write the book I'm currently dreaming up: one Midwestern WASP girl's journey from the DMV to the CB, from coast to coast and back again — and again, and again — transporting God knows what for a year. All I know is if I ever had the chance, I wouldn't turn down any amount of time in a purple semi. Or just a ride in even a red or blue one.
It'd be something to blog about, at least.