Channel 19

Todd Dills

Excerpting ‘Roll On,’ a novel by Fred Afflerbach

| April 17, 2012

The book is out, owner-operators. And what a book it is, telling the story, as I’ve written here, of owner-operator Ubi Sunt, an old-school “bedbugger” and child of the orphan trains facing down in the early 1980s an incoming rush of new faces, new ways of doing business, new pressure from his family to settle down and if not new, then certainly increased talk of a nationwide independent owner-operator shutdown he wants no part of.

Afflerbach was kind enough to share the following chapter from the book with us here to give you a better idea of what you’ll be getting into among its pages — this chapter’s strong on cinematic feel for the road, clear indication the former Bekins Van Lines-leased owner-operator writes from hard-won experience. It’s situated toward the end, as Sunt heads west as the shutdown is under way, just before the words “fuel surcharge” would ring out over the CB and the airwaves as temporary semantic savior.

In any case, give it a read, and for more about the book, check out  my last story about it, which gives a synopsis and part of my interview with Afflerbach about his trucking history. You can order the book via Amazon by clicking through the cover image above. .

From Chapter 23 of “Roll On,” by Fred Afflerbach:
A serious trucker with topped-off fuel tanks and coffee thermos and an early start can knock out several southern states in one day — Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. And the terrain and vegetation looks about the same. State after state, loblolly and longleaf pine trees swarm and march across the low rolling hills and drop a bed of needles on the forest floor. Red, rusty dirt, sometimes with an ochre tint, breaks through the forest floor only where the land has been cut open at construction sites or near freeway exits. Otherwise, it’s several hundreds of miles of pine forest, trees growing up to seventy feet high, occasionally interrupted by slow-moving black creeks and rivers. One major exception: the Mississippi River sweeps through at Vicksburg, a ribbon of water more than a mile wide that, despite the man-made levees and locks and bridges, can still rise up and wreak havoc on the cornfields and communities brave and stubborn enough to live in its floodplain.

Driving westbound through Louisiana, past Shreveport, you cross the Texas state line and the big green sign – El Paso, 800 miles — meets you with intimidation. It takes a driver with an iron ass and steel kidneys to cross Texas, from the Louisiana line to El Paso, in one day. The first 150 miles of Texas looks like what you left behind in Louisiana. Even in fall, the air remains thick and heavy and clings to your skin like a film, and if you spend the night here in your bunk with the window open, the merciless mosquitoes will find you and attack, no matter how deep in the sleeper you burrow. A little farther west, Dallas and Fort Worth can take forever to get around. With its network of constipated freeways, everybody races the clock, fighting for a place on the entrance ramp, or exit ramp, or jockeying for position, squeezing in one lane or the other. Better not stop to check the tires in Big D, might be an hour before you can get back on the road. Sure it hurts your bladder like someone’s sticking a needle in you, but it’s best to plow straight ahead. No serious accidents choking traffic and you might make it across the city in an hour. If you’re lucky. Then you can stop in Fort Worth; now there’s a town where a driver can catch his breath. You got a little wiggle room in old Cow Town.

West of Fort Worth, the land peels back and the sky comes out like opening the curtains on a sunny day. No craning your neck here looking for sunshine. Azure, blue sky, window to window. An hour later, headed toward Abilene, white, puffy clouds drift past and morph into elephants, angels, Abraham Lincoln, a giraffe, a swan, Moses, God. And unlike yesterday’s drive where you were bottled up by hundreds of miles of conifers that guard the horizon like wooden soldiers, this endless expanse distracts you from the CB, distracts you from the white lines and mile markers, the telephone poles and fence posts, the roadkill and gators. Songwriters proclaim the road goes on forever, but that asphalt ribbon would not be possible without terra firma. And that terrain rolls and pitches outside your windshield, which is still smeared with green insect guts from the Deep South. But now, with the gnarled live oaks and mesquites and clumps of junipers widely scattered, you can read the topography like a geologist. See that wrinkle on the hillside where the water runs? Now follow the creek downstream where it’s eroded a limestone ledge. Check out how the different layers of sediment were deposited over millennia. Now look how the creek widens and disappears behind another hill in the distance, eventually flowing into the Brazos River. And here comes the Brazos now, unimpressive compared to the mighty rivers up North and back East. But she must have inspired the Spanish explorers, because, drawing up the first maps, they labeled the river Arms of God.

Unlike the Deep South, this land is heavy with cattle and dotted with hay fields and those iron grasshoppers that, long after the oil boom went bust, continue to pump petroleum from a few old wells that haven’t played out. Up and down like seesaws, they continue around the clock. And then further west, the low rolling hills can catch you off guard. You gotta romp the accelerator, get a good running start, or you’ll end up bogged down, grabbing gears in the climbing lane stuck behind somebody in a little pickup with an oversize camper hanging over the truck bed, dozens of stickers from assorted states plastered on the back window glass.

Continuing west toward Abilene, the horizon continues to unfold. The sun traverses the sky, now high enough above that you’re not looking directly into it. And it’s then you feel lonesome, wishing for a passenger to share the sky with; there’s just too much space out there for one pair of eyes. And there’s still a lot of land, a lot of road ahead. Then, you find yourself talking out loud, to an anonymous rider, like someone was in the seat next to you.

Hey, here comes a roadside park. Let’s pull in, take in the sky. No, don’t open both doors at once. Can’t you feel the wind shaking the rig, rocking it like a cradle? Open both doors simultaneously and you’ll create a wind tunnel. All the maps and logbooks, S&H Green Stamp books you’ve been collecting, they’ll end up in New Mexico or Oklahoma. You know, a driver caught up on the East Coast making deliveries for a few weeks, why, he could sit here for a half hour just catching up on sky. What’s that? There’s nothing out here? That’s the appeal. No civilization. No big cities breaking up the horizon. What the hell’s wrong with that. Out here, you can get lost in the sky.

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