Being Alive and on the Road

By Tim Barton
Equipment Editor
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The alarm on the radio has turned on the words about the sun. The man is saying there is only one source of energy and that is the sun. The sun is shining through the windshield and through the curtain between the bunk and the cab, and the morning starts bright and blue through the haze of a hundred idling trucks.

He lies in the bunk thinking about the 800 miles he will run today and how there is no better job on earth. The radio is saying the diesel in the tank has been taken out of the ground, having lain there at just the right depth and temperature, the decaying carcasses of animals and plants, turning slowly to the black ooze of oil, the liquid fire that is his fuel.

The bright sun is in his eyes now, and he is squinting out through the vertical slit in the curtain. The day is cold, and the trucks are idling to keep their drivers warm. We are animals, too, he thinks. We are not angels, not spirits, but animals with bodies like the bodies that have died and slipped into the earth and become the oil.

His boots are cold, and he is quick to dress and go in for coffee. Walking toward the diner, he sees the cold iron of the trucks, shuddering in a vague unison, their paint shining back into the morning, waiting like predators to become taut with the new day’s energy, waiting for their waking brains to tell them what to do.

He looks back at the painted skin of his truck, its hood jutting far out among the noses of the others, its stacks giving off a thin blue plume, like the breath of a beast breathing in the cold morning air. His truck is his body, and he is its brain, seeking out and telling the body where to go and when, when to stop and wait, when to lope out into the hammer lane and pass the sickly creatures he will leave behind, always riding on the past, the finite strata of oil-soaked rock sucked dry by the wells, and used for the pleasure and necessity of the animal man.

The diner is full, and he takes his coffee to go, walking back slowly, sipping it and figuring the miles. Some trucks have gone, and he hears others uncoiling in their holes, stretching against the brakes, the steel groaning, the tires still as the claws of a cat before it grips. He is in now, and only the wheel is cold in his hands. The windshield is clear, and his log is current. He hits the throttle and watches his boost gauge rise, watches the pyrometer move up a little, and the thin plume of exhaust turn a little blue. He takes his foot out of it, and the plume disappears. He hits the buttons and yanks his Cat into gear.

He escapes the haze and rolls into the sky and the big road headed east. The sun sits on the slope of land ahead, waiting. His Cat grunts a little waiting for the turbo to catch up, but then he is off across the Kansas prairie. In no time he is in first over and his 18-speed is loping, looking for the rolling land of Missouri. It will be a long time before he sees any real grades, well across the Mississippi, into Wheeling and then the first big hill into the Keystone.

It’s 75 here for speed, and he runs it up to 77 and hits the cruise, leans back in the seat and rolls a cigarette with his one free hand. The wind is a whisper outside his Pete, and the swan on the hood is flying. He takes a good long drag and feels it in his lungs. It feels good. Even the cough feels good because he expects it, like the price you always pay. He smokes two or three more, and the first hundred miles is gone already.

He lights another one and coughs, but this time it is a bad cough. It is almost noon and the sun is overhead. He looks up into his spot mirror, and the smoke and the heat trail from his pipes have turned the sun silver from its noonday gold.