Somewhere West of Bath, New York, on I-86, the Pilot Intense Energy Coffee kicked in and I was overcome by the manic need to call Todd Dills of Overdrive magazine to pitch stories that I would probably never get around to writing.
It was more like a rant session -- something someone with letters behind their name should be charging $200 an hour to listen to.
But by the time I burned through two or three ideas and hung up with Todd, I saw a sign that elicited an involuntary gulp. Then, an utterance emitted from my lips, one not fit for this august publication. Somehow, while talking trucking with Todd, I had made the rookie mistake of veering off of I-86 and onto I-390.
Then the telltale sign:
Every now and then, there's nothing wrong with keeping an open mind and making the best of things.
Now westbound on I-90, knowing this blunder would add an hour and a half to the trip, we passed a sign that ol' Jumper read out loud:
"Niagara Falls. Sixty-seven miles. Hmm."
I was soon feeling the half-inch drill bits -- the pupils of my wife's eyes -- bearing down upon the side of my skull. She was speaking to me in the shorthand of the long married. The last time I’d felt those drill bits: A nice lady from the truck show in Norwich, New York, had mentioned just a couple days before how neat it would be if we could slip over to Niagara Falls on our way home.
Jumper was in luck, on account of my own absent-mindness -- or maybe I was falling prey, once again, to the spousal voodoo she frequently uses on me.
Here's how it usually goes: 1) She, or someone else, says how nice something would be to go and do. 2) I put up some sort of resistance. 3) Life, and whatever defenses I can muster, slowly unravels until she gets her way.
Jumper says the Lord simply answers her prayers. I see it as a diabolical form of telepathy. After 41 years of ups and downs, though, I knew if I just didn't look back at her, drill bits or no drill bits, if I just drove on, the notion would slowly fade into that rear-view chasm of her heart, where dreams go to die. She would say nothing. It really was still entirely up to me.
An hour or so later, we were on the banks of the Niagara River boarding the Maid of the Mist, wearing blue ponchos issued by the vessel’s crew, and for the first time for both of us, seeing the utter majesty that is Niagara Falls.
It had been a long time since I'd taken the wrong road. Having run essentially dedicated freight for the last 11 years, I very seldom even have to crack an atlas. A GPS to me is nothing more than a sign of moral cowardice, a means of relinquishing agency and critical thought. (Yes, I use one all the time, but I'm not oblivious to its ability to dumb a guy down. It's sort of like an automatic transmission -- yes, I believe they play a critical role in the erosion of the actual craft of trucking. Yet there is the fact that I drive with one of those now, too, and truth be told, I kind of like it. Still, if I don't rail against it, I lose all my cranky old trucker bona fides, right?)
[Related: Manual, automated, automatic: Owner-operator preferences haven't changed much]
Do people still even get lost? Has our capacity to blunder been so stymied that no one ever winds up on the wrong road that was really the right road?
Back in the 1980s, I remember taking U.S. 60, the Midland Trail in West Virginia. I-64 hadn't yet been completed over Sandstone Mountain, and it appeared to be the best bet to reach points southeast of Charleston. But the hills and switchbacks on that road were so severe that the old joke was you could reach out of your window and clean your tail lights. The Cummins 300 in my Builders Transport cabover overheated on that road, and I was reduced to begging water from the nearest house I could find.
I approached a modest white frame house on a hill. A diminutive elderly woman answered the door. Her hair was snow white and in a bun. She wore a print dress and was as immaculate as her home and lawn.
She dutifully filled two gallon jugs with water, bringing them back one at a time. She wished me well and sent me on my way.
A while later, with my motor cooled, I came upon a little truck stop in Rainelle. There apparently was a wild berry in season in the area, and they had just baked pies featuring that berry. Then yet another ancient matriarch from the Mountain State came out from behind the kitchen, and she told me she'd harvested those berries with her two granddaughters that very morning. As I read this back, I know how much it must seem like that was just some whopper she'd laid on a greenhorn trucker. Maybe it was, but I'd never had anything like that pie before. Not since, either.
You remember the things that happen to you when you take the wrong road. Sometimes there's a grace that emerges when you're off the beaten path.
Soaked to the skin from the mist of the falls, we rode the elevator back up to Prospect Street, warmed ourselves in the September sun, and stumbled into the Hard Rock Cafe. There's nothing quite as sublime as a good hamburger when you've been on the water.