Windmills & Sassafrass Tea
|End of the Road...|
By Carl Davidson
A pretty country girl standing on the back of a flatbed trailer sings a hillbilly song at an Indiana truckstop. In front of me is my display of chrome truck parts - bumpers, light bars, horns, fancy heel covers. The air is heavy with the sweet smell of free barbecued chicken for the hundreds of big rig truckers relaxing at "Driver Appreciation Day" before moving on down the road.
I've worked these affairs a dozen times A moment always comes when I wonder how I got here and what lies ahead. It's a long way from studying philosophy in Nebraska. It's even farther from freedom marches in Mississippi, from SDS and student strikes against war and racism at Columbia and Berkeley, from 12 years of revolutionary left journalism that took me twice around the world through Cuba, China and Europe.
Now I'm what's known in the trade as a "bumper man." I work for a small company that makes replacement, decorative bumpers and other parts for the big 18-wheelers. I'm the on-the-road salesman and I can tell you more than you ever thought there was to know about the different makes of trucks and types of bumpers that fit them.
My territory is America's heartland, the states of the Great Lakes and Great Plains, plus the Ozarks and the northwest slope of Appalachia. At times I go further, to California and Texas, but over the past six years I've driven every interstate and many back roads in this region, getting to know my customers in the hundreds of truck stops, truck dealers, truck salvage yards and body shops that thrive there.
At first the job was frustrating. It was not quite what I had ever seen myself doing. But in time I've learned that all ways of making a living have their limitations and this one had some unseen and unusual advantages. Plus it paid relatively well, which helped with child support and other obligations I had.
The key was openness to seeking truth and quality in the experience at hand, to shaping one's future by making new things happen in the present. A traveling salesman, for example, can pass the evening in front of TV at the motel bar, dulling his senses along with the nine other salesmen eyeing the one hooker on the end stool. Or he can try to learn something new from the different people and cultures around him. After some bad times with the first approach, I decided on the second path.
My basic approach to this problem is selling bumpers by day while doing political journalism at night. The rural areas I drive through are being devastated by the farm crisis. I took up the issue by looking up Merle Hansen from the North American Farm Alliance. I first met Merle organizing against the war at the University of Nebraska in 1966. Through him I learn about the polarization in white rural communities, with some people going over to the far right while others seek out Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow.
"Our people go every which way," Merle told me one night. "Organizing farmers is like trying to
organize a wheelbarrow full of frogs."
In time I got a few articles published, and made my way to the Farmer and Rancher Congress in Saint Louis. After shaking hands with Willie Nelson at a reception, I hook up with Merle in the bar, and spend a few minutes talking with Jesse Jackson, who was warmly received by the nearly 2000 mostly white delegates.
There is a richness to people's lives beneath the stereotypes. I'm eating chili one night at Shoemaker's Truck Stop outside Lincoln, Nebraska. I like the place for its collection of old-time gas pumps from the 1930s, reminding me of my father's garage back home. I ask the farmer next to me how he's weathering the crisis. He's doing OK because he stays out or banks. Deals strictly is cash, no loans or credit. Luckily he, got two crops ahead so now he's able to wait for the right price before selling.
What does he do when the crops are in? He goes to Haiti once a year and digs wells for free "I figure poor people need clean water before they can do anything else," he says. "Hell, one woman was so excited to get one dug she named her baby after me. If we want to die happy, we've got to leave some good behind us in this world. "
Truckstops are always good places for talking politics. At the Shenandoah Inn between Wheeling, West Virginia and Zanesville, Ohio, I get into a wild session with six guys. Weird conspiracy theories abound, mixed with firm opposition to intervention in Central America. "The rich always want our boys to fight their wars," says one. "Let those little countries pick their
own governments." Everyone nods agreement. I talk about Jesse -- one trucker agrees with me. four or five are against.
On I-90 in the Allegheny Mountains, I'm reading a conservative newspaper over coffee. "What paper's that?" asks the guy on the next stool. "It's a Reaganite paper." I answer. "To hell with all the Reaganites," says another trucker with a hillbilly drawl, adding, "I'm for Jesse."He's the smartest. I'll grant you that," says a third. "But someone would shoot him for sure. I'm from Tennessee, so I got to go with Gore."And so on, into the night.
There are other ways to do politics on the road. I helped with regional organizing for the big peace rallies --making stops in Iowa City, Madison, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Champaign, Saint Louis, talking with the new generation of student radicals at night. I also do political writing and editing on the road. Making notes and reading mixed with bustle and coffee at truckstop counters, it reminds me of old days in the student union. Later at night I use the electronic typewriter and laptop computer in motel rooms, then find file post office in the morning to get the articles in the mail. A dozen pieces got done this way.
But being on the road is hardly all politics. First is just enjoying the natural beauty and diversity of the country. Through the High Plains I enjoy long shadows over fenceposts-- the waves of earth colors: blues, greens and browns. Then pine-covered hills and sunsets near Michigan's Traverse Bay, lighthouses along Lake Huron, the wide Mississippi at La Crosse, Wisconsin, and its limestone bluffs along the east bank, while the sun sets against Minnesota hills. Then the Ozarks and hazy fall afternoons, wood smoke hanging in the hollows. I buy sassafras tea and dried hillbilly bean soup.
I stop at a restaurant on the road between Wausau and Green Bay in northern Wisconsin. The local weekly reports about the Chinese coming for the ginseng crop. The guy next to me grows it. "Don't know if the stuff works or not," he says, "but they believe it. Trouble is, the stuff's worth so much you have to sit up with your shotgun guarding your fields at night until you get it sold."
I like using my tape deck to create moods mixing landscapes with music. Through the Beartooth Pass in high Montana: Beethoven's 9th is exhilarating as the morning sun bounces off August snow fields, above the timber lines, while the road meanders down into golden Yellowstone and buffalo herds.
North Wisconsin of white birch, pine and the spring thaw: Let Bob Marley's reggae "lively up myself"after days of divorce-related depression. Or roaring into Nashville late at night on 1-20, what else but 1950s R&B to counterpoint upcoming Country &Western stations and remind me of its roots in the Blues anyway.
I prefer instrumentals in mornings and early afternoons, new age and classical, especially baroque, and, of course, bluegrass in bluegrass country. But as the sun goes down, I put on vocals. It's time for Waylon, Willie and Merle Haggard, who sounds wiser as I get older.
The music sets a tone for meditation, my long internal talks with myself. I move in and out of the rhythms, making new connections, shaping new patterns. Sometimes I feel still and centered, while the world and time glides by outside the van.
Live music is always special. I find it in a few favorite honkytonks. The most amazing is Billy Bob's, outside Fort Worth, Texas. As advertised, it's the world's biggest: three bars, blackjack, two livebands, two mechanical bulls, and a dirt floor rodeo with live bulls. My choice is Stoney Ridge Inn outside Toledo. It's well worn but friendly, good live music seven nights. The farm girls come for 50 miles around for dancing and social life. There's even fried mush on the breakfast menu.
I met a trucker there ahead of me in line registering for a room. His name was the same as mine and his dad's name was the same as my dad's. We were the same age and grew up 50 miles from each other. What's the odds on that? We figured we must be relatives, but couldn't prove it,
Kansas City has a great blues bar and country bar on the same block. The C&W joint has a large dance floor and blackjack - you can't win, just play for fun. Downtown Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is closed up at night except for three bars that tell a story - the drinkers at the poorest place are mostly Sioux; one notch up is an older C&W place, mostly couples over 35, dancing to live rockabilly. Last is an upscale, glitz-and-chrome disco packed with white youth, punk and Prince fans.
The trucking industry is a male world. There are women drivers and parts managers, but they number less than 10 percent. There are drivers of all nationalities - white, black. Latino - but Southern and rural whites are disproportionately represented. For these youth, becoming a trucker is a way out of dangerous mines, heartbreaking farms and rural isolation in general.
The macho image of the trucker--redneck, irresponsible, dirty, foulmouthed, doped-up and mean --is considerably overdone. There are a few like this, but for the most part, despite the rough edges, most truck drivers are decent, fair-minded and kindhearted. They combine individualism with a self-sacrificing spirit, always ready to lend a hand.
One market survey, for instance, revealed that truckers listen to all kinds of music when on the road, not just country and western. Some 20% are even tuned into classical stations; growing numbers listen to books and self-development tapes. There's a pronounced populist streak in their mindset, but their politics run the full range from left to right, making all stops in between.
Of the million or so truckers in the country, most are fleet drivers who work for a company. About 100,000 are owner-operators with their own trucks. A new, fully decked-out rig can cost around $100,000. It will get 5-6 miles per gallon on average.
How do they make out? It depends. An 80-hour week is typical. For most, success means clearing 30-40 grand a year. Doing badly means going into debt after expenses: 20% did badly this year; up to a third go bankrupt in bad years.
I try to teach myself photography while traveling. The favored subjects are windmills; I now have more than a hundred in my collection. My quest for the perfect windmill shot, however, still goes on. I see it in my imagination: weather-worn, silhouetted against a sunset framed with a rail fence and a lonely tree, offset by an old pickup. I'll find it someday.
Meanwhile there are all kinds of windmills out there -- wooden and metal, old and modern, a genuine Danish mill in Iowa and a Dutch mill in Holland, Michigan. My camera also loves riverboats, old cars, lighthouses, roadhouse signs, watermills, covered wagons, 1940s hamburger joints and train cabooses. My favorite old cars spotted along the road: A 1937 Hudson Terraplane, a 1932 Ford Roadster, a 1949 Ford Coupe and a 1950 Chevy Fastback.
One obscure photo I took tied things together for me. It's of a stretch of pavement in downtown Bellefontaine, Ohio. It doesn't seem special at all, but it's actually the first concrete highway ever made in America, poured in 1891. The date made me stop and think: only around a 100 years ago the highways were dirt roads and brick city streets. What served as interstates for people then were the railroads and the rivers. Thus, the theme running through my photos: they were all icons and artifacts of the long-distance journey.
The journey as a philosophical theme defining a stance toward life, experience and knowing was also an on-again, off-again theme of my pre-political studies in the university. What had been set aside years ago now seemed to have found a semiconscious way of reasserting itself in my life.
Of course no one has to study obscure philosophers to enjoy trucking and highways. Truckstops have an appeal in their own right. Some of the best are Bosselman's in Grand Island, Nebraska, all 16 acres looming like a jewel on the prairie at night. In Effingham, Illinois, the Truckstops of America celebration each year features a truck beauty show and a greased pole climbing contest for kids. At Gateway in Saint Louis, it's a bit rowdy, but you might run into folk singer Ramblin' Jack Eliot.
One of the biggest events of all is the Iowa 80 Truckstop Jamboree every July in Walcott, Iowa. Around 50,000 people turn out for one-and-a-half-inch-thick pork chops, corn on the cob, and country music and clog dancing in an amphitheater made of hay bales. My other favorite truckstops are Big Chief in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, and Hiawathaland in Dakota, Minnesota.
There are three generations of truckstops. The first are found on the old pre-interstate U.S. highways like US30 in Joliet, Illinois, or US20 outside Sioux City, Iowa. Second are the Union 76s and older TAs along the Interstates. The third are the mammoth new Petros, TAs, and Flying J's
"You can buy everything you need there but true love," say the truckers. "And sometimes you even get something close to that." The drivers have a hot-and-cold relationship with the hookers working many, but not most, truckstops. They call them "lot lizard's" when they don't want to be bothered but"ladies of the night" when they're looking for companionship.
Traveling the highways has always had a special appeal for me. Robert MacNeil in "The Story of English" claims "'the wanderlust" is one of the national characteristics of the Scots-Irish, which is where most of my family tree has its roots. It supposedly accounts for why this nationality is so widely scattered around the globe.
One thing I have done, is to look back at where I've been. I've stopped by the old house I once rented in Nebraska, now all boarded up. Another trip took me through the Allegheny mountains and the Nittany valley of my undergraduate years in central Pennsylvania. Still another to the Shenango River town where my mother was born, even finding the street I lived on when I was three years old. My conclusion? Like Thomas Wolfe's lesson, "You Can't Go Home Again." Everything changes, grows over and moves on. Perhaps that's what's best about life on the road. It teaches you to enjoy the present, look ahead and keep on keepin' on.