I open the door of the little, rural hospital I have been tethered to for the last 96 hours. The bright, plains sun slams into my eyes. I squint and don my sunglasses. I haul my call bags across the small, gravel parking lot and through them into the back of my car.
My car has become quite the road warrior over the last year. 12 years old, it shows its age. The front end is largely held on with baling wire. The body is heavily dimpled from hail damage (an eventuality if you spend much time on the High Plains). After the fifth rock extended the windshield spider web to an unsafe degree, I finally replaced it.
Nonetheless, I hold onto it. It is effective basic transportation. More importantly, after fixing the struts, head gasket, oil sensor, windshield etc, I need to get a little return on my investment. Old, decaying homesteads dot the back roads of the High Plains and remind you of the legacy of the Dust Bowl and its deprivation.
If you spend enough time here, frugality seems more of a moral duty to those who survived than a way to get ahead financially. Ostentation seems blatantly disrespectful.
I slide into the seat, turn the key, and the engine rolls over obligingly. Turning out of the gravel drive onto the paved two-lane highway, I feel the first change that marks the return journey to my modern City-State.
That Ribbon of Highway…
I ease down on the accelerator and little four cylinder engine slowly increases frequency until I am at cruising speed. I pass the grain trucks grinding slowly out of town and engage cruise control.
The City is still sufficiently distant that its radio waves don’t reach me yet. I rarely use my smartphone to listen to my music, or medical CME, or audiobooks. I like to listen to the local radio, even though it isn’t particularly good.
I like to hear the classic country and rock songs punctuated by advertisements for farm financing, announcements about the local county fair, and today’s corn, wheat, pork, and beef prices. The only other options are Christian praise music or Norteno corridos on the Spanish-langauge station.
Occasionally, I listen to a few corridos before I tire of the wailing of lost loves and betrayal.
I never listen to the praise channels.
I drink in the never ending sky and the limitless horizon. If you are from the lands of big sky, nothing is more comforting and inviting than the long, distant horizon. You revel in your smallness. If you aren’t native to the sky, it is nothing but a barren, foreign, emotionally disconcerting country.
No matter what you call it: plains, prairie, steppe, or llano, you either love it or you don’t. Big sky country demands an emotion. I have never met someone who is indifferent to it.
Wrapping up a shift and sliding onto the open highway combines two great sensations: the freedom of being both off the clock and off the grid.
It is a moment bordering on intoxication.
An hour later, I take a left turn and merge onto the interstate. The wet, acrid smell of the nearby feedlot invades my car. Immediately, I am in a different world.
The large UPS truck trailers remind me of modern e-commerce and our intense, modern interconnectedness. I navigate the huge RVs doing their seasonal migrations. I pass turn offs for the large truck stops with chain fast-food restaurants attached.
The local radio station starts to crackle with static. The City’s more powerful antennas have already begun to crowd out the rural stations. I give in and switch to one of the City’s stations. The finely polished voices badges me to consider refinancing to roll my high interest debt into a low interest mortgage.
Or, advertisements bombard me for questionable hormone replacements therapies, which will apparently making aging optional. Not to mention the not-so-subtle adds for clinics specializing in phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors.
I have officially crossed a boundary. I have moved from a land where suffering is accepted as an unfortunate part of life to the regions where we are promised the power to opt out of suffering entirely.
“Life should be easy,” I hear. “Just buy this product and all the struggle will disappear. We have plenty of financing options available for you…”
I flip the channel, hear the start of an old Sheryl Crow song, and settle in for a five minute break from advertisements. I set the cruise control 10 mph faster than it had been on the two-lane.
The Modern Travelers’ Bazaar
About an hour later, I ease off the interstate, tacking a right into the parking lot of a truck stop. I pull up to the pump, insert my various plastic forms of identification: my rewards card, my credit card. I push the fuel selector, remove the pump handle, slide the nozzle into the gas tank and pulled the lever.
The fuel makes soft whooshing sound as it plunges into the tank.
Again, advertisements bombard me. This time a screen on the pump rages at me. “When did these become a thing?” I wonder to myself. The squawking from the screen is overlain by barking from a loudspeaker informing me of all the deals to be had inside.
It reminds me of an electronic version of market stalls with vendors harassing you for attention and shoving their wares in your face. Only, I cannot politely decline with my hand across my chest, and slight bow, and say, “Maybe later.”
The onslaught continues, I am powerless to modify it.
The pump thunks, and I replace the nozzle. I lock my car and record the receipt in my smartphone, for tax purposes.
A dizzying array of crap I don’t need greets me inside. I rush past the racks of pseudo-cowboy regalia, t-shirts with not-so-witty sayings emblazoned on them, and canes with “Vietnam Veteran” logos on the pommels.
I make it into the bathroom, and even relieving myself, I cannot avoid the advertisements for more shit I don’t need.
A man can’t even piss without being sold something in this country any more.
Back on the interstate, I see the City starting to spill out and infect the plains. The traffic picks up, the drivers who were content to go the speed limits now need to go 15 mph faster, driven by innate feelings of competition with the increased road population. I disengage my cruise control.
Billboards for urgent cares, liquor stores, and music festivals start to appear by the side of the highway. Warehouses and distribution centers pop up like weeds. Soon, the first exurban shopping center edges into view next to the highway. The chain restaurants, discount clothing stores, all surrounded by their own asphalt plains. I am told these are signs of the healthy economic growth…
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.
I look to the horizon, now obscured by scraggly trees, buildings, and semi-trailers. It has taken on a sickly brown hue. It is the color of a week-old bruise. The air, now visible, starts to obscure the sky. Without the visual escape of the horizon, I am drawn down to the human landscape, so paltry in comparison.
The detritus of homeless camps under the overpasses or next to the channelized, polluted rivers and the irrigation canals sucking them dry greets my gaze. I turn up the pop-indie-folk-blues-autotune whatever coming out of the speakers. Numb out.
I slide off the interstate into a cloverleaf and slide back onto another. I smell the exhaust of the oil refinery waft out of my cars vents. Soon, but never soon enough, I am at my exit and gratefully leave the interstate.
I jockey into position for the lane which will allow me the smoothest turn into our neighborhood. The aggressiveness of the other drivers sends an electric energy up through the cars tires. I let my mind drift back to the serenity of the sky I left behind.
I take a left at the park across from our house. It is broad and flat, colored a deep, artificially green. European Pines, crabapples, and Elms dot the small plain. It contrasts with the light, airy green of native grasses and winter wheat I passed on the plains. The trees on the plains had been ash and cottonwood lining the water courses, while wild plum and chokecherry in bloom clustered slightly higher.
I stop in the alley, step out of the car and open the back gate to our rental house. The air smells mostly of nothing, but with the faint perfume of exhaust, asphalt, and cigarette butts. Our old hound bounds out of the back door, wagging her tail excitedly.
Shortly after, my wife comes out, our daughter in her arms, excitedly telling her “Daddy’s Home!” At 4 months, she is not particularly understanding. But, I move my face into her view and she smiles her big, unbridled, infant smile. The bridge of her nose crinkles and she lifts her arms in front her face in apparent embarrassment at her excitement.
I pick her up, kiss her cheek long and hard and she laughs.
And just like that, I am home again.