Joe and I had been driving west for five days; taking the scenic route over the Rockies had set us back, but we had no particular schedule. With everything we owned packed into the U-Haul, we crossed the Colorado border stinking of cigarettes, Old Spice and beef jerky. The truck bounce compounded by the caffeine shakes blurred the passing fields and cars. In L.A. I had felt my last shave, in Vegas my last shower, and in Provo my last mattress. By now I‘d trained myself not to feel my body aches, not to taste the cellophane sandwiches. The only sense left unaffected was hearing, and with a boom box skipping loud in between us, we listened to Beggars Banquet, counting down the miles until Kansas City . . . 391 . . . 377 . . . 353 . . .
The Stones were singing songs I remembered my mom turning up for me as a child. The lyrics were of an America I had dreamed of, places I never thought I’d actually see. When I was 8 I studied atlases and old Rand McNallys, learning the best routes from my San Fernando Valley house to Memphis, the Black Hills and Amarillo. My mom laughed at my road trips, beginning when I was around 18, and at frequent college changes that took me from West to East and back again. She would tell me to be careful and have fun, like all mothers do, and shake her head and wait for me to come home. This time, though, my mom cried real hard. I guess she knew.
I couldn‘t get enough of the land speeding past me, outside every window of the truck, but besides Joe, my college roommate, I’d never met anyone who‘d actually lived here. I had pictures of rednecks and tractors running through my mind, images of simple folk drinking Jim Beam on porches, fanning themselves while swatting away the mosquitoes. I was trying to let this go.
As I lit another cigarette, I noticed my fingers were stained yellow from the filters. Joe took his socks off, plopped his feet atop the dash and asked if his toes were too large for his feet. My mind drifted out the window. I busied it playing games with smaller cars, paralleling big rigs so they couldn’t pass. I wondered if that was winter wheat in the distance, or just barley. Kansas City 287 . . .
I stared out at rows of crops and long stretches of earth that appeared to lie under a dome of sky, and wanted to fill the emptiness. I sympathized with Joe‘s Midwestern childhood. I couldn’t picture it, drinking and tipping cows over, with nothing beautiful to provoke a smile. He laughed and told me I didn‘t get it. Kids don’t need a city, or even a pleasant landscape; they live within themselves, he said. He couldn‘t imagine going home, but growing up in L.A., as I did, would have made him a different person. For five years, L.A. had distorted his view of the world. There was too much to look at, and not enough to see. Still, both here and in L.A., he couldn’t stop thinking about leaving. Neither could I.
We pulled off at a Texaco; above us was a sign reading “Russell, Kansas. Bob Dole‘s hometown.” There was a water tower with the same name on it, another gas station, and a country-kitchen-type joint that served chicken-fried steak with sopping gravy. When I went in to pay for gas, the counter girl looked up briefly from sorting magazines and glanced out the window at our truck. Her auburn hair fell down around her face, and freckles covered her crooked nose. She was about 17, I thought. I gave her my credit card, and we waited for the tank to fill. I put my elbows on the counter, smiled. She looked up at me, glanced back at the register and then back at me. We counted the rising dollars in harmony. She tossed her hair back and asked where we were going. She had never been to Boston and wondered if the people there were kind. I told her as much as anywhere, if they were good people. She smiled and looked back at the screen. She said we had a long way to go. Not that long if we drive fast. Nobody drives fast in Kansas. I’d noticed. It‘s slow here. It’s a nice change. Not if it‘s all you’ve known. I guess so.
Joe walked in. We had to go.
You‘re shameless, he told me as I drove out onto the highway. I think she liked me, I said. Of course she did, this is Kansas and you have a working automobile. It was more than that. Of course it was, he said, laughing, his face outside the window catching the 4 o’clock sun. I lit another cigarette and fiddled with the Kansas radio stations — a high school football game, a preacher, and a lone singer with a guitar.