By Timothy R. Yates
Travel is a series of exceptional moments, separated by long hours of boredom. Vern always figured that the moments were worth the hours, and so driving a big rig around the country seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. Of course, life had always seemed to throw more exceptional moments at Vern than it did to anyone else he knew, so he wasn’t too surprised by anything that happened out on the highway.
Like the morning in West Texas when a big red-tail hawk, soaring in great, lazy circles above the road ahead of him, suddenly folded its wings and dropped out of the sky. Plummeting straight down toward the earth, the fierce bird leveled out at an altitude of about seven feet, shot straight toward Vern and his truck and hit the mirror, leaving its lifeless body draped over the support between it and the door of the truck, not 10 inches from Vern’s arm resting on the windowsill. Vern hung that magnificent bird’s talons, tied with a few of its biggest feathers, inside his sleeper for a long time.
The hours of boredom were times of introspection, and Vern talked to himself constantly. Never out loud but just in his thoughts, hour after hour. He would remember some exceptional moment and marvel at the randomness of it. Those moments could never be planned; they just occurred, usually when least expected. Often, the exceptional moment would involve another motorist. Some of these moments were good, some were not. The good ones generally involved a pretty girl offering herself as a visual favor. Once in a while an encounter would occur, in a cafe, a motel, rest area, or even in a wide spot on the side of the road. A flashing romance, quick as a thought, a smile, a parting kiss, and on down the long lonesome highway he goes.
The bad encounters always involved disrespectful drivers who thought it great sport to irritate truck drivers. Vern was a master at holding a grudge for hundreds of miles, and when he was mad at a four-wheeler he thought needed to learn a lesson, he was ruthless. Many drivers found themselves struggling for control in the weeds of the center divider after a quick lane change by the big rig next to them.
Vern knew that the driver of the car had long forgotten that he had failed to dim his lights while passing that semi three or four hours ago, but Vern never forgot. Vern could get all worked up seeking revenge, then talk to himself about his vengeful action for hours after taking it. He knew that the size of his rig alone would always ensure victory in those skirmishes that he took so personally.
One night Vern was heading out to a haystack to pick up a load of baled hay. It was just after three in the morning. Vern loved this lonely time of day. Here in the Imperial Valley near the border of California and Mexico, it was too hot to work during the day and Vern enjoyed the hard physical labor of bucking hay in the cool, predawn hours.
This part of the world was a vast, flat, empty desert. Water had been diverted from the Colorado River to transform it into green, flat, empty farmland. The roads were perfectly straight, laid out in squares five miles long on each side. In the darkness, headlights of other vehicles could be seen for miles so Vern didn’t worry about his speed. At this hour there was seldom any traffic.
As he was barreling down the highway, Vern noticed what looked like headlights far off to his right and miles ahead of him. He flew through a crossroads without slowing down. It was five miles to the next intersection, and Vern made note of the headlights he had seen.
A couple of miles further down the road, Vern paused in the song he was singing to himself and saw that the headlights ahead and to the right were traveling down the intersecting road that was quickly approaching. In his mind, Vern instantly created a game called “beat the four-wheeler to the crossroads.” He pushed his throttle foot hard against the floorboard, even though he was already going as fast as he could. The headlights were going faster. Vern had it pegged as a carload of kids out joy riding and became even more determined to beat them at this crossroads game. The car was really travelling. There was only a mile to go and the headlights were clearer now and the car seemed to be picking up speed.
Vern began to talk to himself: “There’s no way you’ll beat me,” he thought, “you might think you can, but think again, sucker!” Vern realized that the space between himself and the approaching car was narrowing faster and faster. “I’ve got you beat all the way,” he told himself, “your little pipsqueak car is no match for me!”
He strained to see the red glow reflecting from the stop sign ahead. It was less than half a mile now and it was becoming clearer by the second that he and this carload of young hellions were on a collision course. This was obviously a disaster in the making unless one of the drivers got off of the throttle and onto some brakes real quick, and Vern was damned if it was going to be him.
There was less than a quarter mile to go. The headlights of the car were coming closer and closer. The stop sign ahead was clearly visible now, and Vern realized that he was shouting at the car out loud.
“For God’s sake, stop, you fool! I’m not about to!”
Vern’s thoughts were swirling in a crazy orbit around his words. “We’re going to crash!” he thought. “Why doesn’t this idiot back out of it now? My God, they’re going to die! I’m bigger, and I’ll win!” His pride was overwhelming all of his senses and Vern kept his foot planted hard on the floor. His forearms ached from gripping the wheel so hard.
With only a hundred feet to go, Vern’s eyes were locked on the headlights, his mind was screaming at him, and his voice was trying to match his mind. As he and the onrushing headlights converged at the crossroads a deafening roar assaulted all his senses. The headlights shot straight up into the air, and out of his right-side window Vern saw the underbelly and the landing gear of a crop-duster biplane ascend straight up into the sky.
The big rig continued on down a quiet, lonely, pitch dark, empty highway, at 85 miles per hour, and as Vern realized he was screaming and abruptly shut up, he saw the airplane in his rearview mirrors as it circled, dropped down to highway level, and began a new pass back in the opposite direction.
Vern was sure he could hear the pilot laughing.
From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.