We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

58 responses to “Just Stopping for Gas”

  1. I noticed just last week that Amy says “Aussie” with a distinct “ess” sound, instead of the “zee”. How strange…

    My co-worker is an Aussie and most of the Americans and Chinese around here can’t understand a word he says, poor guy. He always uses the most obscure phrases, so it’s not just his accent. Thankfully, I grew up watching Neighbours and so I understand a little bit. I wonder if Zara was just talking in cryptic Aussie slang…

    • It’s definitely a lingual divide; it’s weird to hear it said with the ess sound, but I guess that’s how it’s written.

      For future reference, any reading Americans, we say it as you’d say ‘Ozzy’ from Ozzy Osbourne.

      Heh. Australians. You idiots. Where does your co-worked come from, do you know? Watch out if he says things like ‘Yakka’, ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle’, or ‘Fair dinkum’; that guy’s going to bleed kangaroo blood.

      • He’s a country boy from somewhere I don’t even know how to spell and never managed to figure out by looking at the 10000000 maps of Australia he has scattered around our office and classrooms. He does frequently talk about his “eskie”… I’m not sure what that means.

        • Oh, mate, if you don’t have an esky you’re going to end up dry as a dingo’s donga on a Satdy arvo, and that’s the fair dinkum truth.

          Heh.

          No one actually talks like that.

          Much.

          An esky’s an insulated beer chest. I have no idea what they’d be called overseas. You know, like, that plastic tub you fill with ice and put beer in? With a lid that clicks in place?

        • Ok, that makes sense. It’s been hot around here and we’ve been in dire need of some cold beverages. I think we call an esky an “ice chest” or something equally mundane wherever it is that I come from.

          Ah, “arvo.” He says that each and every day. “Whatcha doing this arvo, bud?”

          You say no one talks like that, but my co-worker does. I used to have another Aussie co-worker and he spoke normally. This one is a bit of a character, though. He’s the one I told you about long ago, who likes to stand sideways and talk at you with one eye open whilst nodding his head. Yeah…

        • Makes sense. I’m not sure why we call it an esky, actually.

          Oh! A cooler! Now I remember. Thanks to this:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esky

          I knew it had something to do with Eskimoes, but that was as far as it went.

          Heh. I remember that guy now. He sounds like he’s doing the home team proud. Try to find out where he’s from!

        • “He sounds like he’s doing the home team proud.”

          Not yet he’s not… This Wednesday he’s forcing all students and teachers to play cricket, which, he tells us, no one except Aussies can understand… I’m just wondering which of his five or six Australian flags he’s going to bring.

          I just asked someone and they said he might be from near Narrandera. Wherever the hell that is.

        • Oh, dude, Australians and sport. Hit the eject button.

          Oh, yep, Narrandera. It’s (no joke) on the Murrumbidgee, I think.

          Ha! It’s also the birthplace of an Australian poet I just posted to Uche’s wall. SSE lives!

        • When he says it the middle “an” drags on for about ten seconds. That’s probably why I couldn’t figure it out before… I was searching for “Narraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaandera.” My bad.

          SSE is going strong.

        • HA! I can hear it, perfectly.

          Nothing quite like the ‘Strine draaaawwl.

  2. Zara says:

    Streuth brew! Bonza yarn.
    What a grouse trip that was! All those kooks! So much fun. Seriously, it was a once in a lifetime trip. Thanks for being such a beaut co-pilot.

    • Yeeeeeeek! Oh no! They’ve gotten to you too!

      Heh.

      Beaut. Bonza. Grouse.

      Faaaaaaaaaaaark.

      It was great. I wonder where we were this time last year. Pennsylvania?

      Man. We met some goddamn nuts. But at least we didn’t meet the scrapyard feller who wasn’t well in the head.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      “Strewth” or “streuth” has to be one of my favorite AU inventons ever. I used to love those old British WWII comics in school, with all their lurid stereotyping and laughable jingoism, and every time there was an ANZAC in the company, you could bet they’d print his every other word as “strewth!”

      It’s up there with “zounds” and “tawdry” as words born of divine, delightful elision.

      Simon, bonza yarn, as Zid says! I’ve missed the soaring, keenly observant arcs of the TPAC adventurings. I swear I was playing Johnny Cash’s “I’ve been everywhere man” in my head as I read along. And what ties together a road circuit of the States better than the fuel stops? For your next trip, though, we want a Google map with push-pins, mates 🙂

      • Oh, John Bull. You and your mangled lingual skills.

        Ha! ‘Zounds’. Awesome.

        Although I don’t know the story of tawdry. Shakespeare?

        Thanks, Brewche! I’ve missed going on TPAC adventures; it was great to have a mini-event with Z over a few weeks back, but nothing to compare to the grand cross-country road trip. We’ll have to do that again, someday, and someday soon I hope.

        I have a paper map on card stitched with red thread a friend gave to me to mark the journey; I’ll have to see if I can upload a photo.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          “Tawdry” is not quite Shakespeare, but not far. In late Elizabethan times there was an annual fair in England honoring St. Audrey. It became known for cheap, frilly lace sold there which was thus called St. Audrey’s lace, which soon became “Tawdry lace”, from which an imaginary adjective “tawdry’ meaning cheap, frilly and ostentatious was derived.

          It’s even more fun than the old “numpire” and “norange” which became “umpire” and “orange” when the indefinite article stole their leading “n”s.

          Nice. I’m pretty sure thread-stitched card is the predecessor of Google maps, just as Jacquard loom pattern cards were the predecessors of computers. 🙂

        • Dang! Learn something new every day.

          Is that a similar story to ‘nuncle’? Because I had no idea about numpires and noranges.

          Just wait. I’m betting card computing’s going to be big in the next century. VERY big. Those and abaci. It’s all about the nostalgia value, you see.

  3. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Great vignettes!

    Worlds collide at gas stations, especially ones right off a major highway. I love to watch the cars and the people and what they’re hauling.

    There’s a screenplay waiting to be written about the guy who just got out of jail and bummed that cigarette.

    Oh, and I enjoyed your attention to landscapes and sky views. Sometimes the impression never goes away. Last year, I was driving home after a day trip away to a conference, got lost, and ended up on a route I didn’t plan. Worth the detour because I saw the most incredible sunset ever. I didn’t know the sky could do that.

    • Why thanks, Miss Ronlyn!

      It was definitely a key feature of the road. It amazed me how we’d round a corner after miles and miles of nothing and then suddenly find dozens of people at a gas station. Lots of families, and lots of groups of college kids, especially.

      He was really polite. Zara and I were trying to work out what he’d gone in for as we were driving away. She wanted it to be something relatively harmless, as he’d been so nice in his request.

      The American sky really has a lot to say for itself, sometimes, as does the landscape. The photos of that sunset are in Zara’s albums; I think the one full of shots taken as we were on our way to NOLA.

  4. Great stuff, Simon.

    It’s a rare writer that can capture both the beauty and absurdity of the country’s big middle parts, with all their characters…

    • Thanks, Tyler! I’ve never been described as a rare writer before. Now there’s something to make you feel good abut yourself on a Monday afternoon.

      Middle America, in many ways, was exactly what I’d expected, and in many ways, the opposite.

  5. Tom Hansen says:

    Red Bull Sucks. But I must say, Simon, that this post does not. Maybe I just haven’t noticed before but your writing here is very impressive. Engaging, paced just right, nice rhythms and sounds, I love the blend of longer and shorter sentences, the succinct descriptions of the landscape, good eye for the dialogue…well done.

    • Red Bull got me through five years of nightclub work. I won’t hear a word against her, Tom!

      Thanks for the kind words, boss. The blend of shorter and longer sentences actually came from my conscious attempt to pull back my over-use of semi-colons; I do it far too much.

      My biggest concern was in making sure the people we met came across right and that it didn’t seem like I was pointing fingers and shrieking ‘Look at these people!’ We interacted with dozens of people in gas stations across the country; I could only really write about a tiny sample of them here.

      Thanks again, Tom. Always nice to get that kind of feedback.

      • Tom Hansen says:

        you know the thing is I actually don’t know that Red Bull sucks. I’ve never tried it. But I have tried other energy drinks and barf. Haha. And being the closed-minded old coot I am I feel it is my duty to condemn any and all newfangled dealy-bob sippity-doo’s.

        Maybe that’s what struck me, the limited use of semi-colons? They come in handy at times but personally I think more fluid and engaging prose can be achieved with mixing long and short sentences. I didn’t feel you were pointing out people at all. Lovely non-judgmental descriptions

        • Oh, man, it’s delicious. Every other energy drink is to Red Bull as every other cola is to Coke.

          Of course, I say that having probably far, far exceeded every single daily recommendation of how many cans to drink and that’s how they get you, the Red Bull molecules have set up camp in my brain, by now, but still. I used to relish the taste of my midnight Red Bull and cigarette break like it was the only thing that mattered in the world.

          I agree on the breakup of prose. I find it tricky, having become so addicted to semicolon over-usage; now a short sentence by itself looks odd to me, and I have to consciously overcome my resistance.

          Also: thanks, I’m glad to know it.

        • kristen says:

          Red Bull has always tasted to me like delicious, delicious these: http://santaraptorpirate.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/smarties.jpg. Do you drink the regular or the sugar-free kind? I used to be way into the latter, but the habit just got too costly. And my bod too sensitive to its chemical-y magic, mabes.

          Really dug this piece, S. Evocative, transporting, non-judgy… Wide open, like that road of yours.

          Also, I agree re: value of minimizing the s-colons. My problem–em dashes. Lemme know if you’ve any tips for slashing these from one’s writing.

        • Huh. Smarties in the US are different from Smarties over here – over here they’re kinda like M&Ms’s junior cousin.

          I’ve only drunk the sugar-free kind a couple of times. It’s not for me. Once I bought the sugar-free by accident, so I tried adding sugar to it and it didn’t work out well.

          Although one night the local gelati place had Red Bull ice-cream for sale.

          Damn.

          It was so freaking good.

          Thanks, MademoiselleD! I’m a big over-user of em dashes too. You may get a kick out of this: http://www.slate.com/id/2295413/

          (and this: http://thewritingresource.net/2011/06/02/punctuation-point-defending-the-em-dash/)

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Brother, I remember that text well. It was awesome to get a pimp’s eye view of the road.

    As Tom noted, this piece does not suck. In fact, this piece is about as far from sucking as one could get without bringing in two more space telescopes. I enjoy hearing the reactions of the people you meet in your travels when they hear you speak. It still sort of startles me when people are sort of startled by someone with a different accent. I guess that’s what keeps an edge on things.

    Rock on, and know that I will always appreciate a mobile phone pic from the road.

    • Heh. If you’d been driving, Joe, Ice-T’s Pimp Behind the Wheels would have been on infinite repeat, no matter what song we tried to select.

      “In fact, this piece is about as far from sucking as one could get without bringing in two more space telescopes.”

      Wow! This is a good day for me! Thanks, MPB.

      The Texan dude’s accent took me back; I literally couldn’t understand a word he said. And I’d been pricking up my ears to hear my first proper Southern accent, so it was nice to hear that in a quiet, sunny little gas station. Very fitting.

      Ha! Now I’ve just remembered him – did I tell you about the dude in New York hawking bubble guns?

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    So how many times do you reckon you pointed percy at the petrol station porcelain?

    • Perhaps pfifty-pfour? Pfifty-pfive?

      Poor Zara. I live for hydration (I want them to put that on my tombstone someday), and while that’s a pleasure in itself, it comes at a price, and one that the road will exact from you without forgiveness.

  8. Jessica Blau says:

    I’ll never say Aussie with an S sound again!

    Wish I had been on that trip with you–I love strange people in strange places.

    • You’re all right, Jezzica Blau. You’re all right.

      It’s actually quite odd to hear, and it’s very definitely an Americanism. The first few times, it really threw me. I kind of blinked a little bit and said ‘Um… no, guys. Just… no.’

      The best possibly analogy I can think of is if someone, in all earnestness, called you an Anerican.

      It was a really fun trip. We’ll have to organise a TNB convoy sometime and do it all again.

      Except for Gary, Indiana.

  9. This piece demonstrates what I told my 9 yr old the other day. “I’ll tell you a secret,” I said. “Absolutely everybody’s weird. It’s just that some people are better than others at hiding how weird they are.” I love all of the little character quirks your observations turn up here. Also, it’s fabulous to read the travel notes of a real live Aussie!

    • People are nuts. Just plain crazy.

      It’s kind of awesome, sometimes, less so at others.

      I really like traveling the States. Maybe it’s like the psychic in LA told me, that I’ve always been American… in my heart.

      Have you traveled much around the US, CFH?

      • If you’re wearing a trucker hat and camouflage in your heart I’ll be really impressed.

        I have, actually, and I’ve lived all over the place. I think I’m a gypsy in my heart. (And dressed just like Stevie Nicks, twirling circles … in my heart.)

  10. J.M. Blaine says:

    my my my
    this was fine
    mighty fine.
    I so love when a writer
    takes their time
    and slows everything down
    and tells me every little story
    in a story.
    So fine, sir.

    • Thank you kindly, Justice and Mercy Blaine.

      It occurred to me as I was writing that this piece lacked any semblance of real narrative flow; I talked about West Texas well before Nebraska, for instance, and our journey took us to Nebraska before West Texas.

      But this was one that didn’t need to be a journey, in any way (considered the subject matter, is that what they call irony?). I like the snapshot approach, for this one.

  11. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    On my own travels, I’ve wondered if highway gas stations and pulloffs provide a limited view on the country. But most of the time, no, I think they offer the most accurate picture of the place as a whole that anyone can really get. All your encounters here are great. I can feel the dust blowing off the road.

    We once had a gas station exchange where someone heard my wife’s French accent and said “You seem real nice, I wish I knew more Mexican.”

    Still all this makes me want to get back under that “overwhelming impartiality,” as you say it.

    • Thanks, Nathaniel! I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a lot of affection for gas stations. Maybe it’s just a hangover from the movies I watched as a teenager, where they were always the setting for something more exciting than eight or more hours of minimum wage shift work.

      Christ. I can’t blame them. The Mexican language is a delightful and subtle one; quite similar to Spanish, in a lot of ways, I find. Almost… too similar.

  12. Matt says:

    Between reading your piece and Nathaniel’s today, I am really in the mood now to slink down behind the wheel of some low-riding automobile of some kind, crank the tunes, and hit the roads east.

    Truck stops are such strange places. An entire micro-culture centered around a populace that is always in transit, where you can meet a hundred memorable people with a hundred different stories and never learn any of their names.

    A tip of the hat and a roll of the dusty tumbleweed to you, amigo. Nice piece.

  13. Irene Zion says:

    It’s sort of sad that that guy started smoking again.
    Now if he wants to quit he has to start all over again.

    Really good travelogue, Simon.
    I enjoyed this.

    • And man, believe me, that’s a hard thing to do. I tried a couple of times on the road, usually for all of about an hour at a time.

      Thanks for saying so, Irene! Glad you enjoyed it.

  14. Dana says:

    Simon, I think this is my favorite piece of yours. I felt like I was sitting in the backseat.

    “‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.'”

    Ha! Poor Zara. I think I’ve gotten quite a bit better with accents over the years… probably as much from tv and movies as anything else. Not necessarily identifying where someone is from, as much as simply understanding their version of English. I do remember being really embarrassed on our first trip to Ireland. We were staying at a rustic castle (Hi Joe!) and were being shown about by a young man who was working there while the owners were doing some traveling of their own. I asked if he was Australian and he was all, “NOE!” :blush:

    “A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.” Does that happen to everyone?! I never resist that urge when I’m over-caffeinated. It’s such a cheap thrill. On the other hand, I can’t stand the smell of Red Bull, let alone the taste.

    I loved the way you explained Chester’s tics and cadence.

    Honestly Simon, this a great piece of writing.

    • Oh, cool! Thanks for saying so, Dana!

      My first weeks in San Francisco, people kept asking if I was English. Or from New Zealand.

      Damn it.

      We get a lot of travelers through Melbourne, especially from the UK, so I’ve gotten a little better at picking accents. I’ve found it’s easiest best to simply ask where people are from, because I’ve been known to get it wrong pretty badly.

      ‘Finland?’
      ‘No… China.’

      Oh, I love the caffeine tingle! I thought maybe it was just me! I also get it with really sour apples, too.

      Thanks, Dana. It’s always nice to hear that.

  15. angela says:

    Lovely piece, Simon. I love reading about your and Zara’s trip, and getting your view of a part of America that I’ve never been to.

  16. I loved reading about some of the interesting sights and people you (and Zara) encountered on your road trip. There are some colorful characters in this part of the world, and gas stations are a great place for sightings, yes?

    This was fun to read. Well done, Simon. Truly.

    • Thanks Tawn- wait! Who’s this blonde? What’s she done with Freeland??

      Thanks for saying so. It was a great trip, and I’d love to do it again some day in the not-too-distant future. More time, more towns, more people.

      Gas stations are awesome.

  17. Mary Richert says:

    I love this idea of chronicling the places you stopped for gas. In truth, stopping at gas stations really is at least half of what you do on a road trip, the other half being eating meals at dirty diners.

    Also, I noticed an odd thing, Simon. No matter where you go in your essays, I always picture you wearing a suit. Who goes on a road trip wearing a suit? Get a more appropriate wardrobe, will you?

    Seriously, though, you have such a nice rhythm that I think I could read your writing on just about any topic. I’ve never found gas stations so endearing before.

    • Oh, Mary. I’m blushing. Stop, stop. No, go on!

      I love diners also. We didn’t stop in so many of them, however. There was an Arby’s that is perhaps best left unmentioned.

      I go everywhere wearing a suit. My theory is that a man wearing a nice enough suit is never too formal; it’s just that everyone around him is under-dressed.

  18. Erika Rae says:

    This was lovely in its breadth. What a beautiful montage. Montage? Wow, that’s a crappy word. Sorry. Beautiful collection. Collage. Fuck. I’m ruining this. It rocked.

  19. Erika Rae says:

    And how.

    (commence steel brush on high hat)

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