By Caleb Wexler
The American South-West: a land defined as much by empty space as by beige mountains and withering scrub brush. You can drive for hours between towns without seeing anything other than the occasional river, bringing life to the otherwise empty landscape.
The driving fades to a monotonous haze, and you don’t know how long you’ve been on the road, your head resting against your seat, the cruise control on, your bare feet against the door of the cab, your only companions the passenger seat (empty but for a discarded potato chip bag, your shoes, and a worn out paperback novel) an overplayed folk CD, an underplayed rock CD, a hand full of country CDs (your sister’s) which you can’t stand to play at all, and your rusty, faded-red 1974 Chevy pickup truck.
The only breaks from the endless beige of the landscape are small convenience stores, buildings that look like factories but you don’t know what they make, oil pumps, abandoned mines and, there ahead, a sign for a superfund site, completely desolate from the radioactive waste left there in the ’60s. Every now and again you see a small town that looks like something out of history, old wooden buildings, boarded up windows… you’re jarred from your reverie by the semi-truck coming up on your right.
You turn the steering wheel and guide your vehicle past the steel behemoth and you notice you’re low on gas. You drift onto the exit ramp and pull into the castaway town, divorced from the march of time. You don’t know why but you feel that you don’t belong. You feel it in the back of your neck. You feel it in the eyes that you’re sure are watching you through the cobwebbed windows. You don’t belong here. The town wants you out and you’re anxious to oblige.
You pull into the gas station, yours the only tire tracks in the inch of dust. You take a moment to stretch your legs. Next door is a brick building, and on the stone steps is a basket with plastic wrapped loaves of bread, and a tin can for money. It feels wrong somehow. You could take a loaf if you wanted, and it would be good. In fact it would be excellent, the best bread you’ve had in awhile. You know what your father would do. He would walk, smiling, up to the can, drop in a few bills, and walk away with fresh bread for the road. You don’t do this. You’re afraid that when you put your money in the can, whatever is here will decide it wasn’t enough, and God help you then.
The rusty, cobwebbed gas pump looks like it should have stopped working twenty years ago, but you jam your card into the machine and pump out a few gallons of acrid smelling gasoline. You’re looking over your shoulder the whole time. You don’t know what you’re looking for, but you’re terrified you might see it. From the center of town a hotel, every window in its six stories boarded up, leers at you. The whole place smells like mildew and formaldehyde, and you feel that it should have disappeared eons ago. If there was a God, surely he would have erased this whole town like Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead it lingers here, crouching on the side of the highway. Waiting.
You remember reading, once, about places in the old world, like stone circles in the middle of ancient Irish forests. Places older than man where no-one goes. Places where ancient things gather. These are places that no human should ever wander into, and if they do stumble across one while they’re wandering in the forest, they turn tail and leave if they have any sense at all, and they make sure to never, ever be there after dark. You never believed in these stories, but you begin to suspect that this town might be one of those places, and you’re grateful you didn’t take your chance with the bread.
All of a sudden you realize why it’s so unsettling. There’s no one here. The gas station windows are too dirty for you to see if there’s anyone at the counter, and no one walking on the streets. No one is walking their dog, despite the nice weather. There are no cars on the roads. The whole town is silent, as though it fell asleep sometime in the ’40s, and you’re afraid to wake it up. And what rough beast waits dreaming, beneath the dust and decay, biding its time in infinite patience? You pull the nozzle from your gas tank. You’ll finish filling up somewhere else.
You speed out of the town in a shameless, terrified retreat. For once, you’re relieved to return to the quiet monotony of black tarmac, bleak landscape, and convenience stores. Sometimes it’s better not to have anything interesting around. You drive away from the town, but you keep with you the fact that it is there, waiting. In a year or two, you will stop in a perfectly nice, perfectly normal, small town with your family. The sun will be bright in the sky and they will smile at the quaint shops, but you won’t smile. You won’t know why this town, and the people in it, put your nerves on edge, but then you’ll leave the town and you’ll realize that it reminded you of another town you’d stopped in once, one you thought you’d forgotten. In the back of your mind you’ll always know that it’s out there, somewhere, and you’ll never sleep quite so well again.
You can drive these roads at any hour and you’ll still find cars and semi-trucks, these bustling arteries of commerce entwining the nation, but you still feel alone, whether you’re passing, being passed by, or driving alongside for hours, these black beetle-shell carapaces. There’s no companionship for you in them. And so you continue to drift. For hours on end.
As the sun drifts gently lower, the sky comes to life with more shades and hues of red and orange than you knew existed. The fear of earlier today begins to dissipate in the cooling air. Cacti cast their long likeness along the ground, alpenglow makes a desert tower burst into flame, and you discover a new beauty in the shadow of this red rock. For this moment, the space doesn’t seem so intimidating, and for this one moment you feel at peace, even at home here.
The sun finally sets and you think about pulling over to rest your eyes, but instead you stop for coffee and try to keep driving for a few more hours. It’s dark and the road feels more empty even though there are as many cars as there were a few hours ago. Maybe it’s because you can’t see more than a foot past the road on either side, and the emptiness presses in on you.
You pass a small Honda on your right. Cruise control is set at firm 80. A large semi-truck up ahead on your right. And one more after that. And one more. Taking a break from your worn-out CDs you try the local radio stations. Country. Country. NPR.
Country. Static. Something you can’t quite make out, and then a station comes into focus just as a song is beginning. An ancient piano croons out a few dulcet high notes, like something out of your grandfather’s gramophone. Then, a woman’s voice soft, slow, mournful, and beautiful floats at you from across the decades.
Whe e e e ere do you come from? And whe e ere do you go o o o ? “Wait,” you think to yourself. “This can’t possibly be…” Whe e e e e e e r e do you come fro o o o om, my y y Cotton Eye e d Joe e e e e . “Jesus H. Christ it is.” It’s unrecognizable from the song you line danced to at your cousin’s wedding. Hearing it like this is like seeing an old friend after years of lost contact. You look for the person you knew in the person sitting across from you, but you can’t find her.
God, you wish there was someone else in the car to confirm that you’re actually hearing this. You can’t accept it, and you want to turn it off, but you listen to it all the way through. You’ve never had a song make you question the veracity of your existence, but there’s a first time for everything. The song ends and it’s back to being just another country station. You switch back to NPR because there’s not much else between the static and the country.
The next morning, barely awake, you pull out of a roadside motel and back onto the highway, back into the tableau of plateaus and mesas and foothills and the occasional mountain, the lighting not dark but not bright either. You wonder how there could be so much space on a planet getting so full of people, and at the same time you ask yourself how anything could exist here at all, where the only life comes from steel pipes snaking hundreds of miles to the Colorado River.
If your life is a story, then surely this is that liminal space which only exists in the width of a page between chapters. Taking up neither time nor volume, but existing nonetheless. You try not to think about how far you are from anything real, the town you left from so far behind you, your destination so far ahead, no one familiar for more than a hundred miles in any direction, but the more you try not to think about it, the more aware of it you become and the more alone you feel, and soon all you can think about is all the terrible things that happen to people on the highway; car crashes, abductions, and worst of all, all those people who leave somewhere and arrive nowhere, simply vanish, lost in the emptiness of the road, and the chill going down your arm isn’t from your AC, working hard against the stagnant ninety-four-degree air.
You pass by a small town where the only construction that’s happened since the 60’s is the McDonald’s they put up last year. You try and wrap your head around the fact that people live here, that they die here. It’s almost impossible to believe. This isn’t anywhere. It’s just someplace people pass through on their way to somewhere else, somewhere real. This is a land of passing through, of acceleration lanes and cruise control. You pull into towns and they exist for as long as it takes you to buy a bag of chips and a red bull. Then you leave and it stops existing. People don’t live their lives there, are born, grow up, fall in love, have kids, grow old, and pass on, all alongside the steady backdrop of people passing through.
You pass by a train, stopped on the tracks, with cars full of coal from a nearby mine. No car has gone without the gentle care of young graffiti artists, or the rust of ages. It’s still but you assume it must be going somewhere, but it looks like it’s been here for a long, long…FUCK did they really just do that? The car ahead of you, in the other lane, behind the semi-truck full of mattresses (who’s ever seen a semi-truck with a flatbed full of mattresses?) just cut you off, forcing you to slam on the breaks, and shaking you from your quiet reverie. What an asshole. Not even a turn signal. You accelerate back to eighty and put your cruise control back on.
You try and remember what you were thinking about. That’s right, the train. But you’ve already forgotten about the train. Instead, you think about the space, the space between you and those mountains on the horizon, and you keep driving, alongside the river which runs parallel to the highway on this stretch, driving calmly, without incident, just driving, off into that space.
I am an emerging writer from Colorado. I am currently writing and studying at CU Boulder. This piece was inspired by time I spent driving through the desert as well as memories of drives with my family. I wrote it over several months this year, frequently revisiting, revising, and rewriting it.