Jeff slapped himself in the face again in a desperate attempt to fight off the sleep that was trying to invade his brain. He wasn’t in any particular hurry to get anywhere, so this was a problem of his own making, but it was none the less the situation that he was in. In trucking there were two ways to stay awake when your body yearned for sleep. Clean and dirty. Make no mistake about it, Jeff wasn’t above a chemically enhanced 72 hour driving binge, but the altoids box in the glove compartment of his 2010 Freightliner Cascadia was completely empty. Wasn’t it? He reached across and opened in to check, not that he expected to find anything, but out of the realization at how stupid he would feel if there was something in there and he fell asleep at the wheel.
Better to pop a pill and avoid the scene of the accident than to try to explain why it was in there to the cops and why he hadn’t taken it to the drivers that would take pleasure at his misfortune when it was retold later at countless truck stops across the country. “Had a co-driver right there in his glove box but he fell asleep and rolled her over right in the ditch on I 70. Fucking idiot.” The rumble strip jolted Jeff back to reality. He jerked the truck back into his lane and slapped himself again. No pills in the box.
All of the tricks of the “clean” trade were being employed at the moment yet he was going to have to stop soon. He grabbed his pocket truck stop directory. He had to find somewhere to park this rig before he ran it off the road, that was for sure. The radio was on full blast, and he had sung along with the songs at the top of his voice until he had gone horse. It was early November, and the weather was not cooperating. Not that he was a fan of snow, but Jeff would have taken a blizzard at the moment just to get some cold air blowing though the truck to cool him down and wake him up. His air conditioner had gone out two months ago and he had made the calculated decision to wait until next spring to get it fixed. “Won’t be needing that any time soon” he had told the mechanic at the shop.
It had been 42 degrees that day in mid September. Today the high had been 72, and the bank clock he had passed 2 hours or so ago told him that the darkness of the early morning had only cooled the local air to 68 degrees. He focused back on the directory. The sound of the rumble strip told him he had drifted again, but he allowed the truck to cruise on top of the rough pavement to keep his line. The next truck stop was a little mom and pop 15 miles away. There would be nowhere to park there for sure. Another 13 miles down was a larger chain truck stop. Could he make it a half hour? He was going to have to.
He eased up off of the rumble strip and back into the lane of travel, tucking the directory back into the netted compartment above his head. “Roll On” by Alabama came blasting through the speakers. It was one of his favorite trucking songs, and he sang along desperately trying to fight off sleep. He was so focused on staying awake that he almost missed the sign that said… wait a second, did that say “Rest Area 1 Mile?” He was pretty sure it had, but he didn’t know of any rest area on this stretch of the highway. He kept his eyes peeled ahead. Sure enough, about a half mile down, he spotted the exit ramp for the facility. “Probably won’t be anywhere to park” Jeff muttered to himself, turning down the music. He switched on his blinker and eased on the the ramp. When in doubt, check it out. Even if there were no spots, he might be able to pull out of the way enough to at least get out and stretch. Maybe even run into the bathroom and splash some cold water on his face.
“Apparently I’m not the only trucker that didn’t know this son of a bitch was here” he said to himself as he rounded the driveway at the back of the rest area to a wide open truck parking lot. Not a damn soul was there other than Jeff. He pulled into a spot about halfway down the lot and laughed at his fortune. “Did they just build this damn thing?” he asked even though there was nobody to answer him? He set the brakes and climbed down out of the cab, looking at the lines on the ground. Sure enough, they were freshly painted. He headed inside to check out the facilities.
Jeff was by no stretch of the imagination a fan of some of the new Rest Areas that States had been building along the highways. In this economy, there was no excuse for building some of the elaborate edifices he was seeing pop up all over the place. A rest area was good for one thing, and one thing only. A pit stop. All you really needed was a bathroom, some vending machines, and a place to park and take a nap. There was absolutely no need for a museum for wind energy, a tourism center, or an expansive jungle gym for the couch monkeys to climb on. Yet that seemed to be the wave of the future when it came to roadside stops. Gone were the days of the simple but efficient rest stop. But as he entered this building, he couldn’t help but notice that this one didn’t seem to fall into the new norm. Perhaps he had been wrong about this being a new one. Maybe they had just repaved the parking lot or something.
First off, there was no automatic door. No button on the wall to push. You ether pulled on the handle, or you stood outside. He opened the door and walked in. There was no lobby with statues of State heroes, or paintings of local celebrities. Just a simple hallway that led either to the left or to the right with a large wooden sign on the wall that had been stenciled and painted in red by a less than skilled craftsman.
<—– Men Women —–>
Underneath the sign hung a large framed map of the State of Indiana, with Interstate Highway 70 highlighted in red and a large star on the map with the words “You are here” written in the same red marker that had been used to chart the highways progress across the state. A white border around the map had the words “Welcome to Indiana” written across the top and “Thank you for visiting us.” across the bottom. Again, the same red marker. Underneath the map was a simple porcelain drinking fountain. That was all. He admired the simplicity of the place as he turned to the left and headed down the short hallway to the Mens room.
The designer of this particular facility must have liked the color red. The mens room was guarded by a large, heavy metal door with a solid brass folding arm fixture at the top to pull the door shut after someone had walked through it. The door was painted red. The stalls in the bathroom were red as well, as was every other tile on the checkered floor. The smell of freshly sawed wood and paint lingered in the bathroom, despite a small window above the sinks that had been propped open to air the place out. His initial observations had been correct. This was an entirely new facility. What surprised him about the place was how it looked so old and so new at the same time.
The stalls in the bathroom were made of plywood. The builder had elected to make them himself as opposed to using pre-fab stalls like most of the newer bathrooms had. He had also clearly been on a tight budget, as the doors only came low enough to hide one’s knees and didn’t rise high enough to conceal the head and shoulders of even a modestly tall occupant who stood inside. Once in a stall, he could literally look over the top of the wall and down to the toilet in the stall beside him. He was suddenly glad to be alone in this place. Privacy was not the aim of the designer.
Having finished his business, Jeff headed over to the sinks. His initial joy at seeing that the sinks were not the new automated kind was replaced by disbelief at the old style of the faucets, with each sink having a separate spigot for hot and cold water. Did they even make those things anymore? He washed his hands, and turned to the wall. No hand dryer. Not in this place. A metal box hung on the wall with a large blue towel protruding from the bottom. Unbelievable. He hadn’t seen one of these cloth towel contraptions even in the most run down truck stops in at least ten years. He found himself almost longing for one of the modern rest areas he had been loathing just minutes before. “Fucking Indiana,” he muttered to himself as he headed out the door and down the hallway. At this point he didn’t care anymore. He just wanted to get out to his truck and succumb to the sleep that he had been fighting for hours. He opened the door to head out to his truck and a gust of cold air hit him. He shivered against it. “Where were you when I needed you a couple of hours ago?” he asked the wind. He got no response except his own shiver as he headed around to the back of the building where his truck was parked.
The cold wind was hitting him hard now as he rounded the corner of the building and lost what little protection the structure had offered. He began to regret leaving his jacket in the truck, but that notion seemed silly as it had been so warm when he stopped. How cold was it now? It felt like it was around 30 degrees, but it couldn’t be that cold. It had been in the high sixties not more than 15 minutes ago when he had stopped. He was now on the back side of the building and the wind was hitting him full force. It wasn’t a strong wind, just a cold one, and he lowered his head and shivered harder, putting his hands in his pockets and pulling his arms in to try to retain his body heat. His steps quickened as he neared the truck, he pulled his keys out of his pocket, and looked up to find the key hole in the door of the truck. It was the wrong truck. Someone must have pulled into the lot while he was inside. He looked up at the drivers window to see if he had been observed. There was nobody visible inside. He laughed to himself as he rounded the truck, but his laughter was cut short. There was no truck on the other side. He whipped around looking back the other way down the single row of parking spaces. No trucks except the one he had mistaken for his. His rig had been stolen.
Not wanting to believe his eyes, Jeff retreated towards the building. It was impossible. He had locked the truck, he was sure of it, and in his hand was the only key. For a moment he forgot about the cold. He ran around to the front of the building and went inside rushing into the mens room. He opened the door and yelled “Hello!” There was no response other than his voice echoing back to him. Had it been a woman driving the other semi? He rushed to the ladies room, banging on the door and yelling “Anyone in here?” No answer. He opened the door. “Hello?” Just his voice echoing back. It too was vacant. He left the building and went around the other side. The lights above the vending machines illuminated the area well, but nobody was there. The other driver must be back in the truck.
Jeff couldn’t ignore the cold any longer. His body shivered hard as he jogged back out to the parking lot, his haste half an effort to catch the other driver before they took off and half a failed effort to stay warm. As he reached the lot he was relieved to see he had succeeded on one account. The truck was still there. He tried his best to gain his composure as he approached. He knocked on the door, but nobody answered. He moved back beside the sleeper and knocked harder. Nothing. “Sorry to bother you,” he yelled as he knocked, “but my rig was stolen from the lot while I was in the bathroom and I need some help.” Still no answer. He gave up, and headed back towards the building. He cursed himself for leaving his cell phone in the truck. “Phone! That’s it.” He yelled out and laughed. There had to be a pay phone by the vending machines. He changed course for the far side of the building and was relieved to see it right there between the coke and the snack machines. He ran over and picked up the receiver to dial 911. Nothing. Not a dial tone nor a beep like the phone had been off the hook too long. Silence. He looked behind the phone at the wires that were capped off on the back side. It hadn’t even been connected yet. Jeff retreated to the building to try to warm up.
He stood by the door at first, cupping his hands and blowing into them. He looked around for a heat duct but saw none. He remembered the open window in the bathroom, so he went in to try to close it. The window was too high. He couldn’t reach it. He went back to the hallway to wait for someone to pull in, but he couldn’t even see any headlights of cars passing by on the highway. Where was everyone? And what in the hell was going on here?
Jeff had been fighting sleep for what he guessed to be about an hour as he sat huddled inside the building, his arms pulled inside of his t shirt trying to get warm. It didn’t do much good, as the wind had found a nice tunnel to blow through between the drafty front door and the open windows in both of the bathrooms. He had been trying to keep his eyes open for traffic going by on the highway or anyone pulling into the rest area but he had seen nothing. Unwilling to surrender to a night of sleeping on this cold, hard floor and aware that his truck and trailer loaded with televisions and dvd players was getting further away by the minute, he decided to go try to wake up the driver parked out back again.
As he approached the truck he paid closer attention this time, and realized that it was an old truck. “Who in the heck is putting the time and effort into keeping this old beast on the road” he thought to himself as he knocked on the door of what appeared to be an early 70’s model W900 Kenworth. There was still no answer. He tried knocking on the sleeper again, but to no avail. He checked the door, but it was locked. He walked around the truck and took a measure of his situation. Behind the rest area was a field that had been green with corn just a few short months ago, but now it had all been plowed under for the winter. Off in the distance he could see some lights shining on the other side of the field. Was it a farm house? It had to be. They would have a phone there. He could call the police and start the search for his truck. Maybe even call his dispatcher and get him to set him up with a motel room for the night until all of this was resolved. It was his best, and most likely, his only shot at getting out of this mess tonight so he fought the cold and started walking through the field.
As he walked the snow began to fall. Flurries at first, but picking up to a thin dust visible between himself and the farmhouse a few acres away. The cold was ripping through him by now, but he tried not to pay it much attention. Those lights were all he needed to focus on. As he got closer, he could see a big white barn behind the lights. On the other side of that barn would be a house. Inside that house would be a family that would sympathize with his plight. They would invite him in to use the phone, and perhaps even fetch him a blanket and a cup of coffee to help him warm up. The thought gave him energy and he walked faster. He could throw a stone and hit the barn now. The snow began to fall harder and his shivering returned, wracking his body. He half walked, half jogged towards the lights and the barn, around the other side to where… “Son of a bitch!” An old semi trailer that had been converted to a portable storage building and another plowed under field. No house. No phone. No coffee and blanket. He looked back towards the rest area. He couldn’t see the lights through the snow. He looked out across the field. No lights. Just snow.
Panic began to set in as he jogged down the gravel driveway. He didn’t know where he was going. He wanted to stop and sleep. His dry throat burned with each heavy breath of cold air. The snow stung as it hit his face, and then it went numb, as on he jogged. The driveway ended at a narrow paved road. Were those lights in the distance? He squinted through the falling snow. It was something. He turned right and jogged down the road. Up ahead was a single street light illuminating a haphazard assortment of buildings. A gas station and garage, a store with a sign that said only “Milk and Meat,” and a building that appeared to have once housed a diner but had long been abandoned. Jeff knocked on doors, not expecting an answer but still disappointed when each knock turned up nothing. He tried each knob, but every building was locked. No payphones. No houses. No people. No hope. He didn’t know where he was or where to go. The snow was falling harder. There was a bench in front of the gas station. He brushed the snow off of it and sat down, head in hands. He waited for a car to drive by, the energy slipping from his body. It wouldn’t hurt to lay down, just for a minute. Who was he kidding? He was giving up. What happened to the world he knew? Where was the traffic? It had to be 3 am by now, but still, how did these roads become so deserted? He shivered against the cold as he drifted off to sleep, completely spent.
Dreams raced through Jeff’s exhausted mind. In the first one he was locked inside a refrigerated trailer. He woke up in a panic but unable to move. The cold had frozen his muscles. An inch or two of snow was covering him where he lay. He was dying and he knew it, but he didn’t care. He went back to sleep.
The next dream was more pleasant. He was somewhere on a busy sidewalk watching the people walk buy. A child with a shopping bag walked by and pointed at him. “Look, mom. A bum.” The mother grabbed the child’s hand and hurried him away, lecturing him about manners and casting a glance at Jeff that showed signs of sympathy or contempt, he wasn’t sure which. He blinked his eyes, then sat up with a start. Was he awake? He pinched himself. “Ouch!” His mind raced through the events of the night before. He looked behind him at the large Wal Mart Super Center. He looked ahead of him at the busy street. He vaguely took note of the fact that he was no longer cold. Where was he?
He got up and began to walk, trying to retrace his steps from the night before. The two lane road was now a wide four lane with a sidewalk. He crossed the street and headed back the way he had remembered coming from. Up ahead he could see a building about where the barn should have been, but this was a large metal building. Some type of a warehouse or a factory. He walked down the driveway towards the building. The field he had crossed the night before was now a parking lot. He walked across it towards the strip of grass that separated the property from the rest area.
He had to climb a fence, but in ten or fifteen minutes he had retraced his steps and he was in the parking lot of the now busy facility. He looked around confused. What in the world was going on here? He cut across the lot towards the building, then stopped to look back at the row of trucks lined up in the parking spaces between the faded yellow lines and there, right smack dab in the middle, was his truck. That was his truck, right? He walked over and tried the key. The door opened. He climbed in and there was his phone, his cb radio, his coffee cup, his belongings.
Jeff had no idea what had happened to him the night before. Years later, he would recount the events of the evening to marginally interested truckers who feigned belief at his wild tale, but he knew better than to think they gave it any weight. After all, it had happened to him and he couldn’t quite take it’s measure. Why had the temperature dropped so quickly? Where had his truck gone? Why was the highway so deserted that night, and why was there no snow on the ground when he awoke? How did all of those buildings sprout up where a farm and a couple of small family businesses had been just the night before? Had Jeff driven into some type of a time warp? Was he so tired that he had imagined the whole thing? Or had he simply pulled off into the first Rest Area in The Trucking Zone?