Thursday, June 6, 2019

Route 20 to Calamus


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I was driving west on Iowa State Route 18 for no particular reason other than a figment of a memory from a story I read once. It was out of my way for my planned camping trip, but the fragment of inspiration was enough incentive to drive me several hours out of my way.

It was occasional light rolling hills and otherwise long, flat, wide open spaces tamed to serve as farmland as far as the eye could see, rolling past the miles in a meditative state just conscious enough to keep the car on the road. I was a few miles out of Ventura where I'd stopped to stretch my legs when I saw him.

I'm not usually one for hitchhikers, and if you've ever seen my car, you'd understand why. I'm not sure why I stopped.

He was whiplash thin and dark from the sun, with a small pack slung about his shoulders and a heavy water bottle bearing down his pants, belt cinched tight around his hips. When I pulled next to him, I saw he was clean-shaven and shorter than I expected, a few inches over five, but his eyes were unmistakably aged. He'd seen some things.

He glanced suspiciously at me through the empty pane of my rolled-down windows.

"Need a lift?"

"That depends who's asking."

"Come on mate, you know this is no getaway car. How often do you see one of these out here?"

"Fair enough. Where you headed?"

"Moab."

"So what are you doing on 18? Are you lost?"

"Only intentionally. Looking for a little freedom."

"You know it's not real."

"I know. Doesn't mean it's not worth looking for."

"Amen to that. Sure, I could rest my legs."

He unclipped the water bottle and swung his bag around between his legs as he folded himself into my car. He smelled of sweat and eucalyptus and witch hazel, and I pulled off the shoulder as he mopped his brow.

We sat in near silence, just the wind buffering my car, the sixty and change miles to Emmetsburg, which seemed like a relief to him, though I surreptitiously made sure one of my backup knives was still in my door pocket, just in case.

I stopped for lunch in Emmetsburg, and he was right. Freedom wasn't there, but I could see in the roads and buildings, in the way people walked it once was. Lunch was a bottle of water and a scoop of brown powder, shaken, not stirred, and a practiced effort to not breathe too much while I downed it.

"That looks disgusting."

I tilted the bottle away from my face. "It is, but it keeps me going. Want a sip?"

He coughed into his hand. "No. Thanks."

I shrugged. When it was gone, I pulled out my map, paper, for there was too much space and not enough signal for my phone to be much use. "Six hours and a bit to Calamus." I sat back in the car after rinsing out the bottle; it got more disgusting the longer it sat, so I only mixed up as much as I was going to drink in a sitting. I looked at him.

He stretched his legs one last time and climbed back into the car. "Six hours to Calamus."

Leaving Sioux City wasn't a relief, it was foreboding. The plains of Nebraska were about as dull as the landscape got, even worse than western Iowa. I shuddered as we passed out of the city limits and into the blankest slate.

"What's wrong?"

"I hate Nebraska."

"Then why Calamus?"

"Cheaper to camp than to get a room, and Nebraska is pretty inevitable."

"South Dakota is worse."

"My lunch was worse. Doesn't mean I have much of a choice."

He was silent for a few miles. "Talk to me, help the time pass faster. Where are you from?"

"Behind me."

He chuckled. "Okay, fair enough. I know a line when I see one. Here's a better question, then, one you don't have to expose too much of yourself to your hitch. Why did you stop?"

I shrugged. "Curiosity."

"No, curiosity is why you slowed down."

"You reminded me of someone."

"Of yourself, you mean."

"Yeah. If I'd taken a different road."

He laid back his head and smiled, closing his eyes. "I like this car. The first time I saw one it was when it was featured in Wired mag in the early naughties. I never wanted to own one, but I thought it looked..."

"Like freedom?"

"Just like that. Take my love, take my land..."

"Take me where I cannot stand."

He opened his left eye enough to peek at me, and settled his left arm on mine, his fingers drawing swirls on the back of my right hand. "Yeah, I can see that. Different roads. I like you. What's at Calamus?"

"State Rec Area and campgrounds."

"How open are the campsites?"

"I have no idea. Never been there before. From the satellite imagery, I think it's pretty open. Not a lot of privacy if that's what you're asking about. Also depends on how many people are there."

"Hmm." He closed his eyes again.

I turned my hand over and let his fingers fall between mine. "Four hours to Calamus."

He held my hand, squeezing it and smiling. "Four hours to Calamus."

I don't know if he fell asleep then, but I focused on the road and the feeling of his hand in mine.

He squeezed my hand as the car slowed, and then let go suddenly, as I pulled up to the office, tires crunching on gravel. I was in and out in five minutes; we had the place to ourselves. I set my hand on his leg experimentally, and drove around to a distant site in the dimming light, recommended by the proprietor. It had three trees on the lot, the only plot with as many.

I pulled up next to the picnic table and turned off the car. Taking my hand back, I rubbed my eyes, suddenly tired.

"Are you okay?"

"I hate Nebraska."

"What can I do?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you have a tent?"

"No, no tent."

"Are you going to sleep in the car?"

I sighed. "Just give me a moment."

"Don't take too long. It's getting dark." He climbed out of the car.

When I followed a few minutes later, I couldn't help but laugh aloud.

He sat up in his hammock sharply, looking concerned. "What?"

"Different roads, man." I opened the trunk and pulled out my own. "Take me out, to the black..."

We finished the rest of the song together while I set up my hammock. I had a little more shelter than he did, and he clambered down to help me set up my rainfly over the bug net. When it was centered and hung, he leaned underneath it and stroked my face. I leaned closer and kissed him experimentally.

He kissed back for a moment, before pulling away. "Get some sleep. It's been a long day. Eight hours to Frisco."

"Eight hours to Frisco," I whispered back, and I fell asleep before I realized he had said it first.

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