May 30, 2008

A Hard Rain

When it happened, my left hand was lightly gripping the steering wheel. My right, rested casually on the stick shift. I drive in a noncommittal manner that imparts on my passengers a feeling of confidence and security. When you are on a three day road trip this is important. In order to safely cover the miles, everyone has to be on the same page. As it were, we were only two hours into this trip and my co-pilot was still excitedly picking songs from his Ipod. He probably hadn’t registered how my aloof manner of driving was instilling in him a growing tranquility.

This permeating calm made the ensuing minutes all the more jarring. When faced with peril on the road, my reflexes have yet to fail me, but I wasn’t driving the muted gray Volkswagen ahead of us. I had no idea whether the approaching storm was a concern for her or not. To this point, it simply slapped a few raindrops on our windshield. I casually flipped the wipers to intermittent and continued on, barely registering the line of eighteen wheelers travelling up the passing lane like a cavalcade.

Rain this early in the trip was a bad sign. We wanted to make it to Roanoke by nightfall. This meant about eight hours on the road, and since we hadn’t started until noon, we were in for a long day. Slowing down, or stopping if the weather continued to worsen, would mean too long a day for a newborn in a car seat.

On the surface, the point of splitting the 1400 mile trip into three days was to avoid late nights and extended days on the road. Underneath, we were more than a little excited about our planned stop at Graceland. That would be at the beginning of day three. In terms of travel, we were over a thousand miles and 48 hours away. The first day would be about cutting through the miles of rolling hills that are Pennsylvania and then lopping off that little tail of Maryland on our way to Virginia and the South. We were a hundred miles from home.

The first few trucks slid past in the usual manner, spraying our windshield with a consistent mist while I upped the interval on the wipers. I noticed the mud flaps on the middle one had those seductively posed naked ladies; they peered out at us with their come-hither stares and their matching black and white bosoms. Just as I was about to make a joke concerning a lonely trucker lying down beneath those flaps somewhere west of the Mississippi, I was interrupted by the familiar nasal twang of Bob Dylan.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

If I could only reach behind the seat to pull out my old book of cd’s, I could show him a thing or two about Dylan. My rummaging was blocked by a cabin full of baby gear, blankets and pillows, a computer, a Hello Kitty stool, assorted maps, and a wily, nervous looking dog. The car in front of us was free of clutter. It carried my daughter, my wife, and my sister-in-law. We continued down the highway, through the canyon of dense deciduous trees swaying in the wind. They turned up to us the white undersides of their leaves, adding to the growing paleness of the air. My right hand was still fumbling behind me as they zipped past. My protégé’s lesson would have to wait.

I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways,

To our left, the last of the column of dirt streaked trailers was moving past us and beside my wife’s gray Passat. I was about to call ahead to them when a quivering bolt of lightning innocuously attached itself to their antenna. The rear mounted, center antenna made the Passat look like the lone bumper car in a game that they never asked to participate in. From our trailing view, we watched in dumbstruck awe while the electricity penetrated the car for a second or two. It finally let them go with a shower of sparks and smoke trailing out behind them like a free falling Fourth of July rocket.

I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests,
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans,

We were still rolling when I opened the door and ran up the side of the highway. The air was charged, waiting. Their car was silent and still. I could see smoke draping around them, and as I approached, I inhaled a funny sour smell. Strangely, the last thing I remember was looking down for a moment and thinking that rumble strips were much larger than they appear at 70 miles per hour.

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


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