Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Road Home

Getting home tonight was going to be a challenge. The storms of the last three days had taken their toll. The main highway was closed in three places. High water, a rock slide, and, the latest, today’s bad news, a cracked beam in the tunnel. This morning, I’d already gone to Plan B, taking the back road because of the rock slide.

Now, it was on to Plan C. Go down the highway twenty miles, through some high water, then east, into the mountains, and down the dreaded Highway 53. On a good day, it added another thirty miles, and another hour. Tonight, all bets were off. This storm was packing a big punch.

The joke around here was that the roads to the valley, to the Big City, were glorified logging roads and the main road up the coast followed the route of the first cow to come to the county. At least, that’s how we explain to tourists why we never used the word “straight” or “modern” when we talked about travel. And, we never talk about driving time in terms of minutes or hours. Those words require too much precision and assume that driving is boring, unadventurous.

But, Highway 53 was in a category all of its own. It really couldn’t be called a logging road, more like a spur road threatening to dead-end on an abandoned log landing, or a deer trail that’s likely to just stop after you round the fortieth turn. A self respecting cow would have cut a straighter path.

Back in the day, when it was first opened, the road was part of the coast highway. It was even named the Roosevelt Highway, after Teddy. But, then, he rode with the Rough Riders, so maybe there was some sense to the name.

A new storm was moving in when I left Astoria, gale winds howling up the river and threatening to close the bridge just before I got there. I saw the highway department crew moving in to close it just as I drove through.

A few trees had crashed into my lane a few miles further down the highway, but I veered across, into the shoulder of the oncoming lane, and got limbered up for the Highway 53 experience. Gusts of wind fresh off the beach pummeled my truck, and my fingers gripped the grooves I’d worn into the steering wheel this winter.

I didn’t bother with my windshield wiper switch. It had been permanently stuck on the “heavy downpour” setting for the last two months. The wipers beat a steady tattoo as darkness moved in, and the bright lights of the oncoming log trucks blinded me, fire hosing my beater truck as they raced past, hoping to get to the mill before closing time, give or take a few sideswiped locals along the way.

Traffic thinned out and I drove the last few miles of the decent highway. My stomach knotted, my hands explored my steering wheel, getting ready for the nineteen miles of the 53. Teddy the Rough Rider, here I come.

The power was out on this stretch of highway, and I had been keeping an eye peeled for downed lines snaking across the road, or a blown over tree. Away from the beach, the wind was a bit quieter, but a sharp blast once in a while kept my lower back tight.

“Junction Ahead. Highway 53,” the sign announced. Not that I needed a sign. My gut told me we were close.

At the junction, I pulled over at the little store and gas station I needed some fuel for my belly and another fill up on my coffee. This place wasn’t known for its lattes, and the ho-jos and the hot dogs there would only be eaten by bigger men than me. Still, it was time for a pit stop and more caffeine. I saw a few kerosene lamps through the window and the jagged beam of a flashlight inside. It was early yet, and I hoped they’d still be open.

Slopping through the puddles in the parking lot, I yanked open the front door, fighting against a fresh gust of wind and sideways rain. I could smell the coffee and the stale, greasy ho-jos baking in the glass case by the register. As I walked down the dark aisles, mentally tasting the coffee up by the counter, I heard two men, their voices loud, angry, speaking in jolts and spurts of fierce syllables. It was not a language I knew. The door banged behind me, the wind whistling around the roof, shaking the windows.

Interrupted, they looked at me, wide eyed, turning their rage towards me, as if I had just broken into their house and was trying to rape their daughter.

Silence filled the store, only the wind howling and the squeak of my wet shoes on the linoleum making sense.

“Excuse me,” I said, my voice shaking more than I had wanted. “Got any coffee?”

A torrent of more anger came from one man’s lips, his language maybe Transylvanian. He stomped over to the coffee pot, snatched a Styrofoam cup off of the stack, nearly crushing it in his thick, meaty paw. He quickly poured the cup, splashing more than the cupful over the counter, and thrust the steaming cup towards me, slamming it down on the counter, splashing more coffee.

Another grunt, the same steely glare at me, as I felt the spot where his knife would be slitting my throat. I looked down, not wanting to keep meeting his glare, not wanting to see him pull the knife I knew he wanted to use. Again.

The other man stood silent, sharing the same glare. He’d probably stick his knife into my ribs, and cut out my heart for their dinner.

I yanked a couple of bucks out of my pocket, tossed them on the counter, and grabbed the cup, chuck full of the hot coffee, the liquid splashing and burning my hands, and backed up the aisle.

“Thanks,” I stammered, about as insincere as it could sound.

I nearly tripped on the potato chip display, and succeeded in scalding my leg with a healthy slop of the cup in my shaking hands.

The men followed my every move; the squeak in my shoes sometimes overridden by an occasional curse hurled my way by the first serial killer. Yes, he was speaking Transylvanian.

My imagination began to contemplate what was really in the bait refrigerator by the door. I yanked open the door, fighting the wind, nearly tripping over my feet as I splashed my way to my rig.

The engine caught on the first turn of my key, and I floored it, shifting fast up to third gear before I left the parking lot, and sped down the road, hoping to get out of sight before the bullets tore through the window.

I was halfway home before I realized my coffee had never made it out.

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