I’ve had to drive across the country a few times, and I have to tell you, in my experience, there is no more desolate place to drive than across North Dakota. Understand, that doesn’t mean it *is* the most desolate place, but it’s the most desolate I’ve experienced.
This day, we’ll call it ‘a few years ago’, I was coming back home after finishing Grad School, headed west out of Fargo. I left the Motel 6, filled up the tank, got an Egg McMuffin and a big ol’ cup of coffee, and hit the onramp to I-94. I went through first, second, third and into fourth, where I stayed for most of the next 460 miles.
After leaving Fargo, the countryside was absolutely flat, the road arrow straight, and I remembered that my dad had told me about countryside like this, where, as he said, it was so desolate that it was 100 miles between fence posts.
I was seeing it with my own eyes, and he was right.
I think, though, they might have planted a few more since he’d gone through to keep the fences up during the brutal winters up there. I didn’t have to worry about the winter, though. I was driving in the late spring, and was, for whatever reason, driving what appeared to be the only car on the road. There were spots where I literally saw no one else. Not through the windshield, not in the mirrors…
At least I had the radio to keep me company…
…until that, too, faded out.
So I’m driving along, about 70 mph, it was the speed limit, and it was a comfortable speed for the car –
(which for some reason had been ordered with Ford’s venerable 2.3 liter 4 cylinder engine AND a 4 speed manual, (normally reserved for their larger six cylinder engines). By the time you got up to speed on this thing, it hardly even thought of gasoline.)
– but the road was so straight I found myself looking for something to just lock the steering wheel to.
In fact, as I was looking around, I tried to see if there was anything to catch my eye, to see if I could have something to focus on as I was driving, but there was nothing.
No Wapiti. (oh, go look it up J)
And no, no fenceposts.
On top of that, there was nothing but static on the radio.
I had never seen so much nothing in all my life.
I did not know that nothing was manufactured in such large quantities, or how North Dakota had become the recipient of so much of it.
I figure it must have been some congressional thing or something, but after a while, I’d exhausted all the variations of geography (flat), geology (none), wildlife (none), and politics (not even going there).
I’d been driving for roughly 4 hours, and something that rarely, if ever, happens in my life happened…
I got bored.
I think it is at this time that my Guardian Angel’s pager went off.
It is astonishing the kinds of things that happen when you’re bored. I’m sure a surprising number of teenage adventures happen by default, simply because those teenagers were bored.
I wasn’t a teenager, but I was driving.
Through North Dakota.
And I was bored.
I looked around for something to do.
(Keep in mind, for some silly reason I was thinking that keeping 3,000 pounds of car and all my worldly possessions between the lines apparently wasn’t enough “to do”)
I found, after a while, I could just hold the wheel rock steady, and it would drive for close to a minute without me having to move it at all.
I found that the need to do anything (steering right or left) was preceded by either the right front tire hitting the rumble strip on the right, or left front tire smacking the reflectorized turtles between the lines.
Heh… I could drive by braille.
<One note: don’t do this at home. In fact, don’t do this in North Dakota. They might get a little miffed. What follows next is about as far from smart as I was from civilization. I don’t recommend that you do this at all, the fact that I managed to survive through this doesn’t mean everyone will, so you have permission to laugh at youthful idiocy, but not to repeat it.>
So, being bored out of my mind, I decided to do something to pass the time, and snagged a book out of the back seat. I remember it still – the book was called ‘Enola Gay’ – and was a historical book written by, if my memory serves me correctly, the pilot of the plane, Col. Paul Tibbets. At any rate, I propped the book up against the steering wheel to see if this whole thing would work, and found that I could read and see where I was going through my peripheral vision. It did work!
Understand, it was stupid, but it worked.
My Guardian Angel realized that this wasn’t a drill, and that he needed to get there in a hurry.
I drove a little slower than speed limit, and did a scan of everything, windshield, mirrors, gauges, every few seconds. I was still the only car on the road, so felt relatively safe. I drove for miles, reading chapter after chapter, holding the book onto the steering wheel with my thumbs, and flipping it down a bit when I noticed (key word there) another car passed me.
This worked beautifully.
Until at one point, being engrossed in the story, and driving below speed limit, I completely missed the big Cadillac coming up in my rear view mirror.
I would have flipped the book down, holding it so the other people couldn’t see it, but just didn’t see them in time.
I looked up just in time to see an elderly gentleman and woman in the car looking over at me with a look of utter horror and revulsion, her face telling me exactly what she felt, without her mouth ever having said a word.
Her face clearly said the one thing that had completely escaped me when I came up with the idea of reading a book while I was driving a car, that in the grand scheme of things where you have stupid on one side and genius on the other – what I’d done clearly wasn’t on the genius side.
It was only after they passed and I saw their tail lights getting smaller in the distance that it all seemed to sink in. I tossed the book in the back seat, and noticed that my Guardian Angel was giving me a look you don’t want to get from your Guardian Angel.
I think, given that a few years have passed since this happened, I understand that look of hers a lot more now than I did then. And now that I have a little bit of that gray hair, if I saw a young kid reading a book while they were driving, I’d probably be the one giving it…
…and I’ve tried a little harder to keep my Guardian Angel’s pager from going off.