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Friday, April 5, 2013

Midnight, on the Schweitzer Road

I travel for a living. In elephants, to trade my dreams for their gold. Fortunately, there seems to be a never ending supply of both, but I’ll never tell that to them.
This month I’m in Idaho, in a tiny lake town trying hard to make itself into a closet for rich peoples’ money. It’s nice, and there’s a restaurant named Trinity where they know me, with the pleasant result than I never have to even see okra. I’ve been here for a few months, and I’ll be here for a few more.
Usually I keep a tiny apartment in towns like this, but it’s on the lake, and there’s a music festival, and there isn’t any place to stay in town. My borrowed secretary has managed to find me lodgings in a nice hotel, twelve miles from town, at the ski resort. It’s named Schweitzer and is nearly empty this summer, after a dry winter.
To get here there’s a narrow, winding road that’s paved in theory, but barely in practice. Nine miles long and a half mile climb from bottom to top, the Schweitzer road takes an hour from every day. Half a dozen switchbacks and if you crack 40mph on any straightaway you’re an idiot.
Until two days ago, it was just commuting, when during my evening commute home I was stopped by a flagman standing behind a dozen cars parked on a steep curve. He comes up to say,
“There’s a accident up ahead. Guy turned over his dump truck. It’s gonna be a while. Like a hour. You could turn around.”
No, thanks, I think. I have a book, and the new CD of Stephen Foster songs, and my phone is in range, if barely. I open the doors and turn up the stereo loud enough to hear but soft enough to listen to the wind. It’s an hour ‘til sundown, the light dies in peace as I read quietly, until I hear the growl of a big semi drifting down from the switchbacks above. A tractor rig with a big flatbed trailer is hauling something around the near bend, something about 8 feet tall, as wide, and maybe 25 feet long.
It takes a moment recognize what I’m looking at. It’s a dump truck, or rather, the main mass of what might once have been one. No wheels. No cab to speak of, and the engine looks as though it got dropped into a blender. There are no police cars, or ambulances. The stalled line of cars comes to life and strings out as we all head towards the ski basin. Around the fourth bend I see the real horror.
On one side of the road lie half the dump truck’s wheels, with the other peeking up from the downhill slope. A pile of metal that might have been a cab has been carefully stacked into a neat pile. The volunteer fireman are hosing diesel off the road, and in a tight knot behind a silent and darkened ambulance stand the paramedics and police. He didn’t tip over his truck, the driver rolled it over the side of the road and straight down a switchback. Stephen Foster’s cheerful minstrelsy isn’t right, and I turn off the music as I finish the drive home.
In the morning the stink of diesel is all over the accident, and then the same in the evening as I returned. This morning the stain is diminished but that just lets me see the hundred foot long skid marks that lead off into nowhere. And it still stinks.
Tonight I stayed in town to do some laundry at a friend’s house. He’s playing poker-Monopoly with his boys, a game apparently of their own invention. The TV does TV things while I sit crammed into a big couch near the window, writing a love letter to someone I’ve never met, an apology to someone I have, and an explanation to yet another person I’ve managed to misunderstand on a regular basis.
It takes a while, the laundry, and it’s 11:30 pm when I leave. The moon is off playing somewhere and it’s dark. I throw everything into the cab and head for home. There’s no one on the road tonight, except me and Stephen Foster’s ghosts. I can’t get the wreck out of my head, and with the windows open I’m going to have to smell it as well.
The switchbacks seem steeper in the dark, and tiny mice run out to dance with the truck, requiring me to dance on the pedals. None of them die, but it’s a close thing. Finally it’s high enough and cold enough that there are no mice, and I speed up so I can get off the damned road. The lullaby Slumber my darling starts, softly,
Slumber, my darling, the birds are at rest,
The wandering dews by the flowers are caressed;
Slumber, my darling, I'll wrap thee up warm,
And pray that the angels will shield thee from harm.
I don’t hear voices. I’ve never heard voices, but as that final line plays, I shift into neutral and slow down, stepping on the brakes hard for some reason, and around the next corner a doe and a fawn stand motionless in the road, now safe from me, thanks to Stephen. We all owe him one. They drift slowly off the road, peering into the headlights and through me.
The final steep curve lies just beyond, and I need to stop to and let the adrenaline go away. I’m at the highest overlook and as I drift to a stop with the motor and lights off I can see the tiny lake towns dotting the shore. I look up as I close the door and in the perfectly clear cold night air I see the Milky Way, stretching from to horizon to horizon, so perfect and full of light that I can’t make out any familiar constellations. My breath catches, and as the noise of the slamming door echoes to silence I look out over the lake and in that split second flashes a falling star so bright that it leaves a white streak punctuated by a final brilliant detonation, etched on my vision. Slowly, the Milky Way returns as the darkness resumes.
There is no sound but the wind and no one there but me, but I am not alone. It’s midnight, on the Schweitzer Road.
For M, and D, and H. Thank you all.