Maps and Detours

by Diane Payne

Soon it will be dark, and I stand here on this deserted road wondering why that generous couple, who insisted on bringing me along to their ghost town picnic, left me stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Before they picked me up, I was heading west to Washington. I can still hear the driver asking if I had visited the ghost town, while he pointed upwards towards another Idaho range I knew nothing about. When I admitted I hadn't made it to those mountains, he said, "Then you ain't heading west quite yet." Still pointing, Jim added, "That's the reason mountains are called purple mountains majesty. Climb in the back of the truck and make yourself comfortable. We have plenty of food. You're going to see a ghost town like no other. And you've got the best guides in Idaho. That's Jane, and I'm Jim."

After putting on an extra shirt, I opened their cooler, passed a couple of beers up front, and drank mine while taking in the majesty of purple mountains.

Jim and Jane turned out to be worth the detour. They were just the diversion I needed. We yukked it up, imagining how it would have been had we lived in this mining town during its heyday. Everything we said seemed hilarious, yet believable. We felt more like old friends than strangers. Or maybe it just felt like that to me because I was feeling so damn lonely.

What they probably found most hilarious was that I believed them that someone would offer me a ride on this deserted road. I can just hear them laughing now, driving off down the road, eager to get home so they can tell their friends about the hitch-hiker who drank all their beer and ate all their food, babbling on for hours pretending she lived in that ghost town, the crazy hippie-chick they ended up leaving on this dusty road miles from nowhere.

Just as I'm off the road relieving myself for the umpteenth time this evening, I hear my first car. I yank up my shorts, cursing all those afternoon beers, and run to the road. The car doesn't even slow down, though I'm sure that family sees me waving at them in their rearview mirror. I keep thinking Jane and Jim will return, saying this was just a little more of that good humor we were spreading around this afternoon. But they don't come back for me, nor does anyone else, not even this family who is going out of their way to make sure they don't turn around for a quick look.

I'm down to my last few drops of water and think about setting up camp. Might as well make do with a lousy situation. But the situation improves. I hear a car in dire need of a muffler, and I hope they'll recognize that I'm in dire need of a ride. I wave frantically. The beat-up car passes me. I keep waving. It looks like someone in the front seat is flipping me off. I'm beginning to feel rather vulnerable out here.

The car backs up. The woman in the middle of the two men leans over the passenger and tells me to get on in.

I'm not sure this is the right thing to do, but I'm not sure I want to be standing along this road another hour. I can't imagine a more motley crew driving a more ruined car, but I also know this ride may be as good as it gets.

"George was just funning with you, weren't you, George?" she asks. I figure George must be the person with the long middle finger.

"Not really," he says. "You want a beer?"

I take one and ask where they're heading.

"West," Mikey, the driver says, laughing. "How 'bout you?"

"West," I say, relieved to be sitting in a car, even if it's this one.

"Then you're in the right car," he laughs. This gets them all laughing, so I try to laugh, but it comes off sounding just like that -- a forced laugh -- which makes everyone quiet. All three of them turn around and look at me, obviously disappointed that I'm not laughing as freely as they are. They don't know how much I laughed this afternoon, and look where all that laughter got me. It landed me in this filthy car with the ripped-up back seat, and three nasty people giving me a look that would frighten a guard dog.

"You don't like my car?" Mikey asks.

"I like your car just fine," I fib.

"Bet you ain't never been in a five dollar car before, have you?" Mikey laughs.

I remember our thirty dollar family car, the '62 Buick, but don't tell him about it "Nope, can't say I have."

"Well, you are now. This is something you'll have to tell your friends about. This is a five dollar car," he says, tossing his empty beer can out the window.

"This is definitely something to write home about," I agree.

We drive down the road in an uncomfortable silence, until Corina starts crying. I overhear parts of their conversation, and don't like what I hear. It sounds like they killed an ex-boyfriend of Corina's, but she's screaming so much, I'm not exactly sure what they're saying. I'm ready to offer them my last forty-two dollars to buy the car and be off on my own.

"Shut up, Corina!" George yells. He's had it with her wailing, which is probably the only thing George and I have in common.

Once again we drive in silence and I pretend to sleep. It's late, and I'm not even sure we're heading west. "You said you were just going to get my shit and leave. Not kill him!" Corina yells, breaking the silence again.

"It was an accident. That fucker had a gun. He would've blown your fuckin' brains out if we left you there. You know that," George argues. "Anyhow, we don't know he's dead."

"Honey, I'm sorry it happened that way. Wait till you see my cabin," Mikey explains. He seems to be Corina's boyfriend, but I can't figure out how George fits in with these people. He could be Corina's brother. He could be another hitchhiker like myself, simply heading west at the wrong time. "You all right back there?" Mikey asks.

"Oh yeah, just fine," I lie, wondering when we'll come to a town.

No one says anything for a long time. Then I hear them celebrating that we've crossed into Washington. If I was a fugitive crossing a state line, I'd probably be whooping it up too, but all I'm trying to do is get to the Greyhound bus station in Seattle and pick up my bike, the bike I was supposed to ride down Highway 101 while admiring the coast. The coast I still haven't seen, because when the bus reached Montana, I became restless and wanted to sleep in the mountains. When I put the panniers on my head and started hitchhiking to Yellowstone, I felt giddy with freedom, certain I was doing the right thing. Now, I wonder if I'll ever see Michigan again. Or a Greyhound bus. Or that old '62 Buick.

Finally, we stop for gas. I've never been so happy to see a Circle K. "I can get out here," I say while grabbing my panniers from the back seat.

"Not here you don't," Mikey hisses, while slamming my door shut so I can't get out. And once again we drive off into the darkness.

After a few more hours, we make it to Mikey's decrepit cabin. He bolts the door, then piles chairs and tables in front of it. "Don't want anyone breaking in," he laughs, as if I can't figure out that he doesn't want me breaking out.

The three of them go into what must be the bedroom, and I unroll my sleeping bag and lie on the dirty floor, listening to them argue. After awhile the fighting stops and it sounds like they're making love. Someone farts and they all laugh. In some ways, they remind me of my own bickering family, and in strange ways, I begin to miss them.

The windows are boarded up, but I can still hear the silence of the forest. I listen, hoping to hear familiar remnants of my life. I'm not sure, but I think today's laughter from our picnic is still reverberating from the mountains, still laughing at me.

Suddenly I miss our family's old '62 Buick, and remember the stories that go with that car. It dawns on me that the five dollar car may be like the old Buick and won't require a key to start it. Could a five dollar car that only needs a knob turned to have it start just be sitting there in the woods, ready to take off, ready to collect new stories? I could leave a twenty so it won't feel like I'm stealing, and Mikey will feel like he got a deal, except that he'll wake up carless in the middle of this forest. If they hear the car start, I'll end up like Corina's old boyfriend, who, if I'm lucky, is still alive. But if he isn't...

There's also the chance I could just move the furniture and slip away, ever so quietly, like tonight's breeze, leaving nothing but my footprints behind.

Lying here, I wonder if I'm the only one listening to the sounds of the night, immersed in memories, driven by possibilities, silently waiting for something to happen.

Ever so quietly, I move the table and chairs away from the door, listening to the sound of snoring coming from the other room. I stuff my things into the panniers and slip out the door. The five dollar car sits there with the automatic starter just waiting for someone to turn it, but I've had enough memories with that car and decide it's time to give my feet some memories, and begin walking down the dirt road.

It's pitch black. Smells like rain. No moon. Between the clouds, a few stars shine. I seriously think about sleeping, but know I must walk away from here. Once again, I wear the panniers on my head and notice how good it feels to be on the road again.

Unfortunately, that good feeling doesn't last long, and I start envying my bike that is hopefully in Seattle, safely tucked in a box at the Greyhound station, while I'm out here on this dark, forest road, uncertain when Corina and the boys will awaken and come looking for me.

Just keep walking, I tell myself over and over. Walk fast. Walk faster. Think about other things. Anything. Keep thinking. Keep walking. Think about Jack Kerouac. Seems to me he traveled by car, but I may be wrong. Remember sitting on a rickety old chair with a fifth of Jack Daniels one cold winter afternoon, surrounded by snow while I watched the dogs chase squirrels, whiskey bottle still in the paper bag, as I sat on that old chair drinking, pretending I was in the car with Kerouac, even though I was just on a rickety old chair in my backyard near the ninth hole of a funky golf course reading On the Road, wishing I was on the road.

And look at me now. On the road and wishing I was reading a book on that rickety old chair. Or at someone's house being treated like a guest. Or at least having permission to sleep in someone's backyard. But what kind of adventure would that be? Now I have to worry about three crazy people tracking me down, and it smells like rain, and I don't even know where I am, except that I'm in Washington, and everything seems so far away.

It starts raining and I sit beneath a tree watching for car lights. There's no reason they need to come after me; but, there's no reason most people need to go after anyone, and it still doesn't stop them. What do they need me for? Always so much running. Don't dare sleep.

Suddenly, I remember catechism. Every Wednesday night I walked to church. Never by choice. Always by force. Mom didn't go to church, She liked watching it on TV, but we kids were her representatives.

After catechism, I looked for my brother or sister, wanting to walk home with them. Figured they were either hiding from me or walking home with the neighbor kids in a group. Being safe. For some reason, by the time I left the classroom and climbed the stairs, the church was always dark and deserted. Everyone was gone.

I'd looked down a few basement hallways and open the doors of empty rooms, certain I'd find my brother and sister giggling in their hiding spot. When they didn't appear, I'd go to the closed library and hide a few books I'd check out later.

Never finding anyone to walk home with, I'd end up running home. Every tree had a shadow. Every shadow had a bogeyman. Neighbors said I ran like a bat out of hell, and they always wanted to know who I had made mad and was trying to out-run.

Behind the trees, arms grabbed for me. I heard panting. When I opened our kitchen door and ran inside the house, then held the door shut, my mom would yell, "Let go of that door!"

"I can't! Someone's out there!"

"Let go now!"

I'd let go, step back, and couldn't believe that no one pushed the door open. The bogeyman wasn't going to chase me inside the house. He wasn't after anyone but me. I knew he'd get me later.

I must think of something else. Too many shadows behind the trees. Usually the woods are the only place I feel safe, but not these woods so close to that cabin. It starts lightning and I decide to set up my tent. How could I be so unprepared? I can't believe my bike is wrapped in my sleeping bag while I'm out here wet and cold.

A night of thinking is exhausting, but I know I must get moving. No time to watch the sun rise. Today's the day I reach the Greyhound station.

I walk down the forest road. The flowers are covered with dew. Everything glistens. The mountains are feeling intimate, the way Lake Michigan feels. I've spent my life near the lake and only a few weeks in the mountains, yet a part of me knows this is where I want to be.

In the three weeks since I've left home, I've learned two things from my To Do list: travel alone, and make love. I still need to learn how to read a map. I wasn't supposed to get off the bus in Montana. I was supposed to stay put until Seattle. But those mountains started calling, and I jumped off the bus, mapless, sleepingbag-less, and all that planning for the big bike trip simply disappeared.

Not sure when I'll learn to read a road map, since I haven't bought one. It was easy leaving Wyoming without a map. Hitch north to Montana. Hitch east to Idaho -- Idaho, where the friendly people with the warped sense of humor roam. Where the five dollar cars stop for hitchhikers. All this thinking. What else is there to do out here?

My hair is gritty. I feel dirty. I look ridiculous with panniers on my head. I finally reach a paved road. I look at the sun and try to figure out which direction to go. Who will offer me a ride? I hope it's someone with a car that costs more than five bucks.

A car slows down and my thumb isn't even out. I turn around and see a Winnebago. A woman leans out the passenger's side and asks if I need a ride. I can't believe my luck. It's a retired couple. A normal-looking retired couple with Minnesota license plates. Good ol' normal and kind midwesterners.

I race to their Winnebago, and the man directs me to the back, pointing to the blue plush recliner. "Looks like you could use a rest," he chuckles.

"Why are you out here all alone?" the woman asks.

"It's a long story, but I'm on my way to Seattle to get my bike from the bus station. I should be pedaling, but I took a little hitchhiking detour."

She leans over with her journal and asks me to autograph it. "My grandkids won't believe we picked up a hitchhiker. Please sign your name and beneath it write "hitchhiker."

It's one of the strangest requests I've ever heard, but I do it and feel rather second-rate, like they've picked up a whore and offered her a ride.

"Alice, don't embarrass our hitchhiker, or we won't be able to tell our grandkids we gave her a ride."

Alice feels uncomfortable and offers me her homemade chocolate chip cookies. Eating them, I realize how hungry I am. Alice seems to notice and offers the entire bag. "Eat up, I need to make a new batch today."

I sit on their blue reclining chair, swivelling to the left, then to the right, watching the miles float by. Maybe I'll ride my bike south as planned or head north to Alaska. Another part of me wants to trade my bike in for a backpack and explore the mountains. After I buy a road map, I'll just leave the topographical maps on a restaurant table for a hiker. Even hiking, I'll never figure out the meaning behind all those circles. All those circles won't make one iota of a difference if I'm riding down the highway or following a trail.

Maybe Alice will want me to meet her grandchildren when they visit them in the Cascades. Now there's a range I know nothing about. Why bother learning to read a road map if it really doesn't matter which way I go? For now I'll just swivel a little to the east, then west, stretch toward the north, lean back a little watching those purple mountains majesty, and fall safely asleep.

©2002 by Diane Payne

Diane Payne, as seen by her daughter,
Ania, age 9.
Diane Payne lives in a small town with her daughter and her dogs, and she teaches writing at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. Her first novel, Burning Tulips, was published by Red Hen Press in 2001. See additional writing in Slow Trains Issue 1 and Slow Trains Issue 4.

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