Cruising the Pandemic Highways

June 11th, 2020

I left my home in Wisconsin at around 12:15 AM on June 8th. There was no good reason to do that except for the fact that a tropical storm was due to hit my destination in Arkansas in about fourteen hours, and my drive required at least twelve hours of windshield time.

“It’s a lonesome stretch out on Highway 9
Just another semi moving up from behind
Eyes are getting heavy, brain’s about to bust
When a light comes shining through the diesel dust

It’s that mudflap girl
Flashing in my headlight beams
That little mudflap girl
Shining like a midnight dream”

from “Mudflap Girl” from the group Timbuk 3 (an appropriate song for a late night road trip)

My made my journey through Illinois mostly at night. It is usually best to drive through Illinois in the dark. I had a surprise when I got on to the tollway. All the cash tollbooths on I-90 were closed down, and I had been so proud of myself for having my exact change ready. The sign at the tolls said, “Pay with I-Pass or online”. The closing of the tollbooths had to have been somehow related to the pandemic. Maybe it was about having less virus-laden money changing hands.

South of Rockford, I-39 was nearly empty, except for a some big trucks. The sky was clear. A gibbous moon shown brightly over a lonely, flat landscape. As the moon moved toward the west, Jupiter and Saturn followed in its wake. I listened to Gregorian chant while I drove. I wanted Jesus along for the ride.

I stopped for gas at a filling station in Bloomington. I walked into the store to buy a Gatorade. The girl at the counter wore a mask. I found during the trip that the clerks in the gas stations almost always wore masks. That seemed to be standard procedure. Somehow that surprised me. I had expected that the social distancing rules would grow more lax as I traveled south. I was wrong.

Dawn came while I was rolling west toward St. Louis. I could see the eastern sky glowing orange in the rear view mirror. I played some songs from George Ezra. That felt good.

“You can try and run and hide
Tearing at the chain
Means I’m coming home again
Means I’m coming home my friend
Oh, Lucifer’s inside
Oh, Lucifer’s inside
Oh, Lucifer’s inside.”

from “Did You Hear the Rain?”

After six hours on the road, I was feeling edgy and tired. I needed music that was a little twisted. I especially wanted to listen to something that would keep me alert while navigating through St. Louis.

I stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s in Sullivan, Missouri. Sullivan is on I-44 as it heads away from St. Louis and toward Tulsa. Most of that part of Missouri is densely wooded and seriously redneck. I passed a billboard that read:

“I am PROUD to be an American. If you’re not, leave.”

There were also many signs proclaiming Trump as savior. Big signs. MAGA.

The Trump signs went well with the numerous roadside ads for the Uranus Fudge Factory. No, I’m not kidding. There really is such a place.

Anyway, I walked into Denny’s, feeling just a little tired and loopy. A friendly waitress greeted me and gave me a big smile. She said,

“You look so tired. You come a long way?”

I mumbled, “Yeah.’

“Well, you sit yourself down, and eat. Then you can go on home and take a rest.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I still needed to drive another five hours.

The Denny’s took the COVID-19 rules seriously. The waitress guided me to my own private booth. The table was completely bare. She brought me a menu, along with salt and pepper shakers. She gave me another smile, and asked me, “Y’all want coffee?”

I said, “Yes”, emphatically.

“What would you like to eat?”

I gazed at the menu with eyes unfocused.

After a pause, she said, “Well, we have a special on the Grand Slam breakfast. Would you like that?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

She walked away, and brought the coffee. It seemed like she returned almost instantaneously with the food: bacon, hash browns, sausage, sunny side up eggs, and pancakes. There was nothing on the plate that was even remotely healthy. I felt grateful for that. I asked her for some ketchup.

She brought me back five little packets.  No ketchup bottles any more.

I-44 goes through miles and miles of forests. It’s pretty country, but after a while, all the trees look the same. When I got close to Springfield, I put on some Tab Benoit. I needed some Delta blues and zydeco to keep going.

“I’m a night train
Rolling nine hundred mile
I’m a night train baby
Rolling nine hundred mile
Can’t you hear me coming
Ain’t stopping until morning light

Keep it burning baby
Got that fuel for my fire
Keep it burning baby
Got that fuel for my fire
You know smokin’ track thru Memphis
Ain’t stopping until morning light”

from “Night Train”. (the song has a rhythm section that hammers like a steam locomotive)

I drove through the Ozarks on US 65. There were steep, rolling hills on the way to Branson. I saw a lot of signs advertising things like “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” and “Presley’s Country Jubilee”, shows that give the South a bad name. I drove past the Branson Welcome Center. The parking lot there was completely empty. No cars. Zero. That is a very bad sign for Branson, a city that thrives and survives on tourism. The pandemic strikes again.

The last stretch of the ride went along steep, winding, back roads in Arkansas. Some of the turns have a 20 MPH speed limit, and even those speeds are a little scary. The sky got dark and cloudy as I drove through the woods. The wind picked up. After about an hour on the slalom run, I got to the Arkansas River Valley. From there it was just a short ride to Subiaco Abbey.

I pulled into the parking lot of the abbey’s retreat house just as the first raindrops fell.










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