Location: marengo, il, United States

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Trouble at Black Oak, part one

To imagine practicing the fine art of hitchhiking might conjure up some awful romantic notions to the unskilled amateur sitting at home. Adventure beckons. Excitement looms. Unseen horizons lay waiting to be discovered. And of course, meeting new people is part of the plan, not to mention the cheap transportation.

But this is part of the problem with the idea of romance. It encourages flawed thinking, not based on much more than a whim or a wish. It is an absurd notion and a dangerous notion; it is a silly notion and a totally laughable idea.

Thumbing on down to another town, hitchin’ my way back to you

I should have never left the woman, but I did. I should have kept up my car payments, but I didn’t bother with that either. Nevertheless, the weather felt good that day, so maybe that gave me hope. In any case, hitchhiking seemed the way to go, and the time felt right to try to make amends.

I got lucky and hooked a ride heading for Dallas right away. A car pulled over and stopped, so I ran to catch up. An older man sat behind the wheel, and two passengers were seated in the back seat. I slid in front, and then shut my door before turning to offer the driver a thanks for the lift.

The vacant look on his face suggested either fatigue or boredom. He took a lengthy look over his left shoulder before getting back on the highway. Then we rode in silence while he maneuvered the car over into the far left lane.

“I picked these guys up for company away back,” He motioned toward the rear seat with his head.

“I figured I might as well stop for you, too.” He never looked at me once while he drove, nor took his eyes off the road.

I repeated my honest appreciation once more, and then keeping my gym bag in my lap, I shifted around to say hello to the other two. The one sitting directly behind me had a neatly-kept beard, and the fellow sat with both of his arms protecting a large metal-framed backpack riding in his lap. He tilted his head out from behind the load to nod once.

The other one leaned with his face pressed against the back window, gazing out like he was off somewhere else. He turned and looked as if to size me up before replying,

“Hey, dude. How’s it going?”

He was just a young kid, but he held a solemn and intense air that made him appear almost aloof. He wore an old pair of blue jeans along with a leather vest, but no shirt.

Traffic on the freeway thinned out a little by the time the bearded fellow spoke up and told the driver,

“I get off up here where it says Duncanville.”

He wrestled his backpack over to the seat between him and the kid, and then he hung on to it while the driver guided the car back over to the slow lane. We got to the shoulder and came to a stop beneath an overpass while the other cars whizzed on by.

I opened my door and leaned up next to the dashboard. He pushed my seat forward to climb out, and then he reached back in to get his pack. Carrying it with both hands, he turned around and walked away from the car without saying a word.

I slammed my door shut, and then we all sat there for a moment, watching him as he trekked toward another road that veered off to the right.

“Talkative son of a bitch, wasn’t he?” The driver said, as he glanced in his rearview mirror.

A semi roared past, causing our vehicle to rock in its powerful wake.

“That’s the most he said the whole time he’s been riding with me.”

As soon as it was clear to do so, he drove us back onto the freeway. It took him a mile or two to get over in the left lane again.

“I hope you two characters can talk more than him.” He pointed to his radio. “The damn thing went out around Clovis, and the silence is killing me.”

I looked back at the kid in the rear seat and grinned. He half-smiled at the driver and me both. In a few minutes he scooted over to the middle of the back seat. From there he asked me where I was headed, so I told him.

“Virginia. How about you?”

“Black Oak, Arkansas,” He said. “Ever hear of it, dude?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I heard of a band called that.”

He nodded then and told me there was a town called Black Oak, too.

“I got a brother that lives up there. He just wrote me this letter a week ago,” He said. “And he told me to come on up and see him.”

He fished a folded envelope out of his vest pocket and looked at it for a second. Then he leaned forward to the back of my seat, and he held the thing up so I could see it too. Pointing to the return address that read Black Oak, Arkansas, he added excitedly,

“He’s living in a hippie commune there.” Then he leaned back in his seat again and folded his arms.

“It’s up at the top of a mountain.” He stated next, like that was an important fact.

“No kidding,” I replied.

He leaned to stuff the letter back in his pocket while I bent over to stash the gym bag down at my feet. The driver rolled down his window and laid his left elbow on the ledge.

I had never been to Arkansas before, and I’d never heard of this place either. I turned around in my seat so I could see him better.

“A hippie commune, huh?”

“Yeah, dude,” He said, and his eyes got wide. “It’s for real too. Nothing but hippies live there, and all they do is party.”

The wind began whipping his hair, so he reached up and held it down with his hand.

“In Arkansas?” I asked incredulously.

This was starting to sound pretty far-fetched, but one never knows. I had already met some peculiar people in the last couple of months, so I listened to him tell his tale.

“I’m serious, dude,” He said. “My brother’s been there for over a year now, and he’d never lie to me.”

He looked out the window and studied the road signs that were going by.

“Hey, dude!”

He leaned forward and put both hands on the top of the seat behind the driver.

“My exit’s coming up here in two miles.”

He leaned back again and kept going on about how great this place was while the man began changing lanes.

“He said it’s like a party up there all the time.”

He patted his letter once, and then craned his neck over the driver’s shoulder, making sure the man didn’t miss his turn-off.

“How you mean?” I asked him.

“Dude, this is what he told me about the place and that’s why I’m going.”

He had a cocky expression on his face as he explained.

“It’s all sex, drugs and rock and roll. Nobody works there or nothing.”

The man began slowing down while the kid kept talking.

“They just sleep all day long and party all night. You want to come with me?”

I glanced over at the older gent and back to the kid. I guess he saw the way I perked up at his query, so after the driver pulled over to the side of the road and stopped, the kid and I both got out and left that lonely fellow behind.

I don’t know how far I walked trying to lose these lonesome blues

A green sign over the road above told me we stood on the shoulder of Interstate 30, heading towards Texarkana. Cars shot by as the two of us started walking, staying close to the guardrail. He walked facing the front, his left thumb held high. I stepped backwards, holding mine up as well.

“This is going to be great, dude,” He told me as he combed his hand through his hair. “You’ll see.”

I had willingly volunteered to come along with him, even though I held some doubts. I wasn’t sure about this Black Oak place for one thing, but the kid offered better company than the older guy did, plus I was headed in the right direction to Virginia.

“I hope so,” Was all I could muster.

We caught two or three short rides that day and almost made it to Texarkana before nightfall. I told the kid we should find a place to sleep so we didn’t get stuck overnight in the city, and he agreed.

Our last ride that day dropped us off at the end of an exit ramp near a stop sign . We stood there on the side of the road while the man drove off, and we waited until his tail lights disappeared from sight.

It was almost dark by the time we climbed over the guardrail. From that point we walked down a steep embankment to go up under the bridge that crossed over the freeway. There we found a wide cement ledge near the top, safely hidden from view. Several steel girders supporting the overpass divided the ledge into several sections. We each claimed one, and after laying down on the hard surface, we both fell asleep.

Lay my head on this concrete bed for a long and restless night

I came awake at daylight. Starving for food and coffee, my back felt stiff and sore. Swinging my legs over the side of the ledge, I stretched and did a few twists to work out my kinks. Cars down below zoomed by our spot, but I doubted anyone could see us up here as fast as they traveled. I heard the kid’s voice coming from the section next to me saying,

“Hey, dude. You awake yet?”

A small café sat next to the service road not too far away, and it appeared to be open already. I told him yes and I was hungry, so we walked over to the place and went inside. A waitress came over to our table and gave us a menu apiece. I ordered me a cup of coffee first. The kid told her he wanted a glass of water.

She returned right away with our drinks. I then ordered a fried egg sandwich while the kid asked if he could have a saucer, so she went to get him one. She came back and set it down in front of him, and then she left to turn in my order.

I added sugar and stirred my coffee. Then when I laid the spoon down he asked to borrow it. Sure I said, and slid it over to him.

The kid picked up a bottle of ketchup from the middle of the table and poured some into the saucer. Then he picked up the salt and pepper shakers and began dousing the red glob with a healthy amount of both additives.

I sipped my coffee and kept a curious eye on him.

Next he started mixing the stuff around with the spoon.

I sat the hot cup down and looked the kid in the eye. He kept stirring the soupy mix until I asked him point-blank,

“Man, what in the world are you doing?”

He picked up his water glass as he looked at me and said,

“Dude, I been on the road for five days now.”

He took a long drink before setting the tumbler back down, and then he licked his spoon.

“And this is all I been living on.”

Then he calmly laid a napkin in his lap and began eating the red concoction.

We left shortly after he filled up on sauce and I paid for my meal, and the both of us walked back over to the entrance ramp leading to the freeway. The traffic flowed sparse. The few lifts we managed to get came from local people who were kind enough to take us a mile or two before they dropped us off again, so it took us the bigger part of the day to make it ninety miles past Texarkana.

Around seven that evening we caught a ride with a fellow who said he was going all the way to Little Rock. We slid into the front seat of his pickup truck, grateful to go with him.

“Where y’all headed?” He asked us right away, so we told him where but I didn’t mention why.

“I ain’t never heard of no Black Oak.” He replied.

He had an empty Doctor Pepper bottle he kept between his legs. He grabbed the thing around the neck and picked it up and spat in it once while he drove. I noticed two tins of chewing tobacco lying up on his dashboard.

“Y’all not going to the races tonight?” He asked, and the kid shot back,

“What races?”

“It’s right up the road here about twenty miles. I’m going right by if y’all want to stop and see it.”

The kid acted interested, and he asked him,

“What kind of races is it, dude? You mean like drag races?”

The driver spit in the bottle again and put it back between his legs.

“It’s stock cars. I go all the time when I can.”

The kid leaned forward and asked,

“A quarter mile track?”

“Nah,” He answered. “It’s just a oval dirt track. But it’s real popular around here.”

The kid acted eager and claimed he’d never seen one before, but he’d sure like to. I said I had seen lots of races, but sure, why not. So when the exit came up the man took it.

He went a few miles before dropping us off. The kid and I got out next to a dirt road that led up over a hill. Beside the road a large hand-painted sign pronounced the event. We could hear the sounds of motors revving up in the distance as soon as we got out of the truck.

“Y’all have a good time.” And he waved holding the bottle as he drove off.

We walked up the road to the top of the hill. From there we overlooked row after row of parked cars on a grassy field below. Beyond that we saw the grandstand. A cloud of dust floated in the air above the track, while bright stadium lights illuminated the event against a black sky. A tremendous noise coming from the track sounded as loud as thunder.

The kid and I hurried past the parking lot to a ticket booth up ahead. On the way I asked him if he had any cash. He shook his head and suggested we talk our way in. The race had already started by the looks of things, he said, and they just might let us in for free. I had the money to pay, but I said sure, go ahead and ask. He did too, and it didn’t take him long before the lady waved us both through, just like that. The kid sure had him a silver tongue, or the lady had a big heart.

The bleachers were about half filled, so we had no trouble finding a good spot down on the front row. I went back to the concession stand and bought a large box of popcorn and two drinks. Him and I snacked and enjoyed the free show for about an hour before the last race got started. Everyone then began cheering loudly and clapped as the announcer read off the list of each driver who entered the track.

Tow vehicles sat parked out in the middle of the field. Scores of cars or pickup trucks with attached trailers sat parked there, along with a dozen or more people watching the event from the tops of the vehicles, so there were lots of witnesses around when the accident happened.

A red pickup truck sat directly across the track from us. Parked facing away from the bleachers, it had a long low trailer hitched to its rear bumper. The end ramps of the trailer had been folded down earlier, allowing the race car it hauled to dismount. The short platforms were still in the down position and resting on the ground.

Two guys and a girl sat perched up on top of the cab. Two more people sat on the sides of the bed watching the race, while a man with no shirt sat in the bed with his back next to the cab. He had his hands folded behind his head. Every head out there would swivel each time the cars roared by.

Several cars crowded close together as they thundered around the curve to our left. A cloud of dust shrouded the pack behind the leader. Then one car skidded, and it slammed into the wall. The auto rebounded, but it hit another vehicle. Both of those cars began to fishtail as the others hit their brakes, but then someone bumped into another car just as they came out of the curve.

You could hear the crowd as we all held our breaths – this was what we had all come to see.

But that last maneuver caused another car to spin out of control. It made two full circles before straightening up, but by then it was headed directly for the low trailer. Everyone in the bleachers gasped.

One of those slow-motion moments took over next.

Five of those spectators scrambled off the truck and ran for cover. The one man leaning against the cab went to get up as the racecar shot toward the trailer, but he had no time to get out of the way.

The car slammed into the ramps at the foot of the trailer, and then it shot almost ten feet up into the air. It seemed to hover there before it came crashing down with a loud bang, landing square on the bed of the pickup truck.

People rushed over immediately. In moments the driver jumped down safely to the grass, but the crowd stayed quiet instead of the usual cheering. No one yet knew the condition of the man pinned beneath the racecar.

The small crowd gathered around the back of the pickup. Some bent down and tried to peer under the bed, but after a while and a lot of neck-craning you could tell they weren’t having success.

Minutes later a tow truck pulled up, so the search ended and all stood back. The driver hopped out and secured a cable to the rear of the racecar before running back to his cab. Then he eased the tow truck forward until the racecar began to slide away from the cab, inch by slow inch.

One man lying on the roof of the pickup raised up suddenly and waved for the tow truck driver to stop. Several more people climbed up on the roof. A moment later a man wearing no shirt wiggled his way out through the narrow gap. Someone grabbed his arm and pulled.

When he stood up on the roof, the crowd recognized who he was, and they went wild. He didn’t have a scratch either. He stood there and took a few bows while the audience cheered and applauded, and then he jumped down and melted into the crowd of rescuers and disappeared.

We sat in the bleachers for some time afterwards, and we rehashed the incident with other spectators while racecars left or got hauled off the track. As the last of the cars left the dusty arena, one fellow sitting next to us made an offer to drive us back to the interstate. We took him up on it, and the kid and I slept well under another bridge that night.

Dreaming of one to keep me warm; tell me that ain’t right


Blogger Gone Away said...

Brilliant, as ever, Harry. Love the idea of interweaving it with the song, too. You remind me that I have hitch-hiking tales as well but they can wait; this darn Rufus thing is enough to be slaving at for the moment.

I see that it is part 1. It stands well enough on its own but, of course, you have us desperate for part 2 now...

2:26 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Eh, you know how it is...were I not so busy reading comments, the kid and I would be half way to Black Oak by now. Plus I need a bath before I can continue.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Here, Harry, have some soap. Now get on with it!

1:34 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

Can't wait to read part 2.
I have never romanticized the notion of hitchhiking myself; I was probably the only person to put down Jack Kerouac and think 'ew'. Bad food, no sleep, getting wet and dirty, ruining your shoes.
There are better ways to travel, and many of them include a well-stocked bar.

Write on,

5:17 PM  

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