Amarillo By The Afternoon

by Rick Beck

Chapter 1

A Joe Buck Tale
Editor: Huw Jones

Truckin' Across The USA

There are ways I assure, when I climb into the driver's seat of my big rig, I'm ready for a trouble-free, uneventful long-haul.

I'm a professional trucker with a thousand to two thousand miles ahead of me. Once my eighteen wheels meet the road, I need to know I'll deliver safely and on time.

After walking around the trailer, checking lights and tires, my inspection is done, I climb up, and into, the driver's seat. I'm ready to get down to business.

I'm not simply a truck driver. I'm an owner-operator. I own my own truck, and I lease my services to a company that books my loads. They tell me where I'm going.

Knowing my truck is ready to go, and once I make certain the trailer is ready, I crank up my Cummins diesel engine, adjusting my seat, checking my mirrors, and listen for a sound I don't recognize.

A driver depends on his ears, just like he depends on his eyes, to have a complete picture of what his equipment is doing. A strange sound far away, but persistent, could be a trailer flat. Eight of my eighteen tires, are on that trailer. There are eight up under my cab, and two steering tires.

Because I've driven to where I pick up the loaded trailer, I know my engine sounds fine, but my ears are tuned to it, just in case. When things go wrong, it start somewhere, and my ears just might pick up when it begins.

Once all systems are go, I reach for the Willie Nelson tape. Willie and I go way back. He was always ready, when it was time, and I doubt I'm the only trucker who starts each run the same way I do.

I push the tape into my tape player, shifting my truck into first gear, and letting out the clutch.

I'm on my way.

"On the road again," bursts out of my sound system. "I can't wait to get on the road again" Willie croons, as my tires hit the highway running beside where I picked up this load of freight.

My fuel tank is full. I picked my truck up that morning, from the shop where I leave it, each time I come home within a week or two. My mechanic knows to go over it with a fine-tooth comb. When I pick it up, I want to hear him say, "You're ready to go. I'll see you in a couple of months."

I've been driving the highways of America for over a decade. My mechanic knows my schedule, and he has a good idea of when he'll see me and my GMC the next time.

Dave walks me to the driver's side door, waiting for me to climb into the seat and crank it up. We both listen to the same sound, and he nods, wiping his hand on a grease rag, and walking back into the shop.

It's time to roll.

Dave's message is the same as Willie's. I'm ready to go on the road again, for two or three months of problem free driving, until I see him the next time.

Heading off potential breakdowns, by doing preventive maintenance, is serious business. A breakdown on the road costs you time and big bucks. My mechanic charges a reasonable rate, and he takes a reasonable amount of time.

A breakdown on the road will cost you top dollar, once you've paid a lot of money getting towed to a place that won't charge reasonable rates, because I let my equipment fail me in his backyard. My loss being his gain.

In the last decade, I had one major breakdown on the road. I broke a drive shaft. I lost a week, which cost me two to three thousand dollars in lost freight, and it cost me an arm and a leg to get my truck back from that mechanic.

Every other time, for ten years, when Dave gave me his nod, I was good to go, until I drove back into his yard. Yes, there are flat tires, dead batteries, and nagging little difficulties that arise when your tires are always turning, but little nuisances are built into the equation. If I lose an hour or two this afternoon, I'll get it back tonight.

I like to keep my miles behind me, driving the first five hundred miles by the end of the first day. I might or might not stop to stretch my legs, and get a bite, but I don't fuel, until the second day, and I know where I'll be, when I fill my tanks. That'll be one of the cheaper fuel stops on my route.

Once I begin a run, after my dispatcher and I agree on where I'm going, I immediately head for the closest Interstate. Being in Pennsylvania, I turn my rig west, until I hit I-81 south, an hour from where I picked up the trailer that needs to go to Long Beach, California.

I'll be on I-81 through Virginia, and into Tennessee, where I'll pick up I-40. I-40 will continue taking me southwest, until I hit Memphis, where I cross the mighty Mississippi River, where I-40 turns west for the next two thousand miles.

I fuel late on the first day, after I'm five hundred miles along. I'll drive down past Nashville, before I pull over for a few hours of sleep. I take enough food with me so I won't need a food until the second day, and when I do stop for food, I know where that will be.

I get up after a few hours of sleep, and I have the highway to myself, as I drive to Memphis, where I cross the mighty Mississippi, and head out into the flat lands of Arkansas, where the sun is rising behind me, as I-40 turns directly west.

After Little Rock, it's hammer down into Fort Smith, where I'll stop at the scales. I won't get a second glance. For me, Fort Smith was where I leave the east behind. Up until then, traffic has been moderate to heavy, except when I start my second day at two, going through Memphis before the four-wheelers get out of bed.

Leaving Arkansas, entering Oklahoma, it's hammer down for the next five hundred, except when I ease back on the throttle for Oklahoma City. A little after noon, on the second day, I'm watching the truck stops go by, as the city is dead ahead, and I'm right at the speed limit.

I can't afford to let a smokey slow me down, and if you speed through cities, you'll end up talking to smokey.

By the way, I don't think we were properly introduced. I'm Joe Buck, cross-country trucker, and I've let you ride along, until the middle of the second day on this run to Long Beach, California, but I'm going to need that seat soon, or at least I hope I'll need it.

I might find a hitchhiker along this stretch. I might find one heading west, anywhere along I-40, but usually they are more plentiful, once you cross the Mississippi River. One of the best spots to pick up a hitchhiker is where a north/south Interstate intersects with an east/west Interstate.

In OK City I-40 west intersects I-35 south. I've picked up more hitchhikers here than anywhere in the country. I keep my eyes open and my speed down.

By this time on the second day, a thousand miles behind me, I need to hear someone talk. With someone talking to me, I'm more alert. If I'm going to make it to the Mexican restaurant in New Mexico, where I get my first meal, and several more hours of sleep, I need company.

Today, the ramp from I-35 is empty, which disappoints me, but there is a good chance a hitchhiker or two took rides to get out of the city, and not much further. I'm not giving up. I intend to keep looking.

Now, I don't pick up just any one. A prime candidate to ride along is in his early twenties, clean looking, and no sign that he might be trouble. It's hard to tell these days. Young men have become very good at deception. Most guys are OK, and if they look a certain way, I'll stop.

There is a look that clean cut young men have, without making any effort to look that way. He's the guy I pick up.

Once you reach your mid-twenties, if you're a halfway decent sort, you aren't on the road hitchhiking. Twenty-five-year-old men have usually started building a life. Up until then, he might make a false start or two, and takes to the highways to start fresh in a new place.

I will admit, most of my best helpers, were standing on the side of the road, when I found him. If a guy looks fit, and he doesn't look dangerous. I'll stop for him.

I don't question a hitchhiker. After establishing we're going in the same direction, I wait to hear their story. It will eventually come out. Most boys I've picked up, don't have an answer for the question, "Where you heading?"

They left where they were, because it wasn't where they wanted to be. They needed to leave to go in search of themselves, or so it seemed to me in many cases. The fastest way to run a hitchhiker off, ask a lot of questions that they feel obligated to answer.

Once they tell me they don't know where they're going, or what they intend to do when they get there, I give them options that they didn't have, before getting onto my truck.

I think of my trucks as a refuge for boys who haven't found their way, but they're looking. Most boys have looked at an eighteen-wheeler, and thought, I'd like to drive one of those. It's like being a cowboy.

Who hasn't thought about being a cowboy?

It doesn't take long for a young man who has nowhere to go, to see my truck as a port in the storm. They're safe while they're on the truck. They're making money, getting fed, and they have time to think about where they're going.

Half the boys I pick up hitchhiking, end up working for me. Some might stay a week or two. Others stay for two to three months, which is the average. A few call, wanting to get back on the truck, a port in yet another storm.

There comes a time, when even the best helper, has had enough of going back and forth, back and forth. Sooner or later, they'll say, "The next exit, I'll get out there."

The last thing I see of him, a fading shadow in my right-hand West Coast Mirror. It's sad seeing someone go, once I've gotten to know him, but it's good to see them ready to give life another try. It leaves me with a seat to fill, and I keep my eyes open for my next helper.

I'll be keeping my eyes open for the next hitchhiker, somewhere down the road, and once he gets in, his story won't be much different from the story of the boy who has just left me. The road is weird that way, and how many reasons can there be for a young guy to hit the road.

I see what I'm looking for on the far side of the Oklahoma City's suburbs. There are still houses, but they're few and far between, but on a ramp, leaving an Oklahoma secondary road, stands a hitchhiker, thumb out.

He is smart enough to leave plenty of room for my rig to get completely off the road's surface. If there isn't enough room to pull safely out of the way, the hitchhiker stays where he is.

This one is sprinting for the passenger's door, as quickly as he hears my hissing air brakes. It announces to him, he has a ride.

I watch the door open, and a gym bag flies up into the second seat, and he follows it. He's out of breath from his dash to the truck. He looks me over, not forgetting an appreciative smile.

I'm surprised at what I see. He isn't simply clean cut, he's squeaky clean. Most young men who climb aboard my truck, don't look as though they've just come out of the shower, but he does, and I attempt to hide my surprise, as I shift up through the gears, merging back on I-40, not wishing to waste more time than is necessary.

Back up to speed in the light midday traffic, I feel comfortable turning my head to face my passenger. He's young, college age, and he looks as fresh as a daisy.

"What's wrong?" he asked, looking straight at my face.

"Where you heading?" I asked, which is where we needed to start.

I wondered if he was heading a few miles up the road to school. He was carrying a gym bag.

A hesitation tells me he doesn't have a made up story. It's not unusual to get a load of bull, before you got the truth. He doesn't know me, and I don't know him, and he might be gone in a mile or two, but I sincerely hoped not.

This clean young man looked very nice.

"I'm Cassidy," he said with a big Midwestern smile. "Cassidy Lane,"

He reached across the doghouse for my hand, once I was back up to cruising speed.

After we shook, I looked at his face. He had a winning smile.

"Joe Buck," I said. "Where you heading, Cassidy Lane?"

"I'm going west. I guess that's obvious, isn't it?"

"West covers a lot of territory. You from OK City?" I asked, thinking about his fresh scrubbed look.

"I'm from Appleton. That's in Wisconsin."

"I've been there," I said. "You may have noticed, I'm a truck driver."

He had a sudden tragic look on his face, like he'd just farted in front of the student body.

"I thought you might be from nearby. You look like you just stepped out of the shower," I said, waiting for a story.

"I did," he said, a little more cautiously. This nice man picked me up in southern Missouri, near Joplin. He took me home, fed me, and let me sleep in his spare room. When I got up this morning, he had breakfast ready, asked me if I wanted a shower. I did, and he let me off on that ramp."

"He didn't live in Joplin? He lived here," I calculated.

"Oh, I get out ahead of myself sometimes," he said. "Yes, he lived a mile from the ramp, where you picked me up. I was only there a half hour or so. On the ramp, not at his house. Traffic is light."

I smiled.

He'd become precise rather quickly. I don't know why I was amused by that. I liked what I heard.

"Everyone's at work, except for you and me," I said, explaining the light traffic.

"Except for me," he said. "Your work goes with you."

"Very good," I said. "You're fast on your sneakers, and a lucky guy," I said. "There are some nice folks out there. Glad you found one of those," I said, and I was glad.

"You mean there are some not so nice people?"

"I've heard that too. I know of some pretty nasty characters, but if you're careful, and listen to your instincts, before you climb into a car, you should be OK. You can't just hop into a car without checking out who you're getting in with. I suppose it all depends on what you have on your mind, when you stick your thumb out," I told him, using my best trucker's logic.

"I was in my sophomore year at school, and, well, I needed to get away, and, well, here I am. That's what was on my mind."

"Most college students are anxious to get done with their education. You want to take time off. That's unusual." "I decided not to go home. I've been there all my life. It's time I did something on my own."

"I'm heading for Long Beach. That's in California. It's about as far west as you can go. Long Beach is on the Pacific Ocean," I said.

That got no response. He'd grown tired of looking at my face, and he began studying the highway ahead of us.

By the time we were nearing Elk City, where I would fuel up, Cassidy had grown quiet, sitting forward in his seat, looking apprehensive, as he watched out of the windshield. Cassidy Lane carried a heavy weight with him. He was unable to leave it in Wisconsin, but I doubt he carried it in his gym bag. He traveled light.

"You're going to the right spot with a name like Cassidy Lane," I said, wanting to start a conversation before we stopped for fuel and food.

Leaving him to stew in the juices of the life he'd left behind him, wasn't a good idea. I needed to get his mind off his troubles, and onto more pleasant considerations. It wasn't hard to see that Cassidy needed to talk to someone.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead