Amarillo By The Afternoon

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2

Cheap fuel, Good Food

Cassidy Lane came south out of Wisconsin, and I came southwest out of Pennsylvania. We met west of Oklahoma City, and we were discussing his name.

"What do you mean?" he asked, looking at my face.

"Rocky Lane and Hopalong Cassidy are two famous Hollywood cowboys," I said.

"His name was Hopalong?" Cassidy asked

"William Boyd was his real name, but he played a character he developed. He rode it to fame and fortune."

"My friends call me Cass," he said with a smile.

"I'll call you Cass as well. I take it California is far enough, at this point?" I asked.

"Yeah, I'd like to go to California. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go, but that sounds good to me, if you don't mind me riding along."

He was presuming nothing. My picking him up was no guarantee, I'd take him to the end of the line. Behind the smile and friendliness that he couldn't fake if he tried, was someone who had hit a patch of rough road. Rough enough to make him leave school behind. It was the middle of the second term for his sophomore or junior year, I guessed.

"We've come the same distance," I said, wanting to keep the conversation going.

"How's that?" he asked.

Appleton would be a thousand miles from here. I left Pennsylvania before noon yesterday. It's a little over a thousand miles for me."

Having a strange expression on his face, he said, "How in the hell can you know how far it is to Appleton, Wisconsin, from here, in the middle of nowhere."

"Did I mention I'm a trucker? It's nearly eight hundred miles to Chicago from here, and it's a little less than two hundred and fifty miles to Appleton from Chicago," I said.

His mouth had opened, while he stared at me.

"No one could possibly keep all that inside his head," Cassidy said, not looking a way. "You a magician or just your everyday genius?"

"I go to Chicago two or three times a year. I get into Wisconsin and Minnesota at least once a year. Once you've been, you know how far it is. You know how long it takes to get from here to there, and you know what you need to know about where to get food and fuel. I've been doing this for over ten years. I know as soon as I hear my destination, how I'll get there, and where I'll stop along the way."

"That's not possible," he said. "I don't even know how I got here," Cass said.

"You took a secondary road to I-55, and you picked up I-44 south of St. Louis. You followed that, until you hit I-35 south, and you hit I-40 at OK City. We're on I-40 west," I advised him.

"Shut up," he said, looking straight ahead.

I laughed. My basic trucker's knowledge amazed Cass. I wasn't sure how much I knew, until I needed to know it. When I picked up this trailer, I calculated that I'd be fueling at the Love's early in the afternoon the next day. I suppose it's instinctive, but when you drive a route more than once, truckers remember the details of a run, especially where to get cheap fuel and the best food.

"There is a Love's quick stop ahead in Elk City. I'll stop there to fuel up. They have a nice kitchen. You can buy any number of hot meals. They're surprisingly good. I favor the burritos. A couple of burritos can feed me all day. They have a big selections of drinks and snacks. That would be for later. If you get something hot now, and some snacks for later, we'll stop for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in New Mexico. They have great food, and I catch a couple of hours of sleep there."

"You know where you're going to eat dinner. We haven't had lunch yet," Cass said.

"Yesterday, when I backed up under this trailer. I knew I'd be fueling here this afternoon," I said.

"You did not," Cass objected. "You're making that up, and I'm not exactly swimming in money, you know. Restaurants are out for me, but don't change what you do because of me. I'm just riding along."

"Which brings us to range rules. When someone gets on my truck, I feed them. You don't have to do anything but sit there and make a noise every once in a while. For that you get fed. If you want a more secure arrangement, I need a helper. Often, a guy I pick up wants to work. Put a little money in his pocket. It's not required, just available, if you're interested."

Cass was looking at me again. I couldn't tell what he was thinking.

"You're offering me a job? I left home yesterday not knowing where I was going or what I'd do once I got there. Yes, I want to work, and you'll buy my food?"

"That comes with the seat. I understand that most hitchhikers aren't flush with cash, so I buy their food."

"You want to pinch me. I'm sure I'm dreaming," he said.

"I'm not dreaming, so you can't be," I said.

Cass watched me for a while.

"And just how far is Long Beach from where you stop for fuel," Cass asked, keeping his eyes on me.

"You don't really want to know that," I said.

"Yes, I do. Come on smart guy. You don't know, do you?"

"It's fifteen hundred miles from OK City to Long Beach, and it's a hundred miles from OK City to Elk City. That would make it fourteen hundred miles from Elk Cit to Long Beach."

"You made that up," Cass said.

I smiled, shaking my head. I reached back under my bunk's mattress, pulling out a road atlas.

"There's a distance guide between major cities in the front of this. If you check Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, it's fifteen hundred miles, give or take a few miles,' I said, depending on where you're going in relationship to L.A."

"It's actually easier on me to have someone in the second seat," I said. "If I like them, I want them to stay for as long as possible. That's why I buy your food."

"Second seat?" Cass asked.

"Passenger seat. It becomes the second seat, when I have a helper. I'm in the first seat, and my helper is in the second seat. Having someone with me, helps make the miles go faster. Keeps me more alert," I said.

"Cool. I'm glad I'm not just taking up space," he said, sounding happy not to just be taking up space. "That must mean you like me."

"That's a loaded question," I said.

"It wasn't a question. According to your comment, "If I like them, I want them to stay for as long as possible. That's why I buy your food."" Cass said, looking at my face.

"Did I say that. What I meant was, if I like them, I want them to stay," I said, taking time to look at his face.

"Can I put my gym bag behind the seat?" he asked.

"Toss it on the bunk. That leather curtain keeps the light out and the bunk stays clean. Brush the bottom off completely, before putting it on the bedspread. I don't let anything out here go on my bunk. The sheets stay clean that way. Clean sheets are a luxury I look forward to while I'm on the road."

Cass did as I asked, moving the curtain to place his gym bag on top of the bunk.

"You always make your bed?" he asked, surprised.

"Yes, I do. My sheets stay clean that way."

"If you don't want anything from up here back on your bunk. Why did you let me put my gym bag on it?" he asked.

"I never think to clean behind the seats," I said.

"Makes sense," Cass said.

"When I'm going across the country, I don't spend much time in my bunk. I strip down before I get into it, keeping my dirty clothes up here. I fall asleep a lot faster if my sheets are cool and clean. Climbing into a dirty bunk, feeling dirt on my bare butt is no fun. You'd think so too."

"I understand. I caught a ride near Chicago with another trucker. He was going east on I-80, but he got me to I-55. His truck was filthy. His floor was filled with fast food containers. There was grease inside the cab," he said.

"Just left the house yesterday. I start out clean," I said. "I just don't end up that way. Truck stops have showers, when I have the time, I shower."

"Elk City is where we're stopping?" he asked.

"Yeah. If you need to go, go there. We won't be making another stop until tonight. Once I fuel up, and we pick up some snacks. We'll be good to go, until we hit New Mexico."

"You hungry?" I asked, as we closed in on Elk City.

"Actually, I am. I had a nice breakfast a couple of hours before you picked me up, but I haven't eaten much since I left home. The guy fed me last night and this morning, but I'm still hungry."

"I won't bother asking you how far it is to the restaurant where you plan to eat dinner," Cass said, giving me the evil eye.

"You have a good memory for details, Cass," I said.

"If I listen to what someone says, I do," he said. "My teachers might argue that point."

After looking at me for a few miles, he said, "You know where you'll eat dinner. Where will you eat breakfast?"

"If I maintain the pace we're on, and if I don't sleep more than three or four hours, we should eat breakfast at Little America, Flagstaff, Arizona. They have an excellent restaurant. Great biscuits and gravy. The coffee isn't bad."

"You keep all that in your head? You don't even take time to think," Cass said.

"I don't need to think. It's knowledge that's inside my head. I'm a trucker. I need to know what I'm doing. I need to deliver on time. There are no excuses when you're hauling freight. When I deliver this new furniture to that building in Long Beach, they'll open their doors a day or two later. Thousands of dollars are riding on me delivering on time. People will be waiting to unload my truck at eight o'clock in the morning the day after tomorrow. I'll be there."

"That is amazing," he declared. "I drive from my parents house to school, when I'm starting a semester. I don't know when I'll get there," Cass said. "I do know when I am there, though."

He gave me an coy look. Cass was a keeper.

"I bet you do," I said, with my coy smile.

"Did you go to college? How can you keep all that inside your brain?"

"I've never asked other truckers about it, but I imagine, after being out here a few years, the things that are present in our brain, come from experiencing it over and over again. Repetition does make an impression."

"I'll take your word for it," he said, unconvinced.

"It's my job, Cass. I need to know that I'm on schedule. Usually I want to get as many miles behind me as I can. Then, I can take time for myself," I said. "The stops are built into my schedule."

Cass listened to every word I said. He looked at my face while I spoke, and I felt like he was interested in hearing what I had to say, because of how he watched me.

"If we're hammer down for most of the night, we'll be in Flagstaff for breakfast. That's in the middle of Arizona."

"What's hammer down?" Cass asked.

"Hammer down means pedal to the medal. I'm able to go into the mid sixties range. That keeps me out of trouble, most of the time. I could set my truck up to run at seventy or eighty, but this truck needs to last me."

"Truckers who run fast, need to replace their trucks more often?" Cass asked.

"Yes. A diesel will run forever, if you take care of your equipment, but running it hard, with roads in the condition they're in, things will wear out faster. I don't need to go fast. I need to stay on schedule. I'm more relaxed, and my equipment is happier," I said.

As I approached Elk City, I merged onto the ramp, shifting down, until I was at the stop sign across the street from the Love's station. I pulled into one of the empty islands, and jumped out to fuel. Cass was right behind me.

"Show me what to do, and I'll do it," Cass said.

"Cool," I said. "I get the windshield. Hold the lever down, and once this tank is full, that's plenty. I'll be three quarters full, and that'll get me to where I fuel up in New Mexico," I said.

"The tanks equal out, after I fill this one?" Cass asked.

"Very good," I said, climbing up on the front bumper to reach the entire windshield. "They'll equal out. Once we're done at the pump, we'll go get some food."

"I'm ready," Cass said, checking out the pumps and my left hand fuel tank that held a hundred gallons of fuel.

Once the tank was full, I watched Cass hang the nozzle back in place on the pump. We headed into Love's store.

"Pick out a couple of items. One to eat right away, and some kind of snacks for later. It'll be between eight and nine mountain time, when we reach the Mexican restaurant."

"It's central time here?"

"Yes, we'll get an hour earlier in New Mexico. It'll be a good six hours before we stop again," I said.

After I paid the bill for my fuel, I watched Cass coming out of the restroom. He was wiping his hands, as he stepped up to look at the hot meals that were ready to eat.

"You know what to do already. Any time you fuel the truck, make sure you wash your hands. You don't want the diesel smell or remnants to get inside the cab," I said.

I got burritos. I'd get enchiladas for dinner, but the burritos filled my belly better than a hamburger or chicken. Cass got a hamburger and fries. He got a bag of pork rinds for later. He got root beer with his hot meal, and I told him to get an extra drink, because he'd be thirsty later on.

We spent twenty minutes at Loves, and I could eat the burrito and drive without difficulty, so I pulled away from the pump, and the ramp was right across the highway, and soon we were back on I-40, heading for the Texas Panhandle.

After Cass polished off his hamburger, he nibbled at his fries, sipping out of the gigantic soda cup.

"How far to Texas?" he asked.

"Fifteen or twenty minutes," I said, and Cass got relaxed for the first time.

When we crossed into Texas, Cass was sleeping. It was a little over two hours to Amarillo, and we'd hit there at rush hour, but I-40 was wide, and the four-wheelers merged on and off from the right. By staying in the left lane, I could cruise through with little difficulty. Amarillo wasn't the kind of town where you got backed up in rush hour traffic.

I kept my speed at sixty-five, and the road was good, and there was no traffic an hour after fueling.

Not only did I enjoy a hot meal, but I felt lucky as well. Cass was more than a fine-looking college boy. He packed his jeans like he knew what he was doing, and judging by how tight they were, they were last year's jeans. He obviously intended to spend as little time on the side of the highway as possible.

The question on my mind, what was a good-looking boy like Cass doing on the road. It's a question I wouldn't ask, because interrogating a hitchhiker is a good way to run him off. If Cass was anything like most of the boys I picked up, the story would come out, when Cass decided to tell it.

The panhandle of Texas wasn't well-traveled. A car would go flying by every now and then, but besides other trucks, running at about the speed I was running, the highway was empty.

By late in the afternoon, the sun was shining straight into my face. I pulled my cowboy hat low, and I got out my best pair of sunglasses, to reduce the strain on my eyes.

It was straight, smooth, and without so much as a molehill on the horizon. A couple of hours after leaving the Love's, we were approaching Amarillo.

Thirty miles outside of Amarillo, Cass blinked awake.

Yawning, he asked, "Where are we," as we passed a sign that said, 'Amarillo, 29 miles. "Oh! I slept that long."

"Two hours more or less," I said.

"I didn't sleep that well last night. I kept expecting the bedroom door to open. I didn't feel any danger. The guy was too nice, you know. I pegged him as being gay, but he gave me absolutely no proof of it."

"Some people are simply nice. Maybe he had a son your age. Maybe he did what he'd want someone to do, if they picked his son up," I said.

"If he has a son, he wasn't at his house, but ten we get into a whole new story," Cass said.

Small talk was good.

"Doesn't anything grow in Texas. There isn't even any grass out here," he said.

Elk City was still in the grasslands. The further west you went, the less there was to see, except dirt and rocks.

Cass was wide awake, looking out over the range land. It was a barren stretch of highway. There were no animals, no farms, nothing but dirt as far as you could see."

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