Amarillo By The Afternoon

by Rick Beck

Chapter 3

Amarillo Rush

"What's this place?" he asked, still slumped in the seat.

"We're twenty or thirty miles east of Amarillo," I said.

"Doesn't anything grow out here? It's nothing but rocks and dirt," he said.

"That's what grows here," I said. "If the globe was a person, this would be the asshole."

Cass laughed.

When we passed the Cadillac Ranch, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"What is that?" he asked, a delighted sound in his voice.

"Cadillacs grow like that, right out of the dirt in Amarillo. You didn't know this is where Cadillacs come from?"

He laughed, as we approached and passed the Cadillac Ranch, where the cars were planted nose first in Texas dirt.

"Those are Cadillacs?" he asked, looking at how the noses of each car was buried in the dirt, tail fins sticking straight up in the air.

"They are a variety of ages. I think from late 1940s to early 60s. Can you imagine cars over twenty feet long, and all the cars had huge fins, like that," I said.

"How would you park a thing like that?" Cass asked.

"Very carefully," I said.

It was hard to picture cars a third the size of big rigs. "Cars had big fins in the 50s. It was required. If it rained, and kept on raining, they'd have made nice boats," I said. "If they could only float."

"You don't have a car that size at home?"

"No, I don't have a car. It was get a car, or go to college, I decided that I needed to go to college," he said.

"You're a far piece from college, Cass," I said.

"Tell me about it. I'm traveling for my health," he said.

"You're as healthy looking a stud as I've seen lately. I'll say again, most guys want to get school behind them, as in graduating." I said.

"I was going to school. I had a job to pay the bills. My life was coming apart. I couldn't concentrate. I quit my job and dropped out of school," he said. "Here I am, and I've got to tell you. I have a new appreciation for how beautiful Wisconsin is. Texas sucks."

We were looking at each other, as Amarillo drew closer. Questions came to mind, but no answers crossed his lips. Since he'd started a conversation, I followed his lead.

"Just like that, you left it all behind. Not an uncommon story from most boys. I've picked up a lot of guys who told me similar stories."

"Many college drop-outs?" Cass asked, looking my way.

"No! The road is full of stories, but no college drop-outs. Well, one now."

This seemed to get Cass thinking. He looked away from my face. The panorama in front of us gathered his interest. A specter of him stewing in his own juices came to mind. With Amarillo dead ahead, I'd talk my way through the city.

"I've met plenty of high school drop-outs. It's the nature of the beast. I'm sure some of the boys hitchhiking are younger than they tell me," I said. "Things are hard where they're from. They think about leaving. They find no reason to stay, and they hit the road," I said, being careful with the words I used.

"And some of us end up on Joe's truck," Cass said, proving he was listening to what I said. "Why?"

It was my turn to look at the Cass' face. He wasn't easy to read, but he was looking me over carefully.

"I know what hard is, Cass. I did hard for my first eighteen years. I stayed home, having no idea where to go. I see myself in some of the boys I pick up. I don't judge. If I can give them some feeling of worth, while they are with me. It could help them find their way. I'm no fool. I'm no psychologist, but if I'd had a few words of encouragement as a young boy, I might not be out here doing this," I said, saying more than I usually did to a guy I didn't know.

"This is a rolling church," Cass said.

"Far from it. I'm a guy who has been where a lot of guys find themselves. We don't and won't conform to what this society says. Once I was eighteen, my life belonged to me. I made up my mind, I'd stop listening to anything the assholes had to say. I began working my way to being a trucker. I call my own shots, and if I can help someone, while I'm out here, I do what I can."

He kept and eye on me as I spoke. He was thinking.

"I'm out here every day, Cass. I spend a couple of weeks at home once every three months. The rest of the time I'm out here. The castoffs, misfits, lost and lonely stand on the side of those highways. I pickup the ones I can."

This drew his attention back to my face. I'm not sure what Cass was looking for. He was a cut above boys who usually ended up in my second seat.

"Some guys want to talk. They tell me about leaving home. The stories have a similar ring. Other boys don't say much. I figure, no one has ever listened to them. That's the way they see the world. No one cares about what they have to say. Some are high school drop-outs, if they're in high school when they decide it's time to leave."

Cass was making up his mind about me. If you want to learn about someone, first you've got to listen to them.

"I take guys the way they come to me, Cass."

"When they talk, you listen," he said.

"I do. As you can tell, I have a lot of time on my hands, and miles ahead of me. Listening to the stories helps the miles go by faster. Once a guy become part of the rhythm of the truck, he might start talking, and I listen well, but now, I'm repeating myself."

Cass looked away to watch the road ahead.

There wasn't much to see. The billboards for the Big Texan restaurant came more frequently. The free 72oz steak the come-on. The first the Big Texan billboards were back in Oklahoma. They got more plentiful the closer to Amarillo you drove.

The catch in the free 72oz steak, you had to eat it, and all the fixings, in an hour. That's four and a half pounds of beef in one hour. I'd never been tempted to try. I filled up on an 8oz steak, but they claim there are people who have done it, and I bet they were big fans of the Big Texan.

Living in Amarillo wasn't as exciting as it sounded. You couldn't watch the grass grow, but you could think up novel ways to get motorists to stop and spend their money. A string of truck stops, one after another, for miles, were stung out along the highway on the approach to the city. They offered truckers every reason to stop.

"There sure are a lot of truck stops," Cass said, after we'd passed the first half dozen.

"How many have you seen, since I picked you up?"

"There was the Love's at Elk City," Cass said.

"That's why I fuel up there. I can be in and out in less than a half hour. It's a quick stop. There's no parking there. These truck stops are all there is, until Tucumcari, New Mexico. That's hours away. By the time most truckers get here, they're ready to eat, and their fuel tanks are getting too low to wait any longer to stop for fuel," I said.

"But you don't stop," Cass said.

"I don't stop. This is where I make my best time. I don't want to be sitting around a truck stop, flirting with waitresses, when I can put the hammer down, and get the miles behind me. It's still twelve-hundred-mile to Long Beach. I got no time to waste here."

"You aren't like other truckers?" Cass asked.

"I make money while my wheels turn, Cass. This is my job. I don't waste time, until the miles are behind me. Than, if I have extra time before I'm scheduled to deliver, I play."

"You never stop in Amarillo?" Cass asked as we passed two more truck stops, one on each side of the highway.

"When I was first driving a truck, in early January, before I'd been driving a year, my load delivered to Lubbock, Texas. An ice storm hit the panhandle of Texas. This was one of my first stops at Elk City. I liked its convenience, so that became one of my fuel stops, when I'm going west on I-40."

"You remember where to get cheap fuel and good food," Cass said.

"After I fueled there, I figured to be in Lubbock before dark, but in less than an hour, I began hitting ice. I hadn't quite made it to Texas. The sleet began picking up, and my windshield froze. The temperature had dropped from the upper 30s in Elk City to near zero."

It was no run of the mill sleet storm that might drop a quarter of an inch to an inch of ice. It was a sleet storm, after a snow storm. The snow had been about six inches deep from the night before. As the temperatures warmed, the snow turned to slush. Messy, but no big deal to drive through, but by that afternoon, an arctic front had dropped down across the panhandle of Texas. The slush froze immediately, with all the ruts and crevices from vehicles driving through that slush. They were now ruts as hard as stone, and driving across it was like driving across the surfaces of a waffle iron. I couldn't go more than twenty- miles-an-hour. It took eight hours for me to get to Amarillo. It was normally two hours, once I was in Texas."

"That sounds like an ordeal," Cass said.

"Oh, the ordeal hadn't started yet. I had until the next day to deliver. Even getting to Amarillo at near dark, Lubbock was less than a two hour drive, normally. It was far from normal," I said.

By the time we reached where the truck stops start appearing along the highway, a Texas Ranger stepped into the road to flag me down.

"You'll need to pull your rig over, Driver. You can't go any further tonight. The road is blocked in more places than I can count. On my way out here to stand in this mess, I counted nearly two thousand big rigs. They line the shoulder of the road for five miles. No one is moving. The truck stops are jammed. You can't get in. You can't get out, and if you got in, you couldn't go anywhere. You might say, hell has frozen over."

"How far to the Union 76 from here?" I asked.

The Ranger looked toward Amarillo, and then he looked back at me.

"Five miles, give or take. Lots of you boys have been walking it. I've seen dozens go that way. None have come back. Why would they. You can be warm, out of this mess, and near plenty of food," he said. "Leave yourself room to get out, once you park. No telling when some of these boys will venture back out to their trucks."

"What happened?" Cass asked.

"My helper and I walked to the 76 truck stop. There were a couple before we got there, but by the looks of them, all the truckers had gone to the first truck stops they got to. The 76 wasn't as filled and there were only a couple of hundred truckers in the restaurant."

"How long until you got out of there?" Cass asked.

"Three days. On the second day the sun came out, and the ice began to melt, and by the third day, they'd cleared all the jackknifed rigs, stalled four-wheelers, and word came that we could go back to our trucks. It took two hours to get back to the truck. Traffic was moving but a hundred truckers were all walking back to their trucks, one they lifted the highway closure."

"Did you make it to Lubbock?" Cass asked.

"Oh, yeah. I drove to Lubbock in about three hours. It had snowed there, but they didn't get the ice storm. What they got wasn't anything like Amarillo," I said.

"What did they say?" Cass asked.

"Where you been, Boy? Get lost?"

"They didn't know about the ice storm?" Cass asked.

"Oh, they knew. They were just playing with me. Good-old-boys, don't you know. Later on I heard, twenty miles west of Amarillo, they didn't get any snow or ice. The storm we were in had been about two hundred miles wide. The panhandle of Texas on I-40 is one hundred and seventy-five miles across. It's just one of those things. In a decade that was the worst weather I've ever been in."

"Lucky you," Cass said, not sounding like he thought it was lucky at all. "And you don't stop in Amarillo these days."

Cass said.

"You got that right. I'm happy when I see it appear, and I'm happy to wave goodbye," I said. "You only needed to get stranded in a town once, and never again."

"Sure are a lot of truck stops," Cass said again.

"More these days," I said. "More trucks, more traffic. More truck stops to stop at. They're all on the east side of Amarillo. On the west side, it's like you're in the middle of nowhere for the next two hundred miles. You'll see."

This time of year it usually didn't snow, and the traffic was moving right along, but the memory of that deep freeze stayed with me. I'd never really liked Amarillo after that.

Cass watched ahead of us. His silence wasn't an indication of anything. He said what he wanted to say. Not everyone wanted to tell a trucker his problems. Not everyone wanted to talk about his life. It was all good.

As the far reaches of Amarillo began to appear, Cass was looking at my face again. He had something on his mind, but I wasn't a mind reader. We'd met each other that morning. It was late afternoon. It took time to get to know someone. Being on a truck, being so close for so many hours each day, could speed that up, but not always.

"I like the talkers," I said. "They keep me more alert. If I learn something about them along the way, it can't hurt."

"You aren't a man who wastes a lot of time," Cass said.

"I'm working. If there's a reason to go into a truck stop, they are handy, and there's plenty of room to park. At one time they had the best food, and a reasonable price on fuel. I stop where the fuel is cheapest, and the food is outstanding, when I have time to get a good meal."

"You might say, you're a captive audience," he said. "No one said something that had you putting them out?"

Cass had been thinking about what I'd said.

"No. What would he say? I'm a truck driver. I've heard it all. There's little worth trying, I haven't tried. Truckers are the cowboys of the highway. Cowboys are free spirits. We like roaming the range. We aren't by the book guys, Cass. I'm out here to blaze my own trail."

"Because you don't like most people," Cass said.

"Because I don't like what most people do. I do it my way, and I do it alone. No one tells me what to do," I said.

"You like having other misfits with you," Cass said.

"You listen well. It's easier to have someone with me," I said. "But I'm often alone. I don't ask anything of guys who ride along. I feed them. I give them work, if they want it, and if they want to talk, I listen, and if we like each other, we'll eventually tell out stories. It's all good."

"You get along with everyone who gets on your truck?"

"No way. Some guys do the damnedest things, and some guys start talking, and don't know when to shut up. Some guys want to argue about everything. People are unpredictable. When I see a guy on the side of the road, I look for age, how he dresses. I want to see his face."

"You like young good-looking guys," Cass blurted.

"If that was true, you'd sure fit the bill. Once a guy gets into his mid-twenties, he should have no need to be on the road. It's a factor in who I stop for. If a guy dresses halfway decent, even if his clothes are dirty and he needs a shower, I'll stop for him," I said. "It's instinct."

"if he looks as if he has some pride, that's a factor. If he looks dangerous, or he looks wrong, I keep on moving. It's common sense," I said.

Cass looked at me like he took in every word I said.

"You know what you're doing," Cass said. "I've never met a man more comfortable in his own skin."

"I've been at this for over ten years. I know what I'm doing. I'm not working a nine to five job, because I won't conform to someone else's idea of what work is. I am my own boss. My dispatcher knows what kind of loads I'll take. If he offers me loads I don't want, I get a new dispatcher," I said. "I own my truck, and I go where I want to be. Life is too short to be miserable for half of each day. I love what I do, and I love to keep moving."

"It shows. You are one of the good guys, Joe Buck," Cass said, sounding like he believed that.

"I've heard it all. I've done most things worth doing. I think of my truck as a sanctuary for me, and for guys who are in between here and there. Some guys are looking for a place, where life isn't pressing in on them," I said.

"If they want to talk, I don't repeat anything I hear, and when a guy says, 'Let me out here,' I let him out there. No one stays a minute longer than he wants to stay. Life is too short to spend it being disagreeable."

Cass watched me talk, even when the traffic had picked up, and I kept my attention on the road.

"The best helpers get handed a card, before they leave. It says, To talk to Joe Buck, leave message at this number."

"In case they need you?" Cass asked.

"Riding the roads gets old. Young men like being on the move, but they are looking to experience what life has to offer. Just because they get tired of riding, doesn't mean they won't miss it, or need it in the future," I said. "Once I know them, and I like them, I hope they'll call, but if they don't call, I figure they're OK."

"It also gives them someplace to go, if things aren't working out for them," Cass said.

"It does," I said.

"Any call that number?" Cass asked.

"All the time. I have four regulars. I'll hear from each about once a year. I take them on, even if I have a helper. If they call, they might need me. I won't let them down."

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