The Open Road


The open roadis usually interpreted to mean free with wide, far horizons, plenty of room. Another reading of the phrase indicates thatwhen traveling on the highway you “open” yourself to whatever the “road” will bring. Most guard against this. The few accept it as the price of traveling. Here an illustration of both definitions and good reasons to guard and to accept:

I do love the early desert dawn. The air is still cool from the night but wears a thin coat, unbuttoned, which tells of the heat to come. It will be sunny, always. That sun and incipient warmth bring me out of the Westfalia to cook my breakfast at a picnic table of this Nevada interstate rest stop.

The Silver State allows an eighteen-hour layover here, provides tables on concrete pads or on grassy lawns. My yoga mat on concrete beats an uneven desert floor, but I do prefer lawn for both yoga and weight training, which I do while breakfast simmers on the Coleman stove.

I-80 roars its constant commerce out toward rolling, brown stone-studded hills and further to the mountains north of here. The grind of sixteen-wheelers flattens over the scrubby desert weed and baked, cracked mud scrolling to the south of the rest-stop oasis.

At my lone picnic table, I combine my meal-making with morning exercise routines—at home alone, nude— here, on the open road, especially in the Nevada morning, clothed, but in as little as possible. To avoid concern over my odd-looking sun salutations and scant clothing, I choose the most remote, isolated rest spot I can find.

On August 25, 2011, I parked in the very first slot afforded to cars, the one farthest from the wunder hus (its toilets) to which travelers hurry, bilious birds flying from their nests, and from which they meander, geese strolling on a park lawn, content. Average visiting time, I can’t help but notice: two minutes. Forty yards away, I dawdle over luxurious oatmeal preparations and stretch patiently, slowly, toward my coming day of travel.

Far from the central stream of highway life, lounging over my bowl of oats in the morning sun, clad in my briefest of briefs, a wayward fellow traveler surprised me. Despite ten open slots down the way, he pulled in directly beside my isolated Westfalia camper whose doors were flung wide. Striding as directly as he could round the intervening low fence and tables, he stormed my single- occupancy picnic table. His invasive greeting shook me out of my open frame of mind.

“Do you have clothes on?” He began.

My defenses, my ire, and my indignation rose, but I remained seated, stirring breakfast.

My breakfast is not invariable, but as with many things in my life, is regular, repetitive, so borders on obsessively rigid. This day, like most days, I prepared steel-cut oats, a gift from my one-time, proto-son-in-law, Smari, who worships good food. I prepare these oats with strawberries for sweetener; blueberries, providing anti- oxidation; raspberries for a fresh zest; and a little light milk to make the gruel smooth. I had been cooking oats for nearly two years as a method to measure and control starch intake. The berries render the use of crystal sugars unnecessary. Sometimes as a rare treat, I drizzle maple syrup on top. I cook oats for thirty-eight minutes, adding milk at twenty, fruit—less the raspberries—at thirty-two. I top the cooked mixture with the raspberries which, uncooked, better release their sharp flavor.

My delight in this breakfast is rooted in adolescence when Mom worked the early shift at the hospital kitchen and Dad woke me and prepared my breakfast. I did not think of his cooking much, though I know now it was a joy, something he could do for a kid of his, something anchoring and regular for his own, often chaotic life— in short, something at once physical, practical, and emotional.

The meal in those days was often rolled oats sprinkled with brown sugar. The center I dimpled with a thick pat of butter, marking the hub of the meal and then poured a ring of milk around the perimeter of the concoction. The sugar melted and darkened in variegated patterns as it dissolved into the different strata (butter, oats, milk) before my daily coup de jour, which was to cut a channel in the oat mound, allowing the liquefied butter mixed with deliquescent sugar to pour into the milk. My excavation opened a river of yellow cream that swirled into the milk ring, carrying the silt of dissolving sugar floating all around the circumference. The dynamic mixing turned breakfast into an aromatic, sweet, and rich delight at the first taste of which my body sprang to life despite the dark Minnesota mornings. You can easily see that the depth of this devotion brooks no rude interruptions.

Similarly in the tranquil desert dawn, the first bite of rich sweetness—tempered by low fat, absence of processed sugar and the flavor of chewy, granular oat bits rather than the slurry that rolled oats used to bring me—begins my adult days. The emotional patina is the same, washing me over with warmth, with coursing nutrients and with a sweetness like the sun to a cactus flower. As an adult, I combined the buzzing lift of coffee—creamy with “spume” of partially skimmed milk rather than the hot chocolate Dad used to fix me—to ready me for challenges of the day. Ah! Breakfast! The meal that sets you free!

Yes, sets you free, if you are free to enjoy it unmolested. But my handsome, new companion, dressed in tight- fitting, button-down shirt, striped tie, and shiny slacks, had broken the barrier.

Now he rephrased his question, “Are you dressed?”

“Of course,” I countered. I couldn’t ignore the rudeness of the question, and so, stood up to demonstrate what he could not see below the table top, my scanty briefs.

“Pl-lease!” He crowed, cowering in faux disgust, averting his gaze, and crossing his arms before his face as if I were pelting him with my blueberries rather than exposing my naked torso and legs.

“You should wear some clothes.”

I sat again and shrugged. I thought he did not need to enter my sphere. If he had to avoid the affront skin seemed to give him, he could have parked like most arrivals square on the kiosk. For his part, he was fully clothed and covered, his long sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists, his cuffed dress pants belted firmly brushed the tops of the high polish shoes. It was 75 degrees out already, but then, he probably had air conditioning in his SUV.

“I was exercising,” I told him.

“Hey”—now he was advancing again despite my unrobed state—“I just bought this car—a good deal at $2,400—and I have to get to the state line by noon.”

I eyed the Ford Bronco, which looked to be worth more than he paid for it, easily capable of running the next 200 miles to Utah. I shrugged as if to indicate “so?” An early morning Silver State bee began buzzing in my brain.

Now exactly when does the thought, “Oh, here it comes,” first express itself when you realize you are involved in a solicitation, not a conversation? I am much quicker on the draw answering the phone, walking the streets of the East Bay, or approaching the doors of Safeway. But I drop my guard on the open road. Was it the story-telling tone he shifted into, body language, or his advance in the face of my offensive quasi-nudity? It may have been his tightly-buttoned visage that moved me to think, “Oh, here it comes.” And here it came.

He held his hands out in supplication. “I’m nearly out of gas.”

It is a terrible thing, I know, to be running low on petrol in the middle of nowhere; it deflates hope and the ego at equal rates. I rose to point yonder, to the gas station across the interstate accessible through the underpass. Its yellow-and-white standard towered over the raised road.

“I know where the gas station is,” he said.

I thought, “Oh, here it comes: ‘I don’t have any money, and I have a long way to go.’”

He echoed my thoughts. “I don’t have any money, and I have a long way to go.”

I must have started shaking my head before he finished, perhaps before he started. He did not look indigent or hard-luck. The obvious scenario thundered in my now-heightened consciousness: “Oh! I get it. You are in the middle of the desert, with a newly purchased vehicle which is nearly out of gas, you have no money, and must get to Utah, quick! Now how does that happen to a person like you?” My own naked body language must have tipped him to my un-altruistic intentions.

“I know it sounds odd, but that car took all of my money, and the sheriff told me I had to get to West Hanover before noon,” he explained.

Now we have the police involved! I want nothing more but to wash my breakfast dishes.

He continued with explanations about licensing, his good fortune at finding the car, the color of the desert sky. I had stopped listening.

After a minute, I stood, faced him chest on. “I can’t help you,” I stated flatly.

Without hesitation, no doubt in the spirit of conservation of energy, he stopped yapping, turned on his heel, and headed toward the people-stream, all in one motion. I watched him go. I could see him plying the flood of humanity down at the toilets with his gibe, first a trucker, then a middle aged couple, finally, a member of his own SUV tribe. I walked to the van and shut all the doors against any casual prying he might do on his return.

I performed some moderate lifts now that my privacy had been restored. First stretch, then compress. When my only neighbor did come back to his gas-beast, I had already formulated my strategy. Indignant that this itinerant panhandler should upbraid me for scant clothing while breaking the peace of each and every traveler who had need to “rest,” I set the weights on the picnic table and stood arms on my hips to inquire.

“Any luck?”

“Yeah, I earned ten bucks,” he bragged. I suppose a flimflam man sees this as an honest fifteen minutes work, so earned had to be the right word.

Before I could return to my exercise he continued. “You know where I am from?” He asked.

“Yeah, California.”

“I’m from Thousand Oaks.” “I’m from Oakland.”

“How are things there?” He asked, giving me a way to end it.

“Tough.” I let it drop like my twenty-pound weights. He gaped at the word as it thudded to the ground.

Again in a single motion, he turned, jumped into the Ford, started and uneconomically roared the engine. At the underpass he and sped directly up onto the highway, without giving a thought to gassing up.

The wide desert vistas opened all around me once again. My punctuated breakfast again grew still, leisurely and calm. I had opened myself to the road and mostly had kept it free. I was at liberty to finish my weight routine while the dishwater heated on the stove. Clean-up is part of breakfast.

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Comments
  1. Kent Schul says:

    I love on the road stories, this is a good one. Looking forward to reading more.

    Like

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