Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tomah, Wisconsin

The sun rose unexpectedly early this morning, out here on the road. A big and bright yellow light woke me up from my slump only ticks away from six a.m. The Greyhound kept pushing through Ohio and Indiana all night long through the dark roads. And now this sunlight which is a welcome relief to my sleepy eyes. Crossing the Illinois/Wisconsin border the landscape is fast becoming the picture perfect image of farmland America. Cows grazing in the green pastures, cornfields rising to the blue cloudless skies it seems, red barns, old tractors and big combines rusting under this imperceptible early morning mist.

It’s a shock when we finally stop for breakfast just off I-94 outside of Tomah. I’m disappointed that we had to stop at all and even more so when I find that the impromptu rest stop is nothing more than a McDonald’s. In the parking lot across from it there’s a few semis lined next to each other. A truck driver brushes his teeth outside his rig and another one emerges from his truck and lights a cigarette. In the McDonald’s parking lot most of the cars have out of state license plates from far away as Oregon or West Virginia. Most of the Greyhound travelers rush to the fast food joint, surely lured by the greasy smell hanging in the air of frying processed meat and salty fries and the promise of free refills in their favorite sugary sodas. A few stand outside the door finishing their cigarettes in a hurry so they can go straight from one addiction to another one without losing a beat. I prefer to stand outside in the parking lot and take in this refreshing morning breeze. The traffic on I-94 oozes by leaving a scent of gasoline in the air. A family steps out of McDonald’s and head to their compact car. The young kid, probably eight or ten years old sports a hat that resembles a block of cheese. His parents, in their late thirties, both wear big Green Bay Packers jerseys and caps. I can see from  their license plate that they’re from Pennsylvania. A few of my fellow Greyhound travelers emerge from McDonald’s, their breakfast fix inside a brown paper bag, drops of fat staining the bags, and take to the bus. I hear in the distance the low roar of a two-engine plane approaching. I look up to try to locate it but as soon as I do, the sun forces my eyes shut and I can only hear it disappearing into the crop fields to the north.

I head to McDonald’s intent on using the bathroom and getting a coffee to go. The place is still packed with college students from the bus using their laptops, taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi the restaurant so proudly advertises on its billboard. In the restrooms, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is playing on the speakers. I remember growing up in the country hearing that song ad nauseam on the radio as I was doing my homework. I step out of the restrooms and the restaurant has suddenly cleared. I decide to take my coffee right here and sit by the window. Outside, my fellow travelers stand by the bus, smoking or taking big gulps from their big soda jugs. A Harley Davidson gets off the I-94 ramp and heads to the McDonald’s parking lot. I follow the couple who ride it as they step out of the bike and take their helmets. They’re both in their early thirties. They take their helmets by their arms and head to the McDonald’s. They seem to me to be bickering about something. The man has long hair and beard and wears several tattoos of Harleys and Southern Rock band names in his arms and neck. He is dressed all in black and leather and conceals just enough of his contempt behind his shades. The woman has at least three visible rings, in her navel, tongue and nose. She wears denim jeans and cowboy boots and a faded Jewel On Tour T-Shirt from 2001. I’m about finished with my coffee and my bus seems to be ready to leave, so I make my way to the counter again to get another coffee to go and stand behind the biker couple. I overhear the woman whisper in the man’s ear “You know I love you no matter what right?” to which the man responds “I just wish sometimes you’d showed it a little bit more that’s all”. They take their order and head out. I get my coffee to go and head out behind them and catch a glimpse of a few words tattooed in the man’s neck that reads “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry”. I stand by the bus sipping from my coffee cup and overhear the bike couple. “I don’t know why you never liked my family. They always supported us” the woman says. “I don’t think I’m ready to give up the dream juts yet” the man responds. “Just give it a shot, will you? We’re at the end of our rope as it is. Give it six months. We’ll get settled in and find a way out, I promise you” the woman seems to beg. “I don’t think I’m cut up to be living in a farm. I’m a city boy, always was, always will be” the man insists. “This is an opportunity to start again. You can work with my dad on the farm. You can settle up shop in town, there’s a lot of need for a mechanic in that part of the country. I can take a part time job in town, maybe take a workshop or something. We will be together, that’s what’s important. And you know, my parents aren’t getting any younger either. They’re both turning seventy next year. They’re at the end of their rope. This will mean the world to them”.

The bus driver calls up to board the bus and the biker couple kiss passionately as I board the bus and take my seat. The bus drives away as the biker couple are still locked in an endless embrace. The bus begins its slow uphill drive north towards the Minnesota border and the landscape begins to shift drastically again. An early October snow starts falling on the empty and desolate prairieland and my heart starts yearning for home like never before. As we go through the town of Black River Falls the forest starts to get thicker and thicker and the sunlight can barely get through. Still I keep my sleepy eyes open in the lookout for a place I know I will recognize. As we approach Eau Claire the biker couple race pass the bus. The woman clinging to the man’s waist as hard as she can. We take on speed pass Eau Claire on I-94 and the biker couple get off and merge into Highway 53 that will take them straight up north into rural Wisconsin. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” starts echoing in my mind as I watch the Harley Davidson disappearing fast on the horizon, the lines of the song “And drivin’ down the road I get a feelin’ that I should have been home yesterday” suddenly taking on a whole new meaning.

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