On many tires, and with innumerable stops, our convoy inched its way to the freeway across clogged surface streets like an ungainly caterpillar. Inside the caboose of the multi-wheeled ungainly vehicular hive mind, we found ourselves wishing for open road with earnest prayers. Eventually, with one last jerking thump through the minefield of potholes, we lurched onto the interstate, our maximum velocity reaching a window rattling fifty miles per hour. After the off-ramps and suburbs disappeared, I began to see the wondrous expanse of central Missouri.
At first, my sight caught brief swathes of forest. Those passed quickly, even at our rate of speed, and were interrupted by eye breaking expanses of even green squares. The ground was even, straight, and linear. It appeared to be the perfect place to calibrate a level. It was flat. However, calling the landscape flat seemed to insult the word. Meter after meter, acre after acre, mile after excruciating mile, everything was exactly simply identical in its desolate uniformity. The slight variations in the letters of the word “flat” at least evoke a glimmer of imagination, unlike the terrain that my tired corneas processed. After five miles, I was more bored than a dog on a dusty porch.
Even the billboards that marred the sky in fifty foot intervals had a bleak repetitiveness. In bold, chunky, un-exciting letters that failed to raise a smile or a frown, they advertised caves, beef jerky, porn, antiques, and more caves. Crankily, I shut my eyes, and tried to block out the unyielding sameness of the scenery, but only succeeded in blinking slowly, catching glimpses of alternating patches of abandoned farm equipment and farms. As the van’s engine burned diesel at a prodigious rate, and my life passed before my eyes, I sat propped against the window, mesmerized by the green crops stretching their leafy goodness under the pale blue sky.
Past Columbia, which failed to raise a flicker of interest on my countenance, the smell began. First, I thought it was my very brain decaying from boredom. Second, I thought it was a teammate’s dirty feet. Just as the third possibility began to percolate in my hypnotized thoughts, the stench poured and coursed into my nose, slapping my senses awake. It wasn’t the constant manure smell that had plagued us for fifty odd miles, but the stench of a serious, burning, flaming mechanical failure. The foul spell of silence lifted from our minds, and as one, we began to chatter our protests at Jughead, the safest shortest slowest driver.
Under siege from more words than he had heard in three weeks from everyone he knew, Jughead tapped the brakes to slow our van while wearing that same look of mute happiness. The smell soared and roared at our senses. Jughead tapped the brakes futilely, once, and then again, twice. Angrily, dark black smoke swarmed and coiled out of the air conditioning vents into our faces, pouring from every orifice of the van like angry locusts. Fortunately, the mechanical exactitude of Jughead’s driving did not falter at this unforeseen turn of events, and he did not roll us into the ditches that lined the freeway, and turn us into a fiery wreck.
Methodically, in his non-verbal manner, he only directed us to open all of the windows, so that the smoke could flee the cab faster than it flowed in. Simultaneously, he continued to pump the brakes like he was giving the van CPR, while the remainder of the convoy accelerated across the plain and headed farther out of sight. In a matter of seconds, the rest of the team had disappeared into the far-off distance. Despite this disturbing problem, Jughead kept steering and driving at a pace that diminished with each passing moment. But rather than pull over on the side of the freeway, where passing strangers, or perhaps even the Missouri highway patrol could aid us, Jughead kept driving forward to the next freeway exit, despite the increasing and thickening clouds that billowed from the hood.
Even though the next exit stated clearly in bold green and white, “No Services”, Jughead plowed the van up the mild grade of the off-ramp, and for good measure, turned left and headed at least one mile up into farm country, before signaling to the now non-existent traffic that we would be pulling off, and then placed the car on the shoulder evenly, where, once the car was at a dead stop, he turned off the clanking engine. We were now off an empty road with no appreciable prospects for help.