~ CHAPTER FIVE ~
TRAVEL is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered. It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people. Travel is not a vacation, it is often the opposite of rest. “Have a nice time,” people say to me at send-off. It was not precisely what I hoped for. I craved a little risk and experience of my own company, and in a modest way, the romance of solitude.
Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
I woke to the sound of dripping water outside and realized the rain had stopped. Clouds lingered in the sky, but for now, the driving would be easier.
Once more, the roads were straight as I headed south, then west, then south crossing the state in giant steps. The road cut through endless fields of stubbly corn stalks their tops lopped off after the corn harvest. This kind of driving was boring, and my mind began to drift backward in time to when I first met Harry and the earlier days of our relationship.
We met each other in a bar. I was sitting at the bar trying to have a conversation with some trucker from Alabama. I say trying because I couldn’t understand a word he said with his strong southern accent, and he couldn’t understand my English accent. I’d been in America for 1 ½ years at the time, and my accent was still strong.
Then another man sitting on the next barstool offered to be my interpreter. He too was from Alabama, but he was considerably easier to understand. His name was Harry, and he interpreted for the trucker and I while I learned about the big trucks and how many gears they had. I found it fascinating, as coming from England I’d never seen such huge trucks before. As the conversation wound down with the trucker, Harry asked if he could buy me a drink and I took a closer look at him. He had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a prominent nose. I thought that perhaps he had a little Native American in him. When he stood, I guessed him to be about 5ft 7”, not too tall and good looking to boot. I accepted his offer and we talked about England and Alabama. The conversation was easy and we had a good time. When I got ready to leave, Harry asked if I’d like to meet him again. I didn’t have a real boyfriend so I accepted, and our relationship began.
At the time, I was feeling very lonely. I lived with an older couple, Mary and Roy, in the tiny rural town of Union, just across the state line of Indiana, in Michigan. It was a ten-mile drive into Elkhart where there were a few bars, but not much else in the way of entertainment. I’d just spent the previous year in California and had spent Christmas Day sunbathing. Somehow it hadn’t seemed right, so in the fall of 1987, I’d moved to Michigan to see the fall colors and experience a cold, snowy Michigan Christmas. I’d never experienced the type of cold that froze lakes solid enough to drive snowmobiles on, and I’d never experienced summer heat that exceeded ninety-degrees. That summer had been long and I’d spent most of it alone, so by the time I met Harry I was ready to have a relationship with someone.
I’d dated Harry for a few weeks before I learned he was doing drugs. I’d never been around drugs or anyone that did them, so had been naïve to all the signs; the frequent comings and goings of scrawny, scruffy looking men who only stayed a few minutes, the constant partying of Harry’s roommates, the dilated eyes with their huge round, staring pupils, and the sneaky visits to the back room. Harry was surprised when I finally asked him what was going on.
“Yea, we haven’t done any drugs in front of you cause you don’t do them yourself, but I assumed you knew. How could you not have?”
“Well, I grew up in a very different world than this. I’ve had a very sheltered childhood. I’ve never even known anyone who’s been in jail overnight for drunken disorderly, let alone for drugs.”
“Well, I only do a little bit for fun. It’s not like I need them like these other guys, so don’t worry about it.”
After that, the signs were obvious and I cringed at how stupid I’d been. I considered breaking off the relationship, but I didn’t want to go back to being on my own again. Besides, all of Harry’s friends told me what a great guy he was. They’d known him much longer than I had and it felt good to be with someone who was so popular. This town was boring without friends to hang out with, and Harry treated me, okay, so I decided to stick around and see how it went. It wasn’t like I was committing to marriage, I could leave at any time.
One beautiful fall weekend we decided to go up north to visit Harry’s son, David, who lived with Harry’s ex-wife. Harry drove ninety and one-hundred mph most of the way, drinking beers while I watched out for cops and deer. He told me where to look for them, by the overpass, by the busy intersections and so on. He knew all the hiding places, having driven this road hundreds of times in the past. I wasn’t comfortable with his drinking and driving, but my protests went ignored.
Central Lake, Michigan, was a small, quaint town and all the roads leading off the main highway were dirt. It was exciting for me. I didn’t know there were still so many dirt roads in America. It felt very wild and remote compared to the country lanes I’d grown up with in England or the city streets of San Francisco where I lived the previous year. The friend we were staying with, in Central Lake, lived in a trailer that had no water or electricity. She had a long, dirt driveway that washed out every time it rained heavily. About a mile down the road was a small freshwater spring where she got drinking water for herself and her horses.
Our accommodation was a tent. It was the first time I’d been tent camping since I was a child. That night we had a campfire and more of Harry’s friends joined us. We sat around the fire playing guitars and spoons, singing rock and country songs I’d never heard before, and drinking. Most of the group had been drinking since late afternoon, but now they switched to the bottle of Ouzo I’d bought as a treat from a ski resort we’d visited earlier that day.
At some point during the evening, I’d gone into the trailer and found David and Jerry in there talking by the light of a kerosene lamp. I sat down and joined them, but after a few minutes David, who was nine years old, got bored and went back to the fire and I was left talking to Jerry on my own. When Harry entered the trailer, I didn’t notice how mad he looked. We were laughing about something Jerry had said, and I didn’t even look up. Then things became a blur. I think Harry grabbed me and drug me outside. He was saying things, horrible things.
“So you like Jerry eh? You want to fuck him, I know you do, flirting in there with him. Why are you flirting with him? I know you had another boyfriend when you started fucking me, you’re a little slut.”
“No Harry, I wasn’t flirting, we were just talking. That’s all.”
‘Oh shut up, you’re a pathetic liar.” Harry kept on in this angry tone for several minutes, pushing me around, but not hitting me. I could sense the violence in him though, and it had me quivering and crying in fear. Jerry had come outside explaining that David had been there up until a minute ago and there was nothing going on. He tried to placate Harry, but it wasn’t working.
When our voices grew loud Angela and her husband Mike came over. “Harry, let Roxy go, she’s not done anything. You’ve had enough to drink. I think we should call it a night.”
When his friends spoke to him, Harry let go of my hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He said, taking me in his arms gently. “Please forgive me. It’s not my fault. Look there’s a full moon, it makes people act weird and I’m not used to this Ouzo stuff. It kicks ass.”
Jerry, Angela, and Mike all started making jokes and telling funny tales about how weird people behave on a full moon. The joking and laughing diffused the situation and shortly afterward, we all went to bed. I lay next to Harry on the camp mattress wondering what had happened. I hadn’t done anything to deserve that kind of treatment. Harry’s rage had come from nowhere. Maybe it was just the Ouzo, he’d never acted like that before. There was something about his eyes though. It wasn’t just that they were dilated from whatever drugs he’d been doing, or that they were red from the pot they’d all been smoking, it was more—There had been a rage in those eyes that was deep, but it had vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. Had I imagined it? I’d had a few to drink myself tonight. Maybe I had done something to make him mad. Could I have been flirting without realizing it? I questioned myself. I didn’t think so, but I had been having a good time. Oh dear, I’d better be more careful in the future, make sure I’m never alone with another man, that’ll take care of it.
The next day Harry was twice as sweet and attentive. He cooked our breakfast over the fire while singing songs to me that had me smiling. I tried to remember everything that had happened, but the memory was already a blur. I decided to put it aside for now. If it happens again, then I’ll end the relationship. It was probably just the Ouzo, it was pretty wicked stuff after all. Little did I know that weekend would be the first of a series of incidents that brought out the rage and jealousy Harry harbored inside. Had I been smart, I would have followed my first instinct and left him then, but the thought of being alone in the world again just didn’t cut it.
A pothole in the road shook me from my reverie and I felt a sudden urge to pee. Looking around I saw nothing but cornfields stretching to the horizon and beyond. Then I saw it, like a mirage in the desert—a big yellow M. I pulled into the McDonalds parking lot at the same time a tour bus full of senior citizens did. I couldn’t believe it, but those elderly folks with their walking sticks and walkers showed amazing agility in their urgency and managed to beat me to the restrooms. By the time I got to the toilets, the line was twenty deep.
I couldn’t wait for that! In desperation, I checked around the back of the restaurant, but there was nowhere to hide. There was nothing for it—I’d have to go in the cornfield. I’m sure every one of those good folks could see my head sticking out of the corn stalks, so I waved at them, giggling to myself. I stocked up on McDonald’s cheeseburgers and continued my journey through a continuous string of small farming towns, shifting uncomfortably in my car seat, scratching my butt and reaching into my underwear to pull out tiny and very sharp pieces of corn stalk and grass seeds.
At the point when my car’s tires crossed the state line into Illinois, I took a deep breath and let out a “Yee Ha!” I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. Where though, I had no idea.
I drove through Peoria in the late afternoon and found a campground near Bushnell. The camp host warned me there was going to be a big fraternity party there that night and I might not get any sleep. He allotted the camp spot farthest away from the party and charged half price.
After I set up my tent and re-arranged some items in my car, I drove into town to buy some food. When I glanced out of my rearview mirror I saw something in the road behind me, then I heard a thump as something else came flying out of the car top carrier.
Oh no, I forgot to fasten the carrier. Shoot, there’s stuff all over the road and nowhere to pull over. The road was a series of little hills and dips. There was no safe place to stop. I finally stopped at the bottom of a dip, my tires as far off the road as was possible. There was a very steep bank with a big drop off at the side. I walked back up the road retrieving various items that had bounced out of the carrier and were strewn all over the road and in the ditch.
Several items were caught in the hinges of the carrier and were hooked on the clips. I stood between the passenger side of the car and the drop-off behind me and tried to free the items, but I couldn’t reach them. I opened the car door and stood on the lip of the doorframe, but the position was too precarious and I fell down into the ditch. It took an effort to get back out, grasping onto tiny tufts of grass to pull myself up. Finally, I wrapped one leg around the car seat and swung like a monkey to grasp the items. Someone honked as they flew by. “Thanks for the help buddy,” I yelled at him.
In camp that night, I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that some of the drunken teenagers would find me camping alone in the farthest corner of the camp and start to harass me. The toilets were made of cinder blocks, and didn’t have doors on them. Taking a shower or visiting the bathroom made me nervous too, especially as there were no lights inside or out. When I finally plucked up the courage to visit them I jumped at every little noise and swung my flashlight towards even the tiniest snap or rustle in the bushes. I held the flip knife in my hand, my heart pounding loudly.
Fortunately, my fears turned out to be unwarranted and the wild party was not as loud as the hosts had expected. I lay perfectly still for hours, listening for unwanted visitors until finally, my eyelids gave in to gravity and sleep bestowed me with a dreamless night.
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