First Place, Non-fiction, NMW Awards 32
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JL Schneider
The Empty Road

The roads are empty.

The two-lanes, the four-lanes, the Interstates—like everyone else, I slow-dance with my fellow inch-crawlers in sputtering steps on our grinding commutes to work, and death-sprint door-handle to door-handle with my fellow rocketeers on the Interstate as we speed knuckle-gripped to Aunt Betty’s funeral two states over. The roads are swollen with cars. They are choked. But why are they so empty? Where are the people beside them?

*

There are three kinds of road.

There’s the Iron Road. Ever since the first rails were laid across America, people have been riding ‘em. Jack London traveled the Iron Road, dossing on gondolas, battering the privates for scoffings and the main-stems for light pieces, dodging the bulls and passing the punk, carving his monica and preying on bindle-stiffs (for a translation, see his book The Road)—hitting the rails for the same reason all adventurers do: “the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest.” Almost a hundred years later Ted Conover hit the rails and went Rolling Nowhere for the same reason: “I had desired an activity with an unpredictable outcome.”

There’s the Rubber Road. This road is traveled by car, but not to Aunt Betty’s funeral or the mall. The car isn’t a conveyance, it’s your home. You sleep in it, cook meals on a camp stove out of its trunk, and turn it toward directions you’ve never been, just because. Steinbeck traveled the Rubber Road with Charley, though some might say that, because he had a four-star hotel room stacked on the back of Rocinante, he cheated. But he was old, so forgiven. Kerouac and Cassady raced down the Rubber Road in their huge Hudsons, Plymouths, and Cadillacs. They scorched it. So frenzied were their journeys across America that Kerouac wistfully remarks at one point in On the Road: “With Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.” (Breaking a basic rule that applies to all Roads: Notice everything.) William Least Heat Moon rode it in his van, Ghost Dancing, and told us how to find the best food in America by counting the calendars on restaurant walls. Robert Pirsig rode it with bugs in his teeth.

And there’s the Leather Road. Boots on the ground, thumb in the air and sign in hand, some say this road is the most exciting, dangerous, and Fate-driven of the three. This is the road I started on at age fourteen, and which gave me an education I wouldn’t trade for a Ph.D. from Harvard. Before I turned twenty, I had learned as much about human nature as I’ve learned since. This is the road that seems to have gone away, and I don’t know why. It’s less than thirty years since I was on the Leather Road, a mere generation, and the absence of hitchhikers seems apocalyptic. Something has wiped them out, and I’ve been trying to figure out what.

*

The empty road is not the open road. The open road is somewhere out west, in one of the big box states where I’ve been waiting for hours for a ride. I’m in the midst of country wide and clean; country that’s barren in every direction except in the far distance, where the mountains stand like a fake Hollywood backdrop, pale blue and pure-white peaked; country that looks like it can’t be owned. Small thunderstorms are pocked around the 360 degrees of horizon. The distant rain falling from the bellies of the black clouds, like cotton being thinly drawn out, attaches them to the ground. Only in big, open country can you see the totality of their threat. For now, there’s sunshine above me. There’s a river running nearby, hard and fast, swollen with snowmelt, cloudy with anger in the spring. It seems to have the ability, at any moment, to go elsewhere, to jump out of the ravine it’s etched into the hardpack and run freely wherever it chooses, a sexual insinuation to its coursing. I’m alone with nothing but my rig (backpack), I’m surrounded by epic silence, I don’t know if I’ll get a ride out of this isolated landscape before sunset, and there’s no shelter to seek for the night if I don’t…

*

The Fear Theory. If you believe the media, the per capita percentage of bad people has apparently skyrocketted over the last thirty years. The hitchhiker, we’ve been told, is particularly dangerous. No one in his right mind would willingly stand by the side of road and solicit rides from strangers. That person must either be insane, destitute, or running from the law. Or all three, thus someone you’d never want in your car. Conversely, for the hitchhiker, every ride will be your last—a stranger’s car is a carnage-cage driven by a madman stalking loners he wants to chop into little pieces as soon as he gets back to his lair. Not just the road, but the entire world is apparently a more dangerous place—to which we’ve responded with gated communities, child-tracking devices, admonitory labels on everything. We’ve succumbed, Conover suggests, to “the fetish…we’ve made of safety.”

There might be some merit to this—not in truth but in our gullibility. The media, certainly, have the ability to gin up directional opinion with their invasive imagery and fear-looped storytelling. Always have. One must remember, however, that back in the day almost all hitchhikers were considered hippies, and they didn’t have a very good reputation. They were everywhere, not to be trusted, and ready to take over the world. Nevertheless, hitchhiking flourished, even as most of the country was, and generally is, rather conservative. (We’ve been governed by Republican Presidents for twenty-eight out of the last fifty years.) Out on the road I was, according to the myth, the “other,” yet I moved with relative ease across the highways of America.

*

A barren stretch of two-lane in Wyoming—a hairline on the map—stretches like a cliché through a flat, sage landscape to the horizon in both directions. I’ve been waiting all day for a ride. Next to me is the dirt road a rancher went down this morning, leaving me to count on one hand the cars that have passed since. The weather is fine, sparkling, the sky above me immense and clear. But the sun is setting. It’s not a good place to be. No cars. Beautiful country, but bad territory. The rancher said he was doing me a favor by picking me up outside the small town where I’d already spent hours going nowhere. “People don’t ‘preciate hitchhikers ‘round here.”

Finally, someone stops. Blinded with gratitude I rush to his rusty car, throw my rig into the back seat, quickly scramble in, and slam the door closed. I thank the driver profusely for picking me up. He doesn’t say anything. I tell him where I’m going. Not a word.

Initially, I’m grateful for his silence. No small talk. I can go off the clock for a while, maybe even catch a few Z’s after being on my feet all day. But I always try to get some sense of my benefactor—it’s good road caution, just in case. I ask him where he’s been. No reply. Where you headed? Nothing. What do you do? Nothing. A bad sign.

He’s puffy of face and unshaven. His tee shirt is dirty and he’s a mouth-breather. His greasy hair is matted to his head. His eyes stare through the windshield without blinking—he looks like he’s been on the road longer than I have. Soft and paunchy, his face carries the beguiling, almost beatific menace of the calmly insane.

I check out his car. It’s at least twenty years old, beige inside and out, torn seats, duct tape on the steering wheel for no apparent reason. I scan the dash, the floorboards, the overhead, and when I get to my door I see it has no handle. Another bad sign. What I thought was a handle when I got in is only an assist grip. Stupidly, so anxious was I to get a ride, I broke Rule One of the Leather Road: Never get in a car without a handle on the passenger door. I quickly check the driver’s door. It has a handle. Under pretense of checking my rig, I lean over the seat and see that both rear doors have handles. Handles on all the doors except mine, which only has the assist grip. A very bad sign.

I have no way of getting out. Even if I want to suddenly leap out the window, or lunge over the seat, grab my rig, and dive out of one of the back doors, I’ll be killed instantly. He’s doing eighty-five. My goal was to take this road and hit I-80 west of Laramie, then get to Bamforth National Park by sundown. There’s another road, however, WY 230 (a thicker line on the map, more traffic), just fifty miles ahead. It, too, will eventually take me to I-80, but in the wrong direction and right into the heart of Laramie’s teaming heart at rush hour. Bad hitching strategy. But I have to get out of this car. I tell the driver of my change of plans, that I’ll be getting out sooner than I said, at the 230 junction. Dusk coming on, you know. No reply.

Though it’s only fifty miles, because we’re screaming, we’re at the 230 in half an hour. It’s the longest, sweatiest silence I’ve ever endured. I’m not sure he’ll even stop when we get there. But he does. He leans past me to show me the “trick” to getting my door open (a pair of pliers from under the seat and a hard shove), and I stumble out with my rig, ready to bolt. He’s still leaning toward the passenger’s side after he’s pulled the door closed, and he rolls down the window. He looks at me. A small smile comes to his lips, kind of bashful and humble, and the menace is gone from his face. He looks almost innocent. It’s suddenly obvious to me that he’s never been a threat to anyone in his life. He’s just a quiet, soiled man in his beat-up car going who knows where. Before driving off, he says the only words I’ll ever hear from him.

“See you after we die.”

*

Maybe it’s technology—too many cell phones. (Conover mentions this as a contributing factor to the disappearance of the Iron Roader.) Someone sees you by the side of the road and can immediately call the cops. This argument has some merit, also, and is supported by the Paranoid/Fear theory. Back in the day, if someone saw you hitching it’d take him a while to get to a phone and call you in. It meant getting off the highway and interrupting his trip. It just wasn’t worth it. Truckers had radios, but most of them were more on your side than the law’s. It’s so much easier now to be a snitch.

Technology to blame? It rarely is. Despite the fact that technology can, indeed, influence social change, it’s only a tool. It’s how one uses technology…

*

Having somehow made it out of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex—an impossible bramble of highways, byways, on-ramps, off-ramps, blended elevations, and trumpet, cloverleaf and diamond interchanges—I’m finally headed north on I-35 with a guy named Jack in his red Chevy pickup. He’s moving to Ft. Collins, Colorado. I figure we’ll catch I-40 at Oklahoma City, head west, pick up US 87 at Vega in the Texas panhandle, drive northwest through Channing, Hartley, Dalhart, cross into New Mexico at Texline, then catch I-25 at Raton and take it all the way up to Ft. Collins. Four states in less than two days. It’s a good combination of two-lane and Interstate, nice country, just the right mix of scenic leisure and making time. I’ve been on I-25 before, and it’s a good Interstate, good hitching—clean, moderate traffic winding through the beautiful heart of America. The only question is: will we make it?

Jack’s truck has a problem, and he’s worried about it. The concern has been on his face since I got in. Two days ago the motor mount broke off the right side of the truck’s frame. But he was still moving north, nothing was going to stop him, so he bolted a piece of rebar across the right side of the engine compartment from the front cross-member to the top of the wheel well. And from this bar he’s hung a come-along by one hook, the other attached to the side of the engine. Damnedest jury-rigged repair job I’ve ever seen, like fixing a Saturn rocket with a rubber band. That a vehicle can even run like this is remarkable. He’s been feathering the clutch since he picked me up, and now I know why. Too much torque on the engine and it’ll twist, digging the fan’s propeller into the radiator. Or worse, hop off the come-along and drop onto the highway. The motor is just hanging in air, like a plane from a string, and even the slightest careless shifting down or up and we’re dead on the road.

Keeping the truck at speed is better than having to gear through the two-lanes, so Jack wants to take I-40 west all the way into Albuquerque where it intersects with I-25, then go north, at least 300 miles longer out of our way on very boring Interstate. It’s his truck, his decision. I make my case for the hypotenuse up to Raton, then, at a rest stop to check the precarious engine, I move into the open bed of the truck.

At the 87 junction Jack veers off the Interstate. We’re heading northwest, the back way, and I watch Vega recede into the distance. I tap the glass with my beer can and toast Jack. He gives me a thumbs-up… I’m in the back of a pick-up truck drinking a Coors, my rig is beside me, and I’m watching the holy heart of America flow past. An engine thread-hung from hope is prowing the road. I’m not working or married or going to school. There is absolutely nothing that I have to do, and I suddenly feel like the speaker in James Wright’s poem, “A Blessing.” I am certain “That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”

*

Perhaps it’s aesthetics. We’ve shifted our collective view of what’s acceptable, what’s “good looking,” so to speak, in the way we’ve decided smokers are now ugly. In an electron-connected, boundary-blurred, social-networking world, there is no moral beauty to the hitchhiker. He seems too burdened with the Self, too distant in his isolation standing by the side of the road. He’s not even texting with one thumb while the other is in the air. He’s just standing there. Alone.

But what are some of the traditional values attached to his persona? The hitchhiker represents freedom. Go where you want when you want. A very American value, still. He represents the individual, the lone wolf, the solitary cowboy, the long-haul trucker moving the ballast of America through the lonely nights. All iconic images still used today to tap into our collective conscious and get us to buy things, as relevant, at least mythologically, as they ever were.

*

The Verde Valley in northern Arizona is exactly what its name says it is—a green valley. A beryl-, emerald-, viridian-green Eden. Every shade of green I’ve ever seen everywhere I turn. I’ve never been in the midst of so much greenness. It’s been a bad couple of days hitching, and I need to rest, to find a place to shed the road weight for a while. Against the banks of the Verde River, which encircles the town of Cottonwood, enfolding it, is the perfect place. Tonight I have my first hot meal in three days—rice with slices of summer sausage. A banquet.

Verde Valley is calm, alee, safe for mind and body (the locals know I’m here and don’t care), so persuasively cordial that I decide to stay another day. Then another. At some point I write a poem on a scrap of paper, the opening lines of which are:


I am kneeling
minds inside
my body…

I have no idea what this means.

The Verde River is close enough to smell—clean and sweet, like a celadon sheet drying in the sun—and its rushing water is the only sound at night as caterpillars drop onto my sleeping bag from the cottonwood branches overhead. Its sound—a soft gurgling combined with an urgent, constant intent—seems eternal. It seems like the only sound that has ever been heard, or ever will be.

For some reason (maybe it’s the river) I’ve been thinking of Peter Matthiessen and his search for the snow leopard on his way up Somdo Mountain in northern Nepal, heading to the Crystal Monastery 18,000 feet in the sky. The trek requires a ton of equipment—tents, bedding, firewood, notebooks, tools, food. At one point Matthiessen finds himself barely able to shuffle along the trail under a back-cracking load of lentils in his rucksack. He’s also carrying with him the burden of a family he’s guiltily left behind and the sorrow of a recently deceased wife. And he’s carrying a koan given to him by his Zen teacher before leaving: “All the peaks are covered with snow—why is this one bare?” Of all the things he has to lug up that mountain, I wonder how much these words weigh.

*

We’ve grown soft, fat, inert—lazy in all manner of thought and action. Like Mom & Pops being absorbed into uniform conglomerates, we’ve allowed our quirky edges to be smoothed over and absorbed into a flabby homogeneity. Hitchhiking is just too hard, mentally and physically.

They say what killed the Catskills (where I live) is the three A’s: air conditioning, airlines, and assimilation. Maybe this is what killed the hitchhiker, also. True, it can get brutally hot on the road. (Once, standing roadside beneath the scorching Florida sun, the only shade I could find was from the two-inch shadow of a No Stopping sign.) And you’ll certainly get to your destination faster by airplane. And with television and the Internet, we’re definitely a more consentient society; the flattening of regions—the absorption of the unique dialects and lifestyles of those regions into a larger whole—was something Steinbeck particularly mourned in Charley. The driver who picks you up in Alabama can finish the conversation you started with the driver who picked you up in Maine. The world, indeed, has become flatter. And more convenient.

But isn’t this what every generation says about the youth of their time? “When I was your age…” Since back in the day we’ve survived numerous recessions, an oil embargo, the resignation of a President, 9/11, several wars, and Disco. Yet here we are, more or less intact. Are we any less resilient than we were?

*

For three days I’ve been stuck at Sitting Bull Falls outside Carlsbad, NM, where I had previously been staying in a cave. It’s a day-use only recreation area, so I’m not supposed to be here overnight, which Walter L. Hutte, a Forest Law Enforcement Officer, informs me in a hand-scripted, clearly intended note left on my tent while I’ve been out exploring: “You are in violation of Federal Law by camping within this recreation area. This is a day use only. You will be cited by a forest officer if it is not moved by tonight.”

Sitting Bull Falls is a small, amphitheater gully of glacial gouge nestled at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains and pressed against the edge of the Chichuahuan Desert in Lincoln National Forest, home of the original Smokey Bear. Looking around at the thousand-foot rim above me, it’s like being at the bottom of a coffee cup. To the east, within sight, are the falls, the remains of billions of gallons of water barely trickling over a precipice. The rest of the area is bare, desiccated, dotted with bright green yucca halfway up the circular valley of canyon walls riven with dry-wash beds of white rubble. The wind blows all day long in this bowl, hard and constant. There are always dozens of buzzards circling overhead—the high-altitude lofters like black stars in the ice-blue sky, the lower ones throwing shadows against the canyon walls and over the splintered picnic tables. At the bottom of a former ocean of water, the silt of Man has settled. After a very crowded Easter weekend, this place is a mess. The thorny bushes are ornamented with paper plates, pieces of tin foil, and shreds of paper towels; at their bases, like Christmas presents, lay aluminum cans and white Styrofoam cups swirled there by the wind.

Because it’s a day use area, everyone arrives in the morning and leaves in the afternoon, just the opposite of my schedule and directional needs, and no one wants to give me a ride, mostly because they’re families. My food is running out. On the morning of the fourth day (playing cat-and-mouse with Officer Hutte) I have to make a decision: Either wait one more day for a ride, or start to walk out. Neither option is a good one.

Overnight a car has arrived—two guys having slept under a picnic table. When I see them waking up I go over and ask if they can take me out to the main road when they leave. Sure they can. Then they offer me a beer. Then breakfast—bacon, home fries, eggs, thick slabs of bread, all cooked in a single large fry pan over an open fire. More beer. They’re from Hobbs, NM, and work on oil rigs. Lee is about six-feet, very heavy, sloppy, dirty-blonde hair, bearded. Jimmy is short, lean, compact, a machine of controlled energy, focus, and fearlessness. An ex-sergeant in the Marines, he once taught at the Yosemite Mountaineering School.

After breakfast, though I’m itching to get out of here, they say they’re going rock climbing. That’s why they’re here. The ass-kicking, shit-your-pants type of climbing with pitons, chockstones, carabiners…up the facades of rock I’ve noticed tend to curve outward at their peaks. Jimmy asks if I want to join them. At first I say no. But then… I start asking questions.

“Oh, it’s dangerous,” Jimmy says, “no doubt about that.” He then tells me how we’ll execute the climb with three people. “The only obstacle,” he finally says, “is yourself.” That’s all he has to say, and I’m in.

Jimmy goes up first, then Lee, then me, all on the same rope. It’ll be my job to remove the pitons on our way up, even though I’ve never been rock climbing in my life, and Jimmy knows this. He doesn’t seem worried. Jimmy free solos—no belayer, no top rope, setting pitons and attaching draws as he goes—about as dangerous a type of climbing as one can do—up the rock face. He has no redundancy and no protection. If he slips or falls, we’re all dead. He climbs about a hundred feet, spider-like and confident, then, securing his position, turns around to guide us up along the toe- and hand-holds he used. If need be, acting as belayer once he’s set himself, he can catch us by the rope if we slip, or give us a little help if we get stuck. Just say “tension,” he told us before we started. The entire afternoon, all I hear in the echo-theater of Sitting Bull Falls is fat, sweating Lee above me yelling, “Tension, Jimmy, tension!

The only thing I feel the entire way up is fear. Pure, solid, gut-wrenching fear. Fear that pumps so much adrenaline through my veins my periphery is nothing but a white blur. Deep, visceral fear for my life as I hang 700 feet in the air by a rope that’s attached to a piton tapped no more than three inches into rock that falls off in slabs if you look at it funny. A fear so intense it gives me an acute, heightened sense of myself in the Universe, that is, how forsaken I am in it. How indifferent it is to our crackbrained decisions.

Somehow, we slowly move upward.

Fifty feet from the top—Jimmy and Lee already above the rim—I can go no further. Jimmy’s got the rope, which is attached to the makeshift harness looped around my waist and under my crotch, and though I haven’t all afternoon, mostly out of pride, I yell up to him, “Tension!” The rope remains slack. “Tension!” Nothing. My arms and legs are numb. My knees are literally shaking. Before this, I always thought one’s knees shook side to side, banging into each other like two noggins after Moe has clunked them together. But it’s my actual kneecaps that are shivering, jiggling on the front of my legs like beads of water on a hot skillet. “Tension, Jimmy, tension!

He’s looking down at me, smiling, the rope loose in his hands.

“You can do it,” he says.

No I can’t. I need help. The rope remains slack. He’s been pulling fat Lee up the side of the rock all day, but he won’t help me.

Stupidly, I look down. Fear that opens up avenues for moving forward when no escape seems possible.

Lee has long since gone back down to the car via trail. Jimmy, the tough ex-Marine, encourages me, telling me where to grab, telling me when to rest. But he won’t tense the rope. I inch my way up. It takes me the rest of the afternoon, as long as it took the three of us to climb 800 feet, to climb the last fifty. Somehow, I make it over the rim. “That’s worth a beer, eh?” is all Jimmy says.

*

Perhaps the laws have changed. Every state in the Union now has a law on its books prohibiting hitchhiking, all of various complexities and lengths, but none more succinct than the fourteen words of Kansas Code 8-1538: “No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride.” However, the same laws (more or less) were on the books back in the day. Hitchhiking was, still is, illegal.

*

On the fringe of a small Texas town—I can see its deserted, one-block commercial district from where I stand—a cop pulls up next to me. The usual routine. After I put away my ID he informs me that it’s not illegal to hitchhike in this part of Texas. Welcome news. But it is illegal, he says, to walk on the right-hand side of the road. He gets back in his cruiser and drives 100 yards up the road, then pulls off onto a dusty half-moon of gravel parking lot in front of an abandoned garage. He turns off the cruiser and watches me.

So, I can throw out my thumb and solicit all the rides I want. But in order to actually get a ride, that is, get into a car, the driver must miraculously stop right in front of me, his door within arm’s reach. If I take even one step up the road to get to the car—the car is always up the road when it stops—the cop’s going to nab me. And, of course, no matter what side of the road you’re on, you’re always on the right-hand side. After an hour of trying to solve this puzzle—If someone stops, will I be able to beckon him back to me?—Can I walk backwards?—the cop still there, enjoying every minute of it—I give up. And when I do, despite my dilemma, I laugh. There’s nothing else to do but laugh, to enjoy, to admire the paradoxical, brilliant lawmaking that keeps me and my rig rooted to the spot where I stand.

*

The roads are empty.

Fear, technology, sloth? A reduced capacity of spirit? Perhaps it’s economics. Since back in the day the collective economic tide has lifted all boats. Everyone owns a car, so there’s no reason to thumb it. However, we’ve been through numerous economic slumps since then, none worse than the one we’re in as of this writing. And usually, such times send the thumb-struck to the on-ramps like mice to open fields when the barn’s on fire. Still, the roads are empty…

I don’t know. Perhaps all of the above reasons are correct. Perhaps none of them are. Perhaps we just don’t take those kinds of trips anymore. Maybe, as a culture, we’ve matured. Back in the day was a turbulent, some might even say, childish time. Riots, rebellion, self-indulgent drug use, picking partners as easily as M&M’s from a bowl—one big, adolescent tantrum. Perhaps we’ve “put away childish things.”

We still take journeys, of course, and always will. Itinerancy is how we got all over the globe in the first place. Maybe it’s time to move on, so to speak, and realize that it just doesn’t matter anymore how we get there. The only thing that does matter—the only constant, as any seasoned traveler will tell you—is packing. It’s really important what you bring with you.

*

Cibola National Forest outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is serene, intact, unsullied. Albuquerque’s sprawl is twenty years off, so the small, prickly balls of pincushion cactus, the saltbush, agave, and silver sage, still seem more like the owners of, rather than the visitors to, this part of the high desert plain. I’m here by way of a trucker named Ted who works for ACE Auto Supply, who’s been gracious enough to let me stay at his apartment in Albuquerque for a couple of days, and who’s driving me out of town at four a.m. tomorrow on his first run, taking me as far west as he can so I can continue my journey. But for now, there’s plenty of beer, good people at a birthday party, and Cibola is pristine.

I talk to the father of the two girls whose birthday it is. He’s in the Navy, just back from Japan. We talk about Japan and meeting new people and what traveling means to us. Eventually, he gets around to telling me a “true” story about a ferry that docks on the western edge of his small hometown in southern Mississippi.

…A man is being transferred to a different branch of his company, and he’s on the ferry at night with all his worldly possessions in his car. It’s a small ferry, holds only twelve cars, four rows of three, and is the only way across the river for fifty miles north and south. It’s a cold, winter night—winters aren’t harsh in Mississippi, but still get your attention—and everyone stays in their cars, except for the man. He’s at the railing, watching the low wake of the ferry ripple away from the prow in thin white lines, occasionally spitting into the water below.

Presently, the ferryman comes out of his tollbooth-sized wheelhouse and looks up at the clear sky. He looks around at the cars. Then he comes over to where the man is standing by the rail. For a long time they don’t speak. The man squeezes out balls of saliva and lets them fly into the black water. The ferryman watches the river north, toward its head. Finally the spitting man speaks.

“What kind of people they got over there,” he asks, nodding toward their destination, the town of his new life.

“What kind of people were in your last town?” the ferryman replies.

The man spits into the water.

“Idiots. Backstabbing, two-faced people. People who couldn’t give a flying fuck about their neighbors.” He pauses. “Mostly just idiots.”

“Yup. That’s the kind over there,” the ferryman says, nodding toward the far shore.

Several weeks later the weather has warmed, but the river still holds winter, sending up shafts of cold air from its surface. The ferryman is on deck, coiling a long painter after having just cast off from the eastern shore. The ferry carries only one car, which is filled with the worldly possessions of its owner who’s at the rail, breathing deeply through his nose and letting out visible, chilled gusts of river air.

The ferryman works his way steadily around the boat, checking cleats, kicking the base of the railing, looking for loose bolts. As he’s leaning over the side, checking the hull, his only passenger calls to him from the rail.

“Hey, what kind of people they got over there?” he asks, nodding bow-ward. “My company is transferring me, and I never been.”

The ferryman looks up from the hull and gazes north, toward the river’s source.

“What kind of people were in your last town?” he replies.

“Well,” the man answers, thinking for a moment, “I guess pretty decent folks. Good people. Good hearts. People looked out for each other. Basically good, honest folk.”

“Yup. That’s the kind over there,” the ferryman says, nodding toward the far shore.

Many writers say that writing is an act of exploring—the world, a subject, the self.  And in that act the implication of a goal—insight, an answer, a resting place at the end of the journey. Sometimes. Sometimes it has to be its own reward, its own destination—the action, not the fruit of the action. The road is often the same way.
- JL Schneider
JLSchneider is a carpenter and an adjunct professor of English at a small community college in upstate New York .  His essays have appeared in Studies in Contemporary Satire, Literal Latté, and The Shawangunk Journal, and have been anthologized in Ghosts in the Classroom (Camel’s Back Books) and Voices from the Couch (America House).