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The Night Traveler




  

 The Night Traveler



            Lately, I travel “the road” when I can’t sleep. When I can’t find the money to pay the Visa bill, when the granddaughter who lives with us screams that she hates my guts, or when my wife coughs too much and the bleeding in her lungs starts up—those are the times when insomnia strikes and I hit the road. I draw the blankets up close around me as I lie wide awake in my solitary bed, climb into the driver’s seat and off I go. Alone.

            I have done this since I was a little kid. I’ll come across an isolated place that appeals to me and I study it to memorize all the details. I tuck away its landscape like a roadmap in my head. One of my first getaways was in western Nebraska at Scotts Bluff National Monument, a squarish butte that juts up unexpectedly from the surrounding plains. It was a beacon for pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail, indicating that they were on the right track. When I was a boy, seven or eight years old, it sent a clear signal to me. Sanctuary. Refuge. My mother had re-married and our new stepdad was taking my two sisters, Mom and me to live in Utah. He pulled us all up by the roots, leaving friends and family behind in the Missouri dust. Traveling at a snail’s pace in a beat-up station wagon dragging a U-Haul, we stopped at Scotts Bluff during the three-day trip. Even before the car was fully stopped, us kids clambered out the rear doors, scattering like bugs released from a jar. After a lunch of pickle loaf and white-bread sandwiches inhaled with warm Mountain Dew, we had one hour to explore. And explore I did, like a scout from the Lewis and Clark expedition, taking mental notes on flora and fauna, curves and forks in the path, degree of incline, areas that presented challenges (blocked line of sight, crumbling edges on the path, loose rocks along the overhead ridges). Thereafter, whenever trouble erupted in my childhood home (as it did, time and again), on sleepless nights in my dank and cool basement room, I scaled the narrow switchbacks to the top and scurried to the short tunnel carved high in the Bluff. I burrowed down in my bedroll (as I pictured a cowboy would), safely anchored between layers of sandstone, limestone, volcanic ash and whatnot. I had a fire blazing at one end of the cave, protected from the wind that swept down from the distant mountains and across the stark prairie like a bone-dry hurricane. 

            For more than fifty years I have logged thousands of miles in secret wanderings. I wish I had the money to travel to Europe and study a castle’s ruins, scout out a less-visited Egyptian pyramid, or explore a Mesoamerican temple, but I content myself with forgotten treasures nearby. The abandoned steelworks north of town is a good one. It sits like a fortress out near the alluvial plain with inaccessible marshlands on one side. The gated entrance was locked but it was easy to scale the fence and walk the property before security cameras were installed. I investigated an old hotel and its grounds before it was demolished, fancying a respite in one of its many rooms. Abandoned train depots are good, too. I have committed to memory lots of those. Sometimes I catch a train ride from a station and let someone else do the driving while I survey the changing landscape from my decrepit Pullman car. 

            But…back to the road. Right around the time my wife got diagnosed with lung cancer, we ventured upon it during one of our Sunday drives. It’s a paved, narrow industrial road that bisects an oil refinery shuttered for two decades, and it meanders along a major river for several miles. There are no houses nearby—the surrounding acres of land are now held by a cement company and the railroad has a right-of-way that runs parallel to it. It’s rare to encounter anyone else on the road, even in daytime. There are no intersections, just one turn-off into a gated access to the river spanned by an elaborately twisted rusty pipe structure. It’s the only place where one can see the river from the road.

When my wife and I discovered the road, I felt like I had stumbled across Xanadu. I never expressed to her how satisfying this experience was, but I believe in some fashion she understood. She seldom talked when I took her for drives on the road before chemotherapy took its toll. Even when I slowed down to 20 miles an hour, she just looked out the window, resting her head back against the seat, her wispy, fine strawberry blonde hair fanned out around her pale freckled face like a dandelion gone to seed. Back then, we traveled the road in all seasons. In the summer, the surrounding forest is overgrown, a little too wild for my taste, with vines snaking around the trees, the ground choked with a swampy, pungent undergrowth. One time we drove it in winter—about three dozen starlings perched on the railroad signal like a horror movie omen, their deafening cacophony warning us of something lying in wait.

I prefer late spring, a few weeks after tender, fresh leaves bud out from the trees, before the insects and weeds take over. In my nocturnal joy rides, this is the season I choose; there is a warm breeze and the moon is always full. It beams overhead and its cast shadows are short, illuminating the pavement below. My dream car glides along, windows down, radio off, motor quiet. Peaceful.

            Like a lot of my “safe zones,” this road isn’t far from where I live. In fact, if I wanted to, I could throw on a sweater and jeans and drive to it within minutes. And I did that—once. I got up one summer near dawn, snuck out of the house and jumped into my car. Once there, my imagination began to run wild. The thought of a flat tire or a long wait at the train crossing brought visions of violent vagrants emerging from the woods or a sicko pulling up behind me with no headlights, wielding a weapon, forcing me into a ditch. The whole time I felt panicked, even though the ride was uneventful. I choose to travel the road by memory and imagination. It’s perfect then.

            It’s almost always after midnight when I start my drive. Before I reach the end of the road I fall asleep. I know I dream but can’t remember anything when I wake up. I hope I had a pleasant dream but there’s no way to tell.





Desiree Ultican

  


I started out as a bright young thing and had some short stories published in my 20s. One was picked up by the PEN Syndicated Fiction Project. One won a Missouri Fiction prize and I recorded it for National Public Radio. That was years ago. I continued to write, but my life took a lot of turns and frankly, I became extremely self-critical and never felt like my 'voice' was ready to publish. A couple of years ago I finally girded my loins, wrote a novel, wrote more short stories, steeled myself for tons of rejection, and have started sending out my stuff again. I did have a short short story, "Be Here Now," accepted by the online ezine, Prometheus Unbound earlier in 2019.

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