0 Jeff Salyards | Monthly Archive | September
Archive | September, 2013

Trippin. . .

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When I was 24, I decided I needed to buy a motorcycle. I didn’t know how to ride one, but I figured I would teach myself after I bought it. I’d seen David Hasselhoff ride one—how hard could it be? So I started looking and asking around, when my good buddy Mike told me his brother had just bought a new bike and wanted to offload his old Kawasaki for $400. I was all over it. The only problem was, Mike lived in Pennsylvania and I lived in Illinois. But I hadn’t seen him for a while, so really, it was the perfect excuse for an excursion.

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I decided I was going to get a one-way flight, rent a van, load the bike, haul it home, and start teaching myself there. But there was a secondary problem—I didn’t have what folks like to call “disposable income”. In fact, being a teaching assistant in grad school at the time, I didn’t even have what folks call “income.” However, I’ve always been resourceful (read: stupid) and I did have a Sears card. To this day, I’m not sure why I had a Sears card, and even less sure why it was my only credit card. But it made sense at the time, and I hadn’t used it much, so it dovetailed nicely with my perfectly logical “buy motorcycle on the other side of the country even though I don’t know how to ride one” plan. So I got some family and friends to tell me things they wanted from Sears like camping gear, sweatshirts, and appliances, I bought them with the card, and they gave me cash. Plus, Sears had a relationship with Budget, so I could rent a van on the card as well. Trip: financed. Who needs income?

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My stepmom also graciously offered her Shell card to pay for gas on the trip home, and a phone card for emergencies. She pretty much knew this trip would somehow involve emergencies. So, off I flew, proud of my ingenuity and grateful my father married a smart woman. After four days of tremendous drinking and reminiscing—some of which I remember vividly and fondly, much or which I can’t recollect in any detail at all—I picked up my van, bought the bike, and loaded it up. But on the way back to Mike’s place the night before I was going to ride out, we took a wrong turn. These were country roads, and the next turn wasn’t for several miles, so I pulled onto some grass to head back the way we’d come. And promptly got stuck in some mud. Which was strange, as it hadn’t rained for several nights, but I was too hungover to think much about that. Plus, we were in the country—strange things happen in the country. Mike and I tried everything to get it free, but it was sunk deep. We walked back to his folks’ place a few miles away, resigned to asking his dad to help get it out with his jeep the next morning.

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But when we drove up, we saw the deep trenches the van wheels had left, but no Budget van. It’s a bad feeling when your own vehicle isn’t where you parked it, but worse still when it’s a rented van carrying a motorcycle you just bought. Turns out, this wasn’t some random field, but some guy’s property. That he had just landscaped the day before. And he wasn’t thrilled I had torn his sod to pieces.  So he called the cops and had the offending vehicle towed way the hell far away.

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After calling cop shops and sheriffs aplenty, we finally discovered the van in an impound lot an hour down the road. Of course there was a ticket, the tow fee, and a price to get that rented vehicle out of the impound lot. The lack of income was suddenly more keenly felt—I was short at least a hundred dollars. Mike’s dad agreed to front me the money, I’m sure to get rid of me more than anything, but when we finally found the van in the lot, I noticed that the lock on the driver’s side door was hanging from its wires. You couldn’t help but notice—it was just dangling there, like an eye plucked from the socket. I was incensed, and asked the cops what the hell happened. The yokel just smiled, and said they didn’t know what contraband might be in the van, so they had to break in and check things out. I asked why they didn’t use a slimjim or whatever they called it—why the hell did they rip the lock out?! He just kept smiling and said, “Door was stubborn. You got a complaint, take it up with Judge Travis in two week’s time.”

I didn’t have two weeks, or even two days. The clock was ticking. So, I swore under my breath and paid the assclowns who had fucked up my rented van with money borrowed from my friend’s dad. I grumbled, but figured every road trip has at least one major snafu, so this was mine. Best to get it out of the way.

Mike wanted me to stay one more night, but my plan involved riding down to Memphis to visit some old friends and then head back north to the Land of Lincoln, so I decided I would hit the road that night rather than waiting for the morning. Not wanting to show up in Memphis completely broke, though, I reluctantly returned the fringed saddle bags I bought at a Harley shop out there. Yes, I bought leather saddle bags for a 15-year old $400 Kawasaki. And no, I didn’t use the cash to immediately pay back Mike’s dad. There was drinks to be drunk in Memphis, and I was pretty sure my Sears and Shell cards would be no good.

I took off, planning on driving straight through the night. The first pit stop wasn’t a problem. But there was a long stretch where I hadn’t seen a Shell station for hours. I didn’t have a cell phone, and even if I had, this was before smart phones, so I just kept driving in the middle of the night, hoping I would eventually see the golden seashell in the sky. They were everywhere, right? Surely my plan wasn’t flawed. And I figured if I actually ran out, I could always hitch it and use the saddlebag money to get some fuel. But that would mean leaving the van again, and spending money dog-eared for Long Island Iced Teas. Oh yeah, and hitchhiking in the middle of the night. So I watched the fuel gauge drop below E until, coasting on fumes in some dark state out east, I rolled into a Shell station and gave out a loud whoop! My blind faith in dumb luck was rewarded and restored.

I kept going, and somehow ended up taking the wrong route (I say “somehow”, but I’m not a good navigator when I’m solely navigating, so when piloting and navigating, it’s a foregone conclusion I would get lost at least once), and I didn’t really want to stop to buy a map—again, that there was drinking money!—so I just watched that little compass on the rented van dash, kept heading southwest, and figured I would hit Tennessee eventually and sort things out in the daylight.

Only, the sun rose, and there was no sign of Tennessee. In fact, the first sign I saw that gave me a clue as to my whereabouts was “Welcome to Missouri!”. So, I overshot it a little. No biggee. Who hasn’t overshot a state or two on a roadtrip?

I stopped, asked the clerk at a Shell station how to get to Memphis, and got back on the road. I was pretty tired, but I was too close to pull over now. So I blasted the music and the AC and pushed on through. But no matter what I did, my eyes kept growing heavier, and I was doing the head bob, when I must have fallen asleep. A deep, deep sleep. Because when I opened my eyes again, I was still going about 50 miles an hour, only now I was driving through small bushes and brush. About 40 yards from the highway. I looked over in horror and saw people who were still on the road pointing at me, wondering why a rented van was plowing through the Tennessee flora. I jerked the wheel, headed back toward the highway, but instead of slowing down, slowing my heart, and collecting myself, I gunned it, jumped the gravel, and almost drove a mini-van off the road in my haste to rejoin the flow of traffic.

But at least I was fully awake the last hour or so to Memphis.

After I arrived and told my buddy Casey the story, he laughed his ass off, told me to recharge a bit, allowed me to power nap, and then it was time to go spend my saddlebag cash that I had wisely not wasted on gas or maps or craziness like that. I don’t remember much of that short stay in Memphis. There was loud music. Big cups. Vomiting. Probably more drinking after that. It’s all pretty much a blur.

And then, utterly broke now, it was time for the final and shortest leg of the journey, the 8 hour drive up to Bloomington, IL, to register for classes, and the final couple of hours to Gurnee, IL, to return my dented, broken into, grass-stained rental van and start teaching myself how to ride that old bike.

Of course, I opted to leave in the evening. My last all-night drive had gone swimmingly, so there was no reason I could see not to try that again. There might have been some other compelling reason I left at night. Maybe that’s just when the money ran dry. But I promised myself, and Casey, that I would pull off the road if I started falling asleep again. Both of us knowing I was lying.

But as it happens, falling asleep at the wheel was the least of my worries. A couple hours after midnight, I pulled off at a rest area to stretch my legs. And to poop. I don’t mention the last to be gross, but it is important information.  So I walked into the restroom and happened to notice a message written in Sharpie on a mirror: “I will suck, fuck, do what you want. 8-4. 2 am.”

Now, being tired, bad with dates and times, and generally oblivious, all I thought was, “People are weird.” And then I hit the stall. And I was in there minding my own business, doing my own business, when I heard someone else come in. I don’t think much of it—it was a public restroom after all. Some bathroom stalls, the space between the door and the wall is small. You know, for privacy. And some stalls, well, they just aren’t made that way. I heard someone whispering something—which was strange, as that’s kind of frowned upon in the men’s restroom—and when I looked up I saw an eye in that space between the door and wall. It took me a shocked second or two before I realized the peeper and whisperer were one in the same.

I screamed, “Get the fuck out of here!”

The guy mumbled an apology and raced out of the restroom.

I washed up and headed out to the van, adrenaline pumping, still kind of stunned about the whole thing. The parking lot was empty except for the van. And the lone figure leaning up against it, hands in his Dockers pockets, looking uncomfortably like Bernhard Goetz.

Now, I was pissed, but equally confused. A seriously surreal WTF moment. I walked up to the van, hands not in my pockets, but balled into fists, ready for anything. I stopped a few feet away. He just looked at me from behind big glasses, not whispering, but not saying anything in a normal tone either. Dead silent.

I took a deep breath. “That was you? In the restroom?”

He nodded, suddenly looking hopeful.

“What part of ‘get the fuck out’ did you not really understand?”

He shuffled his loafers and looked at the pavement, and mumbled, “Sorry, I just thought you wanted to meet out—”

“Get. The fuck. Out. Before I crush you.”

He saw I was getting angry-slash-sociopathic, nodded and jogged off. And when I say jogged off, I mean out of the pool of yellow sodium arc lamplight, and off into the night. Away from the highway. Just ran out into the wilds of southern Illinois.

It takes a lot to freak me out, but that kind of did it. My head was not in the game when I stopped at a Shell and fueled up. It wasn’t until I stopped at another Shell much further down the road to get some Pop Tarts that I realized I didn’t have the Shell card. I checked the van. The parking lot. No dice. I realized I must have left it behind at the last station. The only problem was, I had no idea where that station was. At all.

It didn’t involve a breakdown or a crash or a dead body, but this constituted an emergency as far as I was concerned. So I got a map, used my stepmom’s calling card, and called every Shell station I could. Not having the aid of the Internet, I called one station, and when they hadn’t seen it, called information to find the next if the last station couldn’t direct me, and repeated this for close to two hours, probably racking up hundreds of dollars, before I finally found it. Several hours in the rearview.

So back I went, gripping the steering wheel so hard I nearly pulled it out of the mount, cursing myself and the creep who might or might not have been a perverted ghost the entire way. It’s a good thing the van got good gas mileage.

Who doesn’t like to add on 7-8 hours to a 8-10 hour roadtrip? Why the heck not, right?

So, many, many hours later, I pulled into Bloomington during a thunderstorm. I’d lived there for a year, knew my way around fairly well, but between the rain, sleep exhaustion, a hangover I could feel in my bones, and my mind replaying the eye and the whisper on loop, I went the wrong way. On a one way. And nearly killed about a half dozen people. And ended up jumping a median, sparks flying, to avoid an oncoming truck, and nearly lost the muffler. On my rented van.

Of course, I missed my window for registering for classes. The office was closed.

So I drove about 400 miles an hour to Gurnee. And when I finally got there and opened the back door to the van, I discovered that between all the offroading and median jumping, the bike kickstand had punctured a hole in the floor of the van and torn up half the rubber paneling. It took me another hour to get the bike out of there. When I returned the van, the lady behind the counter asked if there was any damage. I stared at her, eyes red, shaking a little, fighting off manic laughter, and just shook my head and handed her the keys.

Let Sears sort it out. It’s their Budget.

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