It was getting late. Most of the pink had disappeared from the sky, making the cornfields on either side of the road dark and shadowy. I veered right onto the exit ramp and pulled into the nearest parking lot.
Besides mine, the only other vehicle in the lot was a pick-up truck covered in dirt and NASCAR stickers. I exited my car and stretched as I walked. The pavement was draped in neon yellow from the hulking “Denny’s” sign a few feet away.
Inside, the air conditioning was uncomfortably cool. I slid into a booth by a window. The owner of the truck, I presumed, was sitting in a booth adjacent to me. He wore a sleeveless shirt, and leaned on his forearms as he talked to two teenage boys that sat across from him. They all ate hamburgers and slurped from plastic cups filled with dark, fizzy liquid. Their conversation had something to do with college football. I glanced at the menu, quickly gave the waitress my order, and turned my attention toward planning the rest of the drive home.
I plugged destination after destination into my phone, calculating the times and mileage between potential checkpoints. I sanctioned portions of the digital map into lags, as if planning a relay race. Still, there were almost 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) between home and the sticky red booth I sat in.
But it was only Sunday. The wedding I had to be home for wasn’t until the following Saturday. I made a quick search for nearby motels and called one. I needed a bed. The night prior was spent in my car on the residential streets of Moab, Utah. In spite of the suffocating desert heat, I had fallen into a sweaty sleep, but around 2 a.m., the engine of a garbage truck woke me. After waiting for the rumbling to stop, I decided it best to find another location. I turned my car on and slowly crept along a neighboring street until I found an empty baseball field to park next to. I slept unbothered there until dawn.
After a few bites of food, I found a hair in my eggs and left in a hurry. There was plenty of trail mix and apples in the car.
When I checked into the motel, I asked the lady behind the desk where I could buy a couple tall cans of beer.
“That one,” she pointed vaguely behind her. “Probably the only one open now with the holiday.”
It was Labor Day weekend, I quickly remembered.
I drove until I saw the gas station — white, bright, and made of glass.
When I walked in, the clerk nodded hello. He wore a red apron and white shirt, the latter looking freshly ironed and buttoned to the top, as if he were about to add a tie to the outfit. I returned the nod and then veered left down an aisle covered in plastic bags of candy, passing a couple taking turns at a slot machine. Their eyes followed me en route to the beer fridge.
Returning to the store’s tenant, I placed two cans on the counter. His hair was black and parted on the side. Shiny strands hooked around his ears.
“Can I see your ID?”
“Do you need my passport too?” I asked. “In Utah, they needed to see my passport.”
“No. Just the ID.”
I passed him the card. Smiling, he looked it over, bending and flicking the small piece of plastic. His hands were covered in tattoos, and I noticed a few swirls of ink sneaking from the collar of his shirt, too.
“Where are you from?”
“Halifax. It’s in Canada, on the east coast.”
“Check this out,” he said, handing the card to a man in overalls beside me.
“Never seen one-a these before,” the new inspector said, his massive hands dwarfing the card.
“What are you doing here?”
“I used to live here.”
I don’t remember it but, for a couple of years, my family and I lived in a little brick house here in North Platte, Nebraska. The town, which lies just off Interstate 80, is known for its rail yard and tornado warnings. I guess I’d wanted to see it for myself.
The two men finished gawking at my ID and returned it, and I paid for the tallboys. I wanted so badly to drink them, but after 10 hours of driving alone, I desperately wanted to talk to someone too.
I asked the cashier a few questions: where he was from and how he had ended up there. And then, reluctantly, I left and drove the handful of blocks back to the motel. The room’s floor was covered in burgundy carpet. Frayed, brown curtains covered the only window. I took a hot shower, grabbed one of the beers from the fridge, and took a seat on the starchy bed. There was a pen sitting on an empty notepad beside the alarm clock. Picking it up, I began writing down a few recollections from the day.
In between scribbles, I rolled the pen back and forth between my fingers, trying to perfect the words that would encapsulate these recent gas station moments, as if a magic adjective could preserve this night for eternity.
There was bumpy lettering on one side of the pen, the motel’s name and logo. But underneath the logo was one of those gimmicky, feel-good mottos: TAKE NOTES ALONG THE WAY.
Take notes along the way.
I had driven a lot, and most of it with no one else in the car. I had left Halifax 29 days prior, passing through Toronto, Regina, Calgary, and staying put in Vancouver for a few days. Then it was time to go home. But I took a bit of a detour. I headed south across the border and just kept going, through Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, right to the Arizona-Utah state line. Now, I was trying to make up that ground, speeding back toward the Canadian border.
In total, I drove 9,300 miles (15,000 kilometers) through eight provinces and 10 states, past glaciers, deserts, prairies, and coastlines. There was the time I stood five feet away from a black bear in British Columbia, and the time I got my car stuck on a beach in Oregon, only to have it towed by a couple of fishermen with no teeth. One evening, before dusk, I swear I had Lake Superior to myself — its water cold, metallic, and ocean-like. And another time where I overlooked the grand curves of the Colorado River with a thousand others. There were eerie sensations of emptiness while driving along dark roads nearing midnight, and stranger’s jokes that surrendered every muscle in my body to laughter.
But now, when I think about that trip, I think of North Platte first. I remember the hair in my food and the motel room that smelled like cigarettes. I remember the guy behind the gas station counter, originally from Kentucky, who planned on moving to Alaska to crab fish, or maybe France to fall in love.
Wherever he goes, though, I’m happy he’s part of my notes from along the way.