By 3 p.m., having been catapulted through toll-road Chicago onto the open-faced dairylands of milk-fed Wisconsin, I begin to notice incessant billboards for Private Pleasures, an adult superstore. The Private Pleasures billboards are followed by more billboards for the Antlers Motel. Perhaps they are related. I am too velocitized to care.
This is the unconscious stage of the road trip. At a Culver’s restaurant – a Midwest legend – I inhale a late lunch: a double patty Butterburger (don’t ask), handcut fries and Wisconsin’s most famous specialty – frozen custard, in this case chocolate Heath bar crunch. The food is like a sleeping pill. I pull off for a 20-minute nap. I dream about my dog nipping at my toes in a swimming pool. She is trying to bring me to consciousness, but she cannot, because I am in a state of road hypnosis.
Stages 3 and 4: Acceptance and Bliss
It isn’t until Minneapolis the next morning that I begin to notice things. This is the middle of the road trip, the best part, when you’re well on your way but not yet into the frenzy of the home stretch. There’s a lot to look at, and nothing else to do.
The land flattens in Minnesota, and seems to lose its shoulders. Seventy-five per cent of what you see is sky. There aren’t many trees, and the ones there are, leafless in the winter, reach out like fibromyalgic nerve ends of the earth. Sometimes they contain flocks of sparrows.
I see large white birds – I think they are swans – flying north, ghost ships in the sky. On the radio, powerful preachers pray for teens. People tend to be kind.
At a truck stop, I hear a couple talking to another pair while they gas up. (Pump nozzles in the Midwest have auto-fill clips on their levers, a brilliant invention.) “Safe trip, safe trip, yah, yah, yah,” one of the men says when they finally take their leave. It is all strangely moving and Minnesotan, but maybe I am just lonely.
You get lonely a lot on a long-leg drive, but in Stage 3 and 4 loneliness starts to feel like a gift. I order some coffee at a truck stop in North Dakota, and the waitress hands me a knife to stir it. “Because the spoons are too short to reach the bottom,” she says. I want to kiss her for this thoughtfulness.
Billboards for pro-life groups line the road all the way from Michigan west: a baby, a graph and the headline, “My heartbeat 18 seconds from conception.”
In Casselton, N.D., a dime-sized town, a single building houses the Country Kitchen family restaurant, the Governors’ Inn and Conference Center (five rooms) and a waterpark for kids.
The restaurant serves a brain-meltingly good Reuben sandwich, which turns out to be a Midwest specialty.
The waitress winks at me every time I speak to her. Boy, I think, she must be lonely too. Then I realize it’s a facial tic. She has to be the most popular waitress on I-94.
Stage 5: Intensive investigation
Early Friday afternoon, I ask a woman behind a gas counter in Bismarck, N.D., which way I should go. She points me north and west. “It’s beautiful up there.” Later, I decide she was having me on. Because of her, I end up driving north of the hills that stalled the Keystone pipeline, through Minot and the oil fracking boom that has transformed western North Dakota into an inferno.
Thanks to fracking, the population of Minot has grown by a third in three years. Houses – two bedroom boxes – sell for $350,000. For every passenger car on the road, you see 25 tankers: oil trucks caked in brown fracking sand, semis hauling freshly painted drills. Every 20 miles, a new colony of Lego prefabs pops up – the so-called lodges, or man-camps – housing roughnecks. A room runs $600 a week. The roughnecks can make $120,000 a year for 100-hour weeks.