[Original Novella] The Lonely Road, Part 4
First, I tried to climb back up to the highway. Maybe I can wave somebody down? If not right away, then as the sun comes up. But the grade increased the further up the slope I went until I was clawing uselessly at a sheer rock face, the busted railing at the edge of the highway just barely visible another ten feet above me.
Down, then. A difficult decision, even though it was the only way left to go. No less daunting, but for different reasons. I stumbled more than once on my way down the muddy hill, steadying myself against outstretched branches.
At one point I leaned against the still wet trunk of a douglas fir for perhaps three minutes before continuing my descent. The last thing I need out here is to sprain my ankle or some shit. May as well track down a bear and feed myself directly to it, in that case.
It feels stupid to leave the comfort and safety of my car, but I don’t see what other choice I have. Nobody knows where I am. The longer I stick around in one spot, the hungrier I’ll get. My best chance must surely be to set off in search of a fire lookout tower or something.
I made my way carefully amid the trees, brushing branches out of the way here and there, then shaking the residual pine needles off my jacket. The fog was thicker down here than it was on the highway, obscuring everything further than a hundred feet or so in all directions.
Fog pools at low points, like a fluid. As I watched I could see it flowing down the hill in slow motion, collecting at the bottom. It visibly swirled around my hand as I waved it in front of me, and my body left a wake through it as I walked.
Only after a few minutes of walking did it occur to me how easy it would be to get disoriented. Panic set in when I realized I couldn’t say for sure which direction my car was in. I’d not walked in a perfectly straight line, and the app on my phone I use to find my car in parking lots relies on cell tower triangulation.
Useful for precisely fuck all out here, just like me. No point in doubling back then, I’d only get more lost. Instead I pressed on, noticing as I went that I’d so far seen no beer cans, food wrappers or other typical traces of human activity.
I’ve never been hiking this far out, but the trail I usually visit is infested with tweaker encampments. Can’t go more than a mile without running into a tangled nest of stolen bicycle parts, transparent plastic bags full of empty cans, blood stained mattresses and $99 Wal Mart tents covered in tarps.
Where do they even get those clear trash bags? I’ve never seen them on store shelves. Some of their dwellings get pretty elaborate, too. In state parks they manage to go months or even years without being forcibly relocated, so the deeper into the woods you go, the more advanced the shelters. On one occasion I stumbled across a full blown yurt fashioned from tarps and branches, Swiss Family Robinson style. Desperation really is the mother of invention.
Yet even as my own desperation mounted, no brilliant plan dawned on me. Without a signal I couldn’t get any sense of my location, nor call for help. The best I could figure was to keep walking until I saw some bars on my phone, however long that might take.
At last I emerged from the woods onto another highway. Nothing to either side of it but dense, foggy woods. A back road? I guess all the roads this far out are back roads, after a fashion. Looked pretty new, no potholes or other blemishes to be seen anywhere on the smooth black asphalt.
Fog banks crept languidly along the road as I followed it in one direction. No real reason, I still hadn’t the faintest idea where I was. For all I knew there was a cabin or convenience store or something a mile in the other direction, and I was only getting further away from it with every step.
I had to choose though, which took me much longer than it should’ve, even though fifty fifty is better odds than you’ll get in most areas of life. If only I could get a god damned signal. I checked my phone again. Same result. No service, and somehow the clock still read four in the morning.
For that matter, the battery level hasn’t gone down any. How does that work? Maybe when there’s no signal, it consumes less power trying to connect or something. I became self conscious about walking down the middle of the road, and moved to the right side in case a car should come roaring unexpectedly out of the fog.
I should be so lucky. Even if somebody hit me, at least they’d know where I was. They’d call an ambulance, and within a few hours I’d be in a nice warm bed, being spoon fed hospital food by a nurse. I must be pretty far gone to fantasize about hospital food.
Nurses don’t even wear white gowns and caps with the red cross on ‘em like they do in cartoons. Or porn. Or cartoon porn. They dress like wrinkly blue ninjas. Like the cafeteria lunch lady’s hair net, but over their entire body. It’s the most profoundly unsexy garment possible, which is probably the point of it. What do my tax dollars even pay for?
After some time spent walking along the side of the road, I began to wish for mile markers just so I could count them. Then I’d have some sense of how far I’ve gone. Counting the trees didn’t work, they’re all jumbled up and look more or less the same. The street lamps weren’t numbered. There should be mile markers, shouldn’t there? I always assumed that was standard everywhere in the country.
My leg brushed the guard rail now and again. It only came up to my knee. I could easily have thrown a leg over it and walked on the other side. Not sure why I didn’t, except for the small extra effort it would require from an already exhausted body.
Every inch of the road looks identical. I ought to have come upon some sign of wear and tear by now, but I couldn’t spot any. Did a road crew just lay this down recently? I’d begun contemplating turning back when, at last, I noticed something different in the distance.
A faint speck of light, which grew brighter and more distinct as I drew near. The fog scattered the light such that all I could make out was the general shape of the building until I was nearly on top of it. A gas station!
Not just a gas station, there was a modest garage adjacent to it bearing a sign over the entry which read “Oil changes, 75 cents” in fancy old fashioned typeface. I couldn’t place the architecture, eventually realizing it was because I’ve only ever seen buildings like this in advanced stages of decay, or black and white photographs.
I scolded myself for coming so close to turning back. I might’ve missed this place entirely! That’s the blasted indecision that drove my business into the ground, and why focusing on one project for that long in the first place was such a personally important accomplishment.
All for nothing though, look where it got me. Poking around a gas station in the armpit of nowhere at four in the morning. Should probably say five by now, if my phone wasn’t fucked. I assumed the time would automatically update whenever I next got a signal, not yet realizing.
The pumps caught my attention. Streamlined, art deco looking machines with a big white seashell shaped sign atop each, illuminated from within. The body of each pump prominently featured a four digit mechanical readout that worked like the one on a slot machine.
The numbers on display were one of nine painted onto each cylindrical drum, which rotated as needed to depict any of the others. I pulled the nozzle out by a suspiciously immaculate handle and experimentally squeezed the lever.
I could hear the motor running, but nothing came out. Even so, the cylindrical drums spun wildly. It would’ve been cause for worry had there been any gas to pay for, or anybody to give the money to.
A shiny, colorful poster adorned the wall next to the front door, opposite a series of tall windows that filled most of the front facing wall of the establishment. The poster depicted a blond boy and his hat wearing father, both of them smoking cigarettes. “Gee pop, they’re all passing you!” the boy cries.
Beneath it, several paragraphs extolling the higher octane and superior fuel economy of tetraethyl gasoline. “Next time stop at the Ethyl pump!” the ad concluded, in large stylish font along the bottom. I glanced back, and sure enough the pumps all bore a sticker I failed to notice before, proudly advertising the lead content of the gasoline sold here.
Stay Tuned for Part 5!