Thursday, December 25, 2008

The truckstop before Christmas

A couple of episodes of Angel later we received news of a pile of sofas sitting in Tennessee awaiting our attention, so headed north to find them. It was dark by the time we located the factory and the little man in the guardhouse was tired and grumpy. He gave me a set of very precise instructions for dropping our empty trailer and proceeding back past his little domain with the full one. He had the demeanour of a man who chooses not to say things more than once. Fortunately I had the Amazing Dave by my side, who is a little more tuned in to the southern American accent. Left to my own devices I’d have driven round in circles all night. But, with sofas loaded, we eventually began the long trek north, hoping to be back the night before Christmas Eve. I drove until I was knackered, then Dave did the same. And where did we find ourselves stopping for the night? I’ll tell you where...Berea, Kentucky. This little spot in the middle of nowhere is about to become famous as the weirdest truckstop Dave has ever seen. Please bear in mind that we stopped at Jane Lew’s so that I could be shown the weirdest truckstop Dave had ever seen, I am delighted to have been present on the night he found an odder one.

It appeared to be just diesel pumps and a scruffy little shop but there was a sign that said ‘restaurant’ so we asked where it was. A young woman with the most impeccable makeup I have ever seen nodded towards a sort of annexe which sported a few plastic tables and chairs. We wandered in to find a long, thin room constructed from bits of trailer wall and floor. A sprinkling of people sat silently watching a huge flat screen TV in one corner, each person alone at a separate table. There was a row of electronic slot machines along one end wall and a sort of church screen thing along the other. Comparing notes later, we discovered that we’d both had a mental soundtrack of Duelling Banjos and expected that moment in the Western where you push through the swing doors and everybody turns to look at you as the atmosphere chills.

We sat at an empty table sporting crumbs and a bottle of Home Style Fancy Ketchup while makeup lady took our order. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked at us. We took in our surroundings. The screen was decorated with a selection of fabric objects; a hand-made quilt, a flour sack and a fleece blanket urging one and all to support the troops. Livening up the trailer wall was a small bookshelf full of apparently random knickknacks, and a small Christmas tree. A sign advised that the slot machines paid out tokens for use in the shop. The wall we hadn’t previously been able to see contained a peg board on which were hung a multitude of different sized bungee straps for sale. Across the doorway from the shop was hung a piece of string with some wooden clothes pegs on it. Hanging from a couple of the clothes pegs were brightly coloured triangular bandannas. They looked a little used. There was one piece of tinsel.

A chap turned to regard us. He addressed Dave. “Yumpiver?” Dave nodded. Chap gestured to me, “Shumpiver?’ Dave nodded. Chap turned back to regard the TV again. It’s difficult to look quizzical when you are trying not to laugh, but he twigged that I needed a translation. “He wants to know if we’re truck drivers.” Dave was also trying not to laugh. “I almost told him no, we come here for the atmosphere.”

In need of a fit of the giggles I wandered off to the loo but that just made things worse. Another bit of recycled trailer, where the plumbing had obviously been put in as an afterthought as the toilet was situated up a couple of steep and rickety steps, on a sort of dais, most throne-like, if a little wobbly. The inner wall had been painted but only in patches. There were a couple of sheets of fake tiling attached randomly here and there. It wasn’t terribly clean and I made an instant decision to forgo the opportunity of a shower. I wanted badly to pop back to the truck for my camera but thought behaving like a tourist might offend and I didn’t want to find out what happened when this silent roomful of people took offence. On my return, clearly the amusement was leaking out. Dave decided to check out the gents and came back almost bursting with mirth. He whispered “was yours up some steps?” I nodded and we both sought relief in the, remarkably tolerable, BLT and chips with remarkably yummy ketchup. I don’t much like ketchup but had decided against returning to the truck for my bottle of vinegar (for reason, see above) and this stuff, the Home Style Fancy Ketchup, was actually very nice. Tangy and not too sweet.

We compared notes when, back in the truck, we could finally give vent to the hysteria. There were several perplexing questions. Who buys all the bungee straps? Were the bandannas for sale or hanging up to dry? Who were the silent people? Why would anyone play slot machines when all they could buy with their winnings was more bungee straps? And why the perfect makeup? This wasn’t a bit of slap, this was Hollywood expertise, artfully applied and meticulously maintained. Was she waiting for the Johnny Depp of truckers to happen by in his beautifully tricked out Pete and whisk her off into the night?

Popping back later for a final wee, at least one those questions were answered. By the till in the shop was a huge CB setup so that makeup lady could chat to truckers all night. Presumably her siren call of 24 hour restaurant service might bring the right man within reach sometime. The mike was attached to the ceiling with a bungee strap. It had a jolly red bow on it. I should add that both makeup lady and her (admirably coiffed) sidekick were utterly charming, especially when the combination of exhaustion, ill-advised late-night BLT and grotty bathroom had me throwing up for quite some time the following morning. I probably looked the least likely trucker they had ever seen, especially after having turned green, but they refused payment for my reviving coffee with a “merry Christmas” that I actually managed to understand.

The blizzard began just south of Detroit. The roads deteriorated for hours as we took it in turns to fight our way home. The race to get Dave back to his loved ones in time for Christmas began to resemble a crummy country song with dead dogs in the next verse. But we made it. And he says I’m trained now. There will be a short blogging interval while I undergo a final test drive to see if I really can graduate from apprentice to real live trucker. In the meantime, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading, following and telling your pals. I promise there will be photos next year if they keep me.


  1. Congratulations on your graduation!

    Will all your driving take you stateside or can you stay in the frozen north at all? And what was the reason for the gutsache? Was it the BLT or something else?

  2. Looks now like a combination of late-night grease and impending flu.
    The next phase, driving as a team, will probably be more Canadian stuff; bizarrely enough the distances are greater.

  3. Just found your blog! Weird stuff eh? I was in
    NJ myself for Christmas, and DC before and after.

    We were spared the bad weather, burst water
    mains in MD, and all the other bad things.


  4. Hi Carolyn, I just finished reading your book, a year on planet Alzheimer.I love the way you write. My sister Ann gave me the book for Christmas and put me onto your blog. I live in Holland and recognised a lot of your problems with adjusting to a foreign country. They use a lot of English words here but say them wrong!!!!
    I can't understand why you choose to go to such a cold place!