I started out similar last time. You have to clear your throat, it takes some building up-to. I prevaricate, beat around the bush a line or two, make excuses for myself. Excuses. It's all life and fire and lunacy and excuses and excuses and excuses. America. You and me. Here we go again.
You don't see this place, it's all but invisible, it's in your ears... this landscape howls, it looks like a scream. Hands on cheeks, mouth wide open... the planes roar by you. America looks like the sound of a traffic light suspended on a cable above the junction. It's that cr-creaking of rusty steel, not that one... that's the one of the railroad tracks and the freight train, solid metal wheels turning a curve against die-straight rails, two unrelenting lines sliding into a whispered, snapping compromise of changed direction. It pings... zips.... only it's so much more than that. The truck careers down Interstate, we're headed for Missouri, and from underneath comes the rumbling of rubber shrapnel, the remains of a tyre that exploded long before we got here. They load the trailer behind us, the payload is stowed on board as the whole rig sets to shaking, jumps around with the weight of the forklift running in and out. I can call it a rig, and use other words like it, because I'm in America.. where nobody would be seen dead inside a lorry. In London, the left turning trucks crush cyclists, in America, their right turns take out whole cars, a manoeuvre illustrated on stickers at the rear of each trailer. I write... realise my jaw's closed tight, I'm trying for it... but I'm still not even close.
With the knock of wood on wood the dice roll, bounce across the floor and cupboards of this cabin. I'm up in Ohio, though everyone insists I call it Appalachia. In the corner of the room is a jar into which you drop a quarter for a play. You throw the six dice... which ricochet, bang and snap into one-one-four-three-six-two... you lose your quarter, but one day someone rolls a sequential one-through-six and takes the pot. By the time I leave, it stands at $296 and an amount everyone's too drunk to count, dice still rolling as I head to my trailer for the night, declining the offer of whisky... so much has changed in five years.
Come morning I'm first awake. I find tea bags and milk, I boil water on the stove and warm a cup. From the porch there hang four haunches of venison, blood drying rich red in the remaining skin upon each muscle. The wind blows slowly through the valley, and just for me there comes the gruff sound of a length of rope, rubbed against the metal hook that holds the swaying haunch. I look around this kitchen, buried deep in the hills, and on shelves I see Barilla pasta, Bonne Maman jams have made the journey here too, and on a counter is an old copy of The New Yorker. Up here are America's refugees... waiting in the hills for Europe to come pick them up. I won't go into the politics... at least not for now... I'm already so far past tired. Like I said... so much has changed.
For almost two weeks I've been dragging myself across this country using only my thumb. I pull myself through great drifts of the most potent, acrid fear... the whole thing as much a work of surrealist art as it is travel. Sometimes, and with only the power of my thumb, I can move an eighteen wheel truck to the far side off a four lane highway. The weight of rejection on offer is catastrophic, soul-crushing, the only consolation being the power to strike mortal fear and blind panic into the hearts of America's brave men and women, those who have been taught to think themselves so fearless. Sometimes, getting out of the car at the end of a ride, I feel almost awkward not to have murdered anyone, like I've disappointed somebody, let them down... as if all I am is some lousy imposter who only wanted a ride. Nothing like on TV.
Be that as it may, things are about to come good... come gooood. I sit across a restaurant table in a roadside truckstop. Opposite me sits Pala... turns out the only fearless American is actually from the Punjab. Looking back at me is the most Sikh face you ever saw... a bun of hair under the turban under the woollen hat, a knot of black beard tied under the chin. Pala looks at me, looks at me straight, we're in Kentucky and he's headed for Yuma, Arizona, all in the name of plastic-packaged courgettes. I'm looking across the table at 2100 miles, I'm about to strike hitchhike gold, buried deep down on the Mexico border. From the depths of my memory I pull out my rudimentary Sikhism... I Guru Nanak, I Guru Granth Sahib... all set to build a gurdwara and even make a stab at my five Ks... secondary school religious education is about to get me to Arizona, try that for unquantifiable returns on learning. All I have to do is convince Pala that I'm sane and decent, and I'll be set to steal some $400 from the US tourist economy, I'll sit myself in a seat that's already going my way. Pala levels with me, straight up, palms down... “is it dangerous for me?” … I don't know, a good question... “is it dangerous for me?”
We ride into the darkness, the lights frame our destination, the asphalt disappears below, only to reappear and begin again forever and ever. The passenger door leaks the cold, midnight air of Indiana. Pala and I sit side-by-side, our silhouettes with hoods up, staring straight into this tunnel of lights, a stream of trucks, racing from the coming ice we're told is on its way. I watch the night... the lights, the darkness, the lights, ever the lights, suddenly split... blood red... they fall on us and then the carcass of a deer, burst in half, the white tails of two bucks, racing the scene. Gone.