Over the next few days, I rubber tramped from Baldwin to Mobile with an old friend, Teardrop, but I really didn’t enjoy the stretch, sticking to the monotonous I-10. As usual, he was flat broke, coming down off of drugs from the rainbow gathering in Ocala, or so I suspected. Originally, we had planned to catch up in Jacksonville for a few days before I rode freight westbound. But, upon meeting up in Baldwin at the Dollar General parking lot, he swiftly changed his mind, asking me to rubber tramp it to New Mexico with him.
I obliged. I didn’t really need to ride freight. And, not really questioning anything, I started driving that old clunker down the highway for Tallahassee, stomping on that gas pedal as she sputtered coughing up smoke clouds and gasping for breath. She barely made it past 65 MPH with me pressing the pedal to the floor; so I cruised at a slow 55 to 60 MPH.
His van, for lack of a better word, looked stolen. It had Michigan plates, no registration, a busted back passenger window, and no steering column cover. It looked like an old, beat-up, work van with a faded ivory coat and bright splotches of white paint gleaming between patches of gray metal.
But, aesthetics aside, she only had 160,000 miles, no rust, and enough room to house a full size tempurpedic mattress, an accoutrement of kitchenware, clothing, camping essentials and work tools to call her a livable abode. But, the 12 MPG killed it for me. It was like a small upgrade from driving a mini school bus around and all the kids that did that never made it out of the PNW.
That night we slept inside his van at a rest stop. I felt this eerie feeling the whole night curled along the floor on a hippy mat made of plastic bags knotted together as if someone peeped in through the broken window, watching me sleep. I couldn’t rest at all. I tossed. I turned. It was futile. I just lay there staring at the ceiling waiting for dawn.
That morning, I switched to a passenger, sitting in the back of the van on a lawn chair next to a plastic storage container full of empty, one gallon, water jugs. Teardrop drove through torrents of rain gushing down from the clouds. I’m glad he did because I had no idea how he saw the road with those chintzy wiper blades scratching the windshield like chalk against a blackboard. Maybe he couldn’t.
Joining the cacophony, I could hear the engine puttering over the thromping of rain, smacking the windshield like pellets. This droning sound and the thrumming of wind billowing into the van through the back passenger window lulled me to sleep.
After a few hours of napping, I woke up, rubbed my eyes, stretched my arms and looked out at the cloudy mist.
“Why are we stopped on the side of an exit,” I thought?
I looked at Teardrop. He sprung up from his bed quickly. Sudden noises and movements often startled him because of his PTSD.
He blurted out, “We ran outta gas…so I parked it here…”
I shook my head.
“Well did you go down and fill the can at the gas station?”
“I don’t wanna stand in the rain and fly a sign…”
I exhaled and grabbed the gas can, walking down the highway towards the Exxon while it pissed rain.
A huge, lifted, pickup hauling a horse trailer stopped beside me, flashing its blinkers. The window rolled down. A man from Mississippi leaned over towards the passenger seat and yelled out, “Ay there bub, need a lift…no sense walkin’ in the rain.”
I nodded and climbed into the back seat wafting fumes of gasoline as the 5-gallon can bounced around on my lap. The gas station wasn’t far, maybe half a mile or so on the right. I put a gallon in enough to get us into town, no more. The man inched out into traffic, pulling a uey, and the ass end of his trailer clipped the curb nearly taking out a speed limit sign. I just wanted to jump out there and walk back to the van. But he just looked back at me and smiled with a slight chuckle.
“Sorry bub, can ya tell it’s my first time drivin’ this thing?”
I didn’t say anything with an awkward smirk plastered on my face. I merely nodded. The exit came up quickly enough and I hopped out, scurrying across multiple lanes of traffic, filling the van up with enough fuel to get us to Tallahassee.
Teardrop’s constant stoppages, gas jugging and flying cardboard to cover his end of the fuel made it a miserable, boring few days, but honestly, that aside, I just wanted to ride freight trains.
Putting money into gasoline became frequent, costly, and frankly inefficient when I could travel comfortably on $10/day riding freight. This simply was not possible rubber tramping. Driving down the unpicturesque highway, looking at nothing but traffic and rest stops and gas stations, became tiresome and dull too.
So when we ran outta gas in Tallahassee, I told him I’d see how it all went once we arrived in Mobile. If we found work to cover fuel, I’d stick around, but if not, I was on the next westbound train to NOLA. I think he shrugged it off, not taking me seriously, but I couldn’t afford to fund a standstill adventure of motionless tramping, when I could very easily clear MILES on steel, waking up states away.
Eventually, after Teardrop flew cardboard for hours by the exit of a Wal-Mart parking lot, he made twenty bucks towards his end of gas. Together we filled the tank just before the skirt of dusk, tucking ourselves away at the far end of a parking lot by a busy truck stop.
That whole next day he just wasted gas driving around the city of Mobile looking for the ‘perfect’ spot to park the van. First, he stopped outside of “Labor Finders” to look for work around 10 AM. With his head slumped low, moping back-and-forth, he pushed through that swing doorway just after lunchtime, without any day labor work, and little desire to wait any longer judging from the sourpuss on his face.
We sat there inside his van at a free parking meter for a few hours, cooking food on his butane stove, Ramen, beans, and an assortment of spices, chomping away as time slowly passed us by. I slumped back in a lawn chair staring off through his cracked windshield, wanting nothing more than to get away from this prison of fuel.
We couldn’t leave the van and go anywhere because of his busted passenger window. He didn’t want any of his belongings to get stolen.
Besides the mountain of empty, one gallon, water jugs, hippy mats made of plastic bags, and plastic storage bins of food, random heavy equipment occupied the area beneath his bedding, an air compressor, pressure washer, miscellaneous tools, paperwork and other oddball items. I didn’t question it. He was living out of his van so it was probably the last of his possessions he still owned, but nonetheless, it felt like a prison, a new home I couldn’t leave.
And since we couldn’t leave the van and just walk around, after a few hours, he wanted to get up and go, to move the van somewhere else. He hated immobility as much as myself, but I also understood the consequence of moving around too much, running outta gas again!
This didn’t seem to bother him. He turned the ignition without the key, with a twist of his finger, and off she sputtered down the busy city streets, coughing up black smoke, and putting along on an empty tank of fumes. I watched the orange tick dart below E as he continued driving around aimlessly, out of boredom or pure sport, I didn’t know, but I wasn’t funding his trip across the country anymore. I had put enough gas into his van and these antics slowly wore off on me over the past few days. If we ran out of gas again it was his problem, not mine.
We drove in circles for a bit, down the same streets, by the same convenient stores, past Orange Grove, and latent industry, until we reached a dirt lot down by a crude oil refinery, near the northern throat of the CSX yard. He parked beneath a huge, single-span suspension bridge that went over the Mobile River.
Its deep, putrid, brown current whirled driftwood and trash around near the rocky shore. As I worked my way through the thick overgrowth, pushing and shoving leafy branches out of my way, I reached the murky bank, looking out at the M&M Subdivision near St. Louis Point, watching the swing bridge with fascination.
I enjoyed breaking away from the city for a bit, watching the tugboats float along the river, listening to the droning whistles of traffic zinging overhead, feeling the cool breeze touch the hairs on my arms under the sun. It felt refreshing. Definitely more refreshing than watching characters roam in and out of “Labor Finders” treating it like some sort of social club or bar.
And yet, here I found myself entangled in déjà vu all over again. He insisted on finding a better spot to move the van to despite our gas situation. He drove back towards Main Street near the start of the parade, circling the block, while night cast its shadow between the big city lights. Purple, yellow, and green streamers adorned businesses to celebrate Mardi Gras while people congregated and cheered, tooting party horns, handing out colorful beads, and tossing oatmeal creme pies into the crowd.
Teardrop just drove right between it all, completely oblivious, between the barricades holding back all this commotion and drunken celebration. We couldn’t even turn off the Main Street if we had wanted to, as roads were blocked off by these impassable railings for miles, in order to separate traffic from the parade. But, of course, he kept her puttin’ along, chuggin’ down that long road as he ranted on a tirade of nonsense because he couldn’t find that ‘perfect’ spot to park during one of the busiest times of year.
I just sat there in the van bewildered, my sleep-deprived, groggy eyes, looking out at the happy masses while I tried dearly not to completely lose my temper. He drove into the eye of the storm and there was no turning back now. It was all stop-and-go traffic, one way in, one way out. I put my face in my palm, shaking my head and exhaled.
“We’re really gonna break down in the middle of this…this is really gonna fuckin’ happen right now…in the middle of fuckin’ Mardi Gras,” I thought.
I could hear the engine choking, using up her last drops of gasoline, and just prayed we would make it to the shoulder of the road somewhere, anywhere, just not break down in the middle of it all. Once these barriers finally ended, once we veered far enough away from the parade, we would find any pull off and he would just park her and call it a night. I hoped. I pleaded.
And just after he made a turn going back towards the highway, a spot opened up through the congested streets and mayhem. He parked in front of a closed business and walked around the block aimlessly for an hour looking for free parking, parking he would not find; it was the center of the damn city.
As the parade came to its final moments, families scattered to their vehicles, creme pies occupied sidewalks and street corners, the noise curbed from innocent, drunken chatter, to a domino effect of engines guzzling and starting up.
I watched every single driver in the private lot behind us pull a parking ticket off their windshield and quickly slam their doors in hissy fits and frustration. Somehow we avoided this demise, most probably because I occupied the vehicle and a meter cop didn’t feel like engaging in conversation, I didn’t know for sure.
By the time Teardrop came back the streets looked empty. His old, beat up, off-white van that occupied a vacant business, no longer looked ordinary, it looked suspicious. At least according to the almighty rubber tramp, the god among men, the man that slowly became a thorn in my foot and every action.
So as you can guess, we moved again, just a wee bit further down the road. She barely made it onto the shoulder between two private parking lots and metered street parking. It was 11 PM at night and after a whole day of weaseling around the city with him, he finally found the perfect spot; he could park his van for the night and sleep in peace. I saw a smile flicker on his face as he eased up onto his mattress, tucking himself into his bedding, to rest his eyes.
I lay there all cattywampus curled into the fetal position. The knots of a plastic, hippy mat, left checkered impressions up and down the whole side of my body like lying in a hammock. I’ll admit, It felt comfier than lying along the plastic grooves of the cold floor. But, trying to sleep there diagonally between all that clutter, beneath that mouth breather of a window, feeling the stragglers of night peep by, listening to their footsteps; I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t feel safe. I no longer wanted to travel with him and put any more of my hard-earned money into fuel.
At 4 AM, I looked out the broken window, tasting the thick film of fog under my morning breath, gently pulling the door handle, popping open the passenger side of his van to set myself free. I genuinely felt bad for him, his situation, and leaving him behind so I could ride freight westbound, solo and at my own pace, but he was a grown man. He’d figure it out and I no longer wanted his burden weighing my shoulders down like stone. It had become work over these past, long, two days, and that was something I left behind months ago. So I left.