My wife has adopted a particular driving habit. No, not the way her car crowds mine in the garage. They just want to be together, she says. And not the way her foot lacks the ability to slowly and responsibly adjust the pressure to the gas pedal. It’s a road trip habit, but really whenever we’re driving, anywhere. A license plate from Manitoba. She spots them from miles away. Then she accelerates (see earlier note) to catch a glimpse of the truck, or car. Does she know the driver? She must, or so she thinks. She’ll wait outside restaurants for the plate owners to finish their meals so she can find out if, by some chance, she knows them.
The truck had a Manitoba license plate. It was southbound, as most plates from Manitoba tend to be, on that wide interstate. Traffic was hustling, but alternating between the hustle and a crawl with a complete stop thrown in now and then for good measure. The plate was affixed to a truck, a big truck, but not a semi. It was a dually, not unlike the truck my friend Eric’s dad drove in the early 1990s, but this one was newer, bigger, with dirt dried onto the paint around the wheels, up the tailgate, on the hood. The driver was going somewhere in a hurry. I sped up to see if I recognized the driver. I didn’t.
A horse trailer had 11 stickers of horses on the back of it. Five on one door and six on the other. The sticker horses were bucking, jumping, kicking. 11. I figured there must have been 11 horses in the horse trailer. Who would put 11 stickers on if there were only two horses in the trailer? The number seemed arbitrary, which means it must have been specific. The trailer was from Oklahoma, presumably as was the truck towing it. I couldn’t catch a glimpse. Just as I intended to accelerate the traffic turned to a crawl. All four lanes in either direction, crawling on a road meant for supreme and uninterrupted speed.
Feet on the dash. This isn’t something I’ve ever done. I’m too tall, I think. I did sit in the passenger seat once with my feet out the window, but that was when driving to a new fishing spot from an old fishing spot. My waders leaked something awful. My socks were tucked into the outside of the backseat windows, flapping in the wind to dry. My feet outside the front window felt rare, like some sort of treat, born of necessity but also pleasant and curious. After the interstate drive, I felt less special, less unique. Everyone drives with their feet on the dash, even if the truly brave (like me) go fully out the window.
The plates were mostly from Illinois. Trucks, cars, SUVs, campers even. Lots of trucks towing things. Bikes, both the motorized and regular kind. Fishing boats, some small, mostly smaller. But also four wheelers, loaded with mud, empty gas cans strapped to the front of the trailer. The various automobiles whipped past me, as I screeched along in the left lane, my rear calipers recently having decided that they had had enough of the squeezing and releasing.
But where were all these people going? I knew were I was going, but that was the only puzzle I could solve. Some answers were easy to guess. Arlington Lexus, the license plate holder said. Perhaps that driver with his wife blabbing in the front seat and his children glued to their individual screens in the back; perhaps he was headed to Arlington Heights. White Oak and Vail, maybe, somewhere near where my grandma lived for all of her best years. Other plates weren’t so easy to guess. Ah, but there’s a Cayenne with The Exchange written on it. North shore, for sure.
Traffic stopped again. Why would it stop now? Out of nowhere, with no construction tonight, as the flashing signs clearly stated Monday-Friday Road Work. It wasn’t one of those days, so why now? I thought of my brakes and imagined smoke pouring from the metal on metal grind. It was a truck, Illinois plates, pulled over on the shoulder, which wasn’t very wide, to re-position two kayaks on his roof. Probably a weekend trip to the Wisconsin river, I guessed. Maybe the Kickapoo, but the Kickapoo is still high and dirty from the two weeks ago storm.
My exit. A couple of roundabouts and I found my way back onto a two lane county road, the sort that leads from the wide road and to my narrow gravel driveway. Turn right at the gas station, left twice and one more right. Corn fields and soybean fields as far as the eye can see, or at least until the next tree line of Mulberry and Boxelder. The last turn onto my slow driveway, chickens on the lawn, eating whatever it is the chickens eat. I was home.
But where were the other drivers headed? Where were those Illinois plates going? John Kass told me most are leaving, most unable to accept a tax increase that puts them in an elevated tax bracket still far below mine in Wisconsin. If this mass exodus required the last carload to turn the lights out, where were these Illinois plates traveling in those southbound lanes so late into the fading Sunday sky? The were going to the same place I was. Home to the place where the roads are familiar. Home where the sporting team wears our favorite logo. Home, just past the school where their son bench sits with the football team and their daughter starts volleyball soon. On a road filled with travelers, only a few were weary. Most were just on their way home.