I hit the exit ramp doing well over 80 mph, the white glare of parking lot lights against the low hanging clouds beckons me. As does the yellow light next to the "E" on the fuel gauge that came on nearly 22 miles ago.
The air is so thick and damp that the inside of my SUV’s windows fog up as soon as I open the door. The steady hum of mercury vapor lamps fill the night, as a trucker walks by wearing a camo hat, and POW/MIA t-shirt too small for his girth. His exposed belly hangs over his belt like an over sized load on a low boy trailer, his large hands grip an insulated coffee mug the size of Texas, and a four pack of sugar free "Red Bull". He says neither hello or goodbye, and just gives me a look that says it's a miserable night, keep to yourself.
The unmistakable sound of a dozen diesel tractors idling somewhere out in the darkness echoes about the massive parking lot, an oasis, on a moonless night that blankets the length of I-95 from Maine to Florida. Its 3 AM and life along the four lane has slowed to a steady trickle of traffic that is dominated by tractors and trailers that roll north and south along the nation’s most traveled interstate.
At night this is a foreign place, were water pools under trucks, not from the rain but from the battle their air conditioners wage cooling the night inside sleeper cabs aglow with the tell tale glare of small television sets.
The old man at the counter inside does not look-up, his blank stare is focused on the neon Budweiser clock that ticks away the night and what is left of his life. A life that is draining away at a minimum wage job, where few people speak and fewer smile and everyone is a potential armed robber.
A lone lottery ticket tumbles end over end as an 18 wheeler rumbles by, another dream discarded. It comes to a abrupt stop in the concrete gutter, joining a score of other discarded tickets now damp from the recent rain. A rain that has filled the pockets and pot holes of the concrete hardness that surrounds this fuel plaza.
At the far end of the concrete apron a young girl not more than 19 plummets to the ground having slipped on the wet passenger side chrome step as she exits a tricked out Kenworth tractor. Yellow and red parking lights present a carnival like luminous outline against the night sky. The twin stacks clank in a rhythm that matches the chorus of other Caterpillar, Detroit and Volvo diesel engines throughout the truck stop.
She holds a cigarette that glows red just before she yanks it away from her mouth and flicks it across the parking lot, before slipping into a faded blue pickup truck that has appeared out of nowhere and is quickly headed back in the same direction. I notice her boyfriend who glares at me as he drives by, as if I personally have forced him into a life of making ends meet, by selling his girlfriend’s body.
The gas pump makes a sudden thump and the handle clicks loudly signaling a nearly full tank and another 75 dollars of fuel spilled into the abyss of global warming, adding my own carbon footprint to that of this benzene, carbon monoxide and PCB rich environment.
A black and white stray dog her damp coat matted with mud and sticker burrs rounds the corner. Her teats filled with milk, announcing that she has pups somewhere at the edge of the vast parking lot. Perhaps in the woods between the end of the concrete and certain death along the asphalt interstate.
She scowers the gum and oil stained pump islands for something to eat, keeping a wary eye on me yet obvious to the truck the passes within a foot of her nose.
She paws at a discarded Mackey D’s bag and uncovers a bounty of cold French fries, and nearly inhales them, red paper container and all. I approach her with an out stretched open hand but she tucks tail and trots away disappearing into the darkness.
My SUV comes to life as I close the door safely sealing me inside my plush leather world; I press the accelerator and the radio scan button at the same time. The silence is broken by sounds of the Eagles singing welcome to the Hotel California …..
There’s a sudden grrrrrrr of a downshifting big rig a 1000 yards down the road, signaling the arrival of another stranger.
Everyone here is a stranger.
There are no friends at the Pilot truck stop at 3 am, no families on vacation, no smiling faces going to beautiful places in South Carolina as this is the last rung of the ladder of life.
The Pilot Truck Stop is a place where dreams and hope has long since vanished. Where people cling to that last rung and pray for daylight’s return. Or at least the next ride a little farther down the road that connects north and south, that we call I-95.