Mickey stopped counting how many days he had been on the road years ago. Time was no longer measured in days of the week, months, or even years. Instead, he measured the passage of time by the deepening of the wrinkles around eyes and the length of his hair. He didn’t know how long it’d been, but looking in the mirror, it seemed like a century. Gone was the wide-eyed youth who had set out on this journey, replaced by a grim specter. Soon he would have spent more years of his life on the road than not. The thought almost made Mickey laugh.
He set out at 18 in the beat-up old sedan he had inherited from his father. It was time to put the small country town of Leakey, Iowa behind him and head for bigger waters. His mother was none too pleased with the idea. He was chasing the dream, to make it big in California, be a part of this dot com bubble he kept hearing about. Technology was the way of the future. Mickey wanted to be a part of the future.
“Why can’t you stay? We need your help now, what with your pa’s leg,” his mother pleaded.
“You have two other sons who are plenty fit. I don’t want to shovel cow shit for the rest of my life.”
But then, he never made it to California. He never achieved anything he had set out to. He didn't become rich, and he wasn't some big shot CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He wanted to live in a mansion, eat caviar, and rub elbows with high society types. Instead, he was a wanderer. He stayed in cheap motels, ate at fast-food restaurants. He spent most days alone unless he was lucky enough to come across a fellow wanderer. It seemed the harder he tried to get to California, the further away it became.
Mickey had settled into this life. He woke up at the same motel every morning (Rule #6. Always stay at a Blue Motel). He was greeted by the same cream-colored walls, with chipping wallpaper. He had grown accustomed to the tepid showers (it was rare to find a Blue Motel with a good source of hot water). Even the out-dated technology never changed. Sometimes, before checking out of the motel, he would spend some time staring at the rotary phone. Sometimes he would pick it up, but that’s usually as far as he got.
Mickey carried those last words to his mother with him. It followed him around like stink on garbage. Mickey wanted to call. What he didn’t want is his family to know he was a failure. That after all his talk, he was just a lost soul. A part of him was afraid he would call, and his mother wouldn’t answer. He hung the phone back up.
On this particular morning, Mickey’s beat-up sedan was parked between a pick-up truck and a Porsche. He eyed the car with envy as he manually unlocked his vehicle. He had never intended to keep the sedan for longer than it took to get to California. Mickey still hadn’t reached California, so he still had the car. The car was his lifeline. Rule #22. Keep your car clean, it’s basically your home. Despite the years, it still did him well. He headed out of the parking lot, looking at the Porsche one last time in his rear-view mirror. He sighed and turned his attention to the road ahead of him.
He played eenie meenie miny moe, and landed on the left. He smiled and gave the steering wheel a squeeze, wondering where his car would take him today.
His journey had started off well enough, fuelled by Slim Jims and optimism. But the excitement and promise of the open road turned to boredom. The highways became hypnotic. Each mile was a dreary checkpoint he had to get through before his real-life could begin. He would cut this part out of his award-winning biography people would read to learn his secrets to success.
Born out of his boredom were the first few rules for an epic road trip.
Rule #1. Jerky based protein is preferred.
Rule #2. Music played in the sedan must rock.
Rule #3. Always pick up hitchhikers.
But the rules could only keep him entertained for a short while. The high of his last energy drink was waning. Mickey's budget was stretched thin and Slim Jim wrappers littered the car. He decided to press through the night rather than stay at another shitty motel. He had the windows down and the radio blaring, anything to try and keep him awake.
He nodded off.
Mickey awoke to the blaring of a horn and bright headlights blinding him. In a panic, he wrenched the steering wheel to the right. It was pitch black. His car bounced and jostled him before it came to a shuddering stop. He took stock of his surroundings. His headlights lit up a dim stretch of a dirt road, surrounded by trees. He got out to survey the damage, but there wasn’t a scratch on his car. Small wonder he hadn’t hit anything.
Mickey noticed there wasn’t any sign of the highway he had left. No noise from the cars. No bright lights. All he could see were stars, scattered across the inky night sky. A shiver went up Mickey’s spine. He slapped his face, to be sure he wasn’t dreaming. He hurried back into his car and locked the doors. The trees around him swayed, though the air was still. He fumbled with the ignition and edged the car forward. No beast came from the trees to attack him. There was no bogeyman hiding in the shadows. Mickey put more and more pressure on the accelerator until the trees were flying past him.
He couldn’t say for how long he drove on this road. His clock never worked again. Sometimes the time displayed in hours and minutes, sometimes it read a random string of letters and numbers. Other times, it displayed symbols that Mickey had never seen, nor bothered to decipher. And so, Rule #5 was born – tell your time by the sun.
As the sun started to peek over the horizon, the trees thinned out and Mickey could see a busy stretch of highway ahead of him. It was a shitty little turn off into the woods that had no discernible reason to be there. Relief flooded Mickey. He had found his way back. Once on the highway, he would regain his bearings. This detour would just be a funny little footnote in his epic story.
The signs on the highway were as strange as the times on his clock. As the day wore on, Mickey felt delirious. Maybe he was running a fever or had a concussion of some sort. Lucky for him, there was a Blue Motel at the next pull off.
The glorious Blue Motel – find us anywhere under the great big blue sky!
He got a room and asked about the nearest hospital. The friendly clerk at the desk inquired as to what ailed him. Mickey couldn't bring himself to say that the clerk didn't seem to have a face. Over time, Mickey would get used to this. No employee of the Blue Motel had a face, only a blank spot where one should be. They were friendly enough, so long as you didn't try and go behind the desk (Rule #37). The clerk told him he should rest up and he would be fine, sliding him a key to his room. Mickey didn't remember paying or even asking for a room, but he took the key. So, Mickey came to spend what would be the first of many nights at the Blue Motel.
His life continued in this fashion for some time. Strange road signs, unusual people, terrors lurking unseen at the edge of the roadside. After a while, Mickey could no longer convince himself he was concussed. After a while, Mickey stopped trying to find an explanation for the situation he found himself in. He was on autopilot. He spent every day driving as far and fast as he could to each new Blue Motel. He never stopped at the strange roadside stands selling purple and blue vegetables. He didn't so much as glance at the strange three-decker buses that passed him. And he didn't acknowledge the passengers waving from the windows with more arms than seemed possible. He kept his eyes straight ahead, trying to find a way out.
“There is no way out,” Winona explained as if talking to a child. She had met Mickey while he was in this fugue state, while they were both staying at a Blue Motel. She took him to a nearby diner and bought him lunch. He devoured his meal, not realizing he hadn’t eaten in some time. He had been too afraid to visit anything other than the Blue Motel.
Winona drove a big rig truck. She shoveled eggs into her mouth with an ease that comforted Mickey. Winona was like him. Winona had a face. Winona didn’t belong here either.
“We call ourselves wanderers,” she told him. Mickey had since met more over the years. Some were like him, eyes glazed over, living in fear. Some he met said they never wanted to go back.
“You can’t even go back,” Winona explained to him. “Try it tomorrow. Drive back down that same stretch of highway you just came down. Won’t be the same as yesterday. Not sure how these roads work, but they ain’t like ours back home, fixed in once place.”
Rule #11. If you see something interesting, stop and see it. You may not find it again.
“I’ve tried asking about a map from a lot of these people, they just stare back vacantly. Stop responding all together. You'll find there's a few subjects that evoke that response,” Winona mused. Mickey took in her advice, his list of rules growing by the second.
Some rules existed to make life more pleasant. Other rules were law. Like Rule #7. Only fill up at Gus’ Pumps. One night, Mickey was desperate. His gas light had been on for almost 20 miles, and there was no station in sight. Mickey’s eyes flicked between the gas gauge and the road, praying the car wouldn’t break down. Rule #8 wasn’t far from his mind – Never stop at the side of the road at night. Ever. Winona hadn’t gone into much detail about this one. Mickey wasn’t itching to discover the reasons behind it after the way her voice shook when she mentioned it.
So maybe that’s why he forgot all about Rule #7. Maybe that’s why, when the lights of a Chug-a-lug appeared on the horizon, he was elated. He pulled in, flipped open the cover on his gas tank. There was a low hissing noise. He looked around, but the lot was vacant. Even the small store was closed, no attendant in sight. He picked up the nozzle for the gas, and it seemed to vibrate in his grip.
That’s when Mickey remembered Rule #7. He tried to shove the nozzle back into its cradle, but it began to struggle against him. Mickey dropped it and ran. He dove into the driver’s seat, and fumbled with his keys, dropping them to the floor. Mickey heard a sudden thunk, thunk, thunk. He looked up to see several of the hoses now bashing against the sides of his car. There are still dents in the doors to this day. The noise was thunderous. Mickey ducked his head down, scouring the floor for the keys. He groped under the seat until his hands found the blessed metal. He thrust them into the ignition and slammed on the gas. In his rear-view mirror, he could see the hoses flailing in the night. A half a mile down the road was Gus’ Pumps. Mickey pulled in and didn’t even get out of his car until dawn broke, and he never forgot Rule #7 again.
But not everything in this land would kill you. Dr. Drake’s Flying Pigs were a wonder to be seen. And the many-armed people on the buses would toss you the sweetest apples you’ve ever eaten if you only waved to them. Winona told Mickey of a rumor mill – a large windmill that churned out slips of paper with secrets on them. Mickey had yet to find that one for himself. Every day he discovered something new. His list of rules had grown over the years, and he was always keen to share his wisdom with his fellow wanderers.
Today had been a good day. He had picked up a hitchhiker (Rule #3), who sang to him during their journey. The creature’s voice had sounded like a symphony. That night, he checked into the nearest Blue Motel and made for his room. They never asked for a card, but they always seemed to know you were coming and had a room ready.
The rotary phone on the bedside table loomed out of the corner of his eye. He picked up the receiver, and lazily dialed his old home number. He was met with a message that repeated over and over in a variety of languages, not all human.
The call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again.
He wished more than anything he could call his mother.
He didn’t regret leaving home. Every baby bird had to leave the nest. He just regretted the fashion in which he did it. Maybe he’d find his way home someday. The idea of shoveling cow shit, on a quiet farm, far away from busy roads and highways, now had a certain appeal. A simple life, with a nice house to call home. Never did make it to California, but it didn’t matter. He got a good story to tell after all. And you know what they say: it’s about the journey, not the destination.