The Road to Sage

Copyright 1987, Craig A. Bass. All Rights Reserved.

 

Summer, 1980. Before cellphones, before GPS, before Electronic Log Devices. On a lonely two-lane highway, an old Peterbilt pulls a semi trailer across the Nevada desert.

 

Chapter One

The road lay quietly baking in the hot afternoon sun; heat waves rising like vapor from its cracked, gray surface. A slight breeze disturbed the dry vegetation along the sides of the road and provided the only sound to break the silence of the desert.

A rattlesnake began to make its way across the hot asphalt and, as it approached the center line, a faint rumbling noise became audible. Barely perceptible at first, it rose in pitch and volume with each passing moment. The blurred shape of an eighteen-wheeler swam into view above a ridge a mile or so away, then quickly disappeared into a wide valley. The sound continued to build in intensity, becoming an ominous, powerful roar.

Just as the rattlesnake reached the center line, the truck shot up into sight a hundred yards down the road. It was closing fast, and the snake seemed unaware of the impending danger. With a thundering roar and the howl of tires, the truck blasted past.

The snake never knew what hit him.

The man behind the wheel looked as if he had been on the road for weeks without sleep. A three-day growth of rough stubble covered his face; his shirt was sweat-soaked and hung limply open. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a rag, then reached for his dented Thermos.

Without taking his eyes from the road, he poured himself the last of the coffee. He took a glance at the cup: barely half-filled. The driver screwed the lid back onto the Thermos, replaced it in its spot between the seats, and took a drink from the cup.

Behind the driver, the leather curtain separating the cab from the sleeper compartment opened and a young woman climbed out and hoisted herself onto the passenger seat. "When you gonna get that air conditioner fixed? It's impossible to sleep back there."

The driver looked at her and shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe when we get to Wichita." He returned his gaze to the road. "You about ready to drive for a while?"

"Yeah, I guess so. How much farther to the next town? I gotta go bad."

The man brought the truck down a gear as they climbed a short but steep grade. "Passed a sign a few miles back, said eight miles to Sage." He stifled a yawn. "I'll drive until we get there." The truck crested the hill and a small, mirage-like town came into view at the bottom of a wide basin. "Guess that's Sage."

The truck descended into the basin and began to slow; the whine from the tires dropping off dramatically.  They rolled past a sign that marked the town’s edge.

“Sage, Nevada,” the driver read aloud.  “Population fifty-five.”

The woman was busy brushing out her tangled hair and made no response.

The driver pulled the truck into a dirt lot beside an old, run-down filling station.  Clouds of dust billowed up as if angry at being disturbed.  The truck stopped with a hiss of air brakes, the passenger door opened, and the woman swung down from the cab.  The woman stretched and coughed.  “Talk about a ghost town,” she said, as the man was getting ready to get into the sleeper.

“Yeah, guess so.”  The man was only interested in getting some sleep; the sooner the better.  “That gas station ought to have a restroom.  Wake me up when we get to a real town,” he called to the woman.  “I’m startin’ to get hungry.”

The woman began walking across the lot towards the gas station.  The closer she got, the more run-down it looked.  A rusty, dented metal sign swung crazily in the breeze, banging against the building with each swing.  Tumbleweeds were piled against the wall next to the door to the ladies’ room and the window above the door was broken out, with only a small piece of jagged glass remaining in place.  It was obvious that the place was abandoned, but the pressure on her bladder gave her no choice but to push the door open and enter the dirty room.

She closed the door behind her, its hinges protesting with a loud creaking.  Looking around, the woman was surprised to see clear water in the toilet’s bowl.  The seat didn’t look too unsanitary; she pulled a handful of tissue from her pocket and spread it out on the seat before she sat down.

The woman listened to all the sounds that echoed through the broken window: the howling of the wind, the banging of the sign, and the steady purr of the idling diesel; its turbocharger adding a muted whistle to the noise.  Occasionally, the truck’s air compressor would kick in: a soft metallic pounding that would end with a sharp exhaust of air.

She stood, pulled up her jeans and snapped them.  The toilet flushed as she pushed the lever, and then she turned to face the cracked, dusty mirror.  The face she saw looked miserably hot; she turned on the water and splashed it onto her face.  The woman then opened the door, stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight, and returned to the truck.

She pulled the open the driver’s door and climbed into the hot cab.  She opened the curtain to make sure the man was there; a quick smile crossed her lips as she remembered the time she had left him stranded in Twin Falls.  She had driven all the way to Ogden before she noticed he was not in the bunk.  He had given her hell for that, but how was she to know he had gotten out to use the can while she fueled the truck?

The woman adjusted the driver seat, fastened her seat belt and slipped the truck into gear.  As she released the the truck's parking brakes and eased out the clutch, the rig began to roll.  Dust poured in through the open windows as the truck growled back onto the road.

As she drove slowly through the quiet town, the woman was keenly aware that the truck was the only vehicle in sight.  Looking at the desolate buildings, she could see no signs of life.  The town gave the woman an eerie feeling, and she was relieved when they passed the last ghostly building and began to pick up speed on the open road.

The truck droned on for hours.  The sun set, throwing a brilliant red/orange glare onto the truck’s mirrors.  The woman reached down and flipped the switches that turned on the headlights and marker lights.  She wondered how the man could sleep in the oppressive heat of the sleeper, despite the humming fan back there.  Holding her arm out the open window, she guessed that the temperature was still at least in the high nineties.

Sunset gradually became nightfall. 

Up ahead, the truck’s headlights reflected off a green highway sign.  As they shot past it, the woman’s skin prickled with the same eeriness she had felt back in the empty town.

“Hey, wake up!” she shouted above the roar of the truck.

“Yeah? Whatsa matter?”  The man stuck his head out from the sleeper.  “What’s up?”

“Hey, what was the name of that town we stopped in a few hours ago?”

“Um. Sage, or something like that.  I dunno.  Why?”

“Well, we just passed a sign that said it was eight miles to Sage!”

“You sure?”

The truck pounded past a crushed rattlesnake that was straddling the center line.

“Pretty sure,” replied the woman.  “Hard to read anything with all these bugs on the windshield.  When you gonna get that windshield washer fixed?”  She pulled the shifter down a gear, missed the shift, and had to drop another gear.

“I dunno.  Maybe when we get to Wichita.  Lemme see that map.”

The woman reached into the map pocket above the windshield and withdrew the tattered map, handing it back to the man in the sleeper.  He flicked on the dome light and began to unfold the map.  “Did you make any turns since we left that town?”

“Nope.  Just followed the road.  It’s been really straight.  Not even the slightest curve.”

“Hell, I can’t even find Sage on this map.  How long you been driving?”

“I guess about four hours now.” She made a light brake application to slow the truck, which had been picking up speed on a slight downgrade.  “I didn’t notice what time it was when we left Sage.  Or whatever town that was.”

“So much for keeping your log book up to date.  Oh well, neither did I.”  The truck drifted into town.  “Sure is dar– Hey! There’s the gas station we stopped at!  This don’t make no sense.  Stop here!”

The truck stopped in front of the service station and the man jumped out.  “Hey!” he called, “Shine that spotlight over here!  Yeah, this is the same place all right.  I can see our tracks in the dirt, and there’s the dust we tracked out onto the road.  This is weird.”

Looking around, the woman shivered.  “This place sure gives me the creeps.  Sure wish those streetlights were working.  Come on, let’s get out of here.  You drive this time.”

The man returned to the truck.  “Yeah, let’s get goin’.  I don’t like it neither.”  They traded seats and pulled out of town for the second time.

“Maybe you made a wrong turn and somehow got doubled back.”

“I told ya, there were no curves in the road or any place I could have gotten turned around. Besides, even if I DID get turned around, we woulda come back into Sage from the east.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  But how did we get back into town then?  It don’t make sense.”

Three and one-half hours later, at midnight, the truck rolled into Sage for the third time.


Chapter Two