A Little Levity Lightens the Load On a Back Road

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The highway winds down from the summit in steep curves. In the slow lane, I swept down in the smooth rhythm intended by the highway designers, rounded a sharp curve, and saw the rear lights on the car ahead flash on.

I braked, turned sharply to the edge of the highway, and stopped, seeing in my rearview mirror a pickup truck skidding almost sideways, but far enough back that it wouldn't hit me.

Farther back, I heard the screech of tires, the occasional clink of metal, and then silence. A quarter of a mile and 40 or more cars ahead at the next bend, I could see a tank truck, labeled GAS, right-angled across the highway.

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I rolled down my window and listened. Silence. Cautiously, I opened the door and stepped out. A young man in blue jeans was climbing out of the pickup.

``I was going a little too fast,'' he said. Then, looking toward the gas truck, ``Propane. It's heavy and flammable.''

We leaned companionably against the fender of his truck in the California sun, speculating about what was going to happen.

No smoke, fire, or crumpled metal - just a jagged wedge of concrete from the center divider lay by the truck.

It looked as if we were in for a long wait. Yellow-jacketed firefighters were cautiously inspecting the wreck. News began to seep back from those who went to look. If they moved the truck, a shaft of steel wedged into the pavement could puncture the tank.

A highway patrolman began setting out flares in the fast lane across the center divider.

An hour passed. The man and I talked about the steam train that used to cross these mountains and of the light-rail cars that could be here.

Then, I walked back along the pavement edge, covered with dreary bits of rusted metal and old rubber. The soft evergreens contrasted with the long line of metal bodies enclosing humans. I caught the clean smell of redwood and Douglas fir.

Upbeat country music was coming from a stopped van. I smiled at the young man inside, and he smiled back. ``Do you like country music?'' he asked.

``It's happy sounding,'' I said.

``Do you want to borrow a coat? You look cold.''

``Thanks, I'm OK,'' I said.

In the next car back, a couple from Colorado called out their window. ``Any news?''

I passed on what I knew and welcomed them to California.

Another hour passed, but now several of us were wandering up and down the highway exchanging words.

I fell into step with a young woman walking the line of cars. Happily, I discovered she was a graphic-arts student who could help me with a graphics problem on my computer.

``You need to use both the painting and drawing layers,'' she explained.

A policewoman walked past for the third time.

``A caterer would make a killing in hot dogs,'' someone said. ``But how would they get here?''

Nearly three hours passed. I had work in my car, but couldn't get in the mood.

A young woman rolled down her window. ``Are you by any chance in education? I have to write a paper for my class tomorrow, and I need to interview someone. Would you mind telling me what you think we need in education?''

``I'd love to. How about in my car, in case we have to move from here.''

She gathered notebook and pencil, and we walked to my car and settled ourselves inside.

I think a lot about these issues. How nice that she'd asked. ``I believe we've overdone the competitive mode. Let's let kids learn how to listen to each other and think together,'' I said. ``We need to learn how to work out problems as a group - how to empower each other and make the most of everyone's skills.''

``Like this crazy transportation system,'' she said. ``Everyone going where they want in total freedom, without a thought for the waste of resources or the needs of anyone else. It's primitive, really. I'm ready to support mass transit - better than this!''

The voice of a highway patrolman sounded hollowly through a loudspeaker. ``We're going to get you all turned around and out of here.''

She waved goodbye. ``I'll put it in my paper. It will be my cause!''

Three hours is short, I thought.

Engines were starting. I waved goodbye to the man in the pickup. I turned, curving down the edge of the embankment and back up the wrong way on the highway. An officer directed traffic, waving our line to swing around 180 degrees into the fast lane on the other side.

``Swing it wide,'' he called to me, making circling arm motions.

The best of it had been coming out of the isolation of metal and plastic to meet each other unexpectedly, face to face.

I drove on, concentrating on a vision that I was speeding quietly through these green mountains on light rail, enjoying these same friendly people. A vendor was walking down the aisle, his hot dogs smelling delicious.

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