Shooting the Split On the Drive Home

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The truck winds down the on-ramp, picking up speed gradually and with effort - a fat gray beetle trundling into place among more nimble vehicles: scurrying two-doors, purposeful sedans, predatory sports cars.

The ancient kingpins float in their sockets, and I must constantly nudge the steering wheel - left, right, left - to keep on line. The pitch of the fourth-gear whine rises, climbing in harmony with the motor's roar. The street lights dance in the rear-view mirror.

My truck is an ugly truck. A country boy attending city college, I couldn't believe my good fortune when I picked it up for $150 from a man hauling wood. The fenders are great plowshares, turned inward, prepared to till the wind. The hood rises from between the fenders like the prow of a capsized boat, a strip of pitted chrome for a keel.

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I have owned this truck for over a decade; in that time, I have driven it everywhere, double-clutching through the city, rattling the muffler off on the way to job interviews, shouldering professionals aside during rush hour. For all those city miles, however, that truck and I were always at our best when we were rolling up Five Mile Road, northbound at 3 a.m., dropping down Nadelhoffer Hill to roar past Keysey Swamp - waking the ducks, whipping curls in the salty-sweet marsh fog. Rolling north. Rolling home.

And now I am rolling home again - this time to stay. I settle into the torn seat, rest my palm on the shift tree, and let the flick, flick, flick of the centerline unroll the road.

This road leads to a town where greasy-capped men with dirty fingernails sit in a cafe half the morning and shake dice; a town where the fire trucks are manned by farmers and butchers; a town where Main Street is simply that.

At first, the cafe will fall silent when I return to push the door open on their game of dice. I will sit at a table by the wall, not the counter. The waitress will ask how I want my eggs.

But in time, after I help put out a winter's worth of chimney fires; after I serve potato salad at the smelt feed; after folks get used to seeing my truck parked at the old Gravunder place, my eggs will show up over easy, no questions. But it all begins with shooting the split.

At the split, the highway curves left. Five Mile Road lies straight on. The truck and I will shoot the straight shot. Home - my place - is not on Five Mile Road. But it is at the Five Mile Road split that I begin to recognize the air. It has always been my point of reentry; I always feel as though I am dropping down through the inner air of unfamiliar places to settle firmly in my native atmosphere.

In a ''Hold, please'' age of suffocating regulation and oversight, of congested highways and byways, there is nothing so satisfying as rocketing directly to the heart of a thing, and I have never eased the accelerator at the split. If anything, I feed the horses, let 'em run.

In one sweet kinetic moment, the truck leaves the banked curve of the highway, dips down and to the right, and I am locked in a split-second free fall; then the leaf-springs catch, and I am flying down Five Mile Road. No forms to fill out. No ''Press the pound sign to repeat the menu.'' I simply hold to the right, shoot the split, and I am home.

Back on the interstate, darkness has fallen. Cat's-eyes sweep past, a perpetual regiment of sentinels. When the hometown exit comes in view, I run the truck up and off the interstate.

Above the village, an American flag stands quiet and well-lit atop the water tower. I roll down Main Street. Double-clutching and shifting into third, I am already on the outskirts of town. One more gear, and the split comes into view.

Except there is no split. The split is gone.

I smelled trouble a year ago when the new road signs went up. Carlson Corners became 123rd Avenue. The Dirt Road became 93rd Street. Even Five Mile Road got a number.

The county justified this with vague platitudes about preparation for a 911 system, but nothing came of it. (You must still dial the seven-digit number for the fire hall.) At least the street signs could be ignored. Nobody called Carlson Corners 123rd Avenue. But this business of the split is not so easily disregarded.

Apparently, some engineer somewhere, no doubt in collusion with a covey of insurance actuaries and attorneys, determined that ''V'' splits create dangerous intersections, and had to go.

As a result, the free-falling exhilaration of reentry at the split has been exchanged for a benign 90-degree angle turn entered at the apex of the curve. With a turn lane, of all things. I downshift.

I angle into the turn lane slowly, regretfully, shaking my head. The truck growls through the right-angle turn, sullen in second gear. Nadelhoffer Hill waits, and here we are at 10 miles an hour. I flatten the foot feed, giving the truck all it can eat; it shudders and roars, gathers itself. I nudge the wheel - left, right, left - and hold it square on the centerline.

We're picking up speed. Me and this truck, we're gonna roll the fog off the Keysey. Make those ducks think we never slowed down.

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