Heat Wave On the Highway

AM I the last of a noble race? Great Plains dwellers once proudly scorned air conditioning in their houses and cars. We sneered at people rolling down highways with their windows closed, smiling as frost formed on their dashboards. We pitied them; they were only tourists; they hadn't the strength for our heat. We thrived on it, climbed on clattering tractors that literally boil to gather hay on 110-degree days. We commented that folks with air conditioning can't smell blooming alfalfa, the green tonic of fresh-cut hay, hear meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds trilling from fence posts. An old plains joke said a real farmer could taste the difference in Texas and South Dakota dust; we proudly compared flavors wherever we drove.

Today, I was speeding down highways in a 70-mile-an-hour crosswind, my hair tangling in my glasses, spitting bugs from my teeth, and pulling bee stingers from my bare knees, while radio voices agreed the temperature was 105 degrees. I suddenly realized why people stare as I stagger into the ladies' room at rest stops to scrape bug juice off my glasses. I realize why people look startled when I stick my entire head under any faucet I meet. I realize why I'm seated next to the kitchen door even in truck stops. The door beats a rhythmic tattoo on my shoulder as waitresses dash in and out. My ears quiver with calls, ``Roast one for three, Mac; hold the mustard on the doggie.''

I'm the last one. I'm the zoo specimen, the relic, the survivor who may be captured, dissected, and interviewed. Driving to Devils Lake, North Dakota, I've passed 2,342 cars, trucks, campers, and buses, and several dozen monster tractors growling in roadside fields. I also met 18 motorcycles with riders peering grimly through windshields decorated with dragonfly wings. Only 18 of those vehicles didn't have air conditioners.

In fact, I'm not sure some of the motorcycles weren't air conditioned. The modern machine has radio headphones, tape players, wraparound windshields, and so much other gear the riders may have weather control, too. Or else those black leather outfits are fiendishly clever refrigerators; how else could they stand the heat?

But I digress. The air smothered my nostrils with the odor of hot rubber, touched my taste buds with rotting silage and overheated fish; swathed my nostrils in fine dust, ashes from a prairie fire, stinging herbicides. I smelled ammoniac cow manure, choking diesel exhaust, the sharp tang of oil wells, delicious roasted-on-the-stem sunflowers, nourishing vegetable gardens, peppery marigolds, resinous pine trees, bracing sagebrush, newly cut lumber, piney smoke from timber fires in a distant national park, acrid gum weed and goldenrod, sour sweat, cigarette smoke, tarred roofs, brake and radiator fluid.

My unprotected skin felt blasts of hot air from the underside of passing trucks, the chill of a river bottom in arid butte country, and the slimy humidity of a swamp. My face was stung by biting gnats, my arms and knees by bees. My left arm has the distinctive red chevron of folks who drive with an elbow out the window, a once-common badge of honor now rare. Come to think of it, my elbow is probably rare as well, or possibly medium-well.

My nose quivered and twitched all day long. My mind was busy sorting, identifying, and cataloging scents - when I wasn't counting cars. I was never bored; I was too busy being alive. But I was alone in sensing that rich tapestry of pasts, presence, and futures. I was the only human to realize that a pocket of cold air swept across the highway near Bismarck, making the grass shiver for an instant, causing a horse to turn his nose north and think of winter. I experienced life today more nearly the way animals experience it all the time: as a total sensory experience, washing over my entire body, brushing every nerve, stimulating every inch of skin and each hair follicle, awakening old instincts.

I'm the last hardy pioneer. Where are the men, women, and children who struggled to reach these plains as pioneers? Those who walked behind a team dragging a plow through the tough soil? They are our ancestors, part of us, but we have consigned their experiences and triumphs to history, and grimace to think of their hardship. Only I am left to tell the tale.

I'm no hero; I gave in. Since one can't quickly air-condition one's aging foreign car in the middle of North Dakota, and I couldn't give up my open window, I improvised. I created an air conditioner by filling a plant mister with water. Now I air condition myself: squirt my hair, blouse, skirt, ankles, and sandaled feet. The hot wind does the rest, changing my personal climate in seconds from tropical to temperate.

My air conditioner has unique advantages; almost anyone can afford it. It's portable - I take it with me when I walk the dog - and cheap to repair or replace. It even has luxuries: I can wash windows, water my dog, and shoot flies buzzing against the windshield. I can soothe an itching foot without taking my attention from the highway, or cool bee stings. Try that with yours. Owners of air conditioning often whimper about cold heads and hot feet; I can independently cool selected portions of my anatomy. I've considered taking revenge on passengers in passing cars who burst into hysterical laughter by firing a stream of water to blotch their dusty windows.

Every new invention has disadvantages; I plan stops so I don't stroll into a caf'e dripping water, because one truck driver laughed so hard he nearly drove into the ditch. Like all inventors, I'm sure I can overcome these minor obstacles.

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