Dear Dirty America


Over the Hills & Through Smoke Hazed Prairies

June 27
16:00 2012


I’m on the first part of my lag back to Los Angeles from North Dakota. I pushed my new car through a light rain storm in South Dakota. In Nebraska, the hills and rolling prairies and vast fields of healthy green corn hung a thin shroud of gray smoke, like worn aged gauze over the no longer appealing face of a beloved corpse. The whole day and evening the temperature stayed around one hundred.

Wildfires in Colorado are puking into the atmosphere giant miles-wide plumes of smoke, and they’re drifting north and east over the big earth prairies. After thirteen hours of driving, I’ve landed in Colorado.

I parked my new steed of a car in front of an rickety Super 8 motel. Inside, the desk clerk told me there were only ‘smoking’ rooms available. I eyed her up and down. She was fifty-five, pushing seventy. “I’m a smoker,” she said, with no guilt. I thought about it. Take a smoking room? I looked outside. Two more cars with families pulled up.

“Well?” she asked. Well what! I asked too loudly. Too sharply. I pronounced the ‘h’ in ‘what’. I’d been driving for thirteen hours. My mind was shot. My eyeballs reddened. But I wasn’t unhappy. I just get “weird” after cross-country trips. I tend to push the limits of sleep and lack of food when I travel by myself. Strong coffees. Death metal or opera music.

The skin on her fingers was dangerously dry. Weeks of using a good lotion would only begin repairing those damaged cells. She could never be a prostitute in North Dakota’s oil patch. Her hands would do too much damage. Those boys up there work too hard to pay for anything less than spectacular.

I’ll take the room, I said, so book me. I gave her my card and walked out. “Where you going?” she called. She hotly slid my card through her electronic register’s slot. To get a pack of cigarettes, I yelled back.

A family of four gave me strange looks as they passed me in the lobby. I could read the young mother’s face: You’re trying to make smoking sound cool in front of my two little boys?

I don’t usually smoke, I said, but the only rooms this joint has left are smoking. The young father shook his head a little, like he was thinking: What the hell has that got to do with anything?

“You don’t gotta smoke in the smoking room,” the clerk called, “but they are designated for smokers, if needed.” I don’t smoke, I said. I was irritated. Let me be, I thought. “What are you getting cigarettes for, then?”

If I’m going to be smelling smoke all night in that room, I might as well make it my own. I’m going to leave my mark in there. Give the smoking section a run for its money. That’s the first thing. I glanced at the two children standing beside their parents. It’s still not good to smoke, I told them, but sometimes you get in the mood.

Secondly, Colorado is smoking like a stooped Midwestern hag propped up on her stool as she tends to her barflies. This whole state is smoking. I’ve seen the effects in the air for half of my trip thus far. I’m in the goddamned mood for a little myself. OK? I asked everyone.

The family ignored me and asked for a room with two double beds. “No more vacancy,” the clerk said. “He got the last one.” She pointed a crooked finger at me.

You all can shack up with me. We’ll split the room. Everybody saves a little dough that way. We can wake up early for continental breakfast. I’ll set the alarm. We’ll take turns taking showers. And so on.

When I got back from the nearest truck stop, I brought my pack of American Spirits to my room. The family had either opted out, or were out eating and would be coming back shortly. After smoking only two delicious sticks, with that delectable dirty taste that only American Spirits can so tightly pack into a single cig, I gave up waiting for the family.

Either a hitchhiker, who’d escaped from the local prison, nabbed them, or they’d gone farther west to Denver. I’m not going to worry about it, I told myself. Not this time. There’s four of them. Only one of me. They’ll survive if they’re looking out for each other. That’s the strength of a good family, after all.

As for me, I fell asleep, satisfied and dreaming of the lavish breakfast spread that would be available to all the motel-dwellers in the morning. I left the light on closest to the door, just in case those nice people changed their minds.


Prelude: Good to be in the body scanner business

1: Memorializing a car wreck

2: Men my age are killed by cars and other men

3: Free cocktails for everybody: a dangerous airport rumor

4: Marring my clean slate with a tin-can rental car

5: Famous Dave’s, the health insurance nightmare

6: Dreaming of two good lives requires belief in teleportation

7: ND oil patch: men need servicing as much as their machines

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