It had been raining heavily for some time before we reached the DeSoto Bridge, and when we did there was little visibility and even less traction on our tires. It was the kind of storm that makes you grip the wheel tight, follow the car in front of you, and hope you don’t skid into the river below. Adding to the fun was the sedan with no headlights directly behind us, tailing our car like a shark following a lifeboat. With hazards all around, the drive was less a matter of safety than one of survival.
Knuckles white and eyes fatigued, the first Arkansas rest stop couldn’t come fast enough. But this wasn’t a fast or easy kind of drive. Memphis, and its high bluff, was on the other side of the river. Here on the western shore of the Mississippi, the land is soft and marsh-like. You can’t build much more than an elevated highway on it, meaning that by the time you have a chance to pull over, breathe, and pry your fingers off the steering wheel the storm has had a chance to pass. All that’s left are the clouds and the dying light.
By the time you reach West Memphis even the light is gone, and you’re surrounded by darkness. The 129-mile stretch of I-40 that continues west to Little Rock is not a fun one. No lightposts, no hotel neon, no ballfield spotlights. Nothing but the dark of night, the denseness of trees, and the brief glimpse of highway caught in someone’s headlights.
There are no office parks, no strip malls, no supermarkets. Being the geniuses that you are, you’re now driving through this darkness with a low tank of gas. The single device that can tell you the location of the nearest gas station has an even lower battery.
You conserve both these resources and guess at exists, hoping that when you get off you won’t find yourself on a country road that doesn’t get much traffic. Those are the roads where construction trucks might be barreling by without their headlights on or an expectation that other cars might be on the road. One near sideswipe will make you twice shy in a hurry.
Finally, you see a literal sign of life. A gas station called Love’s in a town called Palestine. Joke if you want to, but seeing this just as the gas gauge turns red feels less like luck and more like a taste of that salvation the New Testament spoke of.
But like any good preacher will tell you, there’s a long line of people waiting for salvation, and on this road many of them drive tractor-trailers. So you wait your turn, and the waiting gives you a chance to really see where you are.
Truckers fill up their rigs. Highway patrolmen make inspections. Bikers hang out. All around you people stream in and out of the truck stop. A very pregnant woman walks by on the way toward a late-night snack.
You’re at the only business open at 10:00 pm for who knows how many miles, and everyone who is hungry, thirsty, or in need of any kind of homegoods is here. This is the option.
The fried chicken you buy for dinner is cooked just enough to trust and there’s too much activity in the parking lot to drive away just yet. So you sit, and you think about how little you’ve seen along an Interstate connecting two fairly large cities. If you’re someone who works in lumber, trucking, or highway construction, this is great for you, but if you don’t… what do you do? Where do you work? How do you make a living? Are the answers simply out of your line of sight, or are they not out there at all?
–Essay by Dan Meade
Photos by Dan Meade & Rob Bellinger
Photo editing of “Biker of Palestine,
Arkansas” by Ari Kubie
Publication date: 1/15/2017
Date of visit: 5/27/2016