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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Heat Wave on the Highway

. . .
Here is a follow-up to my blog about Fan Conditioning-- an excerpt from my book Land Circle.

This is the essay as it appears on my computer; copyediting may have changed it in small ways when it appeared in Land Circle, pages 261-263 in the original edition published 1991, pages 291-294 in the Anniversary edition of 2008.


Heat Wave on the Highway

Not long ago, I was speeding down highways in a seventy-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 stared as I staggered into the ladies' room at rest stops to scrape bug juice off my glasses. I realized why people looked startled when I stuck my entire head under any faucet I met. I realized why I was seated next to the kitchen door even in truck stops. The door beat a rhythmic tattoo on my shoulder as waitresses dashed in and out. My ears quivered with shouts: "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 busses, and several dozen monster tractors growling in roadside fields. I also met eighteen motorcycles with riders peering grimly through windshields decorated with dragonfly wings. Only eighteen 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 that the riders may have weather control, too. Or else those black leather outfits are fiendishly clever refrigerators; how else could they stand the heat?

The air smothered my nostrils with the odor of hot rubber, touched my taste buds with rotting silage and overheated fish; swathed me in fine dust, ashes from a prairie fire, stinging herbicides. I smelled ammoniac cow manure, choking diesel exhaust, the sharp tang of oil wells and aging roadkills, delicious roasted-on-the-stem sunflowers, nourishing vegetable gardens, peppery marigolds, resinous pine trees, bracing sagebrush, newly cut lumber, piny 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 sneezed and twitched all day long. My brain 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 person to realize a pocket of cold air swept across the highway near Bismarck, making the grass shiver for an instant, causing a horse to turn its 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 long before my brain could make sense. All the other drivers sat in gleaming metal boxes that distinctly resemble ornate coffins, and breathed dead air sanitized for their delicate nasal passages.

I'm the last of a noble race of hardy men, women, and children who struggled to reach these plains as pioneers, 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. Great Plains dwellers once proudly scorned air conditioning in our houses and cars. We sneered at people rolling down highways with windows closed and frost on the dashboard. 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 redwing blackbirds trilling from fenceposts. An old plains joke said a real farmer could taste the difference between Texas and South Dakota dust; we proudly compared flavors blowing through open windows wherever we drove. Now only I am left to tell the tale.

I'm no hero; I surrender. 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 any passersby who burst into hysterical laughter by firing a stream of water to blotch their dusty windows.

Every new invention has disadvantages; I plan stops to avoid strolling into a cafe dripping water, and 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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For more information:
Read all about my book Land Circle on this website page.

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