There is a camaraderie amongst those driving long distances. Cut off from interaction for long hours, we reach out in those places we find one another. Twelve hours after I left Indianapolis, I stretched my legs and settled into a seat at the counter of Bosselmann’s in Salina, Kansas. It was a tradition of mine, leftover from the years of St. Louis-Colorado blitzes, a convenient landmark in the flat parts of Kansas that promised hot coffee and large pancakes, halfway between beginning and end.

Uncounted times I’d rolled off the interstate, coasting down the ramps and side roads into the parking lot and into a spot amongst the other small cars. This time, I didn’t coast. I lumbered into the lot and realized that the moving truck put me in a new class of driver. Following new signs, always seen before but ignored in the need for food, drink, and respite, I circled around the back among the dark giants late at night.

I had to circle through the lot twice before I found a slot in the semi-canyon. Stepping out of the cab and loosening atrophied muscles, the cold night air trembled with the throaty grumble of idling engines. For the first time, the truck I was driving felt small, dwarfed by the real trucks and quickly lost in the self-organizing maze of the parking lot.

The late night breakfast I ordered fit in with the other long-haul drivers at the counter, though my simple order of pancakes and coffee lacked any of the primary meats eaten by the other men. The imposed isolation of driving needs only the slightest encouragement to crack. In my case it was my sweater. It had proven itself an icebreaker several times in the past day since DC, at gas stations, truck stops, coffee shops, and the previous night’s hotel. The five dollars I once spent to buy the olive drab, German military surplus sweater with small flag patches on the shoulders had been repaid with character interaction, to say nothing of its incredible warmth.

The large bald man to my right needed only a few minutes to recognize the flag and use that as his entry. His bald head and thick neck gave him the look of an army sergeant, which he had been when stationed in Germany decades earlier. Once the silence was broken, conversation rolled like asphalt under the wheels. Weather is always the first topic between drivers. Each sharing their direction of travel and what they’d encountered. Rain? Snow? Fog? Rumors of storms on the way.
Tonight the topic among the five drivers at the counter was the storm rolling into Northern California. Fifteen feet of snow at Donner Pass, two drivers sprinting that way, racing against the clouds to get across and not miss Christmas with their families on the other side. Fog expected to settle into Eastern Colorado, important news to me as I would be rolling through those empty miles in a few long hours.

From weather, conversation drifted to road conditions, police speed traps, and the bane of existence, electronic engine regulators that kick in at eighty, seventy-five, or even sixty-five miles per hour.

Then it happened. Prompted by some innocuous moment from the ever-present television in the corner, one of the conversational taboos of polite company was shattered. Politics in conversation, like levees, once broached is difficult to patch without collateral damage. Two years of working on the Hill, meeting with legislators both competent and idiotic, progressively minded and those intent on returning us to the nineteenth century, while representing a non-partisan organization had built up a great deal of frustration within me. Freed now from the professional need to see both sides and pretend there is no right and wrong, the urge to engage was far too strong for my mile-addled mind.

It was game time.

The conservative minded at the counter immediately lashed out against Obama with their regurgitated arguments and inanities. I countered with arguments for his political genius, having suckered the conservatives into a false tax compromise that would enable him to do more with a lame-duck Congress than most Presidents manage in a full term.

Like pollutant-laden waters raging across the lower ninth ward, the conversation and arguments swirled onwards carrying waitress and bystanders along like abandoned cars and tar-paper shacks. By an uncertain route, we began to argue the necessity of a standing army and the military industrial complex that is weighing us down like anchor stones. It was then that our good-natured argument left the realms of sanity behind. In the midst of defending the necessity of missile defense, the oldest participant of the debate, a wild gray haired man in Carharts and a leather vest eating bloody-rare prime rib and quarts of sweet tea, declared his opinion regarding the greatest threat to the security of the United States.

Not North Korea, nor China or even Islamic fundamentalists (all previously argued) were the equal to the threat posed to the United State by Mongolia. There he argued, with their herds and yurts on the high steppes, the downfall of America waiting. Around campfires at night, the people of Mongolia waiting and prepared, praying to their god for his return. Their god, he claimed, was in fact Genghis Khan and all Mongolians prayed for his reincarnation to lead them in war again, this time against the United States.

It is moments like this that random conversations at a truck stop counter in the middle of Kansas late at night reveal their greatness. And it’s how argumentative debates like this end amongst those that routinely find themselves wondering what State they are in. Not brought to conclusion by some crushing logic or passionate entreaty, but derailed by pure lunacy.

The temporary clique that had formed at the counter soon broke up after the Mongolian episode. Each man was called again to the road and the miles they still had to go before pulling aside to sleep at a rest stop or further truck stop. The German sweater I wore had once more proven itself and given me entry into another world. I wondered, though, as I walked back across the parking lot and tried to find my truck in the tall rows of semis if I should take it as a compliment or not that the other men at the counter all thought me one of them, a long-haul trucker carrying a last load before Christmas instead of as the amateur interloper that I am.


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