Heading south below Pittsboro, I saw the usual road-side detritus – plastic bags, cans, paper. But wait. Something else was going on.
First I saw a yellow Jeep barely in the shoulder, engine running, and a man – was he staggering? – in the brush. What was he doing? If he needed a pit stop wouldn’t he have headed farther away from the road, into that far stand of trees? Was he having some sort of psychotic episode? Should I stop?
Before I could react, I drove under an overpass where a female driver, on the other side of the road, had pulled over, lights flashing. The weather was fine, nippy but not rainy, the usual reason to seek shelter under a bridge. Was she on her phone? Maybe she was calling about the madman on the loose but she hadn’t passed him yet.
A few yards later another car was stopped on that side, again barely off the highway. A young woman sat in the driver’s seat and a young man was walking up the road in the direction the car was going, talking on his phone. He was at a shoulder-less spot where a guardrail made pedestrian traffic particularly treacherous.
A fight? Had he told the woman – his girlfriend? – to pull over: “I’m out of here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
But why had he left the passenger door open? After an argument don’t we find petty pleasure in slamming the door? Maybe he was talking to his wife, saying, “OK, it’s over. I just got out of her car. I won’t see her again.”
Perhaps the opposite was true and the young woman behind the wheel had said, “Make the call. Tell her you’re through with her. Now. Or I’ll leave you.”
Had a doctor called the young man with bad news and he’d said to the woman, “I need to take this and I need privacy.” But why head to such a dangerous spot? Was he suicidal?
I thought briefly of the many times in my childhood when we stopped by the side of the road on our cross-country trips. My parents were proud of saying that by the age of 4, I, their youngest daughter, had traveled coast to coast and border to border twice, several legs of those jaunts in our trusty red Chevy station wagon.
I have few memories of all the cities and national landmarks. I do recall the torment of prickly heat, my chubby thighs – sweaty and itchy – sticking to each other and the vinyl seat. We called Louisiana, “WeeWeeAnna,” because, for some reason, we stopped so often there to pee by the side of the road.
I remember those stops. They made sense. But what were all these people doing? The guy in the Jeep? Maybe he’d been given the precise longitude/latitude of a stash of crystal meth, like on the show “Breaking Bad,” and he was getting ready to dig it up. But in plain view? And where was his shovel?
When I arrived at my destination in Southern Pines, I noticed a voicemail from a woman who was also going to the retreat. She had passed along the same road just a few minutes before me.
She cautioned me to be careful, that that were puppies by the road. She had almost hit one.
Oh dear. That was it. Puppies. I just hadn’t seen them.
So often we entirely misread what’s going on. We’re human, designed with minds that think in stories – sometimes skewed. In entertainment, this dichotomy can be pleasurable. I love books and movies that start with a convincing version of reality and then completely uproot it, like “The Alexandria Quartet,” by Lawrence Durrell or the movie “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
But that’s art. In my case it was just another anxious mind on a road trip.
Carol Henderson is a writer and writing teacher. Contact her at email@example.com