The "Best" In The Midwest
by Michele Christopher
First in a series of FTTW authors' road trip stories, inspired by Turtle's trip across America.
Terre Haute, Indiana is a strange place in the Spring. Anyone who has spent any time there (and I spent some 5 years there in college) may argue that Terre Haute is a strange place at any time, but when the flowers start to bloom, the Weirdness that hibernates under the town definitely rises to the top.
Terre Haute has virtually no industry or meaningful employment of any kind, save at one of the three universities that surround it. The only other industry of any sort is the paper mill seated on the west side of town, down near the river. Terre Haute is perhaps one of the strangest places in the U. S. because it was, at one time, one of the major transportation and distribution centers in the midwest. It literally is the "Crossroads of America"--the two oldest major highways in America intersect in Terre Haute and train tracks still tangle themselves in the countryside, reminding people of the lost days when Terre Haute had something resembling an economy. The long and short of this, of course, is there is nothing to do on a Friday night except get drunk and chase girls.
Those days of "economy" , however, are over and long gone. Terre Haute today is a horrible mutation, recalling the mythical chimera. Terre Haute is a combination Hick Refugee Camp and College Town. The Hick Refugees (being older, more permanent citizens) actually run the town, so very little accomodation is made for the college students, and because of that the town makes so little money from the students that the Hick Refugees are running the city into the ground. The city has become The World's Biggest Truck Stop, and along the main drag of the town, 3rd street (better known as US Hwy 41) every form of petroleum and junk food imaginable is available.
The only other significant source of revenue for the town is the paper mill. The paper production process (or at least the part dealing with the "milling") invoves a great deal of creosote and other chemicals being belched into the sky. This creates Terre Haute's famous smell--"The Haute" to those in the know. The stench is undescribable, and any further attempt to describe it would pale beside the actual olfactory assault The Haute can deliver. If you want to smell it in all its glory, though, visit Terre Haute in late March or early April, when the rains keep all the fumes contained at ground level and the rancid, oily air is nearly visible.
It was at that time of year, in the early Spring, when my roomate and I found ourselves choking to death in our freshman year of college. It was just barely warm, and the air was so incredibly moist it was condensing on our windows.
"Let's go somewhere," my roommate said. "Dashing" Dirk Runyon was about 5'8" tall, a complete slacker and a dedicated Civil War Reenactor. Nobody actually called him "Dashing" except himself. Mostly we just called him "Runny." He was the Force of Chaos in my young life. In hindsight, I now thank him for it. Except when he came up with stupid ideas like "We can just head north on the highway. The wind is blowing South by Southeast, so we'll head North and get out of The Haute. We'll find something."
Since we were Freshmen in College and thought that at any time we might "run into some Honeys" we made a quick change of clothes. I put on my slightly foppish purple rayon shirt and Runny donned his Authentic Kilt (built to exactly match the uniform of the one Kilted unit in the US Civil War)and matching 100% Authentic beret. I would have pictures showing what this outfit may have looked like, unfortunately the information about this unit is so incredibly obscure it doesn't exist on the internet.
We headed out to the parking lot, to Runny's car. The Beast. The Beast was a completely restored 1969 Mustang GT. It was restored using replicas of the actual parts that were required, and even the paint was a replica of an original '69 Mustang factory color. Runny was a stickler for Authenticity. So much so, in fact, that he would gladly sacrifice comfort to maintain historical accuraccy. For example, The Beast was perhaps the single most uncomfortable car on the road at the time, and the most unsafe. Runny, as most young men with such cars, bought and restored the thing in order to attract women. Which it did, until the nubile young thing went for a ride in The Beast, at which point, she ran for the comfort of her VW Beetle, weeping softly and swearing to her gods never to do it again.
Fun Facts You May Not Know About 1969 Ford Mustang Automobiles.
1. They have lap belts, only, making paralysis (if not death) a near certainty in the event of a serious accident.
2. "Heaters" in 1969, basically consisted of a vent between the engine compartment and the cab of the vehicle. This was a joke on the part of the engineers. Not only did no warm air come in, when driving the car at speed in the winter, the vent would actually suck cold air into the car.
3. The modern idea of shocks and brake pads were not put into automotive production until 1971, resulting in a ride that feels like being dragged naked on a boogie board across Death Valley at 70 mph.
The Beast roared out of the Parkhurst Hall parking lot at 55 mph and climbing, and by the time we reached the highway, my ass was numb enough for me to actually sit back and enjoy the ride. We were riding around with no direction and no destination, Classic Rawk blaring on the radio ( I distinctly remember "Sweet Home Alabama" playing that night) and suddently it came to me-- I was on a road trip. I was in college, on a road trip. My mother had NO IDEA where I was or who I was with. These were heady times. The testosterone of Spring suddenly hit my brain and I had the urge to commit a felony while having anonymous unprotected sex. I was feeling good.
Runny's plan, to wit: "Go North and Do Something", had one problem. There is nothing north of Terre Haute, Indiana. The highway seemed to go on forever. After two hours on the road I was readying my Party Pooper voice--I was bored and hungry, and the testosterone was fading.
"Hell yes! There it is!" Runny piped! The sign clearly read "Emu's Adult Toy Emporium"--the "Best" in the Midwest." The massive hulk of the Beast swerved across 2 lanes of traffic to the off-ramp, and our fate was sealed.
Emu's Adult Toy Emporium is one of those places that exists along the highways of America, mainly for the purpose of stimulating the Rape Instinct of speed-fueled truck drivers. I don't think I really understood the meaning of the word "seedy" until I saw Emu's. Everything was incredibly dimly lit. In the back there was a row of peep-show booths. Implements and "marital aids" of all kinds lined the walls. Runny and I separated, mostly because I didn't want to be in a sex shop with a guy in a skirt and a beret. I was wandering about and eventually, from sheer 19-year old embarassment, settled on what I now refer to as the "Tame Aisle" of the shop.
Every sex shop has a Tame Aisle. This is the aisle of the shop for nervous teenagers and old people. This is where you can find the famous "sexy" gag gifts--like bras for sixty-year old men, small, cheap plastic vials of "Spanish Fly" and of course, dirty dice, which are always faced towards the customer to read "Kiss..."?" Ah, that ubiquitous "?". I looked around at the faces of the burn-out truckers around me and thought about the Sorority Pledge I had been seeing and how I could probably be well on my way to "Kissing" her "?" if only Runny hadn't dragged me into the Hinterlands on a whim.
A bumping in the back of the store turned all heads in the direction of the peep show booths. A tall fellow with a rat-tail and a mop was knocking on one of the booths.
"All, right, come outta there, I gotta mop up now" the Jizzmopper drawled.
A muffled curse came from the booth, distinctly ending in the words "old man." It was Runny's voice. I knew then we were screwed. I put down the Dirty Dice and started to make my way toward the door as slowly and inobtrusively as I could. I had been in situations like this before, and knew that once pushed, Runny would push back as long as he could, and my only hope now was not to get caught in the crossfire.
"Son, I mean it, come outta there now!" the Jizzmopper demanded, and began to unlock the door from the outside. "Here it comes" I thought.
I'm not sure exactly what the Jizzmopper saw, but it certainly offended him. Runny was soon pursued through the store while the Jizzmopper tried to take him out with his mop. I bolted for the door and sprinted to the car with the Jizzmopper's cries of "Skirt-Wearin' Fairy" hot on my heels.
We peeled out of the Emu's parking lot, and Runny, rather than take us back to the highway, moved further in to the nameless town that Emu's called home.
"Man, I need some coffee," Runny whined," that chick was just starting to get into me, man."
The night was only half over, but the other half of the story is probably best left to after the Statute of Limitations expires...
Nick is the author of the FTTW comic strip The Back Forty, which appears here on Sundays.