I exit Carrington’s new round-about headed straight south. Advertised coming into town, the Chieftain Conference Center is just over the tracks and guarded by an twenty-four foot fiberglass statue, arm extended. The “muffler man” craze of the 1960’s gave International Fiberglass out of Venice, California the monopoly on America’s roadside attractions. Used to advertise businesses and designed to hold full sized car mufflers, transmissions, and tires (hence the name), “muffler men” were erected throughout the country. Chicken Boy in Highland Park, California, Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois, Paul Bunyan in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Nitro Girl in Blackwood, New Jersey. But the most popular, The Indian.

Shirtless, dark red skin, braided hair, war paint, a head dress. A classic mid-century interpretation of America’s “savage” – appropriated for advertisement and used to “honour” the areas connection to its original inhabitants. New Yorker cartoonist, Bill Griffith, beat me to “Big Chief” by half a century as his comic “Zippy the Pinhead” worshipped these muffler men – allowing “Big Chief” to acknowledge that he’d been turned into a “racist stereotype of the wild west.” The comic excludes the totem pole beside “Big Chief” – I imagine its placement to “honour” North Dakota’s connection to the Pacific Northwest.

“Big Chief” faces the southwest, arm extended towards another Dakota atrocity taking place at Standing Rock First Nation.

Carrington’s Muffler Man

Having already travelled these roads and a final destination in place, I should have a more confident sense of safety, but as the turn of season affected highway conditions the political climate is as icy. I continue to progress towards Minnesota and plan to treat my general approach to this journey as I do my early evening winter driving. The barren landscape without any windbreak, barbed wire providing the only resistance to the blustering howl. As soon as I get too trusting with my speed, I’m humbled with a subtle loss of control. Falling back into cautious conduct, observing, and allowing the semi truck ahead of me to cut the trail.

I betrayed my own experience in the usage of silence, music and talk radio to control the flow of an extended drive and hence fatigue. The secret to endure as much silence off the top end of the travel – like one starves themselves before an all you can eat buffet. But a misplaced USB containing a thirty song tribute to Guy Clark presented itself yesterday after a year missing. Joe Ely covering Dublin Blues took me across the border, and I blasted through it at full volume. Vince Gill, Randall Knife. Jack Ingram, Stuff that Works. Radney Foster, L.A. Freeway. Ray Wylie Hubbard, Homegrown Tomatoes. James McMurtry, Cold Dog Soup. Hayes Carll, Worry B Gone. Hot damn, I ate a steak dinner.

I force three hours of silence. A homemade wooden cutting board as a gift from my brother and his wife has acted as my van desktop for the last two years. I wedge it at elbow level across the middle console as an extended armrest and writing tablet. Staring ahead and visually focused on the road, I allow myself to jot notes, filling up three legal-pad pages before another icy reminder gets two hands back on the wheel.

I enjoy road silence as much as anything. The opportunity to create, solve problems, and work out stage banter. Ideas for the performance of the new record come in and out, characters.

Minneapolis is deserted. The empty I-94 cutting through the lonely midwestern ghost town. My favourite podcast, Darkness Radio, never heard live on its “Twin Cities News Talk AM 1130” home, I’m unable to make the hosts through the static but enjoy the frequency noise. An eeriness as the Interstate goes dark and I pull off the road. The old 6.2 diesel would purr like a kitten while I slept, but I blast the heat in the Caravan for ten minutes, winterize my apparel and recline the driver’s seat before killing the engine.

Usual vehicle sleeping consists of all effort for the most comfortable and accommodating rest. But mission driving calls for naps upon fatigue, day or night. I just so happen to have made it to 2:30 am. Sleeping sound and cold until 6:41 am. Unfortunately, McDonalds run this Interstate scene and I’m lured in by their dollar coffee and can’t resist a greasy McGriddle. Greasy.

It’s clear roads to Oglesby. Birthplace to a handful of professional athletes, it’s just another water tower. Queener, with four months growth on his face looks as good as the day I left him. A cowpuncher and somewhat of a twang hub. Upon my first trip south, last fall, I was advised by Del (Barber) to forget about Nashville and just go down and hang with Queener for a month – I now appreciate the suggestion. A mutual friend now among a group of us, he’s a take-no-shit Man of God. Fight-the-good-fight Cosmic Christian, a pious resistance to dogma. A horseman, a poet, a picker and intellect. We regret not being in Elko for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and check the mileage as if we were to completely blow off commitments. The neighbouring town of La Salle, IL, answers our desire for Mexican and takes it a step further with a lunch buffet.

Shane Queener, Cosmic Cowboy

Queener and I are pleasured with surface conversation and enchiladas. We dip into homemade guacamole and dream recall but for the most part, catch up. The small chance that he returns to Tennessee before I leave is hopeful. We found ourselves to the point of embarrassment asking each other out for lunch last fall – now it’s an expectation. A couple hours pass, he’s returned to his hotel room before heading to do warehouse installations and sends me off with a couple verses about The San Gabriel Mountains. Pretty Good Guy, that guy.

Willing to risk latter boredom, I begin my Guy Clark tribute from the top. It takes me past Champaign, IL. Silence then Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & The Harvest into a south Kentucky sunset. The songs need no more than David Rawlings’ support. I save listens, especially first listens. I’m sure this record was played in my presence at some point but I’ve intentionally never listened to it, knowing the right time and place to do so. It, along with Tom Waits’ Orphans trilogy are the ‘Unheards’ for my trip to Tennessee. The way it will be. Truck Drivin’ Classics will find its way into the player with an emergency dip of Red Man, I’m sure.

The sunset is surreal. I dash-cam my iPhone to capture the palette and sync with Welch.

“Momma’s in the beauty parlor, and Daddy’s in the baseball pool
Sister’s in the drive-in movie, Brother’s in the old high school
Now here you come alone and crying, once, you know, you were my friend
That’s the way the cornbread crumbles…”

To appreciate the moment I take my next exit, park in the lot of an abandoned Interstate strip club and allow the shades of purple to swallow themselves.

That’s the way the whole thing ends.