Cajon Summit, Arco station, approximately 12:30 AM
The gas gauge informed me that my car has less than a quarter of a tank of the substance that powers its internal combustion engine. I didn't know the area, so I figured the first gas station I saw would be the one I fueled up at. Normally, I try to avoid Arco stations as they're (in)famous for providing cheap gas; a persistent story is that the gas has been known to eat more than its share of engines. But hey, it's 12:30 in the morning; the last thing I want to happen is for my car to sputter and die without a fuel station around. So I pulled into the station, and get ready to refill my thirsty beast.
I get out, walked around to the passenger side, get ready to gas up the car. I glanced up at the pump number so I can tell the automated payment box which pump to let have gas, then at the car next to me. Late model sedan, mid-size, metallic grey, fairly good condition. I stopped for a second, go into my car, pull out my blue sweatshirt when the owner of the sedan comes up to me.
"'Scuse me," he said as I turned around. He's a black man, about six foot two, pretty average build. His beard is starting to show serious greying, his face showing the lines of a few decades on this planet, "can you tell me how to get to Portland?"
Thought process came to a grinding halt. He didn't just say Portland, as in Oregon, did he? Of course not. Probably just misheard it. "Where?"
"Portland. You know, Seattle, Portland."
He did say Portland. Not exactly the usual kinda thing you ask for directions at a desert gas station at midnight, but oh well. Stranger things have definitely happened. I figure the best thing to do is to tell him; it's not every day you give driving directions for a thousand mile journey.
"Your best bet is to take 15 up to Highway 58. Make a left on 58, take it down all the way to Highway 99. Make a right on the 99, take it all the way up to the 5, take the 5 up to Portland."
"Thanks. Lemme tell my wife I found someone who knows how to get to Portland," He said as he walks towards the mini mart.
"Now you kids be good," he warned the two occupants sitting in the back seat of the sedan. They're young kids, one was probably about 4 or 5, the other about 7 or 8, dark skinned, full of that mysterious joy only kids seem to have, that joy we all lose as we get older. I didn't really think anything of them at the time; my mental circuits didn't really handle this part of the puzzle until farther down the road. I followed him into the gas station.
"Honey, this man knows how to get to Portland," he said to his wife. She was a shorter woman, about five foot three or so, mid twenties, heavyset. Over a half decade of raising kids and trying to start a family had obviously not done any wonders for her appearance; under the heaviness of a stressful life were the slight hints that at one time, she was probably one of the beautiful people until life got in the way of her complexion.
She was discussing a laminated roadmap with that gas station clerk, probably talking about reaching the destination of Portland. She disagreed with the route he gave her, in her mind it was wrong. It would only cause trouble. She and the clerk both looked at her husband and me, and they quieted for a second, before the clerk began to speak.
"Like I was telling your wife," he said to her husband. The clerk was a light skinned man with a cleanly shaven head. He was heavyset, probably at least mid thirties, possibly a decade over. When he spoke, one's attention was drawn to the fact that he was missing at least a couple teeth in the upper left part of his mouth, "Your best bet is to take Highway 395 up to 58 into Bakersfield. Going though LA would only slow you down."
"But those are just regular roads," the wife said. She was obviously much more comfortable on freeways.
"Those roads are very fast," I said, "I was just on them, and was doing 70 pretty much the whole time."
"Trust me, you don't want to go through LA," the attendant said, "LA's always bad, plus the grade is worse. Cajon is six point seven percent for twelve miles, I-5 is seven percent and its over thirty miles long. Its only an hour and a half to Bakersfield from here. You go through LA, it'll be three."
"He's right," I concurred, "I live in LA and even I hate driving LA's freeways, plus the grade is pretty bad. In spots, I was down to 55."
The couple looks at eachother for a few seconds. It was one of those obvious "we'll discuss this in the car" looks. They then proceed to walk back to the car. I wandered around to the drink section, pulled out one of those carbonated energy drinks, asked the clerk to put ten on one, and left the station. As I walked back over to the car, I noticed that the family had moved their car out of the fuel pump area, probably to discuss it further. I proceeded to gas up my own car, and head off back home. As I left, I noticed that the couple is still in the parking lot, probably continuing their discussion on how best to get to Portland.
To be honest, I don't know why, almost twelve hours later, I can't get this family out of my head. Who were they? What was in Portland for them? Why were they driving through the middle of nowhere at some god-forsaken hour of the night? Why weren't the kids in school? I want to track them down, find them. Have they decided to live a nomadic lifestyle, or is this just a traditional family vacation at a non-traditional time. I want to know their story, what makes them tick. I feel this family will haunt me in some way for a long time to come.