Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Demon In The Darkness

If I were ever to compose a short story, or perhaps a novel, I would base it on two rather frightening experiences that I have had while driving to and from Minnesota on the Interstates.

In 1993, after spending a couple of days with a friend in Dayton, Ohio, I spend nearly an entire day from sunrise to sunset driving to Saint Paul by way of Indianapolis, Chicago, and Madison. Had I paid more attention to the "big picture" and not concentrated solely on my route, I would have realized that Wisconsin is a much larger state than any that I had passed though on my way from Ohio. It felt like I was racing to beat the sun as I sped across Wisconsin -- and at the age of 25, being single and carefree, I had little regard for speed limits. My speedometer only went up to 85, so much of the time I didn't even know how fast I was going. Yet, somehow, and for reasons that I can only speculate, the driver of a car that I had passed decided to follow me. He accelerated until his speed matched mine. It took only a couple of minutes for me to realize that I was being tailed. Was I worried? You betcha. Was this person going to take the law into his own hands and physically assault me for driving too fast? It was a matter of grave concern at that moment, for I was starting to run low on gas, and I knew that a station break was imperative. A few minutes later, I drove off the highway onto an exit with a handy gas station in the vicinity. My tail had broken free: He continued westward on his merry way along I-94 as my car's tank filled with prime petrol. The fear was gone. But...what if...what? What if?

Oh, and for those of you concerned with karma, you will be relieved to know that an Indiana trooper nailed me for doing 83 in a 65 mile per hour zone on my return trip. Taught me a lesson, that ticket did.

Now venture forward in time one dozen years, to 2005. On my first trip to Minnesota in eleven years, I was no longer a carefree single man, but a family guy with a minivan full of kids. No more speeding for me -- I wanted the trip to be as safe as possible for everyone. Danger reared its ugly head in Wisconsin once more. Nothing bad happened, but I will never again let my wife drive on any road with a speed limit over forty, since that's as fast as she could drive in the left lane without getting tense and nervous. I ended up doing almost all of the driving on the return trip, which was perilous as I was unable to nap in the car like everyone else did. Tiredness tormented me by the time we reached central Ohio, and the skies were getting dark. I turned the wheel over to her shortly before we entered a construction zone. With concrete barriers on either side there was no place for her to pull over, and no room for anyone to pass.

Soon enough, she started getting sleepy and we switched positions once more. I couldn't sleep because I was nervous about riding shotgun while she was driving. (Interesting question to ponder: When you die, do you want to be awake to see it?) By this time, it was after 9 PM and the whole family was starting to doze off. Once we were out of the construction zone, I prayed that there would be no more delays so that we could be home by midnight. Events of the following hour would not permit me to get that comfortable behind the wheel for the rest of the evening.

I was sleepy enough that I was unable to maintain a safe, constant rate of speed. After passing slower moving vehicles, I would settle into the right lane and my speed would drop off because I could not maintain enough pressure on the gas pedal without concentrating on it. My speedometer varied from 70 mph (when I was in the passing lane) to 45 (when I was getting drowsy and losing concentration). So, apparently, did the speedometer of a van driving just a few car lengths behind me. By this point, I'm not sure how long it was following me, but when I passed other vehicles, it passed them as well; and when I was slowing down in the right lane, well so was it. My "shadow" followed me for over a half hour, perhaps as long as a full hour, across central and eastern Ohio. Somewhere in the vicinity of Zanesville or perhaps Cambridge, my van's fuel tank level dropped low enough to require a pit stop. I pulled onto an exit ramp with two stations on either side of the highway; so did my shadow. The first station that I pulled into turned out to be closed for the night. I felt a chill as I spotted that other van pulling into the same station, on the other side of the pump. I also avoided making eye contact, or giving any obvious indication that I was aware of the shadow's presence or that it had been following me. My wife woke up when she realized that the car was no longer moving; I decided not to worry her about telling her that a stranger was following us and was parked almost right next to us. Ignorance was bliss -- and I still haven't told her about it. Someday, perhaps, when the kids are older. Otherwise, she'll never want to go anywhere again.

Quickly informing her that we needed to get gas and that this station was apparently closed, I pulled out and went to the brightly-lit 24 hour service plaza down the road. Sure enough, the shadow pursued. I didn't care anymore. I was going to pull the van under the bright lights and if the other driver had anything to say to me, that was the place to do it. But it never came to that. As I pumped the tank full of gas, the other van was nowhere to be seen. I definitely followed me into the station, but not to the pump. As near as I can tell, he must have driven to the McDonald's restaurant in the back of the service plaza. Good riddance -- if in fact he was gone. For all I know, he might have been parked and hiding out behind the building, waiting to shadow me once more when I was ready to leave.

As it happened, I never saw that van again. The only lingering problem that I had at that point was a crushing need to go to the bathroom. I might have done so at the service plaza, but I wasn't going to leave my sleeping family unguarded in the car while I ran inside where a killer might have been waiting. At the last rest stop before the Ohio border, near Saint Clairsville, I quickly pulled off and ran inside to do what I had to do and got back to the car. My wife was somewhat dismayed that I was stopping in the dark, but as strange as it seems, I felt safer in the darkened rest stop than I did at the well-lit service plaza.

Over my wife's objections, I turned on the radio to keep me company -- and to keep me awake -- the rest of the way home. She stopped complaining when she realized that the radio was doing more to keep me alert than anything else in the car. By the time we got home, it was close to 1 AM, and I was relieved. The family was glad to be back, and I was happy not to have shared my experience with them.

I also learned another valuable lesson. In addition to no more speeding, I am going to give up long-distance night driving, particularly if I am getting a little sleepy. Who knows how many other people on I-70 were as tired as I was that night? The open road can be a dangerous place if you're not careful.


jipzeecab said...

I've always enjoyed driving at night but it is fraught with danger..
Other van may have been using your slip stream to save fuel. Any vehicle creates a slipstream for a following vehicle. A van creates a really good one although on an interstate if that was his intent a big truck makes a better one.

Nicko McDave said...

Since he followed me into two gas stations, I doubt that he was going for a slipstream. It was too weird for that.

He may have thought he recognized a vehicle belonging to someone of his acquaintance and wanted to rendezvous with them, but dropped the pursuit when he saw me get out of the car and didn't recognize me.

Either that, or he was some kind of psycho looking for love in all the wrong places, and opted to break off the chase when he saw how big I was after I emerged from the driver's seat.