A Tale of I40
Jessica had been missing for two weeks when her brother Ryan and I started driving along the I40 corridor, combing every service plaza and truck stop in hopes to find something or someone that could lead us to her. The Navajo Nation Police hadn’t been able to locate her and she hadn’t given a sign of life to anyone since she had ran away from home. Jessica had ran several times in the past, truck hopping and hitchhiking to California, only coming back several days later, head down and without a word.
The I40 was our default place to start looking for her. She had to have followed it at some point after leaving the rez.
It was barely eight in the morning and the temperature was over ninety degrees when we began our second day of search. The highway was empty, a straight strip of scorching blacktop cutting through the badlands and shimmering in the radiant heat. The car smelled of beef jerky, energy drinks and repressed fatigue. My friend Ryan and I had left Round Rock, AZ, in the early hours — me at the wheel of his red Pontiac Grand Prix and him giving directions from the passenger seat. PJ Harvey’s Big Exit was playing on the stereo.
“Here’s the truck stop,” Ryan said, pointing at the black sign announcing a commercial vehicles rest area half a mile ahead.
The area was empty. Nothing but the desert and the traffic dashing by in soothing waves. Yet Ryan still stepped out to walk alone in the sun, thoroughly inspecting the surroundings while I stretched out.
“There’s nothing here,” he declared after a moment. “Maybe the next one.”
“Maybe the next one,” I said, restarting the engine.
There is a moment during long car journeys, when driving, the act of driving, becomes an event by itself. Not anymore a mechanical byproduct of time passing, but an all-encompassing event, blurring past and future into a single glowing point — a present in motion, passing by in a spark yet always close, almost palpable.
Driving in the Arizonian plain looking for Jessica was one of those moments.
The miles slowly added up as the interstate winded off in the rearview mirror and stretched across creosote bushes, yellow weeds and rocky peaks.
“This is Kingman,” Ryan said after another hour.
Kingman’s truck stop was huge and set in the middle of nothing, jagged mountains on one side and parched flats on the other. I parked near the party row, the last row in the back of the lots, where prostitutes offer their services to resting truckers.
“Brown hair, white tee, jeans and a horse necklace,” said Ryan to a man standing near a blue eighteen-wheeler. “Last time she ran away she hitchhiked to L.A. and jumped from truck to truck to get there. You ain’t heard nothing?” he asked.
“I got a guy looking for his sister, Indian, twenty-three, missing for about two weeks. Anyone heard of her? C’mon back,” the trucker said on the CB — enticing two or three negative responses and some laughs. “I sure could use some of that,” someone replied on the radio.
I filled the tank and waited for Ryan to finish his questioning tour. The blazing wind was lifting clouds of clay over an abandoned gas station. Empty Dunkin Donuts coffee cups were rolling on the ground. I pissed in the dust. A used condom had been left there.
“Sick shit going on in this plaza. Human trafficking, beatings, thefts. I got gas stolen from me not a month ago. Never travel without a gun, man,” a big trucker told Ryan.
“Lots of girls coming and going,” another explained. “Most of them abused or doing drugs. Any reason why your sister ran?”
Ryan didn’t reply. He knew about the meth Jessica had been using. He knew about the weed she had been selling outside Round Rock elementary school. He knew about the Navajo Warrior Girlz, the Native American gang she had been part of since she had turned fifteen — this or a gun in my mouth, Ryan, is it what you want?
We stayed silent in the car for a while after that, gear lever on D, brakes on, the AC blowing cold air on our faces.
The almost-ghost town of Yucca felt sinister when we entered it, passing by a desolate motel sign, a truck-on-a-stick and countless derelict buildings.
“Níláh,” said an old man at the local burger joint when we asked him about Jessica. Leave me alone. “T’óó shił nahaaghááh.” I’m hangover. “Hazhóó’ígo íłhosh shiyázhí,” he chanted in Navajo, a pack of cigarettes and a liquor bottle on his lap.
I reluctantly went back driving, leaving Yucca’s Route 66 relics behind like mirages in the desert. The onboard thermometer indicated an exterior temperature of a hundred and ten degrees. I remember praying for not getting stranded.
“She must have stopped somewhere at some point,” Ryan said. “Somebody must have seen her. Taken a picture maybe.”
Everything seemed to stand still as we advanced along the road. From the grainy blacktop surface to the air battering the sweeping sheet metal curves of the Pontiac at eighty-five miles per hour, everything seemed to slow down, down and down…
We crossed the California State line two hours later and soon reached Barstow’s service plaza, the Mojave range carving up the horizon behind us.
I talked to a janitor but he didn’t remember seeing Jessica and he no wanted trouble with nobody. We ate chicken roll sandwiches with a group of older truckers.
“Haven’t met her, but the whole city is kind of a giant rest area. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been here recently,” one said. “Not to set you off but they found a severed head right down that ramp not so long ago. You meet some crazy bastards on those stops. Definitely not a place I’d want my girl to stay. Then again, she might just have found a nice guy who took good care of her until L.A.”
“I picked up a Mexican teenager the other day, that’s it,” let out a gray-haired man listening to a Bruce Springsteen song playing in the cabin of his white Freightliner.
“Didn’t see nothing but ugly lot lizards lately,” a guy in camo pants added, referring to the prostitutes roaming around. “I’ll keep an eye open for you.”
Ryan walked away to ask other people about his sister. I watched him go behind a row of trailers and went back to the Grand Prix. Inside, my friend’s revoked license was still clipped to a sun visor, six months after his latest arrest for intoxicated driving.
Outside, the dry wilderness remained mute as ever.
When Ryan came back, I just waited for him to stop punching the car and patted him on the back as he tried to hide his tears. Sweat in my neck, head aching, eyes burning.
“We’ll try again tomorrow,” I said.
We both knew we wouldn’t find Jessica. Her footsteps had already started to fade, engulfed by the cloverleaf interchanges and the barren land.
What could have we done?
The highway was still empty on our way back to the reservation, and although we were headed home, we still felt like we were going nowhere familiar — to a void where runaway girls vanish, swallowed by unending summers, burned by the red sun, scattered along the dark westerly roads.