We make slow progress as we work our way toward the highway. The RV is equipped with airless tires that can drive over rubble without us having to worry about punctures or flats, but we still can’t run roughshod over everything in our path.
We find the back roads littered with tree branches and other debris, but once we make it to the main highway, the path is mostly clear and we can pick up the pace. The highways have no major obstacles—so far—but there is a good amount of dirt and dust blown onto them that makes them difficult to discern at times.
As we drive, frequent blasts of wind shake the RV and kick up enough dust to impede our vision temporarily, but for the most part, we make decent time.
Having already lost two drones near the airport we don’t risk going in that direction. Heading east on Interstate 70 would have been our most direct route, but instead, we go north toward Cheyenne to connect with Interstate 80.
According to Darwin, who seems to know quite a bit about the highway systems, our best option is to drive to Lincoln and then cut down and connect to Interstate 70 in Kansas City, allowing us to avoid the great lake regions. Destruction-wise, we’ve been told that it’s as bad there as in the coastal areas.
The lack of life outside the RV windows brings on a strange sensation. We drive through cities that should be teeming with activity. But here, nothing but empty homes and buildings.
There is also a noticeable lack of vehicles on the highway. Every apocalyptic movie I have ever seen depicts cars, trucks, and busses abandoned along the roads as if the occupants just got out and walked away. Or died in them. We do see the occasional vehicle on the side or the road, but really no more than you’d come across on a typical drive.
Over the next several hours we drive through ghost town after ghost town. We come across an occasional dead animal carcass that is remarkably preserved after all this time. This is due to the lack of moisture in the air. That and the lack of bacteria, which is a significant part of the biodegradation process. From inside the vehicle, it’s clear that most of these animals are hundred and twenty-year-old road kill.
We have yet to see a human body. Not in any of the vehicles on the side of the road or the towns that we pass.
After a couple of hours on the road, the team has settled in, getting used to the new world. With nothing to do, Brooklyn and KJ chat like two old girlfriends, catching up on the latest gossip.
Darwin comes up to the front and sits in the seat behind Cleaner. “How’re you doing there, big guy?” He’s referring to Cleaner, not me.
“What do you need, Darwin?” Cleaner responds, clearly not interested in small talk.
Darwin gives me a look that says, “What the heck?” Ignoring Cleaner’s lack of conversational instinct, he extends an offer to drive the RV whenever Cleaner needs a break.
“You know how to drive one of these?” I ask, not entirely surprised.
Darwin’s tall, muscular frame is amplified by what must be a regular weight-lifting routine. His arms and chest are heavily tattooed, one of which is a depiction of the earth resting in two giant God-like hands. There is a caption that reads, “He has the whole world in His hands.”
“Actually, I do,” he answers. “My dad was a truck driver. I practically grew up in a big rig. He was teaching me how to drive one of these before I could walk. Had me behind the wheel by the time I was eight, and I was driving on my own by twelve.”
“On your own?”
“Well, you know, he was there with me, but he’d take me driving on back roads where there wasn’t much of a chance of getting into an accident. Or a ticket. When I wasn’t in school I would go on week-long drives with him. He taught me everything there was to know about being a trucker.”
“So why’d you give it up as a career?” I ask. “Clearly you fit the part.”
Darwin makes a face. “Eh. My dad didn’t like driving a truck. He only did it because that’s all he knew and he had a family to feed. At first, I thought he was showing me the ropes so I could follow in his footsteps, but as I grew older, I realized he was doing the opposite. He wanted something better for me but used what he knew to teach me about life. What boy can resist the excitement of driving an eighteen wheeler, right? He used our time together to teach me how to discern the difference between how things appear and what they really are. ‘Critical thinking,’ he called it. I took those lessons to heart and became a scientist.”
“You can take the man out of the truck…” I say.
“Right?! Anyway, I can take over anytime, Cleaner. Just say the word.”
“Sure. Thanks.” Cleaner responds. “I’m good for now, but I’m sure I’ll be ready for a break once it gets dark; you can take over then. Why don’t you go ahead and get some shut-eye, if you can.”
“I think I’ll take you up on that offer,” I say. I reach down and push a button on the side of my chair, lowering the seat-back down into a nearly horizontal position.
“You know he was talking to me, LT.”
“You keep telling yourself that.”