From the football field size patch of muddy land stretching out along the side of the road where I sat, I could see the gray water of the Cheyenne River winding its way through the low, flat, banks along both sides of the fast moving water. To call it a river, at least this part of it, seemed an overstatement. It actually was no bigger than a large stream, here a little ways outside the town of Wasta. If I hadn’t been told by the attendant at the gas station in Wasta that the Cheyenne River was nearby I most likely wouldn’t have gone down the mostly deserted road to get an up-close glimpse of it. It appealed to my sense of adventure, seeing the river up close, especially since the word Cheyenne brought to mind fantasies about the days of cowboys and Indians.
But sitting amidst the yellow scrub-grass of late summer, looking through the sparse grove of dead trees that stood in odd and varying angles in the mud, seeing the stream-sized river was underwhelming to say the least. If it weren’t for what looked like a rust coated 1946 Chevrolet pickup sitting among the dead trees, and trapped up to its headlights in the mud, my time there spent sightseeing would have been very brief. But given to wondering about things most people pay no attention to, I had to sit down on the hill alongside my parked car and ponder how the pickup ended up where it was to begin with.
I am a wanderer by nature, and over the years I have been on practically every side road and trail you can drive on along Interstate 90 from Rapid City to Sioux Falls. Aside from the occasional tourist stops like Wall Drug, The Badlands, or the Corn Palace in Mitchell, there isn’t much reason for getting off the interstate to simply sightsee, unless you enjoy prairie grass and the sounds of meadowlarks with their distinctive quickly-warbled songs. There are few abandoned farmhouses still standing along the way, so even the transitory thrill as an adventurer in finding some old, discarded, and rotting magazines, in an empty room in an old farmhouse that is about to fall down, is not easy to come by.
That I had never been on this road was entirely an accident.
Most people leaving Rapid City or Sioux Falls, going from one to the other, have little reason to stop along the way. Stopping in Wasta has to be done for a very specific reason. It’s a town with less than a hundred people and aside from a gas station, a small store, and an old hotel that is on the National Registry of Historic Places, there is nothing to stop for, especially since Wall is about 15 minutes away.
I’m not an automobile aficionado and to be honest I don’t really have much interest in cars as a pastime or hobby. I don’t go to car shows, subscribe to magazines about cars, or go to car races. But I knew what the make and year the truck I was looking at was because my father had one, and there were many pictures of it in the family photo albums. It would take someone totally lacking in curiosity not to wonder how the pickup ended up where it was and how long it had been there. It was what I was pondering as I chewed on a long dried piece of brown prairie grass when I heard a voice from behind me.
“The owner must have hated losing it like that.”
I turned around quickly, surprised at the voice, and stared up at the face of a young man in his early twenties. I was momentarily blinded by the sunlight in my eyes. I put my hand above them to deflect the glare. “You startled me. I didn’t hear you drive up.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you,” the man said. “I didn’t drive here. I was just walking by and saw you sitting here looking at the truck.”
“You live in Wasta?” I asked.
“You don’t really live in Wasta, you’re just waiting for whatever comes next,” he said.
I started to stand.
“Don’t get up,” he said. “I’ll have a seat right there beside you if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” I said, settling back on the mound of grass and dirt I had been sitting on.
He sat down next to me and pulled a blade of grass from a patch of it beside him and stuck the grass in his mouth. “Strange thing about that truck,” he said after a moment looking out at it, “as time goes by parts of it disappear but the main body stays the same. The insides are gone, so is the grill and the headlights, but there she sits.”
“Maybe people have been stripping it over the years,” I offered. “It can’t be easy finding a grill for a 1946 Chevrolet pickup if that is what you need.”
“Maybe,” he said after a brief pause. “But it’s awfully difficult getting through that mud even if you are dying to get something from that truck.”
“The mud has to dry sometimes,” I said.
“Not that mud. This entire area all around the truck is flooded a few times a year and keeps the mud as thick and gooey as molasses even at the height of summer. It can be like trying to walk waist-deep through wet clay. It would be almost impossible to carry anything like a grill or an engine part through it.”
“Maybe the parts rusted away from the truck and were washed away,” I offered.
“Possibly,” he said with a tinge of doubt in his voice. “Or they’re just buried in the mud.”
I leaned back on my elbows looking at the truck, at the beige mud, glancing peripherally at him as he stared at the truck. We hadn’t introduced ourselves by name, and I was certain I had never met him, but there was something familiar about him, about his looks. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt, blue jeans and work boots. We were quiet for several minutes as the insects hummed about us and meadowlarks called out from a distance. On the other side of the river a large black and white Holstein cow made its way slowly along the bank, stopping now and then to pull grass out of the ground and slowly chew it. Other than the sounds of nature, it was eerily quiet.
“I guess I should be moving on,” he said at last, rising to his feet.
I stood also and extended my hand to shake his. “It was a pleasure talking with you,” I said, pulling my hand back when he didn’t shake it.
“I wouldn’t try getting to that truck,” he said with a wry smile before turning and heading down the road toward Wasta.
That he even suspected that getting to the truck was exactly what I was considering was disconcerting, but I chalked it up to good intuition on his part. I again looked at the truck seemingly mired forever in the mud, then looked back down the road where the young man had gone. He was now out of sight.
Sitting on the hood of my car I ate a bologna sandwich and drank ice tea from a thermos while staring out across the mud, at the truck, and at the Cheyenne River beyond it. Since the young man’s departure no one else on foot or by vehicle came by. It was past noon and the sun was high in the sky and the hot winds of summer blew the aromas of prairie grass and cow dung over the landscape in which I sat. The odor of decayed wood and wet earth that hung in the air also grew stronger. Turkey vultures flew onto and away from the dead trees with more frequency. Staring at the pickup I realized that not even one speck of sunlight reflected from its body. Its color of brown, of dirty rust, was not that much different than the color of the mud that surrounded it. Its tomb of mud was all-enveloping. I got down from the hood of my car, tossed the thermos in the back seat. I untied my shoes and removed them and my socks and placed them by the car. Stepping onto the mound of dirt where I had been sitting earlier, I looked down the small slope of hill to the edge of the field of mud, then looked up at the sky, did a Sign of the Cross, and whispered my deceased wife’s name. Then I began down the slope.
Stepping onto the top layer of mud was much like what it must feel like to step onto the crust of a pie just before your feet go through it to the filling. As the surface of the mud broke beneath the weight of my body I immediately sunk down into the thick mud up to my knees, just below the hems of my shorts. It was surprisingly cool given the heat of the day and time of year. I stood perfectly still for a moment, balancing myself in the mud to make sure my feet were firmly planted on the ground beneath the mud. Then the terrifying afterthought crossed my mind that I could have sunken further down then I did. As I looked to where the pickup sat, it occurred to me that I had not clearly thought through that I had no idea what the depth of the mud was between where I stood and where it was. In that moment of balancing I considered getting out of the mud and going back up the slope, but retreating, even when it is prudent, has never been part of who I am. And finally, there was the matter of the pickup truck itself; I was being drawn to it. But knowing being drawn to it was all in my head didn’t lessen the feeling I had of being compelled to go on, guided by force outside of myself.
The first few steps I took were relatively easy, although the mud stuck and clumped around my feet and legs like Elmer’s glue. It took effort to pull each foot up and set it down again before taking another step forward, pushing a trail through the mud that quickly closed behind me leaving no trace of where I had just stepped.
Were I a younger man maybe I would have found it easier, but nearing the age of seventy, although still in very good health and relatively strong for my age, my leg muscles begin to quickly ache. Breathing in that heat and with the effort required to get through the mud, my mind was protesting against what I was making my body do. My heart was beating wildly and the pickup was still a good distance away. In an odd sense that I attribute to already being fatigued, getting nearer to it only seemed to make it appear further away. I paused frequently, caught my breath, let my beating heart calm down and my muscles to gather energy, then pressed on. In the silence of the landscape, the fluttering of the wings of the turkey vultures as they rose from and settled on the dead branches of the trees all around me was noticeable, and sent chills up my aching spine.
It took an hour for me to reach the pickup, and when I did I collapsed against the passenger side door, panting hard. The window was down, or gone, and looking into the vehicle the only thing that still remained was the door to the glove compartment which was opened. On the door was a curled piece of paper.
In 1945 my father was on the USS Indianapolis in July of 1945 when it was sunk by the Japanese Navy. He was one of the lucky almost 900 out of the 1,196 who got off the ship before it sank, but by the time he and his shipmates were rescued four days later, only 300 were still alive, the rest having died due to the effects of being in the water, or being eaten by sharks. I only knew of the event because of my grandparents and mother talking about it when I was old enough to hear such stories.
It was my grandfather who told me how much my father had come back a changed man from his time in the Navy, and from surviving the horrors of what befell the men of the Indianapolis. It was also my grandfather who had given my father the 1946 Chevrolet pickup almost as soon as it came off the assembly line. My father used the pickup for the first few years after receiving it to earn extra money on weekends making deliveries of items that would fit in the truck bed to towns between Rapid City and Pierre. As a young boy I sometimes went with him on the deliveries, my head stuck out of the open window, inhaling the aromas of the open prairies, or huddled against my father’s side to keep warm when it was winter. My father was a quiet man, and said very little during those trips, but it is to him I credit my love for road trips and exploring the back roads along Interstate 90.
Like most things that aren’t of a traumatic nature when we are children, I don’t recall when my father no longer had the pickup, and in later years when seeing him in photographs standing proudly beside it, his foot on the running board and his elbow in the open window, a broad smile on his face, he would never answer if I asked what had happened to it.
“It’s best not to get too attached to things,” he would just say.
There at the truck with mud up to my knees, I looked around to see signs of the missing grill or other parts, but saw none. In some spots the corrosive effects of water and rust had worn holes through the metal. Whatever color it had originally been was impossible to detect. In the truck bed there was a pile of dirt and branches along with the skeletal remains of several small animals who had probably crawled onto the truck to escape the water or mud and never able to leave it. I uncurled the piece of paper and looked at it long enough to see that it was a photograph, but decided to examine it more closely later and put it in my shirt pocket. Then I headed for the shorter distance to the Cheyenne River instead of going back to my car. I slogged my way through the mud once more and when nearly at the water I turned and saw the young man who I had met earlier. He was up on the road standing where we had sat together. He waved briefly and I waved back. I couldn’t discern the look on his face from the distance I was from him, but I imagined he had the look of someone who had pegged me correctly. I stepped into the shallow water at the river’s edge and let the cold water currents wash the mud from my feet and legs. When I looked back toward my car again, the young man was gone.
I walked a half mile or so up river and found a grassy river bank and climbed it and crossed a field of yellow grass before arriving at the road. Once back at my car I leaned tiredly against the side of it looking once again at the field of mud and the 1946 Chevrolet pickup imprisoned in it. I took the curled piece of paper from my pocket and slowly unfurled it. The image of the man in the photo was nearly eaten away by the deteriorating effects of age and weather, but without a doubt it was a photograph of my father. And likewise a photograph of the young man I had met that day.