Saturday, February 6, 2010
June 25, 2009: The Breaking Point
("Onikaa Strikes Back!"2009)
It was the twenty-eighth day of what was beginning to feel like my never-ending cross country trip. I was leaving East Lansing, Michigan, pleasantly impressed with my model and host, Onikaa. She had proven to not only be as insane a model as she had promised, but also a wonderful host. In the one night I was there, she provided a great home-cooked meal, lively entertainment with her family and friends, and a fair amount of alcohol. Of course I hadn't slept very well on the floor of her spare room, but as usual by 9AM I was back on that ceaseless road. It was only a day after I had infamously been detained at the US/Canadian border, though so much had transpired since then that the incident already seemed like ancient history.
The level of exhaustion I had willingly pushed myself to at that point was as maddening as it was humorous. Still I continued, meeting necessary deadlines to fit the schedules of those left on my itinerary. All I could think about was home, my own bed, and not having the uncertainty of where I might lay my head that night. Choosing to listen to the radio, I welcomed the irregular DJs and weird local commercials that would keep me more focused than the drone of a familiar iPod playlist. The rest of Michigan didn't take too long, the northern tip of Indiana was pretty painless, and I was so groggy that the traffic of Chicago seemed like a pleasant break from the constantly shifting scenery. It also felt good later that day to cross Wisconsin and Minnesota off my list of states never visited, though I'll freely admit that I'm unable to remember anything specific about either one. I felt a constant rush against time, and afraid to risk slowing down for fear of losing what momentum I had left.
My main memory of that day was the endless entertainment reports. First was the report of the passing of Farrah Fawcett, then an hour later the all consuming media blitz reporting the death of Michael Jackson. Though I'd been the happiest and chubbiest Mexican kid on my block to wear a single white glove in the mid-80s, my current burnt out state left me feeling more surprised than disappointed, focused more on the task at hand than Pop Culture's loss. Almost immediately after hearing the news, as I put more and more tired miles behind me, I received modern society's version of a public eulogy: the dirty text-messaged joke. Some were just about Jackson, others wittily tried to incorporate Farrah's loss to colon cancer as well. I'm usually a loyal fan of a good off-colored joke, but given my emotional state at the time I could only think "ooh, too soon."
By nightfall I was almost falling asleep at the wheel. Then, like a shock to my system, an intriguing sign caught my eye: The Corn Palace. I had reached Mitchell, South Dakota, almost blindly breezing passed it as I had everywhere else that day, but my curiosity was piqued. I had heard of this legendary home of "Corn-as-Art" for years, and though I surely could have rested conformably on my death bed having never visited, I was glad for the excuse to stop. In my haze I almost missed the exit, having to dangerously skirt across several lanes at once to safely clear the off-ramp. The Corn Palace, surrounded on all four sides by its entertaining corn husk mosaics of historic sites, was a pleasant ten minute deviation that woke me up enough to carry on for a few more desperate hours.
By this time it was after 11PM and my sore body's only goal was to cover as much ground as possible while maintaining my sanity. During the entire trip I was averaging about 4 hours of sleep a night, some in hotel rooms and nice spare rooms, but many more in strangers' makeshift guest areas. One night it would be a mattress on the floor, the next a sunken velvet couch or a small child's bed. The funniest part was that I inflicted all of this upon myself. As I look back on it many months later, I must admit I really, truly enjoyed the experience, though at the time I might not have agreed. But 1:30AM, I was done. Still an hour outside of my intended destination of Rapid City, the site of Mount Rushmore, my vehicle was the only light in a far-reaching black horizon. I had covered about twenty percent of the length of the country in one day under the strain of exhaustion, and I didn't know how much more I could take. Finally, like a beacon of hope, I was greeted by a closed gas station's illuminated marquee as I sped over a slight grade. In what felt like an eternity, I slowly pulled alongside the building to check the security of the surrounds, decided I didn't care, parked, threw my seat back, and fell asleep immediately.
I awoke in what felt like just a few minutes, my whole body aching and unexpectedly shivering. In my sleep I must have covered myself with the thin, white robe worn by my models during breaks from physically revealing photo shoots, but it just wasn't enough to keep me warm. With my eyes throbbing and head spinning, I couldn't understand why the sun had already begun to rise over the flat landscape. It appeared to be one of the loveliest sights I had witnessed in years, or at least that was the perception through my sore, crusted-over eyes.
Reacting solely through force of habit, I reached to the open camera bag on my passenger seat and blindly slipped my hand through the camera strap, knowing what I needed was attached to it. I clumsily reached to open the driver's side door, falling out onto the asphalt in the cold morning air like a bumbling drunk, instinctively slinging my camera over my shoulder in one fluid motion for its protection. Attempting to stand like a baby fawn on newborn legs, I inadvertently slammed my face into the thick layer of dust that had been building up on my truck for weeks. Steadying myself as best I could, I awkwardly took two more steps toward the back of the vehicle, again losing my balance and hitting the side of the dirty truck. I remember sorely leaning there for a moment, actively seeking muscle memories to relearn the concept of bipedal stability, wiping my eyes in a desperate attempt for any sort of clarity. When I finally reached the back bumper, I placed a precarious knee for balance and fired my camera wildly at the sunrise, adjusting the zoom lens to shoot as wide a scene as possible in a vain attempt to capture anything worthwhile.
Once my brain registered some unknown feeling of accomplishment, I stumbled back, swinging my camera back into its bag. I fell back into the comparative warmth of the truck's cab and onto the still-reclined seat, slamming the door behind me. Reaching for my cell phone to check the always important time, I saw it was already 5:17AM, which for some reason led me to briefly whimper unintelligibly. It was at that moment I made the unusual decision to allow myself to fall back asleep, which I did for a necessary and undisturbed four hours. It was that simple, and I felt relieved.
I knew finally that I had reached my physical breaking point, but I was also thankfully aware that it could only get better. When I did eventually wake up hours later I felt ready to finish what I had started weeks before. I had seen so much and traveled so far, but I was ready to be done. It was the beginning of the end and I was finally on my way home.