Night Rider and the Thirty-Foot Chicken

It was early in the morning somewhere in the flatlands of Oklahoma, where no drainage ditches or fences are necessary, and the wheat grows tall and even, right up to the edge of the narrow two-lane state highways. The headlights bore down an endless corridor of road and out of sight, revealing nothing -- no distinguishing features of any kind -- just a flat road bordered by vertical walls of wheat . . . and occasionally an indistinct image of a person standing by the roadside -- a person who is never there when I get nearer. Suddenly! Right there! In the middle of the road is a giant hand -- palm up -- across both lanes. I swerve . . . but too late, I run over it. But there's no thump?

It shook me for a minute, as you might imagine, but then I began to think. Maybe it wasn't really a giant hand. It didn't make too much sense. And I had been driving for almost 24 hours since I left Los Angeles. I'd fought off a couple of waves of sleepiness, but I really didn't feel tired now, and my judgment and reflexes were stlll strong enough to knock off the last 200 miles.

It was late one moonless, cloudy night on Interstate 80 in Wyoming, or maybe Nebraska. The headlights are dirty from bugs and a passing dusty thundershower, so when I slowly come up on a car running right at the speed limit, I have to approach it very cautiously so as to see any telltale patrol markings in time. Very cunning, eh? Stealth. But it takes forever sometimes and it's rather hypnotic to follow two red dots . . . that are right in front of me! I hit the brakes and slide! . . but it has accelerated away like the wlnd . . . without a sound. I could have sworn it stopped right in front of me. So this time I approach more alertly . . . and he does it again! But this time he seems to be bobbing in and out of "hit range" like a Yo-Yo. And then I hear it -- a motorcycle, no, two motorcycles, way ahead. Oh hell! That's not car taillights, it's two bike riders weaving apart a long way down the road, and I was judging distance by the space between the lights.

Fatigue, highway hypnosis, dream-driving, whatever you call it -- it's like a drug. It creeps up on you so insidiously that you never know it's getting you, because it first attacks your judgment. You don't realize your eyes have been riveted on that stripe for hours, you don't recognize the mental numbness, you don't remember to check the speedo or mirror. But there is one advantage to self-induced anesthesia, and that is . . . it's impossible to detect In your system in the hospital. But it's just as dynamically unstable -- the more tired you get, the less you realize how it is affecting you.

It was early in the morning, and I wanted to get back to my own apartment for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. I had slept maybe a few hours already, but half-awoke and decided I'd have to go back to my own place before work anyhow. At that time of the morning even the busiest city streets and freeways in Detroit are deserted and quiet. Most of the traffic signals go on a blinking red or blinking yellow cycle then, but it doesn't really matter because you can see the headlights of another car for miles. I start nodding, blinking my eyes, blinking with the signals . . . Iooking for anything moving . . . whatsthat! A pole right in front of me! I slam on the brakes . . . but nothing happens! How could anything happen? The car is just sitting there, idling, parked in front of the light pole. What fantastic luck, to coast to a stop a few feet from disaster. My knees are shaking as I start to get out, but -- bump! -- they hit the emergency brake handle. I had unconsciously pulled over and parked before falling asleep?

I heard one time that a good cure for fatigue while driving at night was fingertip pressure on the eyelids. You pull over and stop, then close your eyes and lightly place a finger on each closed eye, while you count to a hundred. And it really works. I always find myself completely rested . . . when I wake up hours later and the sun is shining.

It was the loudspeaker that caught my attention, I guess. I turned my head and there was a police car sitting next to me at the traffic light in a small Sierra ski resort town. Late after partying, I discovered there was no room at the inn, so to speak, and this was the second town I'd tried. "Roll down your window, please." "What's the matter, officer?" "Are you just going to sit there all night?" "But, sir, it's a red light!" "Sure is, son, but what about the three green lights you slept through?" We went to the station, but quick research turned up no law against not going through a green light, and an illegal parking ticket was pointless, so they ran a criminal check on me until I fell asleep on the bench. At least it was warm.

I'm a good driver, you're a good driver, we're all good drivers, because we know and care about everything automotive. But anyone who is good at anything knows his limitations and deficiencies. One of mine happens to be fatigue and boredom after too long at the helm, be it 20 hours or two hours. There are Federal regulations that keep the pros, the bus and truck drivers, from over-driving, but they're easy to enforce because driving logbooks must be kept. Are we amateur cross-country drivers supposed to have better experience and judgment? Sure, there's lots of tricks to keep you awake and alert . . . besides the even worse hazards of amphetamines. I'm not much for hot coffee, and the cool-off time plays hell with maintaining short pitstops for a good average speed, but iced tea has just as much caffeine. My favorite trick is nibbling on food, popcorn, chips, dry cereal . . . just keep that old hand and jaw moving. And of course, keep your mind busy, keep moving -- turn on the interior lights, open a window, adjust the seat, roll down the radio . . .yawn! ... Iight up a cracker ....

It was . . . who knows what time it was . . . seems like it was near dawn or dusk, and the road wound gently around bends and over mostly barren hills. I get used to the more subtle hallucinations, like non-existent dogs or phantoms that turn out to actually be rural mailboxes . . . it's just my vivid imagination. Down the road I can see a chicken standing on the shoulder. But that's rather upsetting, because it must be a mile away. And yet I can see it distinctly, since it's every bit of 30-feet tall! The seconds tick by, and we get closer, but it doesn't vanish. I keep saying, "I know that can't be a 30-foot chicken, it's got to disappear." But it didn't; and you just can't imagine how relieved I was to see that it had branches and leaves instead of feathers. I pulled off and slept under the next 30-foot chicken.

Pretty funny, huh? Sometimes I think I'll probably die laughing. But I'm starting to grow up. I'm starting to think about all those unexplained one-car accidents . . . "Driver lost control." So if someday you pass me sleeping just off the highway, don't honk ... don't wake me ... I'm just doing what I can to reduce our insurance rates.