“I am grateful for the weight of my pack
& the icy thunder all around
& then the welcome smile of brake lights
& I’m trading stories w/ a farmer turned trucker
& opening my coat against the heat
& the miles peel away like dollar bills”
(from “Only the Dead”)
If in my writing there has ever been a Captain Ahab, a Don Quixote, a Jay Gatsby, it would certainly be Clyde, the farmer turned trucker who shows up in several poems, my novel A Handful of Dust and in various movements of Vagabond Song. He is a comic mentor, a bittersweet guide, a highway-Zen cornfield prophet, a giver of riddles, a surrogate grandfather and the namesake of the best Chevy pickup to ever roll across the land. But who was he, really?
His real name was Cy. At least, that’s what I remember. I’m not sure what that’s short for, if anything. He was a mid-Michigan farmer who turned to driving truck to make ends meet. He was probably younger than I remember him, hell, I could be the age now that he was then. And he really did pick me up two different times on two different highways, I-75 on a run from Grayling to Saginaw, and a few days later on M-46 going from Saginaw to Grand Rapids.
“Clyde’s old diesel
rolls to a stop
& I hop from the cab
onto a protest of gravel
beneath my duct-taped boots”
(from “M-46, October”)
Despite the songs by Red Sovine and Kris Kristofferson, it’s rare to catch a ride with a trucker. I assume this has much more to do with corporate rules, insurance restrictions and forced time schedules than with the personalities of those behind the wheel. So when Cy picked me up, it felt like entering an older version of the hitchhiking world. A world where Big Joe still rolled through the night and Bobby McGee still sang the blues. He played his part masterfully, giving me bits of story and insightful questions that would propel me into a romantic nostalgia of being on the road, inspire me to take a teaching gig in Chiapas, Mexico, and drive my pen across countless pages.
It’s strange, perhaps unfair, and most definitely necessary to build a fictional character out of a small slice of someone’s life. But for what it’s worth, I’m forever grateful for the part he played in bringing me such a character. Of course, the character and the person seldom have much in common. This is true beyond the world of literature. Your perception of me and my perception of you bear little resemblance to our perceptions of ourselves. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle.
In A Handful of Dust, I relate Clyde’s “Five Rules to Live By,” which were really the rules of life that I wanted someone to challenge me to follow:
“And what are they, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Course not,” said Clyde. “Number One is always talk to strangers. If you don’t, you’d never have any friends. Number Two is always pick up hitchhikers. Lucky for you. Number Three is always give anyone anything they ask for. Everything is a gift, and so is meant to be passed on. I just hope nobody ever asks me for my truck. And Number Four is always allow anyone to do you a favor. If you deny someone the chance to be generous, you’re preventing them from improving their soul, and you’re keeping the world one more step away from Heaven.”
Nagashana waited for a moment and then asked, “What about rule number five?”
Clyde laughed again. “Rule Number Five is always be on the lookout for Rule Number Five.”
In reality, he taught me about the decline of the American family farm, how to tell if a semi was loaded or empty by the way in handled in bad road conditions, that there was a linguistic connection between sailors and truckers, and that life could be full of joyful generosity.
Thanks for the ride, Clyde.
[If you enjoyed this, I’d love to send you my free e-book, Notes from the Grizfork: A Year of Watching in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Simply click here.]