In this captivating story about loss, love, and changing your ways, National Book Award–winning author Pete Hautman imbues the classic road trip novel with clever wit and heartfelt musings about life and death.
Steven Gerald Gabel—a.k.a. Stiggy—needs to get out of Minnesota. His father recently took his own life, his mother is a shell of the person she used to be, and his sort-of-girlfriend ghosted him and skipped town. What does he have left to stick around for? Armed with his mom’s credit card and a tourist map of Great River Road, Stiggy sets off in his dad’s car.
The only problem is, life on his own isn’t exactly what he expected and, soon enough, he finds himself at a crossroads: keep running from his demons, or let them hitch a ride back home with him.
I go west, I go south, I go east, I go out of the suburbs, out of my life. I have no destination, but with every mile the bindings stretch, become thin. I turn left, I turn right, I pass a Fleet Farm, a Walmart, truck stops, cornfields, dead deer by the side of the road.
I roll through Red Wing and take the arching bridge up and out of Minnesota, over the Mississippi River, across the flat causeway spanning the Wisconsin Channel. The bluffs ahead are ablaze with red, orange, and yellow. I am blazing too.
My phone chimes. A text. I look at it. It’s my mom. I lower the window and sail the phone out over the embankment, into the river. A cord snaps, my heart thrums, my blood fizzes, my arms and legs seem to stretch, my hair is alive.
Then I remember that all my music is on my phone.
It doesn’t matter.
I am not thinking about Garf, I am not thinking about Gaia, I am not thinking about my father.
• • •
I set the cruise control and tip my seat back so my fingers barely reach the bottom of the wheel. I pretend I’ve got a trunk full of hundred-dollar bills, instead of $407 in cash and my mom’s Visa card. She’ll probably cancel it when she realizes it’s gone.
To my right, the Mississippi River flows sluggish and murky; tree-covered bluffs tower above on the left. I imagine a beautiful girl standing on the shoulder next to her broken-down car.
Hop in, I say, and she does.
Nice wheels, she says. What is this, a Camaro?
Mustang, I say.
She’s wearing a black T-shirt, and she has black hair. That makes me think of Gaia, so I change her T-shirt to red and her hair to blond. I change my dirt-colored hair to blond, so now we match.
Where to? I ask my imaginary passenger.
Same as you, she says. Nowhere.
She’s already boring, so I stop imagining the girl and just watch the scenery slide by and don’t think about Gaia.
Every few miles I have to slow down for some little town. Bay City. Maiden Rock. Stockholm. I guess there are towns like that all up and down the river, beads on a wet muddy chain. I suppose people have to live someplace—I mean, I grew up in Saint Andrew Valley, just another crappy little suburb.
Pepin. Nelson. Alma. I’m getting hungry and the Mustang is getting thirsty, so I stop at a Kwik Trip. I use my mom’s Visa card to fill the tank, then go inside and grab a microwave burrito and a Dew. While the burrito is heating up, I look at a spinner rack of caps. Most of them are Green Bay Packers caps, but I find one with a John Deere logo. I like the way it looks, and it feels ironic: Dear John, only backward.
“What are all those signs I see?” I ask the guy behind the counter as he rings up my purchases. “The ones that say ‘Great River Road.’ ”
“You’re on it.” He gestures proudly at the highway, as if he built it himself. “The Great River Road.”
“What’s so great about it?”
His smile fades a bit. “It’s just what they call it.”
“So it goes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico?”
“There’re a few twists and turns—it goes on both sides of the river—but yeah, I guess you could take it to the gulf. Never driven it myself. There’s a map on the freebie rack.” He points at a wire stand with all sorts of tourist info.
I grab a Great River Road map and a few random brochures on my way out.
Back in the Mustang, still sitting at the gas pump, I unwrap the burrito and take a bite. It could’ve used another twenty seconds in the microwave. I open the map and spread it across the steering wheel. There are dozens of red triangles marking “points of interest” along the river, all the way from northern Minnesota to Louisiana. I take another bite and chew slowly as I find Alma on the map. I follow the highway south with my eyes until I get to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. I close my eyes.
Just seeing the words “Prairie du Chien” makes me want to puke. I crumple the map with one hand and throw it into the backseat. I can hear myself breathing. Prairie du Chien Gaia. I’m not going there. No way am I going there.
I shove the rest of the burrito into my mouth. It’s too much. I have to force swallow and wash it down with half the bottle of Dew.
A car horn blasts. A guy in the pickup truck behind me wants to pull up to the pump. The half-chewed burrito is still slowly descending my esophagus. I look back and give him the finger. He gets out of his truck, and he’s huge. I start the car and screech out of the gas station. For the next couple miles I keep checking my rearview, expecting to see the big grill of the pickup bearing down on me, but I guess I’m not worth the trouble.
Twenty minutes later I hit Fountain City. I cross a bridge back to the Minnesota side and continue south, now with the river between me and Prairie du Chien.
Not thinking about Gaia, not thinking about Garf, not thinking about my dad.
Pete Hautman is the author of National Book Award winner Godless, Sweetblood, Hole in the Sky, Stone Cold, the Flinkwater Chronicles, Road Tripped, Otherwood, Slider, and Mr. Was, which was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America, as well as several other novels for children and adults. He lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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