by Wendy BooydeGraaff
The highway thrums differently at a standstill. Traffic jams—I’ve been in plenty outside of Chicago or Detroit, even driving a minivan during rush hour in Manhattan—where drivers stay inside their cars and studiously avoid interaction with each other. Occasionally, drivers share a grimace or sympathetic frustrated hand gestures through closed windows. But on a hot August afternoon on the I-69 outside of Port Huron, the small city I’ve only viewed from the gas station or the Duty Free before crossing the Blue Water Bridge from Michigan into Ontario, we full-on stopped. No stuttering forward a few inches, no stop-and-go. My daughters and I were one of three or four cars among transport trucks, which lined both lanes as well as an extra makeshift third lane on the shoulder ahead. When the red summer sun began to set, only a sliver was visible in the rearview, a small slice in the receding line of trucks behind us. All around us, truckers switched off their engines, saving diesel. The trucker beside us got out of his truck. I got out of my car to talk to him, to see if he knew why we were stopped. He doesn’t have a radio, he said. He doesn’t know how long this will be.
He was friendly, so we chatted a bit longer, our human breathing bodies alien amongst the vehicular steel surrounding us. I was surprised he didn’t have a CB; I thought all truckers talked in code with each other over two-way radios. He checked his phone. He didn’t have the physique of the truckers I remember from the truck stop where, in my youth, my family sometimes had breakfast: slouch-bellied, bearded, legs weirdly agile under large white bodies. This trucker was young, slim, clean-shaven, brown-skinned. We agreed we would each let the other know if we heard any news. He needed to get his shipment to its dock; I needed to cross the border into Canada. I needed to be in his lane because the highway for the border crossing exited left. He said he’d let me in when we start moving, which he thinks will be soon. With no movement around us and no radio, he seemed remarkably optimistic.
We were traveling this familiar route, with its sudden strange interlude, to visit my 86-year-old mother, my daughters and my first opportunity to see her in more than 18 months without—as a vaccinated Canadian citizen with her children—having to quarantine. We would also see some of my sisters and brothers-in-law, a niece and a nephew and their significant others. But first, we needed to cross the border, something we’d done many, many times. This time, we were nervous because all the rules had changed. We printed off the paperwork, filled out the questions via the Arrive CAN government app, uploaded our passports, our vaccination records, our negative COVID tests. The notarized affidavit from my mother and my sister verifying our relationship sat in its protective file.
The US portion of our trip behind us, we were ready to trade the I-69 for the 402 in Sarnia. We expected some delay at the border, something short, something we could easily wait out. Canadian border officers had been working through the pandemic without a contract and were now taking strike action. A five-minute transaction at the border, the news threatened, would stretch into a twenty- or twenty-five-minute wait, which was not prohibitive for us. We have encountered long lines at the border many times.
But never this long, never this many miles out with no movement and no possibility of turning around, powerless to do anything about it.
Stepping on the ridged cement, humming with the day’s heat and the friction of formerly moving tires, appeared dystopian, vibes of Severance or Station Eleven. I shivered, though not with displeasure or fear. I longed to walk between the trucks, far down the long narrow alley of gasoline petroleum exhausting metal, a transient city on the freeway, a caravan plopping down, an unlikely neighborhood of travelers bound only by the route chosen to their varying destinations. But I didn’t walk because I had my three kids in the car—21, 19, and 16—and we had been frightened by unusual circumstances so often in the past few years that it seemed prudent to stay put.
A few miles earlier, when we had begun slowing down, some cars wove through the spaces between trucks, nosed into the wide weedy ditch, and made a U-turn. We contemplated doing the same, but it was a ditch and it was weedy and didn’t look at all easy, not to mention potentially damaging to our car’s undercarriage. Besides, where would we go? Back home? Through town? We didn’t have a plan, and by the time we decided to try it, there were guardrails. We drove along the shoulder for a while, thinking we could get to the next exit, but ahead of us, the now familiar large white rectangles framed in gray metal loomed. Trucks, stopped, blocked the shoulder and the exit ahead forming an unmoving third lane, lined up to infinity, fading as a parade into the horizon, a blockade.
We perceived the strike in earnest, then. Its effectiveness. No one was getting through. Unions are a type of comradeship, a group of workers banding together, saying this is not how we want things to be. This is how we want things to be. And because of their number, a previously powerless group gains leverage through the work they will not perform until demands are met. The success of the strike depends upon the value of the work they perform, and on whether someone else is willing and qualified to do the same work for less compensation. Timeliness, too, is key.
You could say the truckers had collective power as well, blocking the way of anyone who wanted to choose a different path, get off on an exit. Their sheer largeness was power, one group of them would use several months in the future when the convoy would descend upon Ottawa in opposition to vaccine mandates for international trade. The difference between the convoy and the usual union protests involved several unignorable tons of loud metal presented as unified with the human bodies that occupied their seats.
A man with mid-length platinum hair, sunburned face bright white around the hairline, stalked barefooted down the center line between the trucks. I envied him. What did the warm concrete feel like under bare toes? Ten minutes later he returned, yelling we’re fucked over and over. His hair blazed phosphorescent in the low glow of evening. I wondered what he learned up there, so I rolled down my window partway as he approached, but he was too angry and intent on repetition to do anything other than slap his angry feet on the concrete highway and yell we’re fucked.
We talked to a few other motorists through open windows. We watched the sky turn pink, orange, purple. A short blue dusk, then navy night skies. The expanse illuminated by the trailing red lights speckling the rears of truck trailers.
One guy from the line of cars behind us talked to every car driver along the row. I watched in my rearview mirror. I opened the passenger window as he walked by our car, called him over. He told us his plan. We’re going to make a run for it.
Did we want to go, too? He didn’t ask us, but the question remained implicit with us in our car. We discussed it, came to no certain conclusion.
Their headlights swung across the road, one after the other, then over the guardrails and into the brush. They were each making three-point turns, their four-way flashers blinking, blinking. They made a short procession driving the wrong way down the shoulder of the highway. My heart thumped loudly in my inner ears. The dark was true now, the highway more eerie with only the glow of headlights, taillights, and hovering humidity. The shoulder behind us was open. We had already spent hours in this spot. We didn’t want to spend the night on the highway. We wanted to do something rather than sit in place. Action. Agency. The other cars had already gone. I didn’t see any emergency lights flashing or hear any sirens in the distance. They must’ve made it out of the labyrinth.
We were going to try it, the four of us in consensus, I thought.
I began the three-point turn, heart pounding, adrenaline convincing me escape was something we, too, could achieve. My daughter in the front seat began panicking, her voice getting louder, insistent, higher, her hands fluttering, her back smacking against the seat over and over. I remained resolute, slowly inching the car around to face traffic.
Then, unbelievably, oncoming headlights beamed closer and closer down the shoulder. Was it the earlier procession of cars, unable to get through behind us? No longer could we go the wrong way down the shoulder. The decision had been made for us.
I readjusted our car into our lane, straightened us out. We felt at home amongst the truckers, who knew the road, who were comfortable enough to turn off their engines, take naps.
Those oncoming headlights approached us, and I laughed, now that we were safely following the rules of the road again. Where did he think he was going speeding down the shoulder? Didn’t he see that ahead of us trucks spanned both lanes as well as the shoulder?
He swung the nose of his car into the three feet of space in front of my car, the way some people force their way into merging traffic, except this wasn’t traffic, this was gridlock, none of us were moving, hadn’t moved for several hours and weren’t going to move for several more. His car, catawampus while the rest of us lined up neatly, forward to back. My headlights shone directly into his passenger window since his car had no inches to move forward. I stared at him; he banged his steering wheel, jerked his neck around as if for the first time noticing the unmoving cars around him. His frustrated movements against the steering wheel conjured swearing, a one-man show in my spotlight, yet he never acknowledged me there, never turned to see who he had cut off, never looked at us—we, who illuminated him. He looked only straight ahead, which for him would have been the back left corner of a trailer and the side of a second transport truck’s trailer in the next lane over.
I got out of the car to talk to my truck driver again. The guy wedged haphazardly in front of my car called me over to his open window, asked me if I knew what was going on. The audacity of him, to have his car as angled evidence of his infringement on driver courtesy and expect me to nicely tell him anything.
I said, yes, but hey, what’s this about you cutting me off? I raised my hands, the question hovering in the air. How often do you get to call out someone who did you dirty on the highway? And now he wanted to talk to me in the safe comradery strangers feel while in shared weird predicaments and awkwardly close quarters. Uh, yeah, sorry about that, he said, his eyes intently darting downward and away from my direct gaze, his voice gruff.
I told him what I knew about the strike. No one was getting through the border. He said he didn’t need to go across the border, just had to get to work, how was he going to get to work? He didn’t need to go to Canada, just a few miles up the highway. Sucks, eh? I said.
I was glad I had talked to him, been mostly kind despite my incredulity at his moxie. I figured it’s better to know the occupants of the cars and trucks around you when you might sleep in your car on the highway. Under other circumstances, I might have been more hesitant, opted to speak less directly. But there, on the highway, surrounded by large trucks that housed other watchful people, I sensed I was uncommonly safe.
I went back into my car and settled in for the night, trying to conserve gas by turning on the recirculation button instead of the AC. Earlier, we had the windows open for the cooling evening air, but too many mosquitoes came into the car. There was Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile Virus to worry about, in addition to COVID. I turned on my light and read. My daughters binged a TV show huddled around the laptop in the backseat. A small enclave, a tiny home, on the highway.
The man who tried to cut me off came to my window to chat. I gave him the same information I did before, about the strike and the hours we had already been locked in this standstill. He listened as if he hadn’t heard me say the same things an hour prior. He told me the woman behind me only needed to get home after working all day; she lived just off the next exit. Then he asked if I had a cigarette. No, I’m sorry, I said, I don’t smoke. He left abruptly, walked to his car, rummaged around in his back seat, and emerged with a cigarette. He sat in his front seat and smoked it, staring forward, my headlights illuminating him. I supposed I should understand something about this performance.
He was a mystery, this man who cut me off. Ethnically ambiguous, dark hair cut close around the face and splaying longer in the back. Round face, roundish body, but also powerful in some way. Perhaps he lifted weights. His actions were forceful, powered by an unseen, tamped-down anger, his voice raspy and distracted.
I checked my phone and found out Border Services and the Canadian government had come to a tentative agreement. I got out once again to talk to my trucker, tell him the news. He repeated that I could go in front of him; he motioned to the front of his truck, the left lane that would exit us to the Bluewater Bridge. I went over to the guy who cut me off. We should be moving soon, I said. I told him about the border services agreement. He said, oh, we’re moving soon? He reiterated how he needed to go, how the woman behind him only needed to get to the next exit to get home.
Around me, trucks rose toward the stars like buildings on concrete, the shaded trees and vegetation reflecting in headlights beyond the low guardrails. The expanse of the vacant westbound lanes mocked our makeshift neighborhood of crowded transport trucks and a few lowly cars. Vehicles on a freeway are meant to move and move quickly. The night was beautiful, and I reveled in this last moment on this concrete among the people in these vehicles, all of us not doing what we intended to do, together.
It took another hour before trucker lights flicked on, one by one, like fireflies looking for mates. Traffic pulsed, in anticipation of moving. Five hours we had sat still on the highway. The short stammer forward felt surreal. I dutifully paused as the perpendicular car guy finished his merge in front of me, then watched agape as he swung into the space my trucker had left for me.
Traffic jolted and moved, my trucker kept waiting for me, but the way we were packed in, I couldn’t get over. We inched forward. The woman behind me sailed off her exit. My daughters in the back seat were now studying and comparing the traffic apps and advised me to exit right onto the expressway connector instead of our usual left, which would have kept us on the highway for much longer.
My lungs expanded as the lane in front of us shone black with emptiness. We wound our way through Port Huron, bypassing the infinite line of trucks, a peculiar loop that brought us around and then into the town, the night becoming more and more normal with its quiet streets, dark storefronts, and singular beam of headlights.
There on the highway, we had no choice but to wait it out together, to depend on someone else to come to an agreement that then allowed us to proceed. It wasn’t dancing in the streets, wasn’t unity or pulling together, I have no idea what it was or if it means anything at all. But it was something we experienced, endured collectively, we strangers, temporary neighbors, due only to circumstance. At 2:30 a.m.—five hours later than expected—we walked through the door my mother left unlocked for us. She was awake in her bed, her iPad lit up beside her alert to our messages of progress, the blue bubbles of text reaching into that dark night of highway searching for us.
Wendy BooydeGraaff’s short fiction, poetry, and essays have been included in X-R-A-Y, Brink, The Brooklyn Review, phoebe, and elsewhere. She is the author of Salad Pie (Chicago Review Press/Ripple Grove Press), a children’s picture book. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, she now lives in Michigan, United States.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 9 • October 2023
Header image by theterrifictc.