At the base of the Rocky Mountains, headed west on Route 70, away from Denver, Colorado, there is a way-station, a stop-off, a kind of limbo for the unmanned. It’s a squat building in what was once a truck stop resupply called “AC FOOD AND FUEL,” but now it’s just called WAYSTATION-908, which consists of two buildings. The Subway/Taco Bell/convenience store has been shuttered and converted to a massive supply room. Where the gas pumps once stood is now a giant garage that can house up to five chassis at once. Jerry and the boys could slap chains on the tires of those robo-trucks all day and night -- hell, they practically lived to do it.
The driverless transport had replaced what used to be known as long-haul tractor trailers some fifteen years prior. The change came quickly and there was little the drivers of said eighteen-wheelers could say or do to stop it. The dull roar of progress had picked up speed, downshifted, and bored full speed toward this very day. Jerry, Bob, “Pigpen,” Phil, and Bill -- the fearless five. Truth be told, they were just a bunch of arthritic, weed-smoking geezers who used to drive trucks themselves. On the road they barely knew one another (except Phil and Bill, who were a tandem team back in the day). But here, at the Waystation, they were comrads in arms. The last bastion of manpower needed by a system that operated mostly with GPS, LIDAR, and 600gigs per second of constantly changing road conditions. These guys were the greasy hands, the stubble, the back aches, the very blood pumping through this operation.
And boy did they love it. All the other drivers they knew were forced back home to wilt, or worse. (Bob told them about his brother-in-law, also a long-haul driver like them, who, after getting pink slipped, resorted to a job at a greeting card store in Cheyenne.) And the Waystation used to be home, in a different sort of way. While all the transports had gone electric, Jerry’d swear he’d catch a whiff of diesel every now and then. The stuff was practically soaked into the ground here. A place they’d stop off for food, maybe tip their hats to one another on the way to the showers, was now the last beacon on the way west, and they were the lighthouse keepers.
There was a constant stream of trucks looking to make their way through the switchbacks that would take them over the Rockies, headed west. There was another stop off, Waystation-201, in Grand Junction, and the two functioned as a place for the robo-trucks to either get chained, or to have them removed, depending on which way they were headed exactly.
Jerry and the boys, they had a short hand, a camaraderie, but the guys who ran 201 were jack-offs who barely knew one another. Besides, one of them slept with Bob’s wife a few years back, so they didn’t like those guys too much.
After work, you might find Jerry and his fearsome five at a little hole in the wall called Susanne’s, a dive in Denver. You might saunter up to the bar, order a beer, and Pigpen or Jerry would get to talking to you. They were the most social of the bunch, anyway. They’d introduce themselves, get to know you a little, and inevitably talk would turn to “Hey, what do you do for a living?” “I work on trucks,” Pigpen would say, sipping his beer through that shaggy handlebar mustache of his. And you’d say, “Trucks?” And Pigpen would look to Jerry with a knowing smile, and he’d cut you off before you could say “I thought the whole system was--”
“Automated, right, right.” And then Jerry would take over (it was kind of a song and dance at this point). “What’s the one thing a truck CANNOT DO on its own in these parts?” He’d ask. And he’d let you think about it for a moment. Sometimes people would guess correct, especially if it was cold and snowing out. Then Pigpen and Jer would go back and forth, giving you the details of what it’s like to put chains on the tires of trucks without a driver in ‘em.
“It’s hard not to think of them as people,” Jer says. “I mean, we’re used to a guy or a lady behind that wheel. Now they don’t even have dashboards -- or windshields for that matter. You seen ‘em out there, never stopping, never swerving, just chugging along at the speed limit 24/7. We got this pink one that comes in about every week. Call her Daisy. ‘Up, here comes Daisy Dukes, she must’ve seen the alert -- there’s a storm a’comin’ and she wants to trade in her high heels for snow boots.’ And they can sort of see out there on the road, so they just hump themselves into the garage, one of the open lanes, and sit there waiting. There’s an override button on the side, and when you’re done slaggin the chains over the outside tires, you mash that red button to let the system know they’re ready to go over the mountains, on to Waystation-201, where those dickheads take our chains off.
“Sometimes it’s strange to put a hand on something so cold, when they used to rumble and spew black smoke... but, it’s the memory of what used to be that does us all good.” Jer and Pigpen will inevitably invite Bob, Phil and Bill over, introduce you. If they like you, they’ll buy you a boilermaker, maybe even shoot some pool with you and your buddies. Let you win, too... Over the course of the evening, you and several of your buddies will ask: hey, how’d you get the nickname “Pigpen?” Bob will say his mom called him that, and Jeez, is that a crap name to get from your mom? Jer will tell your buddy he got the name in Iraq, which was where he learned to ride a motorcycle. Phil and Bill will claim that they gave him the nickname. And if you ask Pigpen? He’ll stroke his thinning hair back, feign being annoyed, and tell you to ask one of the guys. It’s kinda their own private little joke -- but the truth is none of them really knows why Pigpen is Pigpen. Maybe he never told them, or they just never thought to ask. He is Pigpen.
Now it’s Thanksgiving, and Jer’s got a turkey going in the old oven where they keep the pallets of graded chains. Bill’s whipping up the potatoes and greens, and Phil and Bob are working on two pies each, enough to bring home to the wives. Pigpen’s probably in the can, making room.
The trucks don’t stop running for the holiday, so the gang’s on call. They’ll hear an alarm bell if a truck’s waiting to be chained up, but for now, they hang with each other in what used to be the Taco Bell kitchen, though they’ve modified it.
The set up’s got a card table and a ratty couch Pigpen hauled all the way from Estes Park. Someone hung a poster of the hologram reunion show that Pink Floyd played at Red Rocks in 2019. Jer lights a joint of some of that fine first-to-be-legal Colorado kush, someone’s streaming Hendrix, and Phil just came in with some beer. They’ve done this night the same for years. Well, Bob used to make cherry sauce for the turkey, but Pigpen developed an allergy some years ago, so they nixed that from the menu.
“Yo, let me hit that,” coo’d Bob, pinching the joint between his fingers as he took it from Jer. He took a nice long drag and then suddenly acted excited about something. Whatever it was induced a coughing fit, but he got through it, then told the boys how his daughter had just been accepted to CSU, and they all congratulated him. Phil said he was wondering just yesterday about when she’d hear, as the whole gang had all been crossing their fingers. “That’s fantastic news, man. And she’ll be in state, so she can be around for holidays.”
“Go Rams!” Said Bill.
They sat down to eat, all of them in a pretty good mood. Bob remembered a story about growing up not being able to afford a turkey at all on Thanksgiving. The boys grumbled, Jerry finishing his story for him -- they’d all heard it before. Bob said he only brought it up because he liked to state what he was thankful for every year, and he just wanted to say that last year it was Mary getting through the chemo, and the year before that he was thankful for their new dog, and so on and so on.
“This year,” he said, “I’m just so thankful for you guys, for being able to have Thanksgiving with the finest dudes around.” That set everyone smiling again, and Jer got a couple fresh beers from the refrigerator.
The alarm bell rang and Bob said that four robo-trucks were pulling in, he could see them on the feed from the garage. Bill and Phil hopped up excitedly, and the other two set down their forks, also ready to get their hands dirty.
“Aww, ahat are you in a rush for?” Asked Jerry. “We just sat down!” The truth was that the trucks could wait -- they would wait, like they were programmed to. Palming the red override button on the side was the only real control Jerry and the boys had over the trucks. They didn’t exert said control very often, but Jer felt that tonight was as good an exception as any. “The fuckin’ trucks ain’t gonna tell y’all what they’re thankful for...” he mumbled.
But the dudes were already pulling on their coats, their ears already ringing with the the jangle of the chains which they could practically attach with their eyes blindfolded. Jerry waved them on, sipping his beer heartily. He’d wait here for them to return. “Cross your fingers there’s any leftovers by the time you get back...”
Suddenly Jerry found himself alone in the kitchen looking at four other plates of half eaten Thanksgiving dinner. Every now and then, “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead got stuck in Jerry’s goard... this was one of those times. He hummed the guitar riff to himself quietly as an alert came in on the main console. Usually Phil took care of company dispatches, as he was the only one who could stomach typing back and forth with an AI system based somewhere in New Jersey. But something compelled Jerry up and away from the table to check this one. He opened the email and it read:
To: Gerald McKernan, Robert Garcia III, Philip Weir, Ronald J Kreutzman, and William Lesh.
Be advised that your employer, Quest Logistics, has developed a new system of auto-deploying snow tires for their entire fleet. As such, your services are no longer needed. Please find your last pay stubs attached. You will need to vacate Waystation-908 by midnight tonight, at which point the power will be turned off.
Please have a nice evening.
Jerry kind of harumphed and let the news wash over him. He sighed deeply to himself, resigned. He glared at his watch. This wasn’t just the last Thanksgiving that he and the guys would celebrate together... this was the last few hours they’d have at Waystation-908. His first thought was to pull on his jacket, dash outside after the guys and tell them all this terrible news. This was it, this was the day they’d all feared. On the console he could see the feed from the garage. They were happy, joking, horsing around. Pigpen was doing some kind of a jig, flubbering his belly at Phil, who slapped it for good luck.
Jerry knew he would have to be the bearer of bad news. Just the thought of going out there to tell them and he felt himself welling up with tears, a great swelling in his gut that threatened to instantly make him a messy, snot nosed baby who just found out his favorite plaything was being taken away. But it wasn’t that, was it? It wasn’t the smell of long-evaporated diesel, or the chain grease on his hands, or even the little game he and Pigpen played with the drunk patrons at Susanne’s. It was something else, something intangible. It was the dull, white-noise roar of progress and it drowned out everything else.
Then the boys were awash with a new pair of headlights as a fifth and final truck pulled into the garage. After the lenseflare passed, Jerry could see that it was Daisy, come to have her laces done up. He’d have to pull himself together and go meet his girl one last time.