July 2013

Troll roads

By David Feela

Trolls ought to be to tucked away at understaffed rest areas, perhaps along the loneliest road in America, eking out their existence as custodians of toilets and trash receptacles. I mention this not because Middle Earth needs to be updated, nor to demean any hardworking personnel who clean our highways. How fortunate we don’t have to plow a path through our own garbage.

No, my encounter with a nasty troll masquerading as a legitimate person left me thinking about a location where he might do the least damage.

A woman on the road I mentioned panicked when she realized she might not have enough gas to reach the next service station along this desolate highway. Forced to pull off at a rest stop, she approached a sourpuss lurking on the sidewalk, raising a cloud of dust with his gas-powered blower. Her phone had no signal, so she begged to use his. Could she, perhaps, be permitted to purchase a gallon of gas, just enough to reach the nearest service station?

His low and continuous grumbling ceased and quick as it takes to say, “Once upon a time,” he grinned. “That’ll be $90,” he snapped, “or I can let the next service station charge you $100 to deliver the gas.”

I overheard this business proposition shortly after using the toilet. She was obviously nervous, afraid of being stranded and alone. I only needed to pee. She faced more serious problems than bladder relief.

The stretch of highway in question is an under-appreciated marathon, roughly 250 miles of serviceless exits from Fruita, Colo., to Salina, Utah. She’d checked her gas gauge near Fruita and saw she still had half a tank. She was in a hurry to get home, so she foolishly thought, How far can the next gas station be?

Her fuel warning light started blinking just before what will hereafter (at least in my memory) be christened, A Troll’s Bridge to Nowhere. She had no way of knowing that people like this attendant may have been systematically banished to these out-of-the-way places by the people who are forced to work with the likes of him on a daily basis – the logic being, Wouldn’t it be helpful if we sent all the disgruntled to marginal locations, where their people skills might be honed on the whetstone of isolation?

As tourism flourishes once more in the Southwest, the chance to meet trolls becomes more common. They exist on both sides of the counter. First, there’s the surly what-the-hell-do-you-want? attitude exuded from the pores, like unspoken sweat. A person can smell it, even see it before any words are uttered. Or the customer who can’t wait in line without pitching a fit. These are trolls who have worked too long in the dark, dank shadows under the bridges of their impatience, where they’ve stubbornly chosen to squat.

A psychologist friend of mine once called this condition Mental Acid Reflux, which means it’s time we all help.

In the case of the Road Troll, I decided to intervene. After offering to follow the woman in case she should run out of gas, I hopped back into my truck. Luckily, the summit to the pass we were climbing lasted only another mile, and then I coasted behind her all the way into Salina.

She’d made it under her own power – that is, with a little help from gravity and the confidence of knowing she wasn’t alone. If I’d owned an extra gas can, I’d have gladly pumped it full of this magical elixir at the station, then taken it back up the hill, leaving five gallons for the Rest Area Troll, with this note attached: To be used as a substitute for gold.

The story turned out to have a happy ending, but the last question the lonely traveler asked of me before I pulled away was a surprise. Like the many impersonal encounters tourists have along the highway, we hadn’t had an opportunity to exchange details about our personal lives.

She walked up to my open window and held the door handle as if it were a hand she was desperate to shake.

“Are you of any particular faith?” she asked.

I laughed, though her earnestness told me I shouldn’t have. “I’m one of the hopeful,” I replied. Then I headed for the open road.

David Feela is an award-winning poet and essayist living in Montezuma County, Colo.