A steep Highway 49 weaves snakelike through the dry, golden hills of the Golden State as it crosses into Calaveras County. I pulled up beside a road worker holding his traffic sign. I had been warned, over five miles back, that road construction was under way. I should be prepared to stop. There might be delays. I watched the car in front of me accelerate and latch on to the end of a string of travelers being tugged along like a choo-choo train by the flashing lights of a pilot car. My road worker simply shrugged and waved him through.
I was not so lucky. Maybe I should have barreled through and disregarded any frantic signals, or if I’d had the foresight to roll up my windows and play a little music, I could have avoided being flogged by a flagman’s tale.
He and I looked each other over. He was a portly little fellow, nearly as wide as he was tall. He held his sign in one hand, the word Stop facing me instead of oncoming traffic, and the word Slow aimed toward himself. His other hand rested against my door frame, either to keep me inside or more likely to give himself some additional support.
When he spoke he shouted, a habit from working around diesel engines and heavy equipment, but I could only hear birds chirping in the trees, not even the sound of another vehicle pulling up to idle behind me. We were alone. He started his commentary with a question he never intended me to answer, and what follows is every detail I could remember faithfully put down, without ever once interrupting him:
Ya goin’ along like the rest of them I suppose ta Angels Camp, aren’t ya? Well, it’s goin’ ta be more than a little deelay cause that pilot car driver has a queer way about doin’ his job. If it were me, well, I’da stablished a rootine that coulda tole drivers and flaggers like me zackly how long we’s gotta be out here in the sun bleeding sweat. But he’s a funny sort, ordered me ta stand right here, but this spot gotta be near ten miles away from where just one dozer is scrapin’ up a shoulder. Don’t seem right ya need 20 miles a clearance — that’s 10 on each side — ta keep one piece a equipment from gettin’ in traffic’s way. I betcha he’s gettin’ paid by the mile and not just the hour like the rest a us.
One time once we was doin’ some resurfacing on 101, he took darn near a haft hour ta cover a three-mile section of gravel, draggin’ must ta been a hundred cars that had been waitin’ fer him ta get back from the other side. Jonesy said betcha he keeps a girl, meets her along the way fer some retoolin’ if ya know what I mean, and makes everyone sit still till he gets ready ta go again. Ya see, nobody knows what’s goin’ on tween here and there. They just know ta go when a guy tells ‘em ta, and ta stop when somebody else says stop. This walkie-talkie fer instance, tells me when ta let ya go. It’ll just squawk and ya know, sometimes I think it’s him, the pilot car driver, on the other end, not the fella standing like me twenty miles from here.
Anyways, nother time we — the guy on the other end — got ta talkin’ one day afta work, and we thought maybe if we follered the pilot car once, we’d see what the driver was up ta, but it was kinder risky, leavin’ folks in their vehicles with no one to tell them to stay put. So Greeley, that was his name before he got fired — course, that would still be his name come ta think — puts his scooter in the back a his truck under a tarp and when the pilot car driver takes off with his next string a vehicles, he unloads the scooter and starts er up, sticks his sign in the dirt with his bright vest tied ta it like a scarecrow. But no sooner than he catches up with the caravan the whole bunch stops and he can’t see up ta the front a the line ta see why, so he gets nervous and turns around and scoots on back ta his post only ta find the wind has knocked down his makeshift signal and released a string of vehicles that shoulda been waitin’, all coming straight fer him. Well, he turns round agin and sorta takes over, waving them along as a kinda pilot scooter, figurin’ when he gets them caught up ta the first bunch, he can go back with no one the wiser. But every time he goes back, there’s another bunch creepin’ up the road. It’s sorta like them Bible fishes and loaves except by now the supervisor is showed up at my end, hot mad and wonderin’ what’s goin’ on. So I squawk Greeley on the walkie-talkie and tell him ta watch out but I don’t hear nothin’ cept static.
I guess Greeley finally couldn’t take it no more, he just left his truck and rode his scooter on down the mountain all the way home. The supervisor hadta mail him his notice of dismissal. The wife showed up outta nowhere a couple days later and picked up the truck. Didn’t explain nothin’ ta no one.
That’s why I just stand here and do my job, figurin’ that pilot car got it in fer me, cause he knows I know somethin’ ain’t right. Too bad Greeley got all the blame but least it didn’t stick ta me.
Look it that ball a dust there, comin’ up the road. Either a dust devil or the pilot car. You just wait here and I’ll get my walkie-talkie from that there stump. Tell ya how much longer yer goin’ ta be. Could ya holt this sign a minute?
When he leaned his post against my car and shuffled off toward the side of the road, I shouted after him, “You say, I should just follow that dust trail?”
The automatic window soundlessly slid closed and I accelerated in the direction of the whirling dervish, just in case the pilot car wasn’t able to rescue me for another half hour.
David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/