I Spent 21 Hours at a Truck Stop
It's not every day you go into a truck stop and have a life-changing conversation with an aging pool shark with a hook for a hand.
All photos by Michelle Alexis Newman
Castaic, California, is one of those places you drive through on your way to somewhere else. It sits just north of LA's sprawl, a town of fewer than 20,000 that sprouted up along I-5 under a sky that stretches out endlessly in all directions. Most businesses here cater to truckers shuttling up and down the interstate: 24-hour restaurants and stores along Castaic Road, truck stop after truck stop, a shack of a bar called the Country Girl Saloon—places to make pit stops at before moving on.
I was not moving on. I was staying here with my friend Michelle for an entire day. This was an assignment I took on for myself precisely because it made me uncomfortable. My emotions are unpredictable enough that I seek stability and consistency in almost all other aspects of my life. Thus, the idea of life on the road has never appealed to me—I don't even like driving, and it's hard for me to imagine why anyone, no matter how lonely, would actively seek out a lifestyle that involves spending hour after hour behind the wheel. But I'm fascinated by people who are different from me, so here I was, trying to figure out the appeal of a place like this.
This is how it went:
We pulled up to the Castaic Pilot Travel Center and started walking around, acquainting ourselves with the space in which we'd be spending the next 24 hours. The truck stop consisted of a store, a Wendy's, and a lounge, which was decorated with a sign that read, "Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends." We sat down outside for awhile, watching people file in and out. They appeared to remain strangers.
We took a walk to admire the beautiful scenery, and even in the short time we spent inside Pilot, Castaic was getting busier. The truck stops were filling, up and the immense vehicles were moving on and off Castaic Road like lumbering animals maneuvering around one another. We treated ourselves to a mediocre lunch of pancakes and pastrami, which didn't do wonders for our stomachs.
We went back to the lounge, where The Day After Tomorrow was playing to an audience of about four men, the only interesting one of whom was Benny. I was attracted to Benny because of his T-shirt that said, "Stay Back, I'm Allergic to Stupid." I'm a sucker for graphic tees, and this one had a mantra I could stand behind. He was also shoveling ambitiously large spoonfuls of Panda Express into his mouth, which I undoubtedly respected.
I was well-aware that Michelle and I did not look like the typical clientele of a truck stop, so when Benny asked us if we were truckers, I had no idea what to say. A proud citizen of the "United States of Texas," Benny was not pleased to learn I was from New York, which he described as "raggedy as hell." It was difficult to hear his locker-room insults of my hometown over the sound of Dennis Quaid screaming, so when he invited us to get a beer, we gladly accepted.
Benny treated us to the Country Girl Saloon's finest Miller Lite and continued telling us about himself. Benny's been a trucker for nearly 30 years and also owns two liquor stores in Houston. He told us about chasing a couple kids down the street with a .38 after they stole a $500 bottle of Cognac from his store. He told us, proudly, that he was his wife's first blowjob recipient—though she hid the fact that she had lost her oral virginity to her friends. After that, we decided we had learned enough about Benny and went back to Pilot to recuperate.
Last night's hangover was catching up with me, and I desperately needed some chemical assistance. We browsed through the caffeine pills and narrowed it down to two options, Stay Awake and Vivarin. Stay Awake ($2.99) was advertised as an "Effective Alternative to Coffee," while Vivarin ($4.99) claimed to be "A Safe and Effective Alternative." We decided that safety, of course, was our number-one priority, so I treated myself to Vivarin.
Michelle was still recovering from her 3 PM pastrami-induced "surprisearrhea" and we decided that out of our options, Wendy's would be the most calming form of nourishment. Then we wandered back over to the Country Girl Saloon, which in addition to be one of the most charming freeway-adjacent shacks in town, also had $3 Miller Lites.
Related: Watch Every Woman: life as a truck stop stripper.
I grabbed another round of Miller Lites and started chatting with a truck driver named Johnny. Johnny was cute, a Castaic 10 (which roughly translates to a Los Angeles 5 or a Boise 8.5) with a thick Alabama accent. I found his teeth extremely distracting because every other one looked like it could belong to an eight-year-old. He served in the Army for four years and now drives trucks for the military, delivering everything from ammo to armor to tanks. Johnny stopped overnight in Castaic on his way to pick up a cannon to take across the country to Virginia. I liked Johnny: He was articulate, funny, and not at all shy about his affection for the Second Amendment.
I left Johnny and Michelle to duke it out over global warming and struck up a conversation with Dennis. I watched him gargle down a shot of Fireball, and he asked, "Do you know Fireball?" I did, and that was enough for Dennis to take a liking to me. He called over his friend who had just finished winning another game of pool. I noticed "Lefty" earlier because I had never seen a man with one hand kick so much ass at pool. He introduced himself, sat down on the stool next to me, and we started talking.
Lefty exuded a fatherly energy that I was drawn to. His age was somewhere between an unfortunate 60 and a very sexy 75. It was evident that Lefty and I had a connection. He oozed a level of honesty that was just as intimidating as it was admirable. I was comforted by Lefty; I wanted to talk to him about myself and I wanted to learn more about him. We bonded over the premature death of our fathers, and he told me he was a widower twice over. We were both becoming emotional from the conversation, so, to lighten the mood, I challenged him to a game of darts. He obviously won.
Lefty and I celebrated my near-bullseye until someone asked him to a game of pool. I sat next to Dennis, who downed another shot of Fireball.
"Do you know Fireball?"
"Yes, Dennis. I know Fireball."
Dennis ordered me a beer. After I promised him for the ninth time that I wasn't going to drive, his mood suddenly shifted. He looked at me, his eyes were glazed over, his hands were trembling as he began to say, "Zoë, I have to tell you something."
My mind started exploding with absurd hypothetical situations, but despite my increasingly noisy mental chatter, I managed to mutter out, "What's up?"
Dennis took a deep breath and started to talk.
He told me he got out of prison two years ago after being incarcerated for 37 years. He had never been to California before but was placed in a transitional home in Los Angeles after he was paroled. He lives in Downtown LA with 14 other paroled "lifers." Trying my hardest not to pry, I asked what the past two years have been like. Through his tears, he looked at me and said, "Zoë, you have no idea." Just like that, Dennis got up and walked back to the bar.
Lefty came and sat with me in silence as I mulled over all of this new information. He brought over some popcorn, put his arm around me, and told me I had to get out of my head. "Worrying," he said, "isn't gonna get you nowhere." He got up to put a song on the jukebox, came back to the table smiling, and assured me the song would make me laugh. It did. It was "Fat Bottomed Girls" by Queen.
Lefty and I talked for about another hour. Of course we had our differences; Lefty was old enough to be my grandfather, had a hook for a hand, and was significantly better than me at pool. He told me he's won multiple car titles on the pool table, which solidified him as the coolest guy ever. Lefty thinks it's the similarities, not the differences, that bring people together, and our similarities became more apparent the more we talked. We shared stories about growing up and gave each other relationship advice. We exchanged tips on how to handle stress, though his primarily involved riding a Harley and drinking Corona.
I was exhausted and mistakenly took another Vivarin as we were leaving. I said bye to Johnny, assured Dennis I wasn't going to drive one last time, and asked Lefty if he would walk us back. Castaic had become quiet during our hours inside the Country Girl. Traffic had nearly stopped except for the occasional truck pulling into one of the surrounding stops. When we got back, Lefty and I hugged goodbye. He told me he shared the paternal connection with me that I felt when we first met. I exclaimed, "Better an old dad than a dead dad!"—a joke that didn't land as well as I had hoped.
Michelle and I decided to head back to the car to decompress. We completely reclined the front seats and bundled up under dirty sheet that was in my trunk. I lay awake in my car. It was freezing. The Vivarin had waited to kick in until the beer started wearing off, a combination I would not recommend. The bright lights of the truck stop made me feel nauseous, so I hibernated under the sheet, dozing in and out of unsatisfactory sleep for the next hour or so while sweating Miller Lite out of pores I didn't even know existed.
When we woke up, it was still dark outside, and I felt disgusting. We joked on the way there about me taking a shower, but in that moment, a shower was just what I needed. Benny said he never showers there because they "fuck ya on the prices," but I decided to spend the $12 to stay awake during the car ride home.
I waited for my shower to be ready, punched in a passcode on a keypad next to the door, and walked in. I was pleasantly surprised: The shower had just been cleaned, and there were fresh towels and a toilet. Goodbye Miller Lite–Vivarin combo sweats! I was clean and ready to take on the day, albeit very slowly.
Michelle and I went outside to watch the sunrise. We talked for a few hours in that circular, nonsensical way people do after they've been awake for too long. It felt like I was waking up from a strange dream, the characters and events already stretching and fading in my mind. There was no way to make sense of a place like this, so we pulled out of the truck stop, got on the highway, and joined the cars flowing out of Castaic.
Zoë Klar is on Twitter.