Some people might feel intimidated walking alone around a place like Iowa 80: 225 flat acres under a giant sky, parking for 800 rigs, a movie theater, a museum, a truck wash, two game rooms, a custom shop for personalized embroidery, vinyl graphics, T-shirts, and laser engravings, a barber, a dentist, a 300-seat restaurant with a 50-foot salad bar, and the 30,000-foot Super Truck Showroom where balcony seating overlooks the Place for Chrome(r).
"Can you believe all this?" Sputter says out loud. She has her camera and she's trying to get a set of seven-foot chrome exhaust pipes into a single frame.
"You like the bent or the straight pipes?" she asks a shopper standing nearby.
"You have to pick," she says.
"But I don't—"
"Everybody has an opinion!" she says.
"Okay, bent," the woman says.
"Do you? Really? Oh, wow, and here I am all about the straight!"
Chrome is everywhere—chrome mud flaps, fenders, bug deflectors, filter housings—and Sputter stands before it all wearing her purse crisscrossed over her middle and shaking her head at the splendor. She meets a trucker from Australia, another from France, and the three compare notes on their nations' fast food offerings. Australia sounds terrible. She meets Peg, a round woman from Texas who is sick of waiting for her husband to finish gabbing at the 50-foot salad bar. "Then you hang out with me," Sputter says, and invites Peg outside, where countless other new friends await.
They follow the crowd to the Super Truck Beauty Contest, which involves the personal stylings of more than 100 entrants. Many of the trucks have names, like racehorses or rodeo bulls—Pure Attitude, Bustin' Out, Flirtin' with Disaster. Big and small, they sit with their hoods propped open and their drivers' families in lawn chairs beside them, the people fanning themselves and offering to answer any questions you may have. Sputter has only one, over and over: "Can I take your picture?"
She ambles past a big rig painted bubble gum pink and all done up with breast cancer awareness ribbons, and charges up to the woman showcasing it to compliment her. Then she reaches into her purse and hands the woman a 20.
"No, no, no," the woman says. "That's not what this is for. This is just for awareness."
Sputter shoves the money into the woman's pocket anyway. "Now, would you mind if I took your picture?" She gets Peg in the frame, too, and soon enough the two move on to admire Working Class, a blue rig with white horses galloping over ocean waves airbrushed onto the side. Working Class is famous for the gas fireplace inside its cab, a real fireplace spitting a tiny blue flame over fake logs. The rest of the cab, fully upholstered in black padded leather, is drenched in purple mood lighting swirling in rhythm with a smooth saxophone soundtrack, and over the bed hangs a mounted statuary of more horses galloping over ocean waves.
"Lord, lord, lord," Sputter says. "Lord!" If she could take it all in she would, but she can't, so she keeps snapping pictures to savor later, snapping all day and into the night. At the Tracy Lawrence country music concert, she stands on a hay bale to get a picture of the band, which is impossible from way back here. Even though he hurt you, he's still the one you want. You're gonna feel this way till the day you don't. She knows every last word. She sings and sways, comes off the hay bale, throws her arms into the air and wags her hips. I was all decked out, ready for church. Had my brand-new suit all covered in dirt. She twirls, hops, fist-pumps the sky, and the dancing gives the crowd permission. A woman with long blonde hair gets up, yanks at her companion; then a trim couple in cowboy gear; soon a small crowd twirls around Sputter, everybody throwing their heads back and embracing the sweat. Fireworks unload into the sky, and all the trucks in the Super Truck Beauty Contest put their lights on display—a shower of blinks and pulsating truck lights—and then they blow their booming truck horns in unison in great cacophonous celebration. Her knee of course aches, and the Michael situation weighs heavily (how much compromise does love require, anyway?), and she longs to start a family, but right now there is chrome, there is bouncing color gleaming to the beat of caroling horns, and there are new friends dancing. For Sputter, it is a very fine place to be.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's sixth book, Hidden America, about the people who do the jobs that make America work, will be published by Putnam in September.
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