Humanity Has Moved On
So it didn't take long at all for my journey to hit a very unsettling first milestone.
Before all that, let me just say that Departure Day couldn't have possibly been a more wonderful day. Not only did Dad cry even harder than Elder Roger did (to the point where Mom had to console him like it was my funeral or something), but in the crowd I saw Lacey crying as well. Heh. Guess she warmed up to me after all, but maybe her eyesight's gone bad or something. She kept looking to my right, just beside me, where Clint Three was. Maybe she should visit the Health Center and have some glasses prescribed or something. But aww yeah, Lacey was totally sad to see me go, and I totally acted like I didn't even notice. Sweet revenge!
So, after the fond farewells to all my loved ones (and Lacey, hah!), it was time to finally get this emissary train movin'. It was a little rough at first--my route started along the nearby highway, and the quickest way to get onto it was through about half a mile of fields and a tiny bit of forest. It took me a few minutes longer than necessary, since I've never seen an actual forest up close before. The map confused me, as well, since it stated that there was an old service road on the path I was taking, but I sure as hell didn't see it. Maybe nature's taken it over during these past 50 years, and the local trees and bushes didn't mind a little bit of radiation. Note to self: Do not eat anything from these trees until they pass a Radscan.
After bumbling around a road that's no longer there, I finally made it to the highway. I was greeted by a large 70 sign, and started making my way east. It was around this time, finally driving on smooth ground, that I began to really look around and the sights of Kentucky at once amazed and depressed me.
On the one hand, the pale blue sky lit by glorious sunlight crashed into shockingly green hills and forests to create a scene that was straight out of Elder Sarah's giant picture-books (Elder Sarah had these big books that she called "coffee table books," which were basically just glorified photo albums made by someone with a very good camera documenting a lot of, admittedly, beautiful scenery, which is why I mentioned them!). If my Sun Rider didn't start beeping at me to pay attention to the road, I would've probably smacked into the iron rail that borders it.
And then on the other hand, the desolation of 50 years' worth of neglect was pretty rough to see for the first time. A handful of collapsed trailers here, a rotting house there, rusted out cars and trucks all over...it was a grim reminder. And for all this waste and decay to exist under that same idyllic, shining sky was especially strange. I already felt like I was on an alien world, being outside of the glossy steel interior that Home provided, but this juxtaposition between breathtaking beauty and the destruction of people's lives intensified that feeling. Oh, but this isn't the "unsettling first milestone" I mentioned earlier...although, I suppose it could count, but it wasn't long before I saw something even worse:
After another mile or two of scenic rolling hills and dilapidated homes (as well as an abandoned campsite dedicated to a positively ancient cartoon that I've read about), this cursed place came into view just before the first major highway of my journey. I don't know if they were moving locations or renovating or what, and frankly I don't care, but beneath a filthy sign were dozens of humongous statues of dinosaurs. Now, I've seen these creatures before in books, so I wouldn't normally have been horrified by them. Actually, the site would've been a neat place to stop and look around if it weren't for the fact that every single one of these dinosaurs were discolored and rusted out and mutilated by time and radiation to the point where the statues went from (likely) being endearing to nightmare-inducing. Velociraptors without eyes! Tyrannosaurus without a bottom jaw or a belly! A brachiosaurus contemplating its own fallen head! No thanks! I got outta there before I saw anything else to send chills up my spine.
With that unpleasant detour out of the way, it was time to start heading north on Interstate 65. For a truly long haul. It was around 80 miles to Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, and as far as I knew, it was going to be spent alone. Most of my thousands-of-miles journey was going to be spent alone. I have to get used to it sooner rather than later, I suppose. You've got it in your head that there won't be anyone just hanging out in the open countryside, but seeing it in reality just feels...wrong. It's something that we were preparing for, but I don't think the absolute solitude of the world outside can ever truly be prepared for.
And so I went on, passing by more abandoned homes and cut through several forested areas that had formed thick canopies over the highway, but luckily, I didn't run into any fallen branches or experience any part of the highway being broken apart by the trees. I guess the interstate roads are really meant to last. Or maybe I just got lucky. While passing through these forested areas, though, I ran into an animal family: A lynx and her 3 cubs! Aside from very scant birdsong every few miles, this was my first contact with another actual living creature! She was a beautiful specimen, too, and her cubs were adorable! Now I understand why lynxes were often part of illegal pet trades back before the Fall--they look so much like normal house cats, just with pointier ears. I had to stop in the middle of the highway because this mama lynx and her cubs were in the middle of crossing, which is why I was able to admire them, you see. But the admiring mood was kinda killed when the lynx began to scream at me. Not roar--scream. Like, "Roger Junior just smashed his foot against a raised dais" scream. I wasn't aware cats could even make a noise like that, and while I was confused and alarmed, the mama lynx and her cubs scurried across the road and into the trees, never to be seen by me again. I shook my head, processing this strange new facet of cat behavior, before starting the Sun Rider back up and resuming my long trek down the road.
Just after that forest clearing, my first encounter with animal life was actually about to become just a little less special, because I came across an old store of some kind with a large parking lot for freight trucks, and the parking lot had become the home of an entire colony of lynxes. Which was strange, since I could've sworn lynxes were solitary animals, but I guess the past 50 years has forced a lot of animals to change up their habits in order to survive. As soon as I was able to spot them, though, they all disappeared into the labyrinth of trucks as though a gust of wind blew away clouds of smoke and dust, like I've seen the Tunnelers doing back at Home, to keep visibility good enough to keep working. Two animal encounters within 10 minutes, and both of them were far from what I expected. I'm starting to think that very little of what I've learned from my encyclopedias is going to still be true in this new world.
With that, it was back to focusing on the road ahead. Every mile or so, I'd see another small town where no one lived. More houses that remain empty. I briefly considered whether or not I should chance a glance inside some of these houses, to procure some supplies. On the one hand, it seemed in bad taste to just loot the spoils of a bygone people, but on the other hand, those people are bygone, they don't care anymore, they're clearly not using it. I dunno. That's a moral dilemma for another time. For now, I've got what I need, so no need to steal from the dead just yet.
Speaking of the dead, it was around 30 miles along the road that I finally saw my first corpse. I had to slow down in order to weave through some abandoned cars that had been haphazardly scattered around the interstate, and while I was doing that, I saw a pair of bleached-white partial skeletons inside the backseat of a blue car. Deaths were pretty rare at Home, so I'm not gonna lie, it was a pretty big shock to see actual, tangible human death with my own two eyes. It probably would have been worse to see the act of dying itself, but even this passive, long-past death disturbed me. I'm getting chills thinking about it even now. Skeletons seem like such an abstract thing until you actually see them with your own eyes.
I paused by this blue car, gaping at the partially-scavenged skeletons for...probably 5 minutes or so. It felt so much longer, though. It wasn't outright horror, on its own, but rather a mild shock of horror mixed with a sinking, sickening fog of dread. Our locations may differ, but inevitably, all of us will be left in much the same state as these nameless people in the backseat of an abandoned car. How did they die? Must've succumbed to radiation sickness. What ate them? Best not to think about it. What were they doing out here? Could be many answers to that question. There weren't any other bodies in the other vehicles, so they would've been all alone out here on the open road.
I never really contemplated death before--not in any serious capacity. So I guess midday on my first day away from Home on a quiet highway is as good a place as any to think about how all life will eventually die, and that there is no fighting back against it. At least, no fighting back to prevent it. I had to shake myself out of it. Yes, we're all bound to die one day. But we have to keep on living. Because that's what life does. And giving up that struggle against death just means a large part of you has already died. I will be dead and gone someday, but my descendants will live on and tell my story. My journal will contribute to my post-death life, in its own way. We've come this far. Humanity has survived almost total nuclear annihilation. We didn't struggle for these past 50 years just so we can die. We struggled so we could live.
It was around this time in my incredibly profound observations on life and death that my stomach began to growl, so my thoughts happily turned to food. Gotta continue living!
So I started the Sun Rider back up and resumed travelling along the highway for close to an hour until I spotted some empty spots on the shoulder, about a mile outside of a town named Elizabethtown, and slid on into one. I may be the only one of the road, but I'll be damned if manners aren't manners! Maybe someone might actually be traveling this road and they don't wanna have to swerve around me! Reaching into my overstuffed satchel, I pulled out a small plastic dish labelled Lunch, which contained three nutri-veg squares and a nutri-meat patty. Yum yum. I liberally coated them with a large handful of sambashrooms, as anyone should, and passed by my midday meal in a satisfied reverie. The meaning of life? It wasn't so complicated after all. It was as simple as enjoying some savory, meaty mushrooms that covered up the taste of soy-based squares and crudely-shaped meat pâté.
We didn't solely dine on squares and patties, though. Sometimes the Expedition Team would come across some canned foods inside big steel trucks in their explorations and bring them back with the supply caravan. And knowing how quickly traditional food goes bad, it's kind of surprising how many types of food can basically be extracted from abandoned trucks and grocery stores and still be safe to eat--aside from the vast majority of canned foods, things like rice, pemmican (a much preferable meat patty to the ones the Chem Team came up with), flavored bouillon, and condensed milk can be very valuable meal items in themselves, but also having access to honey, salt, vanilla, sugar, and soy sauce to add flavor are priceless finds for the Expedition Team.
Mom loved experimenting with soy sauce, to see what kinds of surprising dishes she could make with it on the rare occasions that the Expedition Team found enough of these goods to be given out to all residents. I kept telling her that we had an inordinate number of cooking books in our library to reference, so that we didn't waste our good fortunes, but she insisted on being adventurous. And it never really worked out. I know she meant well, and she wanted our family to have something unique for dinner, but sometimes you gotta stick with what works.
After finishing my lunch, I kept thinking about Home. And Mom and Dad, and my friends. About Dave and my listening eagerly to his stories of the outside world. About Katya and how irritatingly competent she is. About Clint Three and what those movies his ancestors enjoyed were really like. About Amy Jo and her perpetual frowning seriousness, unbroken by even the most joyous occasions. About Elder Dennis and his ridiculous fake teeth and that Rob Liefeld guy he mentioned. At some point, the rolling hills, lush fields, and thick forests began to blur in my peripheral vision. It's pretty obvious I was getting tired.
I'd decided to make camp on the outskirts of Louisville. More specifically, on the outskirts of Fort Knox, which is on the outskirts of Louisville. I'd finally made it. According to prior knowledge, Fort Knox had always been a fortified...uhh, fort, so if there were any other places in Kentucky where I would find some survivors, Fort Knox seems like a pretty likely place to look. But that would have to wait until tomorrow, or maybe even the next day, since I puttered around so much today and should take the opportunity to forage for supplies. I feel like I could've made better time if I'd driven faster--in fact, I knew I could've reached Louisville or Fort Knox in about an hour if I'd pushed myself--but it's my first day away from Home, gimme a break. So I drove a bit slow to take in the sights. Who wouldn't? ...Probably Katya, let's be real. Sometimes I suspect that girl is more machine than girl. It'd explain so much!
The sky wasn't quite dark yet, despite being nearly 9:00 PM. Which makes sense. The Sun Rider showed that today, June 27th, 2093, the sun would start fading from view in around 20 minutes, so I didn't have a whole lot of time to set up camp. I found a decently-sized clearing to set up the fold-a-tent, hit the switch, and ran for it. I don't know if any of you guys have fold-a-tents, but if you don't, these things can be pretty scary if you're a dumb gawker. They're about the size of a 100-stack of standard sheets of paper, but they expand really, really fast and that "paper stack" also weighs about 50 pounds. After a few seconds (presumably to give the user time to run away), that little stack expands so fast that it booms like a C4 explosion and even creates a steam cloud that obscures what's going on underneath. About a minute later, the steam clears away enough to reveal a cube-shaped structure 10 feet around on all sides, made up of buoyant, bouncy, still slightly-smoking plastic...stuff. I wasn't paying that much attention when Elder Brian was giving us the rundown on the fold-a-tent and what it's made of. I hope that doesn't come back to bite me.
But anyway, this ancient campground I've found already has fire-rings set up, so that just made my job a little quicker and easier, too! I just had to gather up some branches from the nearby grounds, put my shiny new Sun Candle to its first actual use, and voila! I had food, I had shelter, and now I had fire! I think any nearby animals might've been spooked by the boom of the fold-a-tent anyway, but a little fire to provide extra incentive for them to keep their distance doesn't hurt. After placing my satchel inside the tent, I noticed that the fold-a-tent had some digital writing along the walls. Apparently the soft and pliant nature of the Cube wasn't just to make it light for travel, but it could also morph part of itself into a bed-like structure for me to sleep on. Sure, it wasn't like my bed at Home, but it would have to do. Just to try it out, I got my sleep-cocoon and tried out this most basic of beds. It was warm and it was soft, but it felt somewhat alien and strange. It wasn't like Home at all.
There were other options on the walls, but it's too late to play with them all just now. Also, I'm just calling my fold-a-tent a "Cube" now. Because I've seen tents in my books. They look nothing like the Cube does. So it's the Cube. I'm sleeping in the Cube tonight. And not at Home.
Man. All this talk of Home is starting to make me feel...Home-sick, and I only just left a few hours ago! Well, half a day ago, I guess. It's past nightfall now, as I'm writing this. So technically it's still only been "a few" hours, but you get the idea. Point being, the melancholy of being away from the place I've lived all my life is starting to hit hard now. And I've also only just now realized that I haven't written that much about Home, or even my parents, from an outsider's perspective. Just my own. I must've just taken it for granted that you'd know all about these things I grew up with, when the chances of that being true are probably...none-ish. So I guess it's time to get into a new chapter to discuss all of my previous chapters. At Home. Where all my stories...were...okay, I was going for a literary metaphor, but if it's already collapsed this badly, then maybe I shouldn't have tried. My point is that Home deserves its own chapter, and that's gonna start right about now! For you, anyway. For me, I'm going back into my Cube to get some sleep, wake up, probably be a little confused as to where I am, remember where I am, and then see if I can forage for some food and supplies. And then the next chapter will start. I hope I can do it some justice, anyway.