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WE ARE NOT MEN, WE ARE ROTO : On the Road From Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay--With the Help of Psalm 91, High Beams and the Milkshakes That Conquered the Pan American Highway

January 06, 1991|TIM CAHILL | At press time, Tim Cahill and Garry Sowerby were in Iceland driving to Hella and back. This piece was excerpted from "Road Fever: A High-Speed Fast Travelogue" (copyright 1991 Tim Cahill), to be published in February by Random House

A WAKE-UP CALL, in my opinion, is not a fire alarm. It is best to loll about for half an hour or so, contemplating the task ahead, which on this morning, Sept. 29, 1987, was a monthlong drive at top speed through 13 countries--from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay. It was 3:20 in the morning in the last hotel in the last town at the end of the earth. I was reading a small pocket Bible--Psalm 91--in search of inspiration.

Back home in Montana, my next-door neighbor, an Episcopal priest named Michael Morgan, had honored me with a blessing before I left. Father Morgan's house is close enough to mine that he is often treated to involuntary glimpses of a less-than-spiritual lifestyle. He is, therefore, in the habit of giving me books with titles such as "Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith." We do not discuss these books, and Father Michael gives them to me, I suspect, out of a sense of duty rather than any real hope for my immortal soul. This is one of the many reasons that I respect my neighbor.

His blessing had consisted of a brief prayer, smack to the point. Father Michael used to own a motorcycle, a great screaming hog that he liked to ride through Yellowstone Park. Ahh, the wind in his face, the odor of fertile land . . . the sound of police sirens yipping behind. He has since sold the bike, but he knows something of the high edge of the highway.

"Psalm 91," Father Michael said, "is a prayer of protection. It's a good highway prayer."

My neighbor gave me a pocket Bible to pack away with my new, close-quarters Zorro knife and borrowed bulletproof vest. In a pinch, he thought, when quick action was called for, a prayer might consist of simply saying, "Psalm 91, Lord."

So, at the end of the earth, just before setting off in pursuit of the world speed record for driving the Americas tip to tip, in the process of pulling my way up out of two hours and 45 minutes of sleep, I tried to draw a bit of spiritual motivation from my neighbor's impressive faith.

Trust in God, the psalm says, and

You will not fear the terror of the night,

nor the arrow that flies by day .

There came an impatient knocking at the door, bam bam bam.

. . . then no harm will befall you,

no disaster will come near your tent.

Or, I supposed, by extrapolation, your new "it's not just a truck anymore" GMC Sierra. The knocking became more urgent and protracted. It was Garry Sowerby, my partner, sounding alert and Canadian (which he is): a real eager beaver.

"Tim, there're about 30 people standing around outside. Everyone's waiting. And we still have to pack the truck."

For he will command his angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways ;

they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

Bam, bam, bambambam. "We're late! People are waiting!" There was a silence that lasted for a minute or more: an agitated void.

You will tread upon the lion and the cobra,

you will trample the great lion and serpent .

Bambambambam. Garry's voice had an edge to it. " Let's go. "

It was all just hurry-up time. We threw suitcases and duffel bags in the back of the truck under the camper shell with the boxes of food and the 999 Farmer's Milkshakes--333 chocolates, 333 vanillas, 333 strawberries--in little square boxes with a shelf life of nine months. (Farmer's, like GMC, was one of our sponsors: From the Antarctic Through to the Tropics to the Arctic--The Quality Never Varies.)

At 4:43, 13 minutes after our official ceremonial starting time, we climbed into the cab of the Sierra and fired her up. Garry had offered to let me start the trip. He wanted to finish it, and it was only fair that I start. Garry Sowerby, a professional endurance driver, had worked two years for this moment. It seemed to me that he should both start and finish.

"You sure?"

"Do it," I said. "We're now"--I checked my watch--"15 minutes behind schedule."

There was a police car in front of us, with the lights flashing. The officers had decided against using their siren in deference to the sleeping citizens of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego.

"All right." Garry tapped the horn, and the car in front of us took off slowly down the street.

"Let's see what this baby'll do," Garry said.

THESE WERE the rules: Distance and speed records had to be set from geographic point to geographic point. The editors of "The Guinness Book of World Records" were adamant. "Otherwise," they explained, "you'd have people claiming a record drive from, say, Columbus, Ohio, to Detroit. You'd have someone claiming the world record for a drive from his house to his girlfriend's. Where does that stop?"

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