They toiled through the spring and summer, through months of sweat and pain and danger, through rain and darkness and the onslaught of traffic, adding level after level and layer after layer of wood and concrete, until the mighty freeway was done – a shining, pristine ribbon wrapped around the Bay; a Midgard serpent which encircled the water.
All through their labors, the brave CalTrans workers were aided in their task by their flocks of safety pylons – those fearless cones of rubberized plastic whose duty it was to divert the deadly flow of traffic away from their masters. Many a brave cone gave its life in this service – the wheels of a passing car would come just a bit too close and instantly, one of their number would be gone, crushed, mangled beyond recognition. The workers would rarely field another cone in these cases, and the survivors would merely redistribute themselves to cover the vulnerable point in their line of defense.
As the freeway became ever more solid and the summer passed into autumn, one little pylon in particular grew excited, for he knew that soon they would be packing up and moving on – on to a new and exotic land where they and their CalTrans masters were needed. Where would they go? To the oceanside roads? Into the mountains? Deep into the heart of the city? And what would they do there? Resurfacing? Widening? Re-routing? New construction?
It mattered not; the little pylon was excited by almost any possible scenario.
He was new, you see – his brilliant orange flank was unmarred by the black rubber of tires, the small scrapes and gashes of abuse, the slight crumpling and denting of impact after impact, the overall bleaching of color caused by years of harsh sunlight and harsher rain and wind.
The other cones were veterans, and his excitement wore on their patience. "Where do you think we shall go?" he would ask again and again, dancing around the others. One of them would scowl and say, "It hardly matters, little one. One job is just like another."
"Noise," a second one would say.
"Cars," a third would contribute.
"Yes!" cried the little pylon. "I certainly hope so!"
And the veteran pylons would sigh collectively. He would learn. Most of them could recall their first few jobs; they, too, had been eager and naive. Now the best they could hope for was sidewalk duty in some residential street work. Anything but another highway, please.
So they labored alongside the CalTrans workers, and the freeway lengthened and strengthened until it reached out from one far away place and touched another far away place. Finally, it was time – the barricades were taken down, the tape was peeled away from, and the highway was ready for use.
The CalTrans masters began picking up the equipment, then: the signs and markers and, yes, even the pylons. The little pylon rushed down the hill from where he'd been sitting – alone, marking the end of a surface street in an adjacent residential neighborhood – when he heard the sounds of their clean-up, but as he crested the hill, he saw only the empty concrete – the workers, the orange trucks, and all the other pylons were gone. He looked around, hoping they had just moved off the highway a bit or were simply a bit farther down, and then he saw them: far away, a flash of brake lights as the truck curved around an on-ramp at the distant interchange.
"Wait!" he cried, "wait for me!"
But they were, of course, too far away to hear him, and seconds later they were gone. Far away to the north, he could hear the sounds of honking and cheering. The highway was open, and he was all alone.
He sat there some time, as the cars began to stream by on the road below him. He could see the happy faces of the drivers who were finally able to use this great new freeway, but their joy did nothing to cheer him up. He had been forgotten; what was there for him now?
There was clearly only one thing he could do.
"I will find them," he said. "I've got to find them."
And, working up his bravery, he hopped down the hill towards his destiny.
The rain was coming down in sheets as the little pylon dragged himself under a patch of trees on the hillside. He was sniffling a little bit, trying not to cry, but he felt very miserable and it was hard to keep his courage up.
He had rolled along all afternoon, whistling to himself and watching the people zoom by in their cars. He'd always liked watching cars shoot past him as their team had worked. Sometimes he imagined what it would be like to ride in one, with the wind whipping past him and the roar of the engine all around.
Thinking of it now made the tears come on even stronger. Now, he would have liked to have been in a car just to get out of the rain. He'd been rained on before, of course, but that had been when the others were there – they had been doing their job, and they'd toughed it out by distracting each other with stories of the road.
But now he was cold and alone, lost, wandering in the dark, and it was all starting to look rather hopeless.
He peered out between the trees at the road and watched as the cars went shooting past, throwing up wakes of wet spray behind them. As he watched, there was a sudden flash of metal and a loud clattering noise as one car went by. The little pylon inched up to the roadside, careful to stay off the road itself. And there, down the hill a bit, he could see a little huddled metal figure: a dented hubcap resting against the concrete barrier.
He approached carefully. He'd heard stories of hubcaps thrown from cars; he'd never really understood it, though. Did the humans throw disobedient hubcaps away, abandoning them to the random fate of the highway? Or were the hubcaps fleeing their human masters?
The little pylon realized, then, that this was his chance to find out, so he made his way down to the still, quiet form of the hubcap.
"Um, excuse me?" he said when he was standing next to it.
"Leave me alone," came a sad, hollow voice.
"Are you okay?" asked the pylon. "Are you hurt?"
"I was just thrown from a moving car," said the hubcap, not looking at him, lying still. "What do you think?"
The pylon thought for a moment. "I think you could probably use some help," he finally decided. The hubcap moved for the first time since being thrown from the car, rolling over to look at the pylon. The pylon tried to smile, to show a brave face, because the hubcap looked even more miserable than he did.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" the hubcap asked.
"I'm looking for my work crew," said the pylon. "They lost track of me and I'm going to find them again."
They stood there in the rain a bit, not saying anything, and then the hubcap looked off into the darkness under the trees. "Guess we should get out of this rain, huh?" he said.
The little pylon smiled. "Yeah, I don't think it's going to let up for a while."
So they hustled their way off the shoulder of the highway, into the somewhat drier comfort of the forest. And as the night passed over them, they huddled in a dry recess and spoke of the things they'd seen. The hubcap seemed curious about the many machines the little pylon had encountered – the backhoes and bulldozers, the dump trucks and cranes, the jackhammers and pile-drivers. He listened as the pylon told of splitters and hammers and levelers, of asphalt and (occasionally) dynamite.
And the little pylon was absolutely astounded by the tales the hubcap had, of the places he'd been to and the things he'd seen. "I was on a '65 Mustang," he said with pride, "and we went all over the country." The little pylon was rapt with attention as he heard about desert canyons and snow-covered mountains, blue-green lakes and cities of neon as far as the eye could see.
They talked long into the night and finally drifted off as the sheets of rain slowly lessened, becoming a sprinkle, then an occasional patter, and finally ended, leaving only the sound of dripping water from leaves and branches, and the passing cars in the distance.
In the morning, the hubcap asked if he could come along with the pylon. "You're going in the direction my master lives," he said, "and I know that area better than you do. If you're going to find your crew over there, you're going to need all the help you can get."
So they set out up the hill together, picking up their conversation where it had left off the night before.
And that is how the little pylon came to have a traveling companion and, perhaps, found the first real friend of his entire life.
The little pylon had only a vague sense of where his work crew might have gone, but remembered a lot of talk among both the CalTrans workers and their equipment about going “over the hill”. From where he’d originally been standing, there was only a big hill in one direction; the rest was open space or the Bay to the north. So he’d begun heading up the highway, and that’s where he’d met the hubcap.
Now the two of them continued in the same vein, moving along the side of the highway bit by bit, trying to stay out of the way of the many fast-moving cars that flung themselves up the grade at ridiculous speed. Some of those cars were actually enormous transport trucks, and though they tended to roll a little slower, they were huge, practically spilling over the sides of their lane into the shoulder as they ground their way up to the summit.
Eventually, keeping their spirits up with conversation and helping keep each other out of harm’s way, the little pylon and the hubcap reached the top. There was a little restaurant there, and a fine view of valleys on all sides of the mountain, and the highway began to descend instead of climb.
The hubcap viewed the slope, and the cars barreling down it, nervously. “I thought they were going fast before...!” he gulped.
“Yeah,” the pylon agreed. “What would happen if one of them clipped us, you think?”
“Why, you’d be torn asunder like a storm down under!” said a strange raspy voice from seemingly nowhere. “You’d bust like dust! Shred like bread! In short,” it concluded, “you’d end up a lot like me.”
They looked around, then finally down, where they saw who was speaking.
“What in the world are you?” the hubcap asked.
“Well,” their new acquaintance said, “I used to be a possum!” And sure enough, if you looked at him from the right angle, you could see how he used to be an animal. Now, he was something more like a fur pancake, but that didn’t stop him from flashing a catchy smile. “Where are you fellows headed?”
“We’re going over the hill,” the pylon said. “I need to find my work crew and the hubcap needs to get back to his car.”
“Oh, sure, sure, good idea,” the road-killed possum agreed. “But honestly? I’m not sure staying on the highway is a great idea. Sure, it’ll get you into town more directly, but unless you’re sure you need to be right where it goes in, there are plenty of old roads that get little or no traffic. Or, heck,” he gave a tiny little shrug, the best he could manage in his condition, “just head right through the trees and such. Nobody will squash you there, and as long as you keep going down and south, you’ll get to the other side eventually.”
The little pylon and the hubcap both thought that sounded like good advice, and were glad to get the benefit of someone else’s experience on these things.
“Say,” the little pylon said, “do you want to come with us over the hill, by any chance? We should could use the help of a veteran like yourself.”
“Sorry, fellows,” the furry mess said as agreeably as he could, “but this is where I belong and this is where I’m gonna stay! Why, when that sun gets good and high, it just bakes right into me! Ain’t nothing like it in the world.”
Well, neither the pylon nor the hubcap would have ever dreamed of trying to take someone away from the place they wanted to be – that was, after all, the very core of their own quest, to find the places they belonged – so they thanked the road-killed possum for his help and, after a bit of searching around, settled on a back road to head down, quickly leaving the busy highway far behind them as the cool darkness of the mountain forest engulfed them.
The little road they had chosen was somewhat slow and winding in its path, but it had been free of traffic the entire time and so they made good progress down the hill. Toward the end of that day, the road emerged into a small town – still well up on the hillside, but in a little dale of its own – and before too long, the little pylon saw a sight that greatly cheered him up.
“Road crew!” he excitedly shouted to the hubcap, pointing with the top of his cone.
Sure enough, there was a bit of shoulder work in progress – just a hundred yards or so, and the human workers had gone home for the day, but there were a couple of earth-working vehicles parked and a whole bunch of blinking sawhorses and traffic cones. The little pylon and the hubcap hurried over.
“Well, hello little fellow!” one of the bigger cones called as they approached. The little pylon was a little disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to see that this was not his crew. He didn’t know them. But they seemed friendly enough, so he asked if they knew anything about the teams that had been building the new highway over on the other side of the hill.
“Why, sure enough!” one of the sawhorses said, his light blinking excitedly. “They’re widening the lines all the way down to Capitola.”
“Did you hear that?” the pylon said to the hubcap eagerly.
“Capitola is where my car is!” the hubcap replied, just as eagerly. Things were looking up!
“You get an early enough start in the morning,” the largest pylon said almost to himself, “you should be able to get to the work segment not long after lunch.”
The little pylon could barely contain himself. “We should set out right away! Maybe we’ll be there by sunrise!”
There was a general murmur of disagreement among the assembled work equipment. “You don’t really want to be out in the woods at night, especially with more rain coming,” opined a loose bucket of sand. “No place for urban equipment like ourselves!”
But there was no talking him out of it. He was adamant that they set out immediately, and the hubcap deferred to his decision – after all, he was just as eager to be home.
So they waved farewell to the little work team and headed back into the woods just as a new round of drizzle began to fall from the sky. Before too long, the drizzle became a downpour, though, and soon the two wanderers could barely tell which way was uphill or downhill with the storm coming down all around them. They stumbled about, cold and confused, and when they finally did find a clear and definite downhill slope, it tumbled them right down into a rapidly filling creek! Unable to regain their footing, the little pylon and the hubcap found themselves bouncing end over end down, down, down the creek, until at some point in the dark night, the creek dumped them into a river and the river dumped them into the ocean...
They washed ashore on the beach as the dark sky began to lighten grey. The little pylon looked around and realized he had no idea where they were. The beach could be anywhere. He couldn’t even see if there was a town nearby, as mist clung close around on all sides. He began to sob.
“It’ll be okay,” the hubcap tried to console him.
“You don’t know that!” the pylon managed to gasp through his tears. “I should have listened to what those other pylons said. They’re big and wise and I’m just small and dumb. That’s why I got left behind in the first place, because I wasn’t paying attention to what the bigger, older pylons ever tried to tell me.”
About this time, another cold wave washed up onto the sand, bringing with it a thick gnarled piece of water-worn driftwood.
“What’s the matter, little buddy?” the wood asked. He had a calm and soothing voice that immediately made the little pylon take a slow, deep breath to get better control of himself.
“I got separated from my work crew,” he finally managed to say, “and if I don’t find them, I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Well,” the driftwood said, “maybe if you don’t find them, that just means you’re free to decide what you’re going to do for yourself.”
The pylon thought about this for a bit. “You mean, put myself wherever I want, to guide the flow of any traffic I like?”
“Sure,” the chunk of wood said, “or don’t even mess with traffic at all. Maybe just sit on a rock looking bright.”
“But I like guiding traffic!”
“Then go do it, little brother,” the wood said, “but don’t get so worked up about the wheres and the whens. The universe has a funny way of taking you to places where you’re needed, or places where you need to be. It might not always be the best place or the place you want, but it usually works out just fine.”
“But what about me?” the hubcap said worriedly. “I only fit on one kind of car. Even if I decide not to go back to the car that I fell from, how will I find another car that fits?”
“Who says you need to be on a car?” the driftwood suggested. “There’s a million other useful things for a hubcap to do, I’m sure. You’re practically a bowl, after all.”
“Hm,” the hubcap quietly thought to itself. “I suppose that’s true.”
“So there you go,” the wood said with a note of finality, then suddenly a swirl of cold water was lapping up at it again. “Oh! And here *I* go!” And as the wave pulled back out to see, the driftwood went with it. “Take care, boys!” he shouted as he vanished into the sea.
Then the little pylon and the hubcap sat there for a good long time, neither of them saying anything, considering the many different things they could do, if they’d just let their quest go.
Finally, the little pylon spoke. “I suppose,” he said, “I could be pretty happy on just about any street, but really, I miss my work crew.”
“And I suppose,” the hubcap agreed, “I could be a fine bowl or speed bump or something, but I really miss spinning on a wheel.”
“So we’ll continue with our quest...” the pylon started.
“...but not get too upset if that just isn’t in the cards for us and we end up becoming something else,” the hubcap finished.
Agreed on a course of action, they decided to head inland and get some sort of bearing. But just then, two human hands reached down to pluck them out of the sand.
“Shameful,” said the human whose hands they were, “the things that wash up on this beach.”
Then it tossed them into the back of a large truck that was already mostly full of other ocean-tossed garbage. And a few minutes later, that truck was pulling out onto the road to take its load to the dump.
The little pylon sat in the back of the truck, watching the road roll away behind them. He sighed. “I guess our quest is already over before we even got back on it,” he decided.
The hubcap rolled around a bit. “I’m sure we can find our way out of the dump and press on.”
The pylon made the grumpiest sort of face its featureless orange plastic could manage. “Press on where, though? We don’t even know where we are.”
The hubcap sagged visibly. “I suppose that’s true,” he said, then looked up and around. “We could be anywhere. We could...” Then he suddenly stopped, then flipped up very vertically. “Wait a second! I *do* know where we are! This is the highway that goes through Capitola further ahead!”
The pylon flipped over from where he’d sagged on his side. “What? Really?”
“Sure thing! Why, if this is where they’re doing that work, then any minute...”
And just then, they passed the first MERGE LEFT sign. The truck began to slow down and signs of construction began to appear along the shoulder. The pylon peeked over the back of the truck and saw...
“My work crew!”
Indeed, it was them. They turned at the sound of his voice, but he was quickly moving past each one before they could see who had called to them.
“We’re going to go right past them all!” the pylon fretted.
“The road looks a little torn up ahead,” the hubcap said. “Next bump, let’s bounce out!”
And that’s just what they did. BUMP! With a little bit of a jump on their own part, the two of them flew right out out of the truck and onto the torn-up shoulder of the highway, where they rolled to a halt within a few feet of each other.
The little pylon hopped up immediately, and within moments was surrounded by dozens of his former work peers. “Look who’s been over a few dozen miles of road now!” said one. “So scuffed up!” another one complimented him.
“I’m home!” the little pylon shouted to the hubcap happily.
The hubcap smiled, but then the smile faded. He was happy for his friend, but he still had some ways to go himself. His car must be around here somewhere...
Just then, a human hand picked him up, flipped him back and forth for a looking-over. “Huh,” the human said, “looks like vintage Mustang. Say, Ray,” the human called to another of its kind, “isn’t there a Mustang usually parked over on that side street? We were looking at it yesterday, right?”
The other human made a grunting noise of agreement. “Yeah, missing a hubcap, sure.”
The first human dusted the hubcap off with a sleeve. “Well, then, my little friend. I think we know where you need to go back to, soon as I get my break, hm?”
And that’s exactly what happened.
The highway widening lasted most of a year, much of that idle time when the rains really set in and prevented the humans from making progress, but all through that time the little pylon helped guide traffic past the construction area wherever they needed him. And every day, he saw his friend the hubcap come by on the commuting car that he belonged to.
The little pylon would wiggle and wobble, and the hubcap would spin and gleam, and to any human who ever saw it, it would just look like the everyday physics of the mundane, but to the two friends, it was the whole wide world.
For consideration: another long-ago-started piece that is finally finished, but more special than the others