It wasn’t long that I was walking with my sign on Rt. 5 right near Silver Creek, when a very old red Ford pickup pulled over. You can never be sure if they are stopping for you or for some other reason. I had my backpack on already, so I picked up the pace and made my way toward the truck, hoping it would not pull away. The slider window opened. A boot dropped out from the cab into the bed. Then another boot. That was followed by a raincoat, some trash bags, a good number of aluminum cans and assorted other junk. I took this as a good sign. Whoever was driving this pickup was clearing room for me in the front seat.
I got in and thanked the man, who said he could get me to Dunkirk, where he lived. He had a long beard, glasses and a baseball cap. For the first ten minutes he was silent. This truck had no seat belt, the dashboard rattled to an extent that I thought it might shake itself loose, and a radar detector set up by the windshield sounded like an alarm every few seconds. He navigated in and out of towns along Lake Erie, pretty soon blowing through Dunkirk.
Carl slowly opened up. He was on his way back from the Seneca Reservation where he had gone to purchase cigarettes ($2.20 a pack) and gas for the truck. In the seat between us was a motorcycle battery to replace the one that died on him this morning. He didn’t like driving this truck, but he had no choice today since the motorcycle, a Honda 950, wouldn’t start. My good fortune, I realized, was a result of his hard luck.
Slowly he started to open up. He told the story of moving from town to town, following his wife’s military family and trying to find work to support his four-year-old daughter. Shiloh lives in Florida. The marriage is ending, and he won’t get to see his little girl until August. He’s been through a lot in 28 years on earth. Coming from a small town with dwindling possibilities, he has tried everything from the Air Force to farm labor to long haul trucking. On one haul through West Virginia, he fell asleep at the wheel, wrecked the rig but walked away unscathed. At least physically. Now, every time he’s in a truck it’s hard. Flashbacks, trauma come home.
Hence, the preference for the motorcycle.
He’s lived all over the country, but for now he’s back in Dunkirk working at a plant as a machinist.
Unlike most of the factories in the area, this one has deep local roots going back a century and a quarter. He doesn’t think they’re going anywhere. Carl started to tell me the stories of alcoholism and drug use that have eaten up his family and friends. As we blew through Dunkirk (he just kept going) he told me of an uncle who took heroin mixed with carfentanyl. He’s buried in a cemetery just across the road from the park where he injected for the last time, as it happened, into his neck. His mom is on Oxy for life after shoulder surgery. Carl asked if I minded if he smoked. How polite – it’s his truck. And the windows are open. He said he’s driving me to North East, PA.
If North Carolina’s back roads can be called Tobacco Road, Rt. 5 in Western New York should be named Heroin Highway. Nearly everyone I met along that strip that divides the Lake Erie vacation homes from the nearly Appalachian communities just to the south, seems to have been touched in one way or another by addiction, as the Rust Belt becomes the opioid belt.
Heroin is still killing people in Erie and Chautaugua Counties, though the numbers of fatal overdoses started to dip this year thanks to widespread use of Narcan, the drug that can bring you back from the edge of death if administered in time.
Not everyone is so lucky. Carl’s uncle was one of the people who OD’d in a park in Dunkirk a year ago. There was one weekend when eight people in Erie County alone died of heroin or fentanyl overdoses (sometimes both) Without Narcan the northern stretch along the lake from Buffalo to Erie would be a graveyard. Medical examiners talk about hundreds of dead, cops talk about thousands who would have died if someone didn’t get there on time.
As it stands there are stretches filled with the walking dead, addicts who can be maintained but remain untreated. And guys like Carl struggling to make it, to keep ahead of the bills and the sounds of things all around him, things falling apart.
In the town square of North East, Carl dropped me off. I walked a mile to a service station where a man named Jim offered to take me to the highway where I found a room at a motel. As I put my backpack in Jim’s pickup, I noticed a sticker on the tailgate.
“No One Ever Burned the Flag at A Gun Show.”
I slept well my first night in Pennsylvania.