Thursday, November 29, 2007

Morning in Mordor

I wrote this in 1994. It has not previously been published.


The freeway traffic starts to slow long before the road starts climbing into the mountains. On good days you can see the line of peaks above the smog before you reach them, and on great days there's just enough haze that you can distinguish the foothills from the taller peaks behind them and see the range's great depth, but great days come once in a decade. Good days are rare enough.

If only I lived close by the rail lines, and if my schedule was anything like predictable, I would take the train to work. Just imagining a 200 mph ride all the way from the hill country through Udûn makes my chest ache.

"Traffic will be slow from the Upper Ithil Plain to the Narrows," the traffic reporter says over the radio, his voice tired. "There's a stalled vehicle near the Central Dagor off-ramp and it's slow going for about 10 miles." Another 15 miles and I'll have to slow to 50 mph. Ten minutes added to the commute. Great. The air conditioner starts to make some headway against the smell of the rice fields I left behind in the Anduin floodplain.

I wonder sometimes why I ever wanted to move south. The roads used to be wonderful here, and the plains north of the hill country were sun-drenched and undiscovered. Sure there was a long drive to work, but the roads were uncrowded, there was no speed limit, and I could afford a comfortable car fast enough to get me to work at 140 miles an hour. We had a ranch house in the country and I could still get to work in 60 minutes.

"An injury accident blocking lanes 1 and 2 of northbound M1 is causing further slowdowns to southbound commuters in South Dagor," the tired radio voice says. "The highway patrol is working to clear the blocking vehicles to the shoulder." I bang the steering wheel. My commute further undone by rubberneckers.

"Visit Central Dagor’s auto row for a test drive in a brand new Nurnen V12i at Dagor Nurnen,” another voice says. “You’ll be happy you did." I click the radio off. Up ahead, brake lights are flashing. A brown cloud spurts from the exhaust of a rusted pickup truck as it accelerates onto the median and veers around a full-size van with its flashers on. I peer in at the van’s driver as I pass and he's signalling frantically for drivers to let him coast to the shoulder, but no one will make room. It looks like he’ll end up blocking lane 1 and perhaps lane 2 as well, but I’m past the poor irresponsible schmuck now and his problem is no longer my problem.

I tap a pen on my dashboard as I remember a song I used to sing, then click the radio back on to a music station.

"Orodruin has been rockin' and rollin' all week, and if the Geological Survey prog-NOS-ticators are right, we may see an eruption within the next few days," a younger, hipper voice says from my radio while "Fire on the Mountain" plays behind him. "Stay tuned to Corsair radio for the latest on this and other stories. Now get ready for a 30 minute nonstop rock block from the Corsair radio morning team at 108.1 FM." The background music dies away and the opening chords to "You Ain't Never Been Loved 'Til You Been Loved By Me" thunder. I click the radio off. 30 minutes of music like that is enough to make your hair fall out. Ahead, I can already see dark clouds spreading high above, like the edges of a pungent and unimaginably large shiitake mushroom.

Bobby has been unusually sullen for the last few weeks. Between that and Tricia's increasingly vociferous demands for us to leave her the hell alone and her sudden switches to demanding that we pay more attention to her, it’s been really tough for Marcie and me this year. Tricia will be heading off to college in Halifirien next year, she’ll need a car of her own, and though we have money saved up for her tuition, we haven’t got much for a car, and nothing at all for Bobby when he graduates high school just two years later. To say nothing of replacing my old Nurnen when the time finally comes. It’s already got 110,000 miles on it and it shouldn’t be good for that many more. Whatever happened to the days when I could just take Bobby to the ballpark and all he hoped for was a foul ball?

More brake lights ahead. I switch the radio back on to the news and traffic station. A gigantic billboard on the right tells me that if I lived in Ithilview Estates I would be at work already. "… and it's stop-and-go on M1 for about 25 miles all the way to the Narrows," the tired voice on the radio says. "Now for our weather, the Air Quality Monitoring Service tells us to expect second-stage smog warnings from this morning until Friday evening. Please encourage children to play indoors and Senior Citizens to limit their activities throughout Gorgoroth and Udûn, north beyond Dagor, and throughout the Anduin valley north to the Falls. No relief is expected until a cool front passes through late Friday night." I flick on the air conditioner’s recirculate button.

Flashers ahead now. I press down hard on the brakes and come to a stop 40 feet short of the pickup truck still ahead of me. Half a minute later the truck crawls forward a few more feet, then stops again. I’ve got to move somewhere closer to a train station. Overhead the smog has mingled with smoke and sulfur from Orodruin’s shiitake canopy to completely block out the sun. It reminds me of the dark just before a heavy rainstorm. More than half the cars on the freeway have their headlights on. The air conditioner is starting to lose its battle with the smog.

I should have known when I moved to the hill country that it would eventually be overrun. The roads should have been my best clue, those and a smooth, 10-lane freeway all the way to the hills. Tract housing developers went berserk. They built more than 100,000 new homes on the plains between my hills and the mountains in less than 10 years. 130,000 homes. Half a million people. 4 major malls and 150 strip malls. 200 new car dealerships. Three million gallons of water diverted from the Anduin every day, and another million pumped up from the water table. It seemed as if the whole planet was transformed.

The construction boom on the other side of the mountains was every bit as phenomenal. Its appetite for aerospace engineers, financiers, insurance agents, corporate attorneys, secretaries and receptionists, manufacturing and maintenance workers, accountants, and especially construction workers was insatiable. There had never been such a boom before, anywhere. The quaint towns and decaying old cities of the north drew down to bare skeletons. Even the teeming, sordid cities south of the Anduin delta shrank.

An hour later, the traffic has moved barely 15 miles. I’ve passed four separate multiple-car collisions, three of them blocking freeway lanes, the drivers out of their cars and gesticulating furiously at each other. Past endless Dagor and into Morannon Meadows, traffic lightens up and flows smoothly for two blissful miles to the Ithil interchange, then snarls even more heavily for another mile as the Ithil commuters merge onto M1. I despair of ever seeing my wife and children alive again. The interchange itself is adjacent to the grey wasteland of an abandoned gravel quarry with a huge brewery for bitter, watery beer in its center. Three enormous beer bottles, 150' tall, stand between the freeway and the brewery as advertisements for its product: lite, regular, and premium beer. They all taste the same to me.

3/4 of a mile and 40 frustrating minutes later, traffic begins moving again, slowly at first. The radio's traffic reporters finished their morning shift half an hour ago, and any updates still being broadcast between inane talk show segments are out-of-date. The road begins climbing its parched valley funnel to the Morannon Narrows. The upward-flowing river of cars is still moving steadily, even speeding up. I feel an unexpected frisson of relief, though I am already nearly two hours late for work. A radio talk show host returns from a break and announces "This hour, we talk with a New Age spirit channeller from Lorien who claims that an ancient warlock named Gandalf told her that if 120,000 people fill Ranger Stadium and chant for peace, our society can cure its appetite for violence and strengthen family values. Stay tuned."

Once past the Narrows, the road widens again for the 30 miles to the Isenmouthe grade, and traffic should flow freely. If the infernal pickup truck will let me pass I might even be able to make up a few minutes I lost in the Dagor traffic. It’s now hardly lighter than a moonlit night, and it smells dreadful.

Another sign on the right, white with black letters, announces "Welcome to Mordor." I want to go home.