Energy Crisis

A bold, old plan is hatched amid the attractions of an I-40 travel center

The Pilot Travel Center off Interstate 40 at Exit 398 is a strange and wondrous place; in the staid and ordinary world of convenience marts, it is a Turkish bazaar—sprawling, Day-Glo colorful, ever-so-inclusive in its offerings. It has an electronics department, for god's sake, with do-it-yourself CB radio kits. And, oh, the snacks—everything a hungry traveler could possibly want, or stomach, including all the requisite species of Honey Bun (mustn't forget Maple), incubators nurturing at least three different variations on the standard hot dog, in addition to those curiously thin cylindrical tortilla rolls—you know, the ones with the flaky golden brown crust and furtive little puckerings of ground beef (??) emerging from either end.

And the people, a carnival array of disparate souls—chubby goths, countrified locals, burly, unwashed trucker types, folks whose personal admixture of ethnicity, fashion sense, haircut, and mien would seem to adhere to no known sociological template... I wonder whether any of them have been to northern Alaska?

Jimmy Duncan has. Twice, he says. That's right; the Jimmy Duncan, the Knoxville Congressman, who is currently wandering the Travel Center's Saharan parking lot, identifiable, even at as distance, via his starched conservative blue suit and trademark askew silver coif. Duncan has called a Friday late-morning press conference to announce a bold new piece of legislation, related to energy policy—and northern Alaska—in the unlikely setting of a truck stop. (Let us no longer mince words, here. "Travel center" is a frail euphemism, conceived to make such places seem more like genial way stations for weary travelers of all stripes, and less like grubby stopovers where earthy men take showers on-premise. Which seems to happen here at roughly three-minute intervals, judging from the announcements emanating regularly from the store intercom.)

It's an odd scene; suited men, scattered at haphazard intervals across the sun-baked grounds, nattily dressed TV newspeople mingling with the Pilot clientele, attended by slovenly camera-toting counterparts. I see one of the TV teams recording an interview with a customer as he pumps his gas. From a distance, I imagine the dialogue that must be taking place:

Natty Newsperson: "Tell us, sir, what do you make of the rising cost of fuel?"

Pilot Customer: "I think it #$%! sucks."

NN: "...?...."

PC: "And I think gas stations like Pilot @#$%! suck, too."

NN: "Um, that's all from Pilot. Back to you, Bob!"

Sigh. It's almost a relief when Duncan and his small entourage finally make their way over to the podium, which has been carefully sited so as to place the towering Pilot sign, with the attendant board advertising the cost of a gallon of fuel, in the photographic frame of reference.

Duncan's bold new legislative proposal—conceived to address sky-high gas prices, "an issue that affects more people in a more needless and harmful way" than any other he's seen in 20 years in Congress—centers around a plan to begin drilling for oil in ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska. "It looks like a moonscape up there," he says, as if to assure us it's not any place we'd ever actually want to go. "You have to be a survivalist to get in there."

Or at least some specimen of wildlife.

The proposed drilling would take place offshore, Duncan further assures us, on a spot little bigger than "one of the checkerboards on the field at Neyland Stadium." It would produce somewhere on the order of a million barrels of oil per day. Then he introduces "one of the men [he] admire[s] most," in the person of Pilot founder "Big" Jim Haslam. Big Jim takes the mike briefly to discourage any misguided urges to "bash the big oil companies," though he's also quick to add: "And remember, Pilot is just a retailer, not a great big oil company."

Then J.D. steps back up, adding in summary that, "We've got to do something [about foreign oil dependence], or else shut this country down economically."

The presentation sounds reasonable enough, if one grants that the supporting rationale—that drilling would be far offshore, safe, confined to an area the size of a college football end zone, legislatively tied to a package of other, more green-friendly initiatives—is actually true. If. Except that Duncan also feels compelled to throw in a quote from the ostensibly retired, yet still perennially insufferable Newt Gingrich, who apparently told a Fox News correspondent in a moment of grouchy pique that "there's more oil buried underneath the Rocky Mountains than there is in all of Saudi Arabia," or some such thing.

Roll out the backhoes! Besides, those silly mountains always did muck up our continental feng shui, anyhow.

But all's well that ends well. And when the press conference is over, in consideration of the increasingly oppressive heat, Big Jim offers all of us in attendance—25 reporters and cameramen or so—a free Icee at the Truc... er, Travel Center.

I go back inside for a Red Bull and a Honey Bun. I was always more of a Slurpee man, myself.