Meaning and technique are closely interrelated in “I-80 Nebraska M.490-M.205.” The pace and momentum of the story mimic the life it describes: the jobs of long-distance haulers driving large loads of goods through the night across the United States. The rhythm of the road is faithfully rendered in the story, and the pace of life on the road is reflected in the language of the CB radio: the staccato, colloquial outbursts of truckers as they call to one another through the night. It is similar to the language, as Sayles acknowledges in the story, used by American astronauts, talking with ground control in dozens of televised space missions, especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Sayles’s language itself—in the exposition as opposed to the dialogue of the story—is as metaphorical as the conversation of the truckers, with numerous figurative expressions. In his first expository paragraph, for example, Sayles compares the line of big rigs to a river, a flood, lava, and then a stream. The language of Ryder P. Moses is the most colorful of all, a voice out of the darkness that is at once both philosophical and earthy. Moses’s language accelerates during the course of the story until he reaches his flaming end. Near that conclusion, he talks about metaphors, about how drugs are metaphors for sleep and about how the lesson he is trying to instill in his listeners is to keep driving: “Rest not, rust not.” The story’s language is as vivid and pulsing as the scenes it describes.
The story defies classification because, while realistic in its setting and subject, its central character is fantastic and mythic. In some ways, “I-80 Nebraska M.490-M.205” is a throwback to older forms of short fiction that combine realism with fantasy and myth, such as Harriet Prescott Spofford’s short story “Circumstance” (1860) or the tales of Charles Brockden Brown or Edgar Allan Poe. However, the language and drug references place the story firmly in the psychedelic strain of much of the music and literature of the 1960’s.