The Hitchhiker

I’ve been more or less astounded at the number of hitchhikers that you see in California ever since I moved here 2 and 1/2 years ago. In Humboldt County, that more or less made sense; it was a hippie mecca and it wasn’t unusual to see 10 twenty-somethings with dreadlocks standing by the side of the road. It surprised ME, because I grew up in a southern environment, raised by a grandmother who instilled a deeply-rooted fear of serial killers. I just assumed people more or less stopped hitchhiking in the 1970s with the exception of axe-wielding transients that were prepared to slaughter you the moment you let them in the car. That given, I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker–not even the harmless looking ones–until today.

Where I live now is a far cry from Humboldt County, California. If I didn’t know I lived in California, I’d doubt that this were the same state that houses the cultural niche of San Francisco or the glitz of Hollywood. Or, even, the hippie-ness of Humboldt and its endless pot gardens. It’s more like Wyoming. Or even Arkansas, in some ways. Anyone who’s not “from here” is from “down south” (anywhere below Redding) or “up north” (meaning Oregon). I’ve seen a couple of hitchhikers here and plenty of people holding up “Out of Gas” signs, because we’re next to the freeway that goes from Mexico to Canada. But they’re few and in between. People would rather panhandle in Portland or Sacramento than in a ghost town sparsely populated by crusty miners and ranchers.

This morning, I was driving from my little town to the bigger town nearby to buy groceries. It’s a 6-mile drive on a country highway road in the valley and surrounded by mountains. I enjoy the drive to town here immensely. Something about it reminds me of the contemplation drives I’d take in southern Louisiana through the bayou or the ones I’ve venture on in southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. As I made my turn from town to the highway, I was struck by the sight of an old man with his thumb out. He must’ve been 80-something. He was holding a small package and I didn’t think, but pulled over to pick him up. I had Mark’s fishing poles in the front passenger seat and Denali was in the back, so I was scrambling to move things as the old man walked up. I asked where he was going, and he was going into town as I was, and I gave him a lift. He was pretty quiet, mostly, and thankful. Denali was sniffing at him and unsure of what the hell was going on. I kept trying to bat back this goofy wolfdog as the old man told me that he’d had a cattle hound or something and had loved him. Denali seemed to settle for licking the old guy sneakily on the ears while I drove. He told me he was going to the Chase bank and said something about having not been this way in 3 years. I asked where he lived, and he said my same small town. I was thinking “3 years without going ‘into town???’ How the heck do you get groceries?” But I said nothing. He talked about going to see his grandsons in Denver for Christmas and that he was very excited about that. He said he also had a son in Argentina. I mostly said “That’s great” and smiled a lot. I liked this old man and his quietness and his simple little stories. I wished he were my grandpa.

When we got into town, I dropped him off at the bank and told him, knowing he probably had no way home, that if he needed a ride I would pick him up on my way back from the grocery store. He was grateful and I told him to be where I could see him. Then I drove on and went grocery shopping. I was rushing through the whole store, worried about my little old man. I worried he’d get a ride back with some nutcase. I finished my shopping in about 30 minutes and rushed back to the bank, but he was gone. I drove past an old man at a bus stop who looked at me and I wondered if I seemed like a crazy lady–prowling around town looking for old men to pick up in my truck. I was giving up and turned back onto Main Street to drive home, and there he was. He’d just crossed the street and was probably on his way to go hitchhike by the highway to get a ride home. I pulled over and said, “I found you!” He smiled and got in. We were driving back and he talked more about his grandsons–about how they both want to be scientists, and about how one of them is skipping two grades in school. I enjoyed his company and Denali, now somewhat adjusted to our new activity of porting this old man around, was sniffing him less and just more or less smiling at him from the back seat.

At one point, he’d quieted for a bit and was looking out at the landscape and he said, “It’s amazing when you think how much the earth must have shook.” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him–and it seemed completely out of nowhere. I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “You look at these mountains and the earth must’ve shook a lot.” I said, “Yeah. I guess so.” We rode back most of the rest of the way to town in silence. He was looking at the mountains and so was I. When we got to town, he told me he needed to stop at the post office and I told him that I’d wait for him. He insisted I didn’t. I knew he had only a few blocks to walk, so I let it go. We exchanged phone numbers and he told me if I ever needed anything to call him. I said the same.

When I drove away, I started crying. I didn’t know why. Something about that old man made me feel so happy to be alive. And somehow, I’m not sure I’ll ever look at the mountains around me and not think of him.

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