The hitchhiker looked a little wild-eyed, or maybe shocked, when I stopped on the highway shoulder. "Where are you going?" I shouted. "Cody, Wyoming," he said, staring through thick glasses at the canoe on my roof rack. He had no pack, no bag, nothing that identified him as either a local or an ordinary traveler. I doubted he'd get another ride soon.
"Get in," I said. "I'll take you to
Moran." Maybe I wouldn't have stopped had a friend not been driving
the vehicle behind me; maybe I wouldn't have stopped had I not been
remembering my own summers on the road. The hitchhiker's face
sprouted gray whiskers; he smelled unwashed but not offensive.
"Where are you coming from?" I asked, hoping he
didn't notice how I pushed a small Guatemalan purse further into
the console. "Florida," he said. "I left a month ago. The Jackson
mission was full so I just walked around town last night."
Knowing that Jackson police roust transients, I
asked if he'd had trouble. "I don\'t worry about that," he said. "I
got a driver's license still. My backpack got stolen outside a
truck stop. I had $4,000 in that pack. Don't know why it wasn't in
my pocket. A sign said "no packs inside," and I thought it would be
okay. That was my stake."
He shrugged. "I guess
someone needed my stuff more than me." I wondered if I would have
similar forbearance. He tapped his red windbreaker. "A trucker gave
me this jacket, but it\'s cold at night. I couldn't get a job in
Jackson and no one would give me any coffee. I called my ex-wife
and told her that for $100 I could get a room, a shower, a meal and
a razor, but she hung up on me."
Trying to fit
his story into a familiar context, I asked if he was a veteran. "I
wish I was," he said, staring beyond me, toward the Snake River. "I
wish I had my fishing pole. There's plenty to eat in that river. I
haven't eaten in awhile." He said he'd never hitchhiked before, nor
been in the West, then suddenly he asked, "Are you canoeing by
Startled, I looked in the rearview
mirror. "No. My friend is right behind me. We're shuttling his
truck to the take-out." The hitcher turned to look. "Well," he
said, "I can't afford $20 to go through Yellowstone Park." I told
him that families traveling through Yellowstone were unlikely to
stop, and asked if he knew the other route to Cody, asked what kind
of work he had done.
"I've done ranching, some
labor. I was in truck tires for 24 years. I hear there's grizzlies
in Yellowstone. If I came across one, I'm so hungry I'd probably
get a big stick and kill it. I haven't eaten bear in a long time."
"Why Cody?" I asked, wishing I had armloads of
groceries. "Oh," he said, "I read. Mostly Westerns. Cody seems like
a good place to start over."
I told him that
years ago I'd hitched solo all over the West, but I didn't say I'd
always had enough money to eat, usually enough to buy a plane
ticket. I didn't say I'd once been picked up by a pilot en route to
the airport who flew me in his Cessna. I didn't say I'd been
experimenting with living on the edge, but with the safety net of
youth and a recent professional career, to which, at that point, I
could have returned.
Instead, I asked, "Are you
ever scared?" "Oh yeah," he said softly, "It's real scary out
there." I didn't say I'd been scared hitchhiking myself, sometimes,
but was more scared now, wondering how anyone starts over from
zero. He didn't seem like a man with a habit of falling off the
bottom rung; he seemed bewildered as a bird blown off its flyway by
a storm, searching for hospitable refuge "- for him, a mythic West
he didn't know had already vanished.
tell him that Cody is a lot like Jackson, ranches turned to
affluent ranchettes, nearly everyone suspicious of transients.
At Moran junction, I stopped, fumbled with my
purse, directed him to a store. He took the $20 I offered and got
out of the car, saying, "Maybe I'll get some coffee at least."
"What's your name?" I asked finally, reaching to
shake his hand. "George," he said before closing the passenger
door. I left him standing on the highway with nothing but courage
and a dream, thumb in the air, just trying to keep going. Good
luck, George. May Cody "- or the next town, or surely the next "-
be compassionate and warm.