On the road in the New West of Wyoming

  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 yourself?"


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.


I didn't 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.

Marie Geneen Haugen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Kelly, Wyoming.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....