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
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...