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Know the West

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.