They stood on the side of the road with their backs arched under the packs that told their story –they were living on the road. If I waited more than a second to decide about the thumb staring at me, it would be long gone.
Scooping up hitchhikers is a thing I was told never to do, but these two didn’t have the hollow eyes or distant stare of a brain you should probably pass by. He had a beard like mine and she had a smile like the girl at the cafe you wondered about but didn’t talk to.
I had only hitched one hiker so far… far less work to let This American Life roll you through the forests and over the hills than to understand a stranger. But I was lonely after a brain-wrecking weekend with friends in Seattle, and if there’s any consistency about Roadlife it’s this – the days after leaving friends are the days that you really question being on the road.
I felt my left foot going for clutch and right for the brake and looked back to see their smiles start. They opened the slider to my moving living room and said hello. Her name was easy, it was the name of one of my best friends; his name would take me the next 29 hours to perfect. They spoke in an accent that meant they spoke French, so I spoke simply.
“I’m going to the country. Dirt roads. Very hard to get a ride there,” I said, thinking this might dissuade them.
“That’s okay… we go with you,” he said.
“It’s rural. Not many people,” I said.
“It’s okay, we go with you."
His answers meant I had to kick them out now or spend some unknown amount of time with them.
"Close the door, let’s go,” I said.
I had been down some roads like this since April, dirty and rutted and roller-coaster steep… dotted lines on a map. You arrive at camp tired from a day of sitting. Every time I promise Donnie it’s his last, but another always seems to find me. So we lurched upward with every washboard trough, and I leaned forward in the cockpit, hoping that a little forward weight would keep this 5,000-pound-bread-basket from flipping backward end-over-end.
We shouted because that’s what you do in a Vanagon, and I heard something about a small town in Quebec. He was studying to be a marine engineer, her a social worker, and they had five days to hitchhike to their flight home. They weren’t worried about making it, the Road had taught them to put complete faith in strangers and the other forces that exist out here; I hoped they wouldn’t lose this by the time they were my age.
Leandre built our fire at camp, and I pulled the buckin’ bronco cap off a Pendleton bottle, pretty sure we would finish it but pretty sure it was worth the $27. They reciprocated with Busch beer, the difference 10 years makes I guess.
The liquids loosened the language-barrier, and their eyes got big when I told them the van was all that I owned and I didn’t know when that would end. Somedays this trip feels like a silly aimless Quest searching for something I’ll never find, but most days when I get to thinking about the last 5 months – when I slow down and think about the stack of memories written in my notebooks, I can’t imagine the day this ends.
I think it’s true what’s said about us 20-30 somethings. We are bouncing this way and that, trying to figure It out; we are the beneficiaries of the great wealth started by the Greatest Generation so we could do anything; we are the beneficiaries of its curse, the feeling that we may not want what is wanted for us. We may not be sure exactly what we want, but we’re sure it isn’t more, so we work harder than ever to make less.
Around that flame that made everything right again, we decided that we definitely wanted more cold lakes, warm campfires and smooth skippin’ stones… and when the whiskey ran out and the fireglow on the VW faded, we slept as something more than just driver and hitchhikers.
They could’ve ditched me the next day when we lost 1st gear in 97-degrees on a road where AAA isn’t coming (Donnie’s payback for the previous day). But they didn’t, they stayed with me through my hungry-hot-breakdown-haze, Leandre even helped me rig a solution to the shifting problem. The three of us knew there was only one thing that could clear our heads of this day, so we found the most perfect swimming hole in the whole world, having just come from the most perfect swimming hole in the whole world.
A guy in a small turquoise truck stopped as we dried off at the lake pullout. He was doing a lap of BC from his home in Revelstoke and was hot because he didn’t have A/C either. I told him the Quebecers were my hitchhikers and he responded, “The best way to travel.”
I remember thinking the T came way too soon – ten minutes later down the road – that T that indicated our end. “Well, this is it for now,” I said, unable to produce anything more profound. Sofie and Leandre repacked their bags and turquoise truck guy passed us with a spirited honk, still shirtless and wet from his swim. We hugged and I watched them walk away, south on 97 to an unknown future.
Before they even got their thumbs out, I heard them scream… “He’s back!!” I didn’t understand ‘til I stepped in front of the van and saw turquoise truck guy unpacking to make room for the two. I spun a U-turn and looked at their new chauffeur, “These are two good ones,” I said… “and I suppose it’s time I leave my family now.”
I trailed off North with three beeps, and they laughed at the pitch of my horn – they always laugh at the pitch of my horn. The 2.1L engine putt-putt-putted off the high-desert grassy hills. I moved the stick from 2nd to 3rd and wondered how many times over the next 29 hours they would start over.