It was 2 AM on a Saturday night (although some would consider it Sunday morning at that point) in early September in Nevada. I was in a bad spot and really needed some company, so I tossed myself into my car and started up the highway towards J’s work, thirty minutes away. He works in a 24/7 animal hospital as an emergency tech, and it was a quiet night – no emergencies and no coworkers. I would be safe to hang out with him a while and lend a hand where it was needed.
There’s a ten-mile stretch of empty highway between one town and the next. Just as I started down the lonely pass, I spotted a hitchhiker thumbing at the few passing cars. Like everyone else, I drove on, shivering as the night breeze seeped into my bones. Bloody desert – it can pass 90*F in the day and drop below 50*F at night. I don’t like the cold.
The next thing I passed was the sign that said I still had nine miles to go before even glimpsing civilization again. I frowned and thought of the hitchhiker. Nine miles is a long way to walk in the dead of night. I passed a few branching dirt roads where I could have turned around. My thoughts continued to dance around with stress and emotional upset from earlier that evening.
After about three left turn lanes had come and gone, I swung into the next one and rode the brakes to a smooth, swift stop. (Let it be known I love my car for her ability to not send me through the windshield.) I headed back the way I’d come, trying to remember which stretch of highway the guy had been on so I didn’t U-turn too soon. I wound up going back to the north end of town to turn around, just to be sure I didn’t miss him.
As I drove north again, I wondered if I’d find him at all. Maybe he’d gotten picked up already. Not two minutes passed before I spotted him in my headlights, empty hand jutting out.
I pulled over and rolled the passenger’s window down, watching him half-jog, half-run up to my car. He stooped down to peek in the window, and I took a glance and a breath to inspect him. He smelled like cigarettes but not alcohol, seemed to be a clean middle-aged man, and had a look of immense relief and gratitude on his face. I invited him in.
He collapsed into the seat, thanking me profusely, and I pulled back onto the highway. “Where ya headed?” I asked.
“Oh, I dunno. Utah. Maybe Colorado,” he replied.
I blinked. “Uh. I’m headed into south Carson, but I could get you as far as the north end… Probably not farther than that, though.” A pause. “What takes you out there?”
He asked to be dropped off in the middle of town, where this road intersects with an east-west highway. It would take me a little ways past my destination, but I didn’t care. Helping someone who seemed like he needed it was easing my internal turmoil, and I had no regrets about lost time.
The hitchhiker introduced himself, interspersing his sentences with continued thank-yous, and said he was leaving everything behind him. Twenty years at the same job and in the same marriage, a house in a nice suburb (ironically, where J and I live) and a couple of cars. He brought nothing with him – no phone, no cards, no cash, no supplies. He’d left just a few hours ago and had been walking ever since.
He was done, he said, just done with it all. “I’m not afraid,” he told me. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going to start a new life from scratch. And I know I can do it.” He spoke with intelligence and clarity, and agreed with my observation that he probably should have gotten some cash from the ATM on his way out, but he had no regrets. I advised him to avoid trying to walk across Utah – that state is even more dry and barren than Nevada. He mentioned going to Canada as a possibility, and we talked about roadtrips (of which I’ve done many) and the crazy turns that life sometimes takes.
When we got to the intersection of highways, I pulled over at a gas station. “Hang on, bud, I have somethin’ for you,” I told him, parking and popping my trunk. I handed him the sleeping bag I kept in there – only used once – and a nice brown jacket that my dad had given me not a month earlier. It fit him much better than it did me.
He was surprised, and grateful, and told me that karma would repay me for this. I smiled and said I knew it would.
“Can I hug you?” he asked, and I nodded. We hugged and I wished him the best of luck, and I watched him walk east as I got back into my car.
Life as adventure. You always have a choice to change what you don’t like – and a choice to do some good.