I picked up my first hitchhiker about five years ago when I was headed to a meeting in Salt Lake City. I’m not exactly sure why I stopped on that particular day. For reasons too long to share, I suppose I’ve always assumed that I was one of the more dangerous individuals in any given space. This assumption, coupled with a healthy disregard for my own fear and nervousness, likely meant I would have stopped for someone eventually.
John must have been close to 70 years old. His beard was a wiry, long tangle of white and black. It looked like he had been working in a field in the same pair of jeans for a few days. When I rolled down the window to invite him into the car, he hesitated to wait for confirmation that I was really offering him a ride. I extended my hand to shake his as he climbed in, and he hesitated again.
His hands were rough, thoroughly scarred and yellowed from the tobacco that I could not help but smell on him. The smell was so strong that I subtly turned up the air in the car a bit higher. We talked about his life. He had an estranged daughter on the other side of the country. He was a laid off factory worker who just never went home. He was making his way west, but would only say that he was going to California. He pointed to an exit after an hour or so, and I let him out. As he got out, he said, “Thanks, and sorry about the smell.” I choked over a few words trying to blow off the apology, and not from the smell, and then offered my hand to him again.
MY SECOND HITCHHIKER
I picked up James on the on-ramp in Eagle a few years later. He was on his way to Frisco to work on a construction site for the week. James wore thick glasses, and each time I turned my head to speak to him in the car, he would keep his eyes forward. He gave short responses to questions, and after nearly 20 minutes together, all I really knew was that he was from Pennsylvania and had a master’s degree in economics. The backpack he carried with him appeared contain mostly clothing, and his toothbrush and toothpaste were in one of the see-through outside pockets. I got off in Avon to get some coffee, and when we pulled into the Loaded Joe’s parking lot, I offered to grab him a coffee also. James said that he was fine. As I got out of the car to go inside, I asked once more if he wanted something. He just held up his hand, turned and looked me right in the eyes and with a nearly forceful tone said, “I’m fine.” When we got back on the road, I turned on some music and focused on driving. I let James off at the first Frisco exit. He muttered a “thanks” as he shut the car door.
Two Argentine guys waved me down on Highway 6 this past winter. I was going from Edwards to Vail. It was nearly 8 p.m., and on learning that I spoke Spanish, we hastily launched into all of the questions on bars and local attractions that they had not yet been able to articulate in English. Argentinean Spanish is among my favorite accents in the world, and I couldn’t help but start adopting their sing-song speaking style as we went into town. I dropped them off next to the Solaris, but before they got out, they said they had something for me. Before I knew it, one of the guys had a small baggie of crystals in his palm. He offered the Molly (an ecstasy derivative) to me, and I proffered a polite decline. He seemed completely devastated by my response, and as they got out, muttered, “Pero yo pensé que ...” I smiled and wished them well as they headed to the bars.
Luke was holding a beat-up cardboard package when I picked him up at the Edwards on-ramp a while back. He climbed into the car with a sense of urgency, gripping the box. The package looked like it had been run over. Luke explained how he had found it on the road and how he was taking it to the auto shop in Eagle-Vail to which it was addressed. I glanced over at the address, and sure enough, that was where Luke was headed. I didn’t get much time to talk to him on account of the short distance, but he smiled and laughed easily. ... That’s what I remember anyway. He waived cheerfully when I dropped him off next to the Big O. I would’ve liked to have seen the rest of that story play out.
Peter was a traveling preacher. He parted his hair down the side, just like I did in my preaching days. He wore a red tie, a white shirt, black slacks and tennis shoes. When he got into my car, his presence was overwhelming. Being an introverted philosopher, I couldn’t help but completely engage in one of the most fun conversations I have ever had on God and religion. At one point, Peter produced the book he was writing. I can’t remember the name exactly, but the cover had flames on it, and it was about some kind of spiritual warfare and how to beat the devil. After asking permission, he prayed for me in the car and offered one of the most kind wishes I have ever heard anyone give a total stranger. I chuckled when he offered to baptize me, pointing out that it might be kind of odd for me to pull over and walk to the river with him. He produced a bottle of water, and after minor resistance from me, said a prayer and then threw a small capful of water in my face while we hurtled down the Denver side of Vail Pass. When he asked for a donation as I dropped him off, I smiled and obliged.
We live in a complex world, full of stories and motivations, but also, fortunately, full of people. Every time I make a little room in the car, seems there’s always a good story to tell.
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He plays, lives, works and is trying to do a little good in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.
Write a column!
Share your insights with the rest of the community. Send your submission to ValleyVoices@vaildaily.com.