During my experiences picking up and being a hitchhiker, I’ve come to realize the strangers getting into the car all have one thing in common: out of gratitude, they feel the need to repay the driver. And usually the only currency they have is stories.
From the obese preacher wearing a three-piece suit in the middle of July, to the mid-30’s man with his cattle dog on the interstate in New Mexico, none of the people I’ve ever picked up rode silently. When, as a backpacker, I was picked up on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the middle of a rainstorm, I too, tried to share stories with my rescuers. Alas, they spoke only German.
The preacher’s car had broken down, and he just needed a lift home. It wasn’t even half a mile, but I was told, “Thank you, son. You just made a fat man very happy.”
The guy outside of Albuquerque introduced me to his dog.
“His name’s Puke.”
“Not in here, mister! This is a Mercedes,” I replied, a quote from the movie Spaceballs.
He laughed hard and climbed into my Honda. Puke jumped into the front floorboard and sat quietly for the hour I took them up the road. I’ve forgotten the man’s name, but I remember how he shared stories of places he’d been, trips he’d taken.
A guy I picked up on a rainy afternoon in eastern North Carolina said he needed to get to Carolina Beach, but would gladly ride as far as I could take him. His destination was an hour out of my way, but without any real schedule for my day, I took him all the way to the main intersection of Carolina Beach before saying goodbye.
When I picked him up, he threw his Army duffle bag between his legs in the front seat. I told him he could use the backseat or the trunk for it, but he said he didn’t want to get my car dirty. He was in his late 40’s and had been sober for two years. In the past, he and his brother had operated a restaurant in Colorado. His brother had been the manager, he was the head cook. But drugs and alcohol had destroyed that partnership and their relationship. Now, two years on the wagon, he had called his brother for help. He was told if he could get to Carolina Beach, he had a job waiting on him at the brother’s restaurant.
“I won’t be lead cook, I know that,” he said with a sad smile. “I’ll probably be line cook or something for a while. I don’t blame him. Why should he trust me?” He patted the duffle bag and grinned. “But I’ve got three weeks worth of clothes and my own kitchen tools. I’m going to show him it’s like it used to be.”
Another time, on a small side road in North Carolina, I picked up an overall-wearing man in his 70’s. He had probably my favorite story. He was born and raised in West Virginia, and as a young man he joined his brother and the rest of the guys in town working for a mining company.
“My job,” he said, “was to crawl through these small tunnels, pulling a cable as thick as my arm. The end of the cable was fastened to a rope. That rope was tied to my waist, and I pulled it as I crawled, my headlamp lighting my way. Since I was in the tunnel all day, I tied my lunch pail to my leg and pulled it along with me.
“One day, I stopped for lunch . . . I ate my sandwich on my stomach, then got my banana out. I peeled my banana and rolled over. Lying flat on my back, my banana touched the roof of the tunnel! That’s when I realized I had to leave. I told that banana, I said, ‘Banana, when I finish eating you, I’m gonna climb out of this tunnel and never come back.’”
He did just that. On the way out, he asked his brother if he wanted to quit with him. His brother said no, and the man just kept walking. He left town the next day.
There’s something in humans that makes us want to repay those who’ve helped us in hard times. And often, in the midst of that hard time, the only thing we have is our stories. If any of the men and women I’ve picked up over the years had offered me money, I wouldn’t have taken it. And I certainly wouldn’t remember now, fifteen to twenty years later, how much they’d offered. Instead, they offered pieces of their lives, pieces of who they were and who they wanted to be. The money I’d forget; their stories will be with me forever.