On my way to Ashley National Forest two Sundays ago, I stopped for gas and Gatorade at an Exxon on I-80. After I finished buying my supplies and using the restroom, I sat in my car with my windows rolled down (because no A/C), checking and replying to emails (because no internet access in the National Forest), and listening to Ira Glass’ “This American Life” on NPR (because it’s an awesome program).

I was aware of my surroundings enough to notice an older gentleman sit down at the picnic table that was set up directly in front of my car. And it was like he had a shark’s 6th sense of electricity, because when I put my phone down to hit the road again, he was up, moving towards my driver side window, waving.

“Hi there!” he said.

“Hello!” I replied.

“Spare some chance for a hitchhiker?”

You now when things happen fast and catch you off guard such that you don’t even process what’s happening in the moment?

I was already riffling through my coin try by the time I said sure.

“Thank you,” he said as I dug for spare change.

“Oh, it’s no problem.”

It was like I was at a tollbooth but I had no idea how much toll I owed. I was just picking up coins, looking at them as if I was counting in my head, and depositing them into my other hand. I was on some strange autopilot.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“West on 80,” I said without hesitation.

“Oh, just came from there.”

Instinctively, I blurted out, “I’m sorry,” as in “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a ride.”

What if I had said East?

“Here,” I said. “I think this is good.” I had no idea how much I handed him, but it couldn’t have been more than $3.00.

I took a good look at him when I handed him the coins. Longer than the glances I’d given him previously. He was about my height, wearing a flannel button down tucked into whitewashed jeans. His five o’clock shadow and long hair he’d pulled into a ponytail were both gray.

“Thank you very much Miss. I’m down to my last cup of coffee.”

Suddenly I was thinking again. It hadn’t clicked to me that this hitchhiker had no means to feed himself. I thought the money was for gas contributions to his driver patrons. So I looked around my car and quickly offered him a bag of chips – blue corn tortilla.

“Thanks, but I’ve got some health issues. Got to stay away from salt.”

“My dad’s the same way, but these are no salt added,” I said hoping he’d take the chips. I really really really wanted him to take the chips. Maybe to make up for the coin debacle. But he said even with no added salt it wouldn’t be good for him.

So he said: “Goodbye! Have a safe trip!” And I said the same. And I rolled away on I-80 West listening to This American Life.

Within five minutes I was mentally banging my head against the steering wheel.

Here’s what I wish I’d done: gone into the gas station convenience store, asked him to pick out something he could eat and drink. I’d buy that and maybe a bag of chips or something for me. Then maybe we’d sit at that picnic table and chat while he waited to find an Eastbound driver. I would ask him about hitchhiking – the pros, the cons, the coolest people he met while doing it. Where was his end destination?

This is the type of thing I wanted to do when I first planned to travel the country: get glimpses into the lives of strangers, people connected only by the loose adhesive that is the term “American.”

I kept driving, but I envisioned the possible amazing conversation I’d missed by driving away, by being too caught up in my initial feeling of “what’s going on, why is this man talking to me, I should leave” to exist in the present of the moment. For a second I considered turning around. But the sun was falling faster and faster and I wanted to be at my destination in Ashley National Forest before it got dark. Maybe it was good I didn’t have a long conversation with him. What if it meant getting lost on my way to the Forest? And maybe he wouldn’t want to dawdle either; he was probably busy looking for his next ride.

There’s really only one thing I regret. I wish I’d looked at him, gave him a firm handshake, and said: “Hi, I’m Erisa. What’s your name?”

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