The highway was empty. As though everyone knew this lonely stretch was always empty. And because people know driving down a long, cold winter road gives way to deep thinking, people avoid it like they sometimes avoid each other. Opting instead for the busy thoroughfares. Opting instead for busy texting. Busy music. Busy mochas.
The forest of naked trees swayed all around me. I raced along at a good clip, but they seemed to be following me. Spring was still just an idea to them. A memory whispered about.
Lumbering alongside the road in his black and red flannel, he caught my eye. I hit the brake and pulled to the shoulder. I wasn’t at all expecting him. Obviously. No one ever makes plans to pick up a hitchhiker. But for some reason, the instant I saw him, I knew. I must give this man a ride. The entire purpose of my driving up this small North Carolina highway was, in fact, to give this hitchhiker a lift. This was my thought. Though, strangely, it didn’t feel like I intentionally chose to think it. But it surely was in my mind. Planted there by something. Some force. That, I was sure of.
The grass was tall, and I pushed it down with the nose of my car as I came to a stop. I waited. It was silent, save for the cold wind that slipped in through the open passenger window, curiously inspecting all the bits of food and dirt under my seats—inspecting my ankles with frigid fingers. A semi-truck roared past, parting the grasses, leaving my small car rocking in its wake.
Normally, when a hitchhiker sees a stopped car ahead, he will increase his pace as he walks up the road. As if to say, “Hey! I see you I’m coming! Please do not drive away like the last guy!” The sight of an unexpected stranger willing to offer a lift is a great relief. It ignites confidence in the gut. It restores belief in the world.
This guy did the opposite. He walked slower. I watched his tiny figure in the rear-view mirror. The grasses coming up to his knees. He seemed to be very far away. For a second I thought he might be standing still. Is he? Throwing my arm over the passenger seat, I craned my neck and gazed over my shoulder. I squinted my eyes to summon that telescopic vision that seems to come with tightened eyelids. He is! Shit, something’s wrong with his leg. I threw it into reverse and gunned it all the way back to him.
“Need a ride?” He gave an exhausted nod, and collapsed into the passenger seat. A thousand things about him hit me all at once. First was the sour smell. Days of perspiration and grime were soaked into his blue jeans, turning them dark. Dried salt shown on the collar of his undershirt.
“Your leg ok?”
“It’s just a little sore.”
The stench filled the cabin. I could taste it. I remember inhaling it once before. In the third phase of Ranger School—the swamp phase. Our continuous exercise—the endless marching, endless running, endless buddy-carries, endless push-ups for weeks on end—had caused all our fat to burn away. And with our food rations limited, all that remained for the body to consume was muscle. The stench of burning muscle stings the nostrils like vinegar. Of course, we got used to it, but the R.I.’s reminded us that we smelled like stale dog shit every time they got stuck downwind.
As we pulled back onto the empty highway, I rolled up the windows, keeping them cracked just slightly. My intention was not to embarrass him, and I think he was grateful, clearly aware of the odor. I wanted to say, “Hey buddy, I get it. No big deal.” But I didn’t. I also wanted to keep him warm. He was at not at all dressed for the biting cold outside.
The second thing I noticed was his frame. He was incredibly skinny, as though he had not eaten is days. He was also very old. I guessed 70. Long ago the sun had burnt off all the hair on his scalp, leaving only some around the sides—a ring of greasy tangles that twisted like thin wire threads. His face was worn and wind-beaten, like an old saddle you might find hanging in one of those collapsing red barns that drifted past us. Aimless red ghost ships in rolling brown, winter seas.
All he owned was a small black backpack. It contained twelve pairs of fresh socks and a hoodie for colder weather. He told me.
“So, where you headed?”
“Maine, like the state Maine?”
“You know that’s like a thousand miles away.”
He looked sheepishly at his wet boots.
“I can get you as far as Boone. That knocks off at least a hundred miles.”
We shook. His hand was disproportionately large compared to his frail body. His grip was frim, like he was taking hold of a plumber’s wrench. His fingers were rough like coarse stone. He sat erect, and in great pain. From the moment he entered the car, I picked up on a very heavy vibration. An atmosphere of suffering, and a life full of unfortunate tragedy surrounded him like a thick fog. When we shook, I felt this pain travel up my forearm and into my lungs—they tightened immediately.
It was clear he was trying his very best to be an excellent passenger. He touched nothing, kept his large hands cupped around his small, knobby knees. He even kept his back from touching the seat. I got the feeling he had been kicked out of many cars, and was doing all he could to not to get dropped off again. He only responded when spoken to.
Herold was coming from a shipyard in Louisiana. A diesel engine mechanic, he’d been laid off. Through the grape vine, he caught word that there was work in the shipyards up North, ‘roundabout Maine. When he was younger serving in the Navy, work was easy to find. It was simply assigned to your unit. You never had to go looking for it. But he hadn’t been in a Naval shipyard in decades. Things had changed.
“You know it’s snowing up there, right?” He breathed in deep, releasing a heavy sigh.
The rain came suddenly. A volley of icy water struck the windshield as though we had just driven through a beaded curtain. Herold pulled himself deep into the seat and looked over the top of his fogged lenses at the darkening sky.
After a long silence, punctuated only by thunder, I spoke. “You got any family up there?”
“Got any family back in Louisiana?”
“Just my little brother. He died though.”
I nodded. Acknowledging this loss.
All too often, a conversation that dips deep enough to touch death, is then hastily redirected. Aimed up toward some superficiality. Some trivial glitter that can be tossed on the open wound.
I say this, because shallow conversation does not interest me. I don’t care to waste time picking at the bark, when I know in the core of every tree, there is rich heartwood.
An example: A week ago, I moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I met a girl and she invited me out to a riverside restaurant. She was outside, at the small bonfire, standing with her two friends, holding their two beers.
“That place has the best tacos.”
“Oh I know. You know who has really good fish tacos? That new place that opened up by where Vinny used to live.”
“Yes. They do this thing with the sauce. I can’t even describe it.”
To be honest, I didn’t care to hear her try. It’s not that I was denigrating their taco talk, I’m not interested in polemics. I’m just not satisfied with picking at twigs, or bark, or even sapwood. We, all of us, you, will be dead in less than one hundred years. I am in search of heartwood. Which is why I kindly excused myself and went home to meditate.
“Aw, ok. Well, welcome to Asheville!”
It is for this reason that I asked the next question:
“Herold. What do you think happens?…when he died. What do you believe?”
My eyes remained on the road, but I could feel Herold turn and examine the side of my cheek. One might have thought he was taking detailed note of the stubble lining my jaw, but I knew he was looking deeper. Finding what he needed to satisfy him, he returned his gaze to the road.
“I think he protects me.”
“Makes sense to me. How?”
“He gives me little hints. Little signs. A leaf dropping at the exact moment I have a thought.”
He traced the slow, slipping path of a descending leaf through the air in front of him.
“Sometimes a street light will go on, or burn out. And I know it’s him saying go this way, or don’t come here, it’s not safe. Or don’t ride with this person. Or yes, this person is good.” His said all this without taking his eyes off the distant haze of blue-grey mountains. I got the feeling he could see something I couldn’t.
The next logical question was to ask if his brother had given him a sign regarding me. Yet, neither of us spoke. A mild tension filled the space between us. Both of us feeling the question had to be answered.
“You got a good car,” Herold said, tapping the dash.
I smiled. One listening to our conversation might have assumed we were talking about cars.
With that, he began to nod off. His heavy eye lids, weary with exhaustion, closed. His neck curled forward, inching its way toward his scrawny knees. I kept anticipating his silver wire spectacles would slip down his nose at this increasingly extreme slope, but they never budged. A deep wrinkle on the bridge of his nose securely held them in place. The way that an old oak, growing tight against a barbed wire fence, eventually pulls the wire into itself—so that a child may stop and wonder how the rancher was able to magically thread the line through the trunk.
As Herold’s spine rounded, and his head lowered, the nerves on the back of his burnt neck reached that critical point of stinging strain, and he jerked awake, looking immediately to the racing yellow ribbon dividing the two-lane road.
“You know, I have a bed in the back. I took out the back seats and installed this platform thing. The mattress is six and a half feet long. Plenty of room. Real comfortable.”
“You sure? We still got at least an hour.”
He took one hand in the other and squeezed like he was wringing out an old wet rag.
“Yeah, cool. I was just…you know, if you’re cold I can turn the heat up, or down. Whatever you need.” I let my hand hover over the dial, awaiting instruction. It never came. I returned my hand to the steering wheel. He returned to sleep. I reached back and grabbed a pillow off the bed.
“Hey Herold. Here.”
He accepted the pillow. This made me happy. A joyful, peaceful feeling arose in my thighs and surged up through my torso, warming me. His snoring relaxed everything. Even the pressed pavement seemed to soften.
I did all I could to keep the ride as smooth as possible. I gently eased up hills, and coasted down through valleys. I slowed before turns, and gently sped up over river bridges to absorb the concrete seams with the acceleration. And all the while, I kept my attention acutely focused. Split with equal parts on the road, and on my breathing. My intention was to create the most peaceful space for Herold. There was no telling when he might be afforded another armistice.
Though I did all this, I felt that there was something different I was supposed to be doing for him. But I didn’t know what. This feeling arose the same way the instinct to immediately pull over had arisen. My little sister, who I was driving up to visit, sent me a text.
On your way?
Yup! Runnin’ a little late. Picked up a hitchhiker.
You did not!
I snapped a photo of my sleeping friend.
Ah. You did!
Climbing higher into the Appalachian Mountains, the winding roads tightened into steep slopes and switchbacks. Herold yawned, and peered out at the storm. We both marveled at the ancient rock outcroppings, flowing brooks and waterfalls.
“You ever been in this part of the world?”
“Yeah, me neither. I’ve been in North Carolina, but not up here.”
“You mind if I roll down the winda?”
“Not at all!”
He took the window all the way down and thrust his head into the rain. Flaring his nostrils, he took deep gulps of mountain air. The rich smell of moss and pine and earth and rain washed over our faces and into our lungs. I felt purified. Pulling his head back inside, he looked at me, a genuine smile of satisfaction sprouting in the corners of his mouth.
“Sure is a lovely place up here.”
Civilization grew around us. A house here. There. Another. Two more. A dozen. An intersection. Stoplights. A coffee shop. Supermarkets.
The rain fell in buckets. The entire town of Boone was cloaked in curtains of water—the evening streetlights, illuminating the billions of drops that fell in glistening, uniformed sheets.
“When I was dreamin’ back there, I was gettin’ feelings that you pickin’ me up, its not at all coincidential. I can’t word it right.”
“I was kinda getting the same feeling, Herold. Hey how long you been traveling anyway?” The light turned red, and we stopped to allow coeds with umbrellas to splash their way through crosswalk puddles.
“To be honest. I’m not sure. I walked all through the night to keep warm. And seemed I walk most all day till you showed.” He pondered deeply and honestly. “Sixty miles. Maybe?”
I shook my head in disbelief. The light turned green, and we followed behind a rusting green garbage truck. Its fat tires sending up spray. My windshield wipers worked swiftly to clear away the film of oozing water.
“Sixty miles!? No wonder you…well your leg. I noticed it seemed to be giving you some trouble.”
“Just my knees really. I been walking for ‘bout two months now. Had nine rides so far. Ten when I count you.”
My mouth began to fall open, but I contained my shock. I’ve picked up many hitchhikers, and often they tell tales that immediately strike one as slightly less than honest. I never really judge. If you’re walking on the side of the road, clearly life isn’t being so kind. And if someone feels the need to contrive a colorful story, that’s fine by me. I say all this because not a single syllable from Herold struck me as insincere or invented. He was honest.
Then it hit me.
“Herold, what size jacket do you wear?”
“Regular, I reckon.” His white beard and mustache veiled any movement of his lips, and I almost though he answered telepathically.
“That’s what I thought.”
As per his request, I found a gas station with a large awning over the pumps, and a Subway restaurant inside. He said he had good luck finding rides at gas stations, and it would also give him a place to stay warm and dry. I pulled to a pump and cut the engine.
“Wait here a second.” I hopped out and opened the trunk. In the back, I grabbed my two jackets. A bright orange Marmot rain jacket the color of a traffic cone, and a navy blue down puffer jacket. Opening his door, I held them out like a salesperson at REI. “Hey, try these on.” After he stretched his legs for a beat, I helped him work his stiff elbows into both jackets. First the liner, then the shell. It was a perfect fit. “Now this one is gortex, so it’s gonna keep you dry from now on. And since it’s orange, it will keep you safer walking along these roads. Cause that’s kinda dangerous. Alright? And when you don’t need that liner, it balls up into a little stuff sack in the pocket. See? Just like that.” I smiled. So did he.
I slammed the door and we walked toward the entrance. Out of nowhere, curiosity came over me, and I stopped mid stride. It was coming from the same strange place. That same instinct that made me pull over hours earlier.
“Herold. How old are you?” I eyed him with playful suspicion.
A fat grin spread over his face, exposing his crooked teeth. His cheeks turned bright red.
“I’m sixty-one. Sixty-one today.”
“Today!? Are you fu— are you serious, Herold? Herold look at me! Today’s your birthday!!?”
He couldn’t contain himself any longer. His face was now as bright as that jacket. He released a warm bellowing gale of laughter.
“Herold! Happy birthday!” I threw open my arms and hugged him right there in the middle of the cars, and the pumps, and the people, and the rain. He stood their awkwardly with his arms at his sides for a moment, receiving this hug as one would expect a grown man would receive a hug from a stranger. But in an instant, he raised his arms and embraced me in a strong, Navy Corpsman bear hug. I stepped back and looked at him, gripping his skinny shoulders, holding him at arm’s length.
“Herold. Do you realize? These are your birthday presents!” I was so elated I was shivering. Partly due to the cold. But the energy of pure joy was almost overwhelming.
“I know. I was thinking that very same thing.”
Inside, I gave Herold one final handshake.
“You take care of yourself. Make sure you get yourself something warm. Meatball sandwich and a coffee or something.”
I got back in my car and worked my way into the yellow headlights of evening traffic. Pulling to the intersection, I sat at the red light—the windshield wipers beating a brisk tempo. One final time, that strange instinct seemed to take hold of my skull. It turned my entire head toward the gas station. Through the window I spotted Herold, sitting in a booth, hands folded in his lap. Why does he have no food? He has nothing to drink. Then it hit me. He never ate or drank anything the entire time he was in the car. Of course. He has no money!
I marched back into that gas station with such confidence and determination, one would have thought I was hotshot powerhouse attorney arriving late for deposition. One who just received damning evidence that would totally crush the opposition. Of course, I know nothing about law, and I’m not sure if that’s something that would actually happen, but that’s how I felt. I grabbed the handle of the door and swung it open with great force.
“Herold, you don’t have any money. I’m gonna give you some money. You’re gonna get yourself some water, and some food, and some coffee, and if you want, a bus ticket. And you can’t say no. It’s your birthday.” I rattled this all off in one breath, calling it over the rows of magazines, and candy, and chips as I strode, chest held high, down the center isle—straight toward the ATM.