Ride From Amarillo
Today I caught a ride from Amarillo, Texas to Gallup, New Mexico. The old geezer that picked me up was a hard case from some place up north. He didn’t talk much at first, but he was friendly enough. Most old guys won’t pick up a hitchhiker these days. I look kinda rough too since I ain’t had a shave or bath in three days. I don’t know what made him stop, but I sure was glad to have lift. It was getting’ hot standin’ on the road with my thumb out.
About 60 miles down the road, the old guy asked if I was hungry. I wasn’t gonna tell him I didn’t have no money to eat, but he said he would be happy to get me a burger or something. So we got off the highway and pulled into a burger joint. It was one of them old kind where someone comes out to your car with a load of food and hangs a tray on the window.
When we headed back on the highway into the setting sun, he finally started to talk to me some. He asked all the same questions everyone asks me. I told him I was just wanderin’ cause I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life yet. Usually I get some sort of lecture about being sensible and finding some sort of career, but this old guy really surprised me because he did just the opposite.
He told me about when he was a young guy, younger than me, he ran off from home during the depression. He said there wasn’t food enough to feed him and he knew if he left his mother would have enough to eat. So he just up and ran off one day. Back then the times were real hard, and no one had much of anything so he took to riding the rails and learned how to survive from one day to the next. He knew what it was like to be hungry and alone, and he sure knew how much he appreciated it when folks would help him out by giving him a meal for doing any sort of work they could find for him. So he figured he owed it to someone to help out anyone who needed a helping hand. That’s why he picked me up, he saw a lot of himself in me and knew it was what he needed to do.
I asked him if he ever went back home after the depression and he said no. He said he got all the way up north to Washington State and found a job at a sawmill. He just stayed on and after a while World War II broke out. He enlisted in the Army and went off to war. While he was gone, his mom died, and all his brothers and sisters scattered during the war. He said he never really knew his dad, he left when he was still a kid. After the war, he went back to Washington State and got a job logging. Then after a while he met a girl and got married. They settled down and had kids, and life went on.
He got real quiet then asked if I could drive for a while. So I got behind the wheel and he dozed off. As I drove west, through a sunset that turned the sky red and purple and the land blue and orange, I thought a lot about how it felt to be alone in a place where I didn’t know anyone. I thought a lot about the old man sleeping next to me and all that he had told me. He had lived a long life, and he had done a lot of things, but he had always remembered those first days when he was alone and scared and hungry. Those days painted his life in more ways than he had ever imagined they would. Because at 75 years old, he was still trying to pay back all the help he had been given from strangers.
I wondered if I would be trying to pay back strangers my whole life too. I wondered how my mom would feel if I didn’t ever come back home, and she died wondering where I was. And I wondered how I would feel when I was 75. Would I feel a deep need to pay back the ride and meal from an old man who picked me up on I-40 outside Amarillo, Texas on a hot summer day? Deep inside I knew I would find a way to help someone else some day. And I knew I would go home again when I figured out what I wanted.
After a time the old man woke up and we talked through the deep night until we got to New Mexico. He offered to put me up for the night but I said no thanks and he dropped me off at a truck stop. When I got out of the car, he gave me 20 bucks and told me to eat decent meal and get a shower. I went inside and made a call home to mom. She was glad to hear from me, but didn’t nag me to come home. I was glad about that. One thing has been bugging me for a while now. I didn’t think about it until he drove off, but that old geezer never did tell me his name.
I am going to catch some sleep back behind the truck stop. The cook said there was an old building back there I could sleep in. Tomorrow I want to try to make it into Arizona, but if I can’t catch a ride I may try to find some work around here so I can get some money up for the time being.