New Year’s Eve Guests: A practice in listening to my instincts

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Book CoverI spent the few days before New Year’s Eve (NYE) up in Northwest Arkansas helping move a dear friend and visiting another. I wanted to return to Little Rock before dark so that I missed some of the more insane NYE drivers. The roads were wet as we’ve had a fair bit of inclement weather the last week, so I was taking my time. I am the type of person who gets internally shaky and angry when I’m hungry, which another friend calls it “hangry”. I was somewhere in Conway County when my hunger meter struck near empty and I stopped at a gas station to empty my bladder and refill my belly: my car was not in need of any attention other than a good cleaning.

As I got off the exit in the rain that was picking up tempo, I saw what appeared to be a young man and woman across the road thumbing a ride at the onramp to I-40 East. A few months ago just outside Ithaca, I gave a young man a ride to SUNY Cortland who had been hugging the road through a “kick, push, coast” (“Kick, Push”, L. Fiasco, 2006) process on his skateboard alongside the road lugging a backpack on his journey to visit his girlfriend. These two, over 1000 miles away and many months later, reminded me of him and I made note of their presence. As with the young man in Cortland, NY, these two had my gut urging me to reconsider my ban on picking up hitchhikers.

After the stop at the gas station and an even heavier rain, I got in my car and turned the ignition. I turned over my left shoulder to see the two of them, heads down, and trying to shield themselves from the heavy rain. I took a deep breath, turned my car off, and crawled over the center console with my keys to unlock my seats so I could fold them down and relocate my belongings strewn across the backseat into the trunk. This took a bit of effort as I didn’t want to get out into the cold rain and haul my things around the car. I resettled into the driver’s seat, turned the ignition and pulled out of the gas station.

I slowly turned the corner along the shoulder to the onramp for I-40E and took an initial assessment to re-check my gut that had continued to urge me to help. These hitchhikers were two young white folks in their early to mid-20s carrying two large bags and each had a smaller bag. I rolled down my window and asked them where they were headed. The man was thin and about 5’11” to 6’0″ and wearing a dark flat-rimmed ball-cap that had a red giraffe on a skateboard and covered his short mousy hair. He was carrying a blue cross-country backpack larger than his torso and wider than his frame; he told me, “Tennessee,” as well as the city, which I’m not sure whether it was Knoxville or he was more specific at that time. I told them I could get them to Little Rock. They said that any progress would be more than they had made so far.

I asked them to put their items in the trunk of my car (and kept my car locked in the meantime), and popped the trunk. Since they trusted me to not drive off, I figured that was a good start. The man came back around, I had since unlocked my car door and the woman was getting into the front passenger seat, and he asked through the window if he could put his gear on my backseat since there wasn’t room in the trunk any longer. Knowing just how much I have in that small Honda trunk, I told him it wasn’t a problem and to just get out of the rain.

They entered the car and thanked me as we started off along the road and said that they had begun to consider calling it a day. It was still a little light out, but fading with the haze of the rain. They had been trying to get a ride for about three hours, I think. I blasted up the heat and recommended they open up their jackets and take their gloves off – being a Northerner, this was a strategy with which I’m quite familiar. The woman sitting beside me now quickly started doing so. She was an average athletic build and just a little taller than I am, so about 5’6″. Her bright neon green puffy jacket was soaked and she clearly was no longer warm, though her curly and tangled sun-streaked locks were dry as she had a hood up that kept her a little drier than she would otherwise be.

As we drove along, I asked them how they had landed to where they were and why they were hitchhiking. They told me that they had been on their way from California (Sacramento area, where I also lived at one point in my life) to visit her family in Colorado and their car broke down. They had to leave the car and find their way to her family. The cadence of her voice reminded me of another friend I know from California who now lives in DC.  Their initial trek, I later learned, was Eastward for him to cash in his “nest egg” somewhere in TN as a way to continue to provide for his five-year old son he affectionately called “Bud”.

They had been hitchhiking across the country since Colorado Springs, where I also have connections, and met some interesting people – I’m still hoping that the woman writes a blog about their trip. She is at least on Facebook and has been taking notes of their journey. It apparently took them three days to get across Texas (not a surprise) and they had been stuck in one place for three days. They rode with truckers, as well as non-big-rig folks and she stated that there are some folks they conversed with and others they just listened to, but all of it had been interesting.

The conversation maneuvered toward the environment, politics, and our duty to one another and I learned within the first 30 minutes that I was with kindred spirits. I asked their names and we had a formal introduction. A was the woman and C was the man – I’ll add their actual first names should I get permission to do so. As we approached Maumelle, which is just outside Little Rock, I asked them if they would be interested in having a home-cooked hot dinner while they dried off and that I would take them to a larger truck stop afterward. They agreed enthusiastically.

I called my mom and left a message with her boyfriend so that she knew to make enough food for an additional two mouths.

As we drove through downtown LR, C commented that he really liked the layout of the city and the feel of it. I later came to learn that he is not a city person and prefers to have a surrounding of trees as cities make him feel a bit agitated and disconnected, so this was quite the statement from him. They were both quite impressed and surprised by the city and its beauty and size – even amidst the light fog created by the warm Arkansas River water and the cool night air.

We arrived to my apartment complex and headed indoors. My mom and her BF didn’t know who the two extra mouths were, so there was a bit of surprise, but definite welcome/acceptance for the unanticipated dinner guests. I got A set up for a shower with a clean towel and an invitation to use whatever soap or hair products she needed. The same was offered for C, but he declined. “A” was definitely excited to clean up.

We were likely at my apartment for two hours or more before we were done with dinner – mom’s meatloaf, some green bean casserole, broccoli, scalloped potatoes, and rolls – and ready to head along the road. They were dry, well-fed, and wearing dry socks (and one pair to spare in their bags), some of which were gifted to me by my bestie before I left Syracuse. Remembering just how wet A’s jacket was, I gave her my powder blue Columbia skiing jacket to keep her warmer and gave C a very toasty (and large on me) Carhartt zip-up hoodie to layer under his coat.

My mom came with me to the truck stop where I dropped them off. We pulled into the Pilot off exit 161 of I-40E in AR at about 7 or 730pm and immediately I had my doubts that they would be able to get a ride. There were two state police vehicles in the front of the building – one of which had an officer in the passenger seat who was eyeing them as they unloaded their items from my car.

I had written down my email address and my cell phone number and gave it to A before we left my apartment. When we arrived at the Pilot and got them unloaded, I asked her to call me around 5am if they had not received a ride by then. We exchanged hugs and my mom and I went back to the apartment.

A and C were on my mind and with it being so cold, I was at least thankful that they had a building to wait in and look for a ride. I had considered inviting them to sleep on my floor and start again in the morning, but my brain often overrides my gut and I didn’t quite push my hospitality that far.

Just after 6am, I received a phone call from an AR number. “A” was on the other line and asked if she had woken me. She informed me that they hadn’t been able to find a ride and that with the police presence, they wouldn’t be able to since they can’t ask anyone outright and can’t hold up a sign.

The previous evening I had found a ride-share website and checked it to see if anything new had come up, which it hadn’t. The night before, I had also searched Greyhound and found a 6am bus that they could have taken. Knowing that it was now past that time, which was why I had asked A to call by 5am, I searched their site again and found a 10am bus to Knoxville, which is where they had their first planned stop. I asked her if they wouldn’t mind taking the bus. She agreed and I collected their last names, booked their tickets, and told her I would come and pick them up within the hour.

My mom came along with me again and we got them from the Pilot. They had been hanging out in the small laundry facility for the truckers at the back of the building just left inside the building at the truckers’ entrance. I waited for them as they packed up their gear and waited for A to clean up a fresh coffee spill resulting from too many micro-shots of caffeine.

We loaded up in my mom’s car (heated seats sounded good that early in the morning) and  headed on our way. I asked them if they were hungry and offered breakfast before their travels. They agreed that food sounded good – my mom and I were going to go anyway. I drove downtown to North Little Rock where the bus station is located and searched a bit for the station. After finding the station after a bit of effort, we ventured out to find a Waffle House – my breakfast favorite down south.

We settled into the Waffle House – again, after a bit of searching – and were graced with a very peppy, yet heartbroken, waitress, Cali. Of course, I inquired and she shared that her husband had just left her the night before (New Year’s Eve, folks… ugh) for a 20-something. She was a gorgeous woman and I could tell that this was not just her outward appearance. When my mom was cashing out, I told Cali that her assignment was to do at least one good thing for herself each day. Upon our exiting, she came around the counter and said, “I normally don’t do this” and walked toward us and gave my mom and I a hug. I plan to go back and see her.

Close to 9am, we arrived back at the Greyhound station and the rain had temporarily let-up. A and C unloaded their items from my car and we exchanged hugs again. I asked them to let me know when they arrived, but provided they don’t have a telephone, I’m not sure when I’ll hear from them.

Upon reflection of the whole meeting, I am reminded and shared with them that I had a really crappy summer. I was without a job and only had money to get me through part of the summer. I was fortunate enough to have family (birth and chosen) who helped me out. Their situation could have easily been mine and still could be someday. Those of us who hover at a breaking-even point – or are in a bit of debt – are just one or two bad circumstances from a huge financial challenge. I am not a Christian, I am not religious in any sense, really – unless you count a deep connection to Nature and the Universe – I don’t believe in doing things just because of a “random act of kindness” event; I believe that we are all connected. I believe that it is our duty to treat one another as we would want to be treated and better than we feel we deserve. I believe that this is the only earth we have and that giving others the benefit of the doubt will do us well in the long run. I believe that we can learn a lot about each other and challenge our assumptions if we take the time to ask and listen to another’s story. I believe that it is in our collective best interests to treat one another well and that there would be a lot less grief and pain in the world if we took the time to treat each other as friends we don’t know yet.

May your New Year be filled with opportunities to practice listening to your gut instincts, challenges hard enough to make you stronger and not so hard that you feel overwhelmed, and that you will have enough.

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