The Kindness of Strangers

Sometimes a perfect stranger can save you from your own unaware foolishness.  When I was 19 and just finishing my first year of college, I decided I needed a summer adventure.  It was 1973.  I wanted to go to Farmington, New Mexico to see a cousin.  I had no car—and not much money, so, clever girl that I was, I discovered a ride service with the University of Minnesota that hooked up wanna be travelers with people going somewhere.  I found two veterinary students who were going to Albuquerque.  The price was right—we would share gas and expenses.  I would get to New Mexico—and they would cut costs.

The trip was fun.  The girl was a bit on the neurotic side and wouldn’t let anybody share her bed in the motel room the first night out.  That left me either sleeping with the driver—a guy—or crashing on the floor.  I chose the guy—a perfect stranger.  We survived the awkward sleeping arrangements without incident and drove all through the next day.  We arrived in Albuquerque about 8:00 in the evening.

This is where my fine plan went to pieces.   For lack of a better plan, I had the students drop me off at a truckstop on the north edge of the city.  I had no idea how I was going to get from Albuquerque to Farmington—a distance of 200 miles.  That famous New Mexico sun was fast dropping in the brilliant sky and I was left with two choices.  Spend the night in the truckstop—or hitchhike.  Earlier, the idea of hitchhiking had not worried me.  Now, going on 9:00 at night, alone in a city that almost proudly claimed to have  one of the highest crime rates in the nation, I didn’t feel so brave.  In fact, I was terrified.  Would  I walk out on the road, stick out my thumb, at disappear forever into the New Mexico night?  Do I sit in the truckstop all night and find my bravery by the morning light?

I overheard two truck drivers discussing the route to Farmington and decided to take my chances.  I asked them if they would give me a ride.  One of the guys was older, like my father, and the other one was probably in his thirties.  They agreed to take me and so I climbed into the giant semi truck and we were off.

The drivers were not supposed to carry hitchhikers, so they asked me to sit back in the sleeper cab.  All was well until the younger of the two men said he was “tired” and climbed into the back with me.  That’s when the trouble began.  I don’t think “tired” is what he was.  The guy was all over me.  I felt trapped, frightened—and in danger.  “No” did not seem to mean anything to this man.  Finally I popped my head out and asked—no begged—the other driver to let me sit up front.

“Come on up—just keep your head down.” He said.  I was so relieved I nearly broke into tears.  I jumped away from the octopus and slid down into the front seat.  The older guy—I wish I could remember his name—really did remind me of my father.  He asked me friendly questions about where I was from and where I was going.  We passed the time in the dark cab in a friendly way.  I heard nothing more from the man in the sleeper cab—thank god.   When we stopped to gas up, the older man came out of the truckstop with a hamburger and a coke—“Figured you might be hungry” he said.  He didn’t scold or preach—we just talked.  We both knew I had just dodged a bullet.  When we got to Farmington, he let me out with a little warning—“Be more careful next time.”

That was the beginning of my own “summer of love”.  And that was just the first of several dangerous corners I painted myself into.  The crazy part is that I survived it and by fall I was back in college with more determination than ever to finish college and not end up dead in a ditch, in jail, or wandering around in a stupor.  I had seen the dark side and was in need of a little light.

(This was written as a commentary piece for KAXE FM Radio.  To hear the commentary, visit our favorite station at KAXE.org and click on the Between You and Me program.)

 

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