At the entrance to the travel store near an I-5 interchange in Redding Ca., where the young girl had stood minutes before, was big, stocky man. Whether propelled by guilt for not offering the girl a lift or kicking my own butt for missing an opportunity for a look into another’s life, I walked over to him.
Close up he was not as imposing as he first seemed. His short gray hair peeked from the edges of his tiny, dark blue, short-brimmed cap. A sewn-on patch proclaimed “NBC Olympics 2000.” His face had as many decades of furrows as my own. I learned his name was Mike and he wanted to go to Bakersfield.
He’d been in Olympia, Washington where his 15-year old car developed terminal low-oil pressure and had gone to Minivan Heaven. The four hundred dollar bus ticket back to Kansas was a couple hundred dollars too big a whack to his wallet so he was heading for Bakersfield, 400 miles warmer and 200 dollars closer to home. He’d been in the truck stop since yesterday afternoon and slept the night in the trucker’s lounge.
After warming up Jolly Swag’s little diesel, we pulled out of the truck stop, crossed the overpass, and rounded left onto I-5’s southbound ramp where a youngish man stood with a khaki duffel bag and a cardboard sign, “Reno.” I drove a couple of coach-lengths past, stopped and turned to Mike.
“Shall we pick him up?” I asked.
“Up to you,” he said. “If you do, I got your back.”
I opened the door to a big smile with a silver tooth in the middle of it.
“Anthony”, he said. “And I sure appreciate you stoppin’”
“Hop in.” I said. “I got another hitcher here. This is Mike, he was here first and got the seat in first class, and I am AL, and today I am running my own private bus line for hitch hikers.”
Anthony sat on the settee behind the driver’s seat and we settled in for the 200-mile slog to Sac. We learned Anthony was from Jacksonville, Fl. and had hitched to Seattle for a job as a welder that didn’t pan out. Now he was heading for Reno to get out of snow country. He did not react when I told him Reno got snow.
There wasn’t anything in Florida for Anthony except 13-17% unemployment. No parents and a brother he’d lost contact with long ago.
Neither did he have any prospects for work in Reno. Dishwashing was his best idea. Anthony sagged in the settee and crashed.
We drove on in silence and I decided to engage Mike.
He’d been a painting contractor, a skill he learned from his father. He was able to raise four kids and now had grandkids coming along, ten of them. Now at 66 he was living on his $720.00 social security check plus an occasional job from an old customer. There was no complaint in his story.
Mike lived in his 12’x70’ 3-bedroom mobile home. His youngest son, son’s wife and their kid moved in when he lost his job. His son was working now but Mike wasn’t going to ask them to move on.
“We have enough space. They help with the bills and she’s a great cook. I like havin’ them there, especially when I want to go away for a while.”
We drove on until it was time for me to recycle my morning tea. I pulled in to a rest stop and asked the guys to step out of the motorhome while I was away from the coach. They agreed quickly.
There was a dump station where I could unload my waste tanks. The guys offered to help me but I had the routine down so they stood in the sun and jawed away while I attended to my 15-minute chore.
Once underway Mike asked for a piece of paper and said, “Anthony, I’m writing down my address, if you get to Kansas, you got a place to stay and three squares a day.”
We drove on and as we neared Sac, Mike volunteered he knew of a truck stop near the intersection of I-5 and I-80, the major eastbound interstate toward Reno. There we dropped off Anthony with a couple of energy bars from my larder. Mike gave him a half-package of beef jerky.
“I really appreciate the ride. You guys helped me a lot.”
Mike and I drove into Sac and found the Greyhound terminal. As he left, I said. “That was generous, what you said to Anthony.”
“If he gets to Kansas, he won’t be hungry. Thanks for the ride.”
He was gone and I was left with two mental snapshots of Mike and Anthony.