Last weekend I made a quick trip to northern New Mexico, where my sister was working on renting her house.
Normally, I enjoy driving alone, but, tired of my thoughts and my driving, I decided to pick up a hitchhiker just south of Questa (which is just south of the New Mexico border, on HWY 522).
He and his plastic bag entered my car. We introduced ourselves, at which time, while shaking Daniel’s right hand I saw how freshly bloodied his left hand knuckles were. A little blood seemed to be pooling in some of the torn skin.
“Your hand looks pretty painful.”
“Yeah, man. Last night, it was alright, you know what I mean?”
Not knowing, I asked, “You get in a fight?"
"Yeah, you know.”
“In a bar?”
“Yeah, this dude came up and hit me from behind just ‘cause I was talking to his lady. But he was fat, and I hit him good.”
“Sorry, sounds painful.”
“Yeah, you know what I mean, but it’s ok.”
He directed me off to the west, toward his house. We were just north of Taos. This road, out in the country, had speed bumps about every ¼ mile, which would be annoying if you were trying to go 60 on a 25 MPH road (hitting a big bump every 15 seconds). Even the coyotes and the jack rabbits would be safe on this road.
He opened his bag and offered me a beer, one of his 16 ounce cans. While I enjoy some types of beer too much, this wasn’t one of them, and, besides, it seemed like a really bad idea to let him serve me while driving (over speed bumps at that). He understood, saying, “don’t ever get 4 DUIs, ’cause they will put you in prison.” That seemed like irrefutable confirmation. After I declined, I told him I’d prefer he wait to get home before opening one for himself. He settled back into his seat, and soon was home, thanking me and giving me directions to Blueberry Hill, a back way toward Taos.
After passing through Taos, I saw another man hitchhiking. He was on a cell phone, standing in front of a gas station, and waving to a man in the station, when I stopped a few feet before him. He looked at me through the windshield, and he looked longer than I expected, as though he was either trying to verify that I was truly waiting for him or trying to identify me.
Fred or Freddie got in with his back pack. Fred was closer to my age than was the youngster Daniel. This part of the highway (which had turned into HWY 64 while I was driving up Blueberry Hill) is on a plateau, with the Rio Grande gorge to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. I commented how much I loved northern New Mexico.
“I want to buy some of the mountains. I love to respect people and the environment.”
“Good!” I said, thinking that I wish I could buy part of a mountain.
“Yes,” he continued, “and I’d put some sky scrapers up. And maybe some dams.”
I said I had never thought of sky scrapers in the area. Did I hear him right?
“Yep. I love the Dallas look.”
We moved onto the subject of his truck, which he said was a 1973 pickup, and a week ago it had broken down at mile marker 22 (which we would later pass). It had blown a piston. But more to my surprise, it had been stolen a few days ago and remained at large.
Something he said made me think he had been in the military, so I asked him. But, no, instead he had been in the state pen, long ago. I said that there might be some similarities between the two experiences.
Around then, he pulled some Vicodin out of his pocket and offered it to me, which I declined, but he took one for a bad knee which, he said, was the only reason he took it. I believe that to be the case. Then, wanting to give me something, he said he had a fifth of Vodka in his backpack. No. Seeing he needed a new tack, he gave me a color, printed card, with a painting of the Virgin Mother, with a narrative of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and a small metal seal.
I did not read the narrative while I was driving, but glanced at it before giving the card to my sister, whom I met later that day.
Meanwhile, as we drove closer to Espanola (Fred’s destination), he said, “I bless you. I bless you, your wife, your children, and your grand children.” That was something I would keep. Hadn’t my life seemed a little devoid of blessings, and wasn’t that, in fact, one reason it seemed no big risk to pick up hitchhikers that day? Come to think of it, where was my wife, or, for that matter, my grand children? And where were my children, at that moment, alright? Yes, bless me, Fred.
“I do need and want that,” I said, and thanked him fully. In turn, I could not think of anything so grand as what he had said to me, but instead told him I hoped that for starters his knee would get better, knees being so important. He said it would be better soon, and that, in fact, he was planning on skiing in two weeks.
When we arrived in Espanola, he wanted to buy me a soft drink, but accepted the fact that I needed to be on my way, and so he got out just before I drove across the river.