The Freest Man I Never Knew

The freest man I never Knew. That’s what I called him, this guy I ran into a few years back, when I was on my way to Mexico. I’d been dropped off in the desert in Southern California, at a place called “Four Corners,” where two highways crossed. I was heading east, even though I was headed south at the time. At the end of a ride, I had just gotten my suitcase and guitar out of the trunk, and was walking over to the far right-hand corner of the intersection—the best place to hitch—when I noticed that the spot had already been taken by another hitchhiker. Bad news. It means you have competition. Now it’s going to be much harder in those two or three allotted seconds, for the driver to make up his mind as to whether or not he’s going to pick up one or the other of you. Only the bravest of motorists picks up two adult males. Only one can ride in the front seat, where the driver can keep an eye on you. It looked like a long wait.

Walking over to a man standing just beyond the intersection, with his suitcase standing next to him, I asked him how long he’d been waiting. “Maybe an hour,” he answered. At a minimum you can figure your time more than doubles when you’re not alone. “Where ya’ headed?” I asked. “East.” East was obvious. Otherwise he wouldn’t be standing where he was. I’m heading to New York,” I told him. “Been there,” he replied. We talked for a little, and it seemed like he’d been everywhere. And then we started talking about the weather. The forecast was for “snow in the mountains near Flagstaff,” Arizona, I told him. I’d heard it on the radio in the previous car. “It gets cold in the desert at night,” I ventured, trying to draw him out a little more. He just nodded. “Guess I’ll wander on down the road a piece,” I said, trying to sound like him. “No point both of us standing here.” That’s protocol. “You get first crack,” I said, quoting the unwritten rules of the road. Then I picked up my guitar and suitcase and started walking further down the highway. After standing for a few minutes, second-slot, the man started yelling at me and motioning me back. “Been thinking about what you said. Don’t like snow. Think I’ll be heading south.” And with that, he picked up his suitcase and walked across the intersection to the highway going south, and stuck out his thumb. His destination? He neither knew nor cared, I decided. Here was a man as fluid as the weather. He’d probably end up in Mexico too. He was the freest man I ever knew.

—From In Search of a Lost Penny, a memoir-in-progress by Bill Raney.

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.