Joe the Hitchhiker.


Picking up hitchhikers in the USA.

A few years ago I went to the USA and bought a small car in Portland, loaded my things and started a three month road trip across the country. My head was filled with stories from people like Krakauer, Bukowski and Kerouac about young intelligent vagabonds looking to go anywhere. I had hitchhiked a lot when I was younger and I felt it was time to repay the favour. I was constantly on the look out for hitchhikers everywhere I went. To my dismay I found almost none. Then one day driving through Arizona on a long haul towards Texas I saw him. He was standing lonely, on the side of the road in the middle of no where. It had just started to rain and I had driven an awkwardly long distance past him before I stopped. I finally got his attention through the rain and he ran up to the car.

Out of breath he opened the back door and asked me where I was going. I said New Mexico and he said perfect and threw his small bag in the back. As he stepped into the car I instantly smelt him and he smelt terrible. Still out of breath he apologised for taking so long to get to the car and that it was because he had some cracked ribs from a fight he was in last night. My heart sunk a little, the smell is never good but starting off the conversation with the revelation of a fight last night is even worse.

He introduced himself as Joe, he put his hand out to shake mine, as I took it I noticed both his hands were covered in tattoos. Most of my friends have tattoos but not patchy old jail looking tatts. He started to tell me how he got jumped at a bar last night by two guys and they had beaten him up pretty badly. He was trying to get to Albuquerque to his sisters place.

We had only driven about 30 or 40 kilometers when I noticed a sign that said don’t pick up hitchhikers in the prison area, I pointed it out and joked about it and he responded “I was in that prison”. Of course you were I thought to myself as I just kind of laughed it off and continued to drive. I had had one or two friends that had been to prison but it was just for stupid things, normally a build up of a few offences. Too many traffic infringements or something similar so I just kind of told myself it was that.

One thing I learnt hitchhiking so much when I was younger was that some people are just lonely and need someone to unload a world of problems onto. I learnt pretty fast not to ask questions and to avoid sensitive topics as best I could. Some of these people could be quite volatile and bringing up sensitive subjects was never a good idea.

We continued to drive and he kept trying to bring up the prison story and I kept trying to avoid it. I was curious of course but I didn’t really want to set him off. Eventually after an hour or so he just blurted it all out with out me being able to stop him.

Joe’s story went like this. He had been released 2 days earlier after spending 8 years in a maximum security prison. He had stabbed someone to death. He said it was in self defence in a fight in a bar but who am I to know how much of the story was true. But after the court proceedings he was sentenced to 8 years in a prison in Arizona. Stabbing is such a brutal way to kill someone and it took me a minute to wrap my head around the thought. After his release the first thing he did was go to a bar where he got in another fight. Now he was in my car smelling bad and sipping out of a bottle in a brown paper bag. I am still not sure exactly what it was but it smelt terrible.

I stopped for petrol. As I was filling up I just kind of laughed to myself. This could not have gone worse really. At the same time it could not have gone any better. If I managed to make it out alive I had just met someone the likes of which I had never met in my life.

After we got back on the road the small talk continued before Joe fell asleep and snored almost the rest of the way to Albuquerque which I was not upset about. I woke him at a highway overpass and told him we were here and that I was not going into the city. He thanked me, shook my hand again where I took one last look at his tattoos and he disappeared.

As I drove on towards Roswell I couldn’t help but smile and continue to keep a look out for any other dark shadows on the side of the road that might have been in need of a lift.

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