The first time I ever picked up a hitchhiker was when I returned from my first trip through Latin America. I had received so many rides, impromptu lodging and all sorts of help along the way, that I figured it was the appropriate time to give back. That is, after all, how this shit works, right?
I was driving from Capitol Hill, headed south to a destination I can't quite remember, and I saw a guy holding a cardboard sign with his right thumb sticking out. I pulled to the side of the off-ramp, and peered over to see his face to make sure he didn't look like someone that would rape and maim my body before I let him in. On very much the contrary, he had one of the kindest faces I'd ever seen. He couldn't have been more than 20.
"Where are you headed?" I asked.
"Portland," he said. "How far south are you going?"
"We'll see," I said. "Get in."
The first thing I told him was why I picked him up, which was basically because of his face. He told me that I wasn't the first person to tell him that. Turns out, he had been traveling for two years on a mission to visit all 50 states, and others like me had helped him based on the sole reason that he had a face that looked trustworthy. Oregon was to be his 49th state, Alaska being the last. His name was Joel, and he had made it thus far on a multitude of ground transport: foot, bike, automobile, but his favorite by far was hopping trains. My guess on his age wasn't too off either. He was 19 and just graduated high school not long ago. He was thinking about going into audio engineering at the college level; the trip was solidifying that decision.
I then went into my own story, about I had spend the last year traveling Latin America on an academic scholarship and all the amazing things that I had seen. I had never done anything as bold as him though. The only time I hitched a ride was in Honduras when I was coming back from the national park in Tegucigalpa.
"Oh man, I always wanted to travel abroad," he said. "No passport though."
"You'll get there soon enough," I told him.
We then commenced on a friendly exchange of stories. He told me a number of anecdotes, all pretty amazing in their own regard, but the one I remember most was this one:
"One time I stopped in this insurance office to stay out of the cold, and I started talking to the receptionist. I told her about my trip, the 50 state mission, and the places I had slept in order to get there. I was maybe a year in. She then told me to wait and went into the back room for ten minutes. When she came back, she took out a piece of paper, wrote some numbers down and said: 'This is your reservation number for the next 2 nights at the Best Western across the street.' I couldn't believe it. I told her there was no way I could accept it, but she told me it had already been paid for and that it shouldn't go to waste. I think I cried right there."
"Wow. That's amazing," I said.
"There are good people in this world," he said.
By this time we were passing Olympia. It was winter, but rays of light streaked through the gray like a river down a mountain, making arbitrary spotlights on the ground below. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I'd ever seen. Joel and I just sat there silently in witness to it, and I realized the reason I had picked up Joel in the first place.
"How far are you taking me?" he asked.
"Eh, I'll just take you the rest of the way," I shrugged.
It was dark by the time we got into Oregon. We pulled into the first diner and I treated him to a meal. He was vegetarian, so he only had some soup and a side salad. I had something along the same lines. Before we parted, I gave him all the money in my wallet, which was about 7 dollars. I apologized for the amount, but he treated it like he won the lottery. I gave him my email and told me to stay in touch, to contact me when he made it to state 50. And that was it. I never saw Joel again.
About 3 months later, I'm sitting at my computer and I get this email from an address I don't recognize. It's Joel. The email is long, but he told me all about his time since we last saw each other. He told me how grateful he was for the ride and that he'll never forget meeting me. I'll never forget the picture he attached with his message. It was a photo of him with two girls in Colombia. I recognized the background. It was Parque Tyrona on the north coast.
"Son of a bitch," I mumbled to myself, "he did it."