Bear Valley, California, three months back. I’m standing on the side of the road 25 miles up highway 4 from Arnold, trying to get to Tahoe for the night and ultimately on my way to Miami. The cool wind riffles through the tall grasses and whips my t-shirt against my skin as I hold my thumb out to passing cars. They fly by without slowing, and I watch the cows wandering through the pastures behind me.
A Toyota idles at the Bear Valley Village entrance, and after a few minutes I hear horn beep. A hand waves at me through the sunroof. I jog across the street to the car and peer into the window, smiling. An elderly woman is clearing off the passenger seat, and I toss my bag into the back and hop in.
“I’ll share my car with you, but not my sandwich!” She jokes as she takes a bite. We laugh, and she pulls onto 4. Her name is Kathi; she’s on her way home to Minden, NV. She drives in a remarkably cautious manner as we ascend the sheer cliffs towards Ebbett’s Pass (8730 ft.). With huge RVs barreling towards us and a hundred foot drop a few inches to my right, I am grateful for this.
After the introductory formalities of where we’re going and where we’ve been, Kathi tells me that she’s only picked up two other hitchers in her life. One was around Lake Tahoe, where everyone including her sons used to catch rides to work; the other was in New Zealand. Maybe that’s why she picked me up. But she just had a feeling, she says, so she went with it. The initial trepidation that two strangers feel when interacting in so deeply stigmatized a setting quickly evaporated as we fell into conversation. She was grateful for the company on treacherous roads, she would later tell me, and my gratitude for both the ride and the kindness was of course beyond explanation.
She talks about her carefree days living in Northern Montana. Actually, she reflects, the carefree days aren’t over at all. Which makes sense to me—she seems full of joy. We discuss travel; she tells me about her trips through Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana. She dreams of visiting Namibia. I tell her about Semester At Sea.
I disclose my fears about relationships being perhaps at odds with travel and freedom. Then she tells me about Bob, her husband of 48 years. I listen as she describes the way they trust and support one another. They travel together occasionally, but they also take frequent independent trips. She traveled to New Zealand by herself, Bob went on a fishing trip to the Amazon with the kids. They simply avoid jealousy and choose to fully support each other. “Dave,” she says as she pats my knee. “Listen. You can find love on any street corner. But trust and respect…if you can find someone you trust and respect, you will have nothing to worry about.”
The drive flies by. We sweep down into Markleeville and snake through the Carson River Valley, and Kathi pulls over to consult a map to find the best spot to drop me off. She finally lets me out in Woodfords, just a few minutes from 89, which will take me straight up to south shore of Tahoe. She sends me off with a fresh bottle of water and two of her maps. We exchange contact information and she tells me that I have a place to stay if I’m ever in Minden.
* * *
Three months later. I’ve exchanged email addresses with many of the people I met along the journey, but only Kathi has kept in good touch. She has shared my blog with her family, and she writes me a note saying how much she appreciated and enjoyed my company on the ride. “Though many people questioned my ‘wisdom’ in picking up a hitchhiker (and sorta, so did I) it just seemed right,” she wrote. As I make my way through the Bay Area, Kathi shares that her sister Karen lives in Palo Alto and that Kathi will be visiting for the holidays. They invite me to visit.
I arrive in the afternoon, and Kathi wraps me up in a hug when I step through the front door. Karen welcomes me into her home, and soon I meet Bob and Mike (Karen’s son.) We sit on couches laughing and catching up and discussing travel, of course. Karen tells me about hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. I hear stories about African safaris, tours through Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Brazil, New Zealand, and so many more. Bob discusses his latest dream to visit Iceland, while Kathi talks about a desire to visit Vietnam. It impacts me deeply that this discrepancy, which could easily become a source of tension or disagreement in so many other relationships, simply means that they will take separate trips one day. Football is on, and we watch them attempting to defrost the frozen field in Minnesota. Bob shows me his photographs from his latest trip to South Africa.
Kathi pours me a glass of wine, and soon we sit down at the table to devour a delicious shrimp pasta that Bob has crafted. As the evening winds down, Karen lays a sleeping bag and some blankets across the couch. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for their kindness, for a chance encounter to blossom into this beautiful exchange.
Late at night I step outside to see the eclipse. The clouds have parted, and a slice of the moon is missing. I stand against my car and feel the cool stillness of the night air on my skin. I am blown away by what is happening. Kathi mentioned at dinner that when she first picked me up, it was my smile that let her know it would be ok. I don’t think she realized how much this means to me.
A storm is about to roll in, so in the morning Kathi and Bob get an early start so that they might beat the snow to Minden. Karen works with the international students at Stanford, and she takes me on a tour around the insanely beautiful campus. Before I hit the road, she packs me a bag with a sandwich, a Snapple, two huge muffins and some oranges. “I don’t know how to thank you for all of this….” “Safe travels,” she says. She places her hands together. “Namaste.”
I hop into my car and pull out of the neighborhood. I take a bite of the steak sandwich as the road ahead twists into the mountains. Suddenly I grin. I don’t know where I’m going.