"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A hitchhiker's kit...fellow travelers- part 1

I call it the hitchhiker kit, though usually it's not for hitchhikers these days.
The idea came one brutally hot August day on I-35 a few years ago as I zoomed past three  people on the side of the road near Guthrie…man, woman and child--hitchhiking. They were suffering in the 100-degree plus heat, hoping for a kind soul. I had nothing to offer them, and today you just don't pick up hitchhikers, do you?
Of courses they're dirty and sweaty, and sunburnt and not in the best of clothes. You wouldn't be either if you stood alongside the highway with semis and diesel fumes blowing past every few seconds. "Blistered" is the word that comes to mind.
Back in my Dad's day, in the Depression,hitchhiking was "just another form of transportation," as he once said. No longer, considering the risks you put yourself to. (Actually, I've picked up two hitchhikers in my life, and lived to tell about it…one near Edmond heading north and a soldier at Lubbock, heading north, but that's another story)
But the sight of those folks changed the way I travel. I may not stop and give them a ride, but I can give them something.
So now I go to Target and buy four jars of peanut butter, an eight pack of Gatorade and bottled water, a box of saltines, a box of Poptarts or something similar, a package with cups of fruit cocktail, and four of those little traveling toothbrushes and toothpaste. Total cost, maybe $10-$15. With this I get free plastic sacks for my hitchhiker kit. Then I go to McDonalds and liberate some packages of plastic spoons, forks and napkins. At home, the ingredients are divied up into four sacks, tied at the top and put in the back of my car.
"I have been a sojourner in a strange land." Exodus 22:2
"Most of the time these days, I hand those bags out to people standing along the roads with cardboard signs saying they're hungry or homeless. Two of the most recent were travelers under an I-35 underpass in the rain, late in the day. Another was near the I-40 exit at Tucumcari to a woman traveling by herself. More have been to people standing along roadsides here in Oklahoma City.
Most of them say "God bless you," when you hand them something. I'm sure a few are repeat panhandlers, though I can usually tell the difference. Some only want money and may be scam artists. But usually, if they're standing on the roadside in blistering heat, you can tell they're genuinely in need.
I've figured something else out too. The opportunity to hand those hitchhiker kits out only comes when I need it the most. When I'm overly stressed and driving somewhere, or feeling sorry for myself, or angry at some injustice, or worried about something I think is major, I tend to happen upon these less fortunate folks standing at a corner. 
Sometimes I have to drive down to the next exit or around the block, and try to catch the stoplights right so I can stop the car in the lane of traffic, grab one out of the back of the car. Back in the car I go, roll down the window and idle up to hand the bag through the window to them, with words like, "Here's some food. Good luck."
"God bless you," is the usually response from a tanned or sunburned unshaven face, or a woman with scraggly hair, a worn backpack nearby, cardboard sign in their hands. 
Then I drive off in my air conditioned car, to my air conditioned house, with my job and family and credit cards and regular meals and a place to sleep and security---whatever was bothering me has disappeared. I so needed that gift.

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