Six Miles and a Hundred Years
by Paul Burnham
Originally published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner
I was hitchhiking in southern Utah last month. After leaving the car at the end of a trail, I needed a ride to the beginning. Let me just say right now that I don’t recommend hitchhiking for anyone; sometimes you have to wait a long time for a ride. Sometimes people throw things at you. But, sometimes you are lucky, and the person that picks you up isn’t an escaped convict that needs a hostage.
After only twenty minutes, a car pulled onto the shoulder. This is the moment where hitchhikers and their potential hosts begin watching for any strange behavior: any reaching into the glove box or under the seat by the driver, and the hitchhiker may decide to walk away. If the hitchhiker dons sunglasses or pulls down a hat at this point, the driver may hit the gas. This is a critical time for both sides.
As soon I opened the passenger door, my thoughts turned to what kind of people typically pick up hitchhikers. I imagine a person must feel fairly secure to pick up a stranger. Or, perhaps a certain level of security arises from adding a passenger, from recruiting additional help in the case of a mechanical breakdown. Or, maybe a lone driver simply wants someone to talk to while crossing a remote stretch of highway.
For one brief moment, while deciding whether or not to get in the car, I wondered who this person was. I considered two lifetimes of choices, decisions, and innumerable forked roads that had brought our paths to cross on that roadside. There was nothing significant at that place, except that this driver and I had crossed paths after decades of never meeting, of never intending to meet.
For a moment I hesitated as I looked into the car – not because of fear or any dark premonition, but because of the improbability of the situation. The driver was the most unexpected of all people.
I sat down, closed the door, and put on my seat belt. My destination was only six miles away. I told the driver this. Not a word, only a sideways glance. I told the driver my name, and smiled.
Sometimes people don’t want to talk. When I get my hair cut, I like to just sit quietly and listen – no chatter, no forced conversation. I wondered what my host thought. Perhaps I was forcing conversation.
After a mile or two, I noticed two passengers in the back seat. I hadn’t seen them when I got in the car. I turned around, raised an open hand, and smiled. One of them grinned back, the other was asleep. Then the driver spoke. These were her two grandchildren. She had left Ganado, Arizona early that morning, and was headed to Salt Lake City. Her speech was halting, yet clear. She said she had spoken Navajo and Spanish, but now mostly English.
I thanked her for giving me a ride. She said it was no problem, that this was how her children had always gotten around the reservation. I nodded and thanked her again. I told her my dad was from Blanding. She said Blanding was a nice town. I told her I had grown up on an Indian nation. She nodded, but did not ask where.
I pointed to the trailhead where I would begin hiking. She slowed the car and pulled onto the shoulder. I thanked her again. She finally looked right at me. I guessed she was over seventy years old. I wanted to give her something. I told her to have a safe drive to Salt Lake City. She told me to have a nice day hiking. I closed the door and remained still while she drove away.
I still reflect on the two paths that crossed that morning. There was no apparent significance in that encounter. But for those six miles I felt that every choice I had ever faced, every decision I had ever made, and every forked road I had ever passed brought me to that place. Our combined lives totaled a hundred years, or more. For one hundred years we had been traveling toward each other. A hundred years to go six miles.