Six Miles and a Hundred Years
by Paul Burnham

Originally published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner

April 2004
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.