FEATURE — I grew up in a home where there were two strong rules: First, no guns; and second, never pick up a hitchhiker. So it should come as no surprise that I married a man with two strong rules of his own: First, own as many guns as you can; and second, always pick up hitchhikers.
My “never” rule was born out of general safety concerns and inexperience. My husband Alan’s “always” rule was born out of necessity. If he wanted to go somewhere as a kid, his thumb could get him there before his feet could.
He swears hitchhiking was a great part of his childhood – and that it was only ever scary once. And the way he spins tales of it, we now have a family lore around the “always” rule. I, however, remain unconvinced, entrenched in the “never” rule from my childhood.
So you can imagine my reaction when, on a family road trip earlier this week to Escalante, my “never” rule was confronted by a man carrying a rifle who jumped out into the road in front of our car and asked us for a ride. Wait, let me back up a bit and set the scene.
My family of five and our friends are heading to Escalante from Salt Lake for some outdoor fun over the Utah Education Association, or UEA, fall break. We have just settled back into the drive after a dinner stop in Salina.
I am still reveling in the beauty of a particularly spectacular sunset when I suddenly register how dark it is; a darkness has enveloped the road in a way I haven’t seen in a long time. There is no ambient light. My brights are as ineffective as an umbrella in a monsoon. As the driver, it makes me wary; I’m sure we’re going to hit a deer.
It’s another hour into the drive and equally as dark as we slowly slither up the S-curves through the Dixie National Forest. It’s then that a man carrying a rifle jumps into the road in front of us. I’m not going to lie: I’m freaked out. My initial reaction is to hit the gas and swerve away from him, but Alan’s hitchhiking lore pricks at my subconscious enough that I tap the brakes – and then an instant later, fully hit them when Alan yells, “Stop!”
As the armed hitchhiker approaches the car, he seems more frightened than I am. He tells us his story and I take skeptical inventory of him: He’s shaking, breathing hard and there are fresh abrasions on his left hand that look like he’s taken a fall in the woods.
It turns out he’s a 65-year-old elk hunter who is lost. He got turned around when darkness fell and can’t find his truck, which is parked off the main road about a mile up on a dirt trail. He’s been looking for the trail for at least two hours and he is exhausted. He’s got no cell signal (none of us do). He’s got no water. And he’s got no light. Basically, he’s desperate.
My “never’’ rule is bending under the weight of his predicament. Alan crawls in the back with the kids as we load the hitchhiker in the front passenger seat and turn back down the mountain. We slowly crawl down and then back up the mountain in search of the illusive dirt trail, our friends following behind in their car.
At first my boys are confused about why we are picking up a hitchhiker when it is so clearly against my “never” rule. They are worried that we are now driving in the wrong direction when they are tired and just want to go to bed, but they quickly catch the vision of helping this man in his desperate situation.
It takes a half-hour, but we finally find the road to our hitchhiker’s truck. Our cars can’t make it up to his truck and he insists we don’t stay to wait for him with our cargo of tired kids; but we can’t quite leave him like that. So we load him up with water, food and a flashlight before we let him walk off into the darkness.
Afterwards, my two younger boys felt proud. They recapped the night’s events excitedly between them and the youngest announced: “We are kind of like Superman – we just saved that guy.” The middle one replies, “Well, we only saved one guy so we really are one-time heroes.”
Whatever we are, I’m glad, for this moment. On this night, we were able to find some space between my “never” and my husband’s “always” pick up a hitchhiker rules. Obviously, not every situation merits picking up a hitchhiker, but this one did. So when I’m talking to my boys in the future about our family rules, I may have to concede to an asterisk on “never pick up a hitchhiker.”
Kat Dayton is a developing columnist with St. George News.
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