I used to pick up hitchhikers all the time. I would pick them up, bring them as far as I could bring them, talk their ear off, drop them off, and then carry on. But that was it. I did my service by bringing strangers to a certain place that was on my way. A community service I didn’t even recognize.
I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in a really long time, probably been about two or three years, but not because I haven’t wanted to. I’m usually on my way to some place when I’m driving, and picking up strangers is just not in my time schedule. I always feel guilty when I don’t. You know, I try and stare straight ahead. I avert my eyes to avoid eye contact and then pretend that if I ever run into these poor folks I’ll just insist that I didn’t even see them. Why I have to reason and justify with myself about not picking up strangers, I’ll really never know, but it always makes me feel guilty.
On this particular sunny afternoon, I was not in a rush. I was headed down to Manchester, Vermont where I intended on stopping at the bookstore and the weekly farmer’s market. I didn’t have to work or do homework or really anything. Rarely does an afternoon come that I do not have to attend to other projects (or maybe it is simply that rarely do I allow myself such an afternoon). Regardless, this was an afternoon where I was not scheduling out each hour as if it belonged to something else aside from me. Each hour was mine.
And then I saw them. Their thumbs were out pleading and I could see the look of defeat that eclipsed their otherwise cheerful faces. They assumed as I drove nearer to them that I- much like every other car before me- was going to whisk on by. I began to avert my eyes to dead straight ahead.
I knew where they were headed and I knew if they were not picked up they had a long walk ahead of them. Right by Bromley Mountain (a ski resort) there is a mouth to part of the Long Trail which connects to the Appalachian Trail. Spring through Fall there are always hikers and backpackers entering and exiting, usually to get to Manchester the closest town for miles and miles that has necessary supplies, showers, real beds, and other things one might long for or need as they spend their days walking over the mountain and through the woods. I also knew that this was the only town for miles in either direction off of the trail. They had already been walking for days and if they did not stop in Manchester, they had days to walk before another town popped up.
I still stared straight ahead.
It wasn’t until I passed them and saw their arms drop tiredly back to their sides in my rear view mirror that I suddenly had a change of heart. It was a man and a woman, both young, both attractive, both obviously exhausted. He was a good foot taller than her with dark brown hair and stubble lining his square set jaw. Handsome. She was a small-framed girl with dirty blonde hair messily flung into some sort of a bun atop her head. Pretty. Considering they probably hadn’t seen anything but the trail for a while, I thought they looked pretty well-kept. So I did it. I stopped dead-center of the road and waved my hand out the window for them to hurry before a car came up on the rear end of my vehicle and the driver flipped out because they were going to be 3 minutes later to the grocery store. The couple hurried down the road as a car whipped by me, honking their horn in aggravation, and I had to hold back the urge to flip off their impatience.
The two of them jumped into the back seat, piling their bags in the farthest back corner of my station wagon and piling thank you’s upon me. To say that they didn’t smell bad would be a lie, but I argued with my nose to be more understanding.
“We knew it would be a Vermonter that stopped for us,” said the guy as he tightened the red bandana that was keeping his hair from falling into his eyes. “Thank you so, so much!”
“No problem.” I said as I tried to move my clutter out of the way with one arm twisted uncomfortably around the driver’s seat. “Name’s Becki Trudell. You guys?” I saw them both raise an eyebrow and smirk at the fact that I used my whole name, first and last. (I have always done this. One of the main reasons I don’t think I could get married. I am Becki Trudell.)
At this point, they would tell me their names. His was Ben, but for the life of me, I can’t remember hers. I prodded a little more into their lives; he was an accountant who had never actually done anything like this before and she was an outdoor recreational coordinator for a children’s program back in their hometown in Massachusetts. They had started in Mass and were headed all the way for Canada. They had two dogs, a cat, and an apartment. She liked the band Phish; he did not. She wanted to move to Montana; he did as well. They both loved maple syrup. They both had never seen The Jersey Shore. I asked them question after question, trying to keep silence from ever seeping into my car.
“Well, what about you? Tell us about you.” She asked me as the Beatles gracefully shuffled to Britney Spears on the stereo. An open-ended request for a brief description of myself such as that always makes me think for a minute. Which facts about me are worth talking about? Whenever I have an introduction on the first day of class, people always follow it up with “wow, I’m not as interesting as her.” That’s completely false. It’s just that I like to sift through each story, fact, characteristic that has shaped me and throw out the ones most people think are not important. It turns out these are the most interesting.
“I love to read and write. I never use acronyms unless I’m joking. I’ve been obsessed with whales since I was old enough to know what they were. The first time I ever made out with a dude, it was in the pouring rain. I drink too much whiskey …[pause]… and probably wine too, but that’s more socially acceptable. I used to think I was ugly, but I’m way past that now. I have braces…” I tapped my teeth to indicate they were on at that very moment. “I get really bad driving anxiety and I could eat breakfast at any time of the day. I’m one of the few adults still enamored by dinosaurs. Uh, my mom used my social security number without me knowing to open up her utility accounts throughout my life and then never paid the bills so my credit is shit and I never balance my checkbook. I love Fleetwood Mac and I don’t think anything happens for a reason, just coincidences and accidents.” They were laughing at this point. I decided to add one more thing. “Oh, and I don’t care what anyone says, I think everyone picks their nose.”
“That was the best answer ever. I feel like we’ve been besties since second grade.” The girl whose name I can’t remember giggled a bit more and Ben shook his head grinning as he turned to look out the window.
We continued to talk a bit more, with them turning all of the questions on me. What’s your favorite color? (“Anything bright and happy.”) Where do you work? (“At the Sushi Bar on Stratton Mountain and not a single Japanese person works there.”) Where do you live? (“Chester, Vermont. It’s a quaint little village, quintessentially Vermont.”) Are you married? (“Nope. I have an on-again/off-again boyfriend who insists we will be married someday. It’s mainly because my talents as female have no bounds. Every boyfriend I have insists that.”) Kids? (“No, but I love them. I want them someday, all boys hopefully. I’m not much of the princess type.”) What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written? (Huh. I don’t know. I think my favorite phrase I’ve ever coined is passion aggressive. As far as pieces? I’m a terrible judge of my writing.”) What’s your favorite food? (“French toast or cheese, probably. I stopped eating meat for the most part not too long ago and I’ll let you in on a secret: I miss pulled pork so much. So I should probably note that.”)
Eventually the descent down the mountain began to flatten out and the trees began to be replaced by restaurants and outlet stores. Our talk hushed as it became apparent we were arriving at our destination and I blushed just a bit as I realized that my iPod had randomly shuffled to a song from The Little Mermaid soundtrack. I inquired as to where they needed to go.
“The post office,” Ben replied. “We sent a package there with more supplies so we didn’t have to carry them all.” Smart, I thought. I asked if they sent it to Manchester or Manchester Center. They couldn’t remember so I brought them to both. Next stop? Grocery store. I guided them through the aisles to each item they needed.
As we exited the supermarket, I turned to them and offered to take them up to the bookstore with me if they’d like. They both obliged as I insisted it was a must-see in Manchester, Vermont. Once there, I bought them both a coffee, even though they tried to refuse, and we walked around discussing this and that. (I bought seven books that day. We can talk about my terrible spending habits later.)
They were only going to be in town for the night and then Ben and the girl whose name I can’t remember were back on the trail. I suggested they use my shower if they felt comfortable, but that it was 45 minutes in the opposite direction, and I couldn’t promise them a place to stay, because I hadn’t discussed it with my on-again/off-again boyfriend, although I hardly thought he would mind. They refused and gushed that I had already done far more than I needed to. I gave them directions to the farmer’s market, suggested cheap hotels, and hugged them before we finally went our separate ways. Ben tried to give me money. I adamantly denied their gracious offer.
As I was hugging the girl whose name I can’t remember, she said to me “Becki Trudell, you are a trail angel!”
I was called trail angel before, and it always made me smile. Apparently, most people that spend a lot of time hiking and backpacking the east coast have handles (I’ve met Grizz Bear Smile, Porta Pot, Diamond Horizon, Big Ladle, and Stardust Moonwalker) and they call people that help them the trail angels. As I said, I used to pick up hitchhikers all the time, and a time or two when I lived five minutes from the mouth of the trail, I had let them shower at my place, made them lunch, and then sent them on their way. This always warranted a “trail angel” comment. I’m going to be honest though, it always feels good to hear.
“You could always ditch those heels you have on and come the next leg with us…?” Ben suggested. I smiled.
“Nah. To be honest, I’d rather not spend a week of my life pretending I was, well… homeless.” They laughed.
I would assume that I will never see these people again in my life. In fact, after only a few days, their faces are already beginning to blur into other memories, becoming less recognizable from all of the other strangers I’ve spent a single afternoon getting to know. I have already forgotten her name.
I can only hope that they are not the last people that I can be a trail angel for, no matter what trail they’re traveling on.