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He would walk for hours beside the highway or sit on his hiking backpack next to on-ramps with his thumb out and a big grin spread across his scruffy, dirty face. It would be easy to spot him in a crowd, even easier standing lonesome on the side of the road. His overgrown, curly, brown hair would dangle right above his eyes. He was tall, about 6'4 I'd say, and weighing about 190 pounds, with freckles sprinkled over his sharp featured face. There were two things about him that I remember most vividly, one being his pair of piercing amber eyes that would latch themselves onto your own whenever talking to him.
The second was his shoes. Everything about him was dirty and worn from all the travel he'd witnessed, but his high top, generic white toe chucks that looked almost brand new except the bottoms. They were covered in dirt and black specs, which should really be expected after hours of walking in dust and dirt. The first experience I shared with him was on January 30, 1992.
I was driving home on Highway One from a weekend visit with my newlywed brother in his new home in Eureka. There he was, walking with gusto in his step along the California bluffs, with his thumb hung proud in the air. He looked so young, maybe early 20s, and so harmless that I pulled off to the shoulder only moments after seeing him.
He ran up and I could see in my rear view mirror that great big smile he almost always seemed to have on. He tossed his pack into the bed of my truck and hopped into the passenger seat, thanking me and telling me how much he appreciated the ride. I turned to talk to him and was greeted with those wide, spectral eyes already clamped to my own gaze.
"Where ya headed?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular. You just take me as far as you can tolerate having me sit here with you."
"Nowhere? Are you running away from something?"
"Not from, to."
"I see. Well, where to then?"
"I already said, nowhere in particular. Just anywhere I ain't seen yet, I guess."
"Alright then." After this initial conversation, we let Johnny Cash's guitar strums and the sounds of the road take over the air waves.
Almost immediately, he kicked his dusty clean chucks onto my dash, stretched his body as far as the small space would allow, and closed his eyes. He wasn't asleep because he'd make the occasional movement; scratching his face or shifting his weight.
I figured he was pretty experienced with traveling with strangers seeing as how he was comfortable enough to dirty an unknown man's car interior and trustfully close his eyes after doing it. My truck was already so dirty, and he looked so tired that I didn't really mind anyway.
There did seem something a little off during that first five minutes of us meeting. Just the small gestures he'd make when talking, the way he'd look at me, as if he were sizing me up. I almost felt like he resented me just from the way he looked at me. I brushed it off as him being somewhat skeptical of the person he entrusted his life to. We traveled with silence between us for a while until he opened his eyes and asked about the furthest I'd ever traveled.
Over the course of our ride, we'd covered subjects ranging from how to grow marijuana in a closet to who our favorite teachers in middle school were. We'd become less of strangers to each other with every passing minute, so much so that the idea I had of him giving off negative vibes vanished and I ended up offering him a place to stay that night. The exit I had to take was coming up and I asked where he was going to go that night, it being 7pm already. He said he had nowhere to go and I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least provide him with a full belly and a safe couch to sleep on before shoving him back off into the world all alone.
We pulled up to my apartment complex and when we were getting out, I noticed there were distinct footprints left by his shoes on the face of my dash board, right above the glove box. We were mid discussion and it didn't register as important to me at the moment, but it still somewhat bothered me that he didn't at least wipe them off. Being only dust, they'd come off with some saliva and a quick rub. It came and went through my head and next thing I knew we were inside. I was showing him my place and we were sitting down to some beer and eggs.
Again, we began talking. Listening to his stories, talking about the political state of our nation, comparing Blue Moon to Sam Adams. Then I remembered the shoes on my dash. "Hey, you realize you left a mess of dirt all over my dashboard, right?"
"Yeah, I know."
"You sound like you meant to do it"
"Who said I didn't?"
"Well, shit, that's sorta rude," I said with a chuckle in my voice.
"Not at all. As a matter of fact, you should feel honored that I did that."
"I guess they're right when they say most hitchhikers are lunatics"
He laughed and looked off into the distance "Now, who says that?"
"I dunno, whoever 'they' is, I guess. So, why should I feel honored?"
"Okay, so you know I've come across dozens of people that give me rides. See, you and I clicked. Hell, you've invited me to stay in your place of living! Which I'm endlessly grateful for. So again, thank you. But not all of the people that are nice enough to move me a couple miles are nice enough to not be completely worthy of having their heads kicked in, ya know what I mean." He laughs after this and continues.
"Anyway, I always put my feet up and always have for as long as I can remember when I'm riding passenger. I always kick my feet up.
"Some people don't like it and tell me right away to take my feet down and wipe away the marks left. These people are also usually the total dicks. Ha, one time, I had a guy pick me up, drive me only half a mile and kick me out cause I put my feet up. He was yelling when I was getting out, saying I smelled like shit and should get a job, hippie scum, blah blah blah.
"He was a slime ball piece of shit that deserved it. Anyway, in short, cause I know I must be rambling now; the cars I leave my footprints in are what in my mind sit as a remembrance of me to those I had a positive experience with, and those I had a negative experiences with have no visible remembrance. So, when you look at those footprints still there, you can think, man I sure was lucky. It's that simple." He followed this with a long, loud belch filling the room with the smell of beer and burp stink.
"Hmm, well I guess I should feel honored then. Uhh, what did you mean when you said that guy deserved it?"
"What? Oh, I meant that he deserved not getting my mark of remembrance. Haha duh, try to keep up here, man." After this, we continued talking about everything once again. He could talk and talk and every word was worth listening to. I was just thinking about how I'd never come across someone so young that seemed to have so much wisdom and optimism and then he began acting strange again. In the middle of me talking, he began grinding his teeth and furrowing his brow. I could see a hint of a cringe forming on his face as his amber eyes watched my own.
It's like something within him clicked on. Or off. His leg started bouncing like he was getting impatient and was constantly trying to crack his knuckles. The conversation died soon after this behavior started because he got short with me and was giving only a couple word responses. Despite this, I still felt he was good kid, and was just bipolar or something. In the morning, after another round of beer and eggs. I drove him to the highway, gave him a twenty, and my phone number and we said our goodbyes. I wished him luck on his adventures and on the way back home wondered if I'd ever cross paths with him again, while looking back and forth from the road to the dirt marks all over my dash.
When I got home, I wiped those footprints off before going back inside. I certainly didn't need some scuff marks to remember that man. Not even a month passed before I receive a phone call from him. He was calling from a payphone in a town over and sounded very frantic. He apologized for calling in a favor so soon after we parted ways, but said he was in some real trouble and that I was the only person he could think to call. He called just a half hour before I got off work, around 2:30 PM, so I told him he'd have to wait til then. It sounded like he almost broke into tears after hearing that. He begged for me to hurry and just kept apologizing until I finally got off the phone with him.
My mind was consumed all day at work as to what he could possibly be in trouble with. Maybe he got into some kind of gang shit or was fleeing from the law. As soon as I finished up at work, I drove straight there. It was about a forty-five minute drive and when I got to where he told me to meet him, the parking lot of a middle school, he was nowhere to be found. I sat there for almost an hour waiting for him before I finally turned on my truck and pulled out of the parking lot. I was down the street and about to turn when I looked in my review mirror and saw him running after me. He didn't have his bag, but was wearing only a white t-shirt and some dickies pants. Even from the distance I was at, I could see he was wearing those fresh chucks.
The other strange thing was that it looked like he had blood running from his head. His head looked somewhat mutilated, but from the distance I was at, I may have been mistaken. I quickly made a u-turn to pick him up, but as soon as I turned around, he'd vanished. He wasn't in the street or on the sidewalk. I drove back to the parking lot and sat there looking for him again.
I even got out and took a look around the area, but after another twenty whole minutes of waiting, I gave up again, and forced myself to climb back in my truck and go home. The questions kept me up for hours that night. What could he possibly have gotten himself into? Why did he take so long to finally show himself after so frantically calling for help? Why was he bleeding? Or was it even his blood? Where was his bag?
Why after a month did he only travel forty-five minutes from me? Those questions were answered a just week later and new questions were born when I read the morning paper. In the town over, a serial rapist and murderer was beaten to death with a wrench by a middle school janitor who had apparently come across him orally molesting a twelve year old girl underneath the football field bleachers at knifepoint.
The paper reported that there had been a struggle and the serial killer ended up breaking all the fingers on the janitor's left hand, cutting him in right leg and gouging out the little girl's left eye, before a final blow to his temple ended it for good. The man was wanted in several southwestern states and was known for traveling to middle schools via vagabond travel to abduct, rape, and kill children.
He was also known for killing some of the people who gave him rides by stomping their heads in and usually disposing of the vehicle. He was supposedly responsible for fourteen murders and over thirty accounts of rape and molestation. To this day, I am haunted with the image of his ethereal amber eyes staring into me and just this morning, twenty years after my encounters with him, I got in my truck to drive to work and was met with a dashboard covered in dusty, chuck tailor shoeprints.