The summer I was seventeen years old, I hitchhiked from my home in Oregon to Southern California and back. It was a lark that nearly cost me my life.
Times were different. This was the late ’60s. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. Woodstock. Easy Rider. I had brothers in college who’d thumbed across America and across Europe, and I was eager for adventures of my own. I wonder now, from my perspective as a parent and grandparent, about anyone allowing their teenage son—not even out of high school yet—to embark on a journey of such questionable safety. But my parents were distracted that summer, preparing to move so that my father, a high school English teacher, could take a new position. He’d lost his job due to his very public opposition to the war the U.S. was waging in Vietnam, but he’d been hired to teach in a small community in California’s San Joaquin Valley. My folks barely blinked when I told them what I proposed to do.
It was lonely on the road. The first night I slept in a park in Bend, Oregon, under a picnic table. The next day I caught a ride with an old cowboy who drove a pickup held together with baling wire and chewing gun and who kept a Mason jar on the floor of the cab so he could pee without having to stop. I tried to sleep that night in a copse of scrub oak on the outskirts of Redding, California, but the mosquitoes drove me crazy. I ended up in the doorway of a church, instead. I spent three days with a family from British Columbia, nice people who reminded me of my own family. Together, we saw Mount Lassen National Park and then Yosemite and then I left them.
I slept on a beach outside Oxnard. In the morning I was awakened by a herd of seals barking up a storm in the mist all around me. I reached Anaheim that day, home to Disneyland, which had been my goal all along. I spent the afternoon and evening in a place that was, okay I’ll say it, magical. I’d dreamed of Disneyland all my life, and here it was, Mickey Mouse and Goofy big as life strolling among the crowd. That night, I took a room in a hotel clearly meant for derelicts, but I was so tired I didn’t care. The next day, I turned north toward home.
Everything was fine until, several days later, I found myself on a lonely stretch of Highway 101, just above Eureka. It was dusk. The sky was pale blue and cloudless, and there was a slender, crescent moon in the western sky. I knew from experience that I probably wouldn’t get another ride that day. Nobody picked anybody up at night. In the dark, everything became murky, and even a seventeen-year-old kid appeared sinister. Just as I was about to give up and look for a place to unroll my sleeping bag, a car pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I grabbed my pack and got in.
(Editor’s Note: Reading this, we couldn’t get this cautionary tale out of our heads. It was released a decade to late to save the author.)
One of the things I’d decided early on was that, in exchange for a ride, I would entertain. I was a pretty good storyteller, even then. I would make up a life history for myself that had nothing to do with reality. I remember riding almost an entire day with a very nice guy, talking to him in a French accent, spinning tales of my time in the Camaroons of Africa, where my parents were missionaries. When he dropped me off, he gave me ten dollars and thanked me for helping the miles to pass by easily. North of Eureka that evening, I was too tired to be so creative, but I was still talkative.
The car was a sporty little affair. The guy who drove it was in his early thirties, clean shaven, dressed in a fine, dark suit, white shirt, red tie. Most drivers, when I talked to them, talked back. Not this one. Occasionally he would swing his gaze in my direction, but he said almost nothing.
Then I noticed the gun. When I first got in, I’d seen straps across the white shirt supporting some kind of apparatus under his suit coat. I was a football player, and one of my teammates who’d suffered a dislocated shoulder had been forced to wear a harness designed to keep the shoulder in place while it healed. When I saw the straps, that’s how I interpreted them. But then the guy reached out to brush a moth off the dash, and his coat fell open, and I saw the butt of a handgun curling from a shoulder holster.
I have no idea what I talked about, but I tried to keep my voice normal while my brain raced through possibilities. He was a cop. That was the best possibility. He was a psycho. That was the worst. I remember thinking that I would either go to jail—though God knew why—or I would end up dead and dumped in a ditch along the roadside.
Then his right hand slid under his suit coat, and when it came back out, the gun was in it. He didn’t look at me. He simply set the weapon on the seat between us, gripping the butt, his index finger laid across the trigger guard.
He slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. He swung his dark, emotionless eyes my way. He said, “Get out.” That was all. I got out. As soon as I closed the door, the car shot off, spitting gravel at me from the shoulder. I watched the red taillights until they were out of sight, then I raced into a nearby meadow and crouched down and waited for him to come back and try to shoot me dead. He didn’t.
By then it was hard dark. I rolled out my sleeping bag in the big, empty meadow, and I lay down, surrounded by high grass and wildflowers and fireflies, and I looked up at the night sky, which was a sea of stars. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
William Kent Krueger is the New York Times best-selling author of the Cork O’Connor mysteries.