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Along the highways

By Roy H. BArnacle / November 17, 1980

Despite my having read it so many times, and known of it through countless conversations, I have made the remarkable personal discovery that much of America, with its kaleidoscope of humanity, is to be found on its highways.

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Heading west from the Bershires, with their soft rolling hills, I gave a lift to two young girls. Upon stopping, the oldest-looking one opened the door and said, "New York?"

"City or State?" I countered. She hesitated, looked back at her younger companion, and a secret sign passed between them. "Are you going to New York City?" the younger one asked, standing back on the grass verge. "No," I replied , "but I can take you part way and you can try to get a lift to New York City from there."

Again the hidden signals passed between them. The younger girl gave a slight nod, and in they climbed.

We sat in silence, my attempts at conversation suspiciously rebuffed. It wasn't until I switched on the radio and a rock star sang his latest money maker that they came to life.

I wondered about these two young girls. At first, I put them at about 16 or 17 years of age, two girls off to see the city. But a closer look told me that they were probably several years younger. I tried not to dwell too much on why they were out here on Interstate 90, miles from the nearest town. In between their humming of the tune, I pushed in what I hoped were innocent questions about their travel. Where had they come from? Where were they going? I managed to make it light enough to add a joke about running away from home. Again, the silence and the secret signals. I did not push further. I managed to elicit from them that they were traveling from Hartford to "their grandfather's house in Bridgeport." That would be comparable to traveling from London to Paris via Rio de Janeiro. Again, I resisted the desire to find a reason for this, and I suppose I though of the Samaritan, who helped, but did not inquire.

The girls were painted in the colors of the age. Deep eye shadow, and varnished finger and toe nails. They wore purples and puces, violets and green. Their natural hair color could only be guessed at; underneath it all were two girls who should have been claiming their right to play baseball with the boys, instead of being here on this lonely highway. I could only wonder at why they were on the lam like this and if someone was worrying about them. I decided that all I would do was to remember their description, and to note where I had put them off.

I finally pointed them in the direction of New York City and left them. My heart went with them. I saw my own two girls in their faces. God forbid that they should ever find themselves in such a situation -- and God ensure that someone would help them, IF necessary.

Once cleared of Albany, the New York farmland spread out and the low clouds that had been with me since Boston opened up and the rain beat against the windshield. Two figures huddled in the pelting rain, making a tent of their two coats. I pulled over, honking to them.

One figure ran up, a young bearded man about 25. Behind him, a smaller figure hopped and dragged a foot. "Hi," the young man said. "Her buckle has broken on her sandal." But he made made no attempt to run back and assist the small round girl who came puffing up. "My buckle broke." she said in a voice that rose above the rain. "I already told him." the man said. She stared at him, as though he had robbed her of her moment in the light.

"Why don't you hop in out of the rain?" I beckoned them in, she in the middle and he, propping himself against the far door. This time I did not initiate any conversation. I had a feeling that I would not have to, and I was right. He called me "Sir," and she called me "Mister." "How far ya going, mister?" she asked. I told them that i would go all the way to Buffalo on the Thruway."We're going to Elmira. You going there, mister?"

"Maybe he's not going to Elmira,' he said, staring out the window, then turning to me, "Are you?" I said, "No," but that they were welcome to accompany me as far as the nearest turnoff point to Elmira.