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.
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.
Both wet and exhausted, he soon feel asleep, but she poked him awake telling him that he had fallen asleep. He smiled, put his arm around her, and nodded off again. Soon, she fell asleep, and although this didn't fulfill my reason for picking them up -- I wanted company -- it was comforting to have them there. They seemed "country people," not used to city ways or manners; had I been king or farmer, it would have made no difference to them.
In contrast to their light abrasiveness to each other, they slept as though all their worlds was wrapped up in each other. Miles later, I reached across and nudged his shoulder. He snapped up his head. "The next town is your best spot for a lift to Elmira," I told him. "Thank you sir," he said, "We really appreciate this." Then she awoke and said, "where are we, mister?" He told her, "We get off soon." When I looked for the last time in the rear view mirror I saw them holding their coats over their heads. It suddenly occurred to me that they could have been the parents of two small girls.
Normally this would have been adventure enough for one trip. But farther on, through the clear gap left by the sweep of the wiper, another sodden hiker waved his thumb at the passing traffic.
A dark complexioned man looked in the window. He said, "Excuse me, please,. ver' goot. I go to Boofalo. OK?" I said OK, and he dripped into the car. "Ver' goot. I come from Algeria. I go to Boofalo. Ver' goot." Fine, I told him. "Ver' goot. Ver goot. Excuse me, pliz," he replied.
He wore heavy couduroy trousers, a thick sweater, and a fur-hooded parka. It was almost 90 degrees, very humid, and he was not even perspiring. I asked him if he wanted to take off his parka. "Excuse me, pliz, ver' goot. I like America.Is goot," he said. I had the feeling that if i told him Martians were kidnapping Chicago, he would have said, "Ver' goot."
Eventually he did take off his parka and sweater. Perhaps he was wearing his entire wardrobe. His English was about as good as my Algerian. I tried speaking French. It only made matters worse. Each time I said something in French, he asked me to tell him what it was in English.
The countryside south of the Adirondacks is rolling and sliced with tiny valleys, hugging and small towns created from the river traffic which served the mills. We caught each other looking at the green slopes of the farmed fields, and I said, "Very pretty." "Ver' goot," he said, "is nice. America is nice. Many trees, is ver' goot to have many trees. What is pretty?"
"Pretty is beautiful," I said. "Only smaller." I pinched my index finger and thumb to indicate size.
I dropped him off among the industrial landscape of "Boofalo." We exchanged gifts. I swapped a cap of mine he had admired that said "Lake Placid, Winter Olympics, 1980," for a drink of orange juice. "Thank you," he said, his charcoal eyes glowing. We shook hands and parted as we might have done had we met in the desert.
I felt better for having met them all. It would have been easy to simply pass them by. On a subway train or an elevator. I might not have given them a second thought. But special circumstances breed special people. And ancient travelers often joined caravans for mutual protection; somehow, I felt part of a very historic tradition.
As a personal experience, I found I had to readjust; much of my thinking has always centered around "home and hearth" -- a sense of permanence that belonged inside four walls. I found myself feeling that perhaps the nomadic instinct was as much a part of human feeling for the world, as to put down roots. Although each of these people was entirely different in background, character and outlook , they all had that wanderlust that impelled them to travel the highway, rather than trust their direction to a plane or car. Noneof them showed any anxiety about arrival at their destination. On the contrary, I had the feeling that it was the travelingm itself that was important.