Warmth in the north country

I WAS driving down the coast of Maine toward midnight. The dark, the winter cold, and the swirling crystals of a light, wind-blown snow only accentuated the emptiness of the highway. It was a few more miles to my destination, which loomed large in my mind on a night like this. As I rounded a bend my high beams arced from left to right, momentarily illuminating a figure off to the side, which soon faded as the lamps settled back on the road. I gazed up into my rearview mirror and caught it - a mere shadow now, the snow devolving about it like an obscuring veil. And then, darkness.

It would be foolish to pick up a hitchhiker at such an hour. What was he doing there anyway if not to waylay some unsuspecting driver? I placed my hand under the truck's heater vent and could barely perceive the warmth, diminished as it was by the bitter wind blast feeding into the radiator. I slowed and swung the truck about, coursing back on the other side of the road, to get a better look at the hitchhiker. There. He looked to be only a boy, in a motorcycle jacket and jeans, his hair wild and his face buried in his turned-up collar.

I turned around a second time and approached him again. He was huddled into himself, his gloved hand offering a feeble signal for a lift. I stopped. The steady engine hummed for both of us as he climbed in and stamped his feet against the floor mats. ``Thanks,'' he said, and I felt more relaxed for this word. ``Where you headed?'' I asked.

``Boothbay Harbor.''

So was I. We drove on together. I instinctively fumbled at the radio but achieved only the crackle of static. ``It's really cold out there,'' I offered.

Silence. He was asleep, and the last of my apprehensions evaporated. Every so often I would look over and regard my passenger - catching glimpses of his ragged jacket and patchwork jeans. I supposed he could have been aggressive if he had wanted to be. But for now he looked as if he had received more trouble than he had given.

Within a short while we had arrived in the heart of Boothbay Harbor. I pulled over on one of its vacant streets and nudged my passenger. He stirred, mumbling to himself. ``This is it,'' I said.

The boy looked up, squinting through the windshield. ``I guess I can walk the rest of the way,'' he said resolutely.

``The rest of the way?'' I echoed. ``I thought you lived here.''

``Well, I do. But three miles farther down.''

``Stay put,'' I said, and once again we were off, down a dark and narrow road through a snow-laden forest of white pine. This time, though, we talked. ``You in school?'' I asked.



``Sometimes. I fish. Get enough to live on. Then go home.''

``Are you making it OK?''

``I'll get by.'' He said this with a finality that seemed to punctuate our brief conversation. It didn't seem appropriate to prompt him any further. ``Here,'' he commanded, and I pulled over at the foot of an approach road that led to a tarpaper cabin at the water's edge. ``Will you be OK?'' I asked as he searched out the door handle.

``I'll be OK,'' he said with that same jaunty confidence tinged with uncertainty. And then he turned toward me. ``But thanks. For keeping me warm for a while.''

He hopped down into the unbroken snow and trudged up the approach road. I remained there until he had disappeared into the cabin, the way a parent watches after a child.

The next morning I found one of his gloves in the truck. I was somehow glad for this, and drove back to the boy's home so I could deliver it to him. But when I arrived I suddenly felt uneasy about going to his door. Instead, I draped the glove over his roadside mailbox. To this day I don't know why I thought it would have been an intrusion to knock, to see how my hitchhiker was doing.

Maybe it had something to do with the winter. At this latitude warmth is the name of the game: If you're staying warm in Maine, you've got the hardest part licked. By this standard, getting by is an accomplishment. My hitchhiker wouldn't have returned to his cabin unless it provided this essential mercy, then. It is an incomparable grace in this north country, to be warm, and he had already thanked me for it once.

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