It was a dry summer, filled with new experiences. I was heading home after months of being on the road, hitchhiking, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes with a stranger. It was generally safer with someone, but it was certainly faster when it was more important to get where you were going. I had learned a few new skills this summer, how better to assess the ride before you get in the car, how better to assess the fellow travelers that you meet while putting out your thumb.

I met my first sociopath while waiting for a ride outside of Pocatello, Idaho. Since we were headed in the same direction, I asked if it would be okay to share the next ride. He nodded without saying anything. In fact, he hardly spoke at all.

I had to step up to keep our driver happy and alert, my silent partner sat in the backseat staring out the window, watching sagebrush. At the stops, he ventured nothing more than his name, and that was only because I asked. His name was “Cal.” That’s all he said.

In one small town, we were let off at the leading edge, so we had to walk through the town to the road heading westward. Along the way, we passed a few locals who eyed us with some suspicion. One young guy actually stepped off the curb to avoid us, and the fear on his face was remarkable. “Cal” reached out with his left arm to grab him by his neck and throw him back across the path into a small alley. Then he stomped him. I had read about stomping, but now I was witness to it. A few quick kicks and he was unconscious. “Cal” went through his pockets and found some change and folding money, then we headed to the outskirts.

I’m thinking two thoughts. I’m thinking we need a quick ride out of here. And secondly, I wondered what set Cal off? So I asked him.

“Don’t worry, he’ll be out for hours, maybe days. And he won’t be found very quick. And why him? By his actions, he expected it, so I gave it to him. He’s lucky I’m not hungry; sometimes I like to carve away a few snacks for my back pocket.”

I left “Cal” after the next ride, if that was actually his name, and not a destination.

Before heading into the desert, I met up with someone that I had run into weeks before, so we shared some rides on the way west.

A few days later, I called home to let my mother know that I was heading in her direction. She said that she was glad that I had called because she knew that hitchhiking was dangerous. “The police just picked up a hitchhiker that had three human fingers in his back pocket! Can you imagine?” I told her I was safe and that I would see her soon.

Eric and I headed west from Elko, Nevada.

No man’s land has always had an impact on me. Reading about World War I and the ground between the trenches brought up vivid images of a dark, desolate terrain populated by transients moving like ghosts on the Scottish moors. The area between Sparks and Reno, Nevada, at two in the morning, has that same no man’s land quality. There was nothing to see except shadows, the only reality being the repeating spotlights on the road, lit by streetlights stretching far into the distance. Walking silently, in single file, we entered the desolation that led to the biggest little city in the world: Reno.

Eric and I were barely speaking, not that we were angry with each other; it was just that we had no room for communication. We had shriveled up, lost our vital fluids in the heat of the desert. Spiritually shrunken, physically desiccated, yet still walking, still moving forward. The universe reduced to moving from one streetlamp to another. All I knew, all I could see, was contained in the bright circles of light, 30 feet across, illuminating a deserted street. To either side, there were shadows of some other reality. Uncertain and unimportant, they faded in the distance. My goal was the next spot of light, and then the next beyond that.

Pressing forward, head down, glancing up, and sometimes back, checking to see if Eric was still there a few yards behind me. Feeling the load of my pack, sensing as time passes that the weight increases. Shifting the straps from abused flesh. This ritual went on for some miles; then, suddenly, she was there. Up ahead, in the future, two spotlights away, I could see the figure of a woman standing, waiting. I slowed but continued walking forward, disappearing from the light, moving forward and reappearing in the next light, closer each time to the future woman. Then the future became the present, and we shared the same harsh halogen light.

She was wearing a black dress of sequins, light bouncing from her shoulders, breasts, and thighs, sparkling…and fingering a long strand of turquoise beads. Her face, heavy in makeup, framed by black, teased, shoulder-length hair, was smiling, but sadly. She was probably 40 years old. Older, with tracks of the world on her face. 

As I approached her, I instinctively nodded my head, and I could see her bright red lips forming words, words I couldn’t hear, although I should have been able. She blinked and smiled again; I noticed that she was holding a shoe by its strap. It was missing the heel. Heel-less shoe swinging, turquoise beads swinging, thousands of bright microlights flashing, and wordless lips moving. Then I left the light and headed into the darkness between the spots. 

At the next streetlight, I looked back, and there in my past, now captured by the halogen circle, I could see Eric sharing the spot with the sequin dress, and then he too, moved forward. For the next few minutes, I looked back periodically to see if I had really seen what I thought I had seen. Four streetlights back, I saw a sparkling figure disappear from one spot, but then never appear in the next spot down. 

I waited, but nothing showed. Eric came next to me, and he looked back as well. We both waited. He managed to ask where she had gone, but I just shook my head and turned away.

Another few blocks, there was an empty lot covered in tall grass. I thought that if we went to the back wall, we could lay undiscovered and maybe even fall asleep. There was a narrow trail in the tall grass; I lay my sleeping bag directly on it, well covered from the road. Eric placed his bag in the same trail, and we lay there head to head in a footpath, not speaking for some time. Then Eric asked a question.

“Did you hear what she said?” I thought about it for some seconds. Remembering the lips forming words. Bright red, moving shapes, parting, closing, then opening again, but no sound. Why hadn’t I heard?

“She said, ‘I hope you have better luck than I.’”

I lay on my back, looking at the stars above Reno, Nevada, listening to Eric’s words, and listening to the soundless words of a vanished spirit. I thought about events and the meanings that we place upon them, and I thought about compassion and empathy. I answered Eric, that yes, I had finally heard.

The next morning, I got up quickly, rolled up my bag, folded my knife, packed my gear, and headed to the highway. Free from the dust, free from the hardship of the desert. Free from whiny road partners. And best of all, I had some snacks in my back pocket for later.