I snuck out of my room, down the hall, through the kitchen, and out of the house. I ran to the garage and jumped on my bike and rode it through our little town out to the highway where I stopped, looking back and forth in both directions. Right would take me past the lake our town was named after and eventually all the way to the big city of Minneapolis. I really didn’t want to go there, so I started riding my bike west, in the opposite direction, out toward the country. Besides, there were a lot of cars on the road going that way and I figured I had a better chance of catching a ride.

A mile of riding brought me to the far outskirts of town. I hid my bike in a weed-filled ditch and climbed back onto the highway. It wasn’t even noon yet, but the sun was burning hot and I was already sweating. I stood on the side of the road and put my thumb out, just like I’d seen them do on the television. I had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. All I knew was that I was running away for real this time. I felt in my front pocket. The first time I ran away, I brought toy dinosaurs. This time, I had Sean’s knife. It gave me a sense of security and I liked that feeling. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to. It felt good.

Highway 12 is a two-lane road that leads west to the Minnesota border with South Dakota and beyond that all the way to Montana and I think eventually the Pacific Ocean. He pulled over after I’d only been standing there for maybe 15 minutes, long enough to get hotter and sweatier than I already was and to start looking longingly at the Texaco station about a quarter mile down the road, thinking maybe I could find a hose or something and get a free drink of nice, cold water.

He was driving an old, faded red and slightly rusted pickup truck with a big dog kennel in the back but no dog. There was also a roll of dark green canvas tied up with rope. I bent down and peered in the side window as the truck rolled to a stop.

He leaned across the seat toward me. “Hi there, young man. Need a lift?”

He seemed nice and polite. He was maybe 30 years old, clean-shaven with light brown hair that fell across his forehead. He was wearing tan-colored slacks with a sharp crease in each leg and a clean white, short-sleeved dress shirt, open at the collar. For some reason, I remembered his shoes as being fancy. They had tie laces and were shiny and black. Coming from where I was coming from with a dad who was big, bearded, and scary-looking, this guy looked like a choirboy.

I was hot and frankly starting to get bored. “Sure,” I said, happy to get out of the sun and trusting he was as innocent as he seemed. I opened the door. “Where’re you going?” I thought to ask, not that I cared. Anywhere away from my home and Sean was good enough for me. I climbed in and settled onto the front seat.

“Anywhere you want,” he joked, laughing, showing me a row of small front teeth stained brown. He put the truck in gear and carefully accelerated back onto the highway.

His response to my question seemed odd, and right then and there, my rather cavalier attitude about hitting the road and living on my own began to diminish. I started to get just the tiniest bit nervous. In rethinking my actions that day, I should have jumped out while I had the chance. But I was just a kid who didn’t know any better. I’d made my decision earlier that morning and right now it was up to me to live with it and make the most of it.

Well, what the heck? I finally thought to myself. What have I got to lose? He seems nice enough. Everything should be okay. I set my suspicions aside and settled in on the bench seat of the truck thinking I might as well enjoy my ride and whatever lay ahead, just like a real adventure.

“What’s your name, young man?” he asked as he brought the truck up to speed. The wind blowing through the cab was hot, but it felt lots better than standing on the side of the highway baking to death. He had a soft voice with kind of a Southern accent and seemed very well mannered.

“Quinn,” I told him, wondering if I should tell him my last name was Charles. Naw, I decided not to. I’d taken enough ribbing in my life for having a first name as my last name. “What’s yours?” I asked instead.

He told me his name was Ronny. “Like Ronny Milsap,” he said laughing. “You know, the blind country singer?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Dad was a big Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. Ronny Milsap? Never heard of the guy.

“Don’t know him,” I said.

Ronny just shrugged and grinned with those brown teeth, which for some reason were starting to irritate me. How hard was it to take a minute and brush your teeth every day anyway? Even Sean did that and he hardly had the gumption to get dressed in the morning. Plus, now that I was in the truck, and even though the windows were down (the day being so hot and all), there was a stink inside that was starting to make me a little sick to my stomach. Maybe it had something to do with the dog that kennel was for. But there was no dog around. To take my mind off the stink and my nausea, I asked him where he was going.

“Out west, Quinn. Got a job lined up.”

That sounded great. I’d never been further away from home than Minneapolis and once up north to Duluth. Out west? Never.

“What kind of job?” I asked, just to be polite.

“Anything they want me to do, young fella. I’m a self-made man. I do a little bit of this and little bit of that.”

Well, that sounded good to me and I turned completely toward him, interested. Dad was always complaining about his job and the delivery truck he had to drive. At my young age, “doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that” sounded like a pretty good deal.

“Does it pay good?”

He laughed long and hard at that one. “You bet it does, my boy. You bet it does.”

“My boy?” I shifted a little in my seat. The stink was starting to go away, or maybe I was getting used to it. I looked at Ronny thinking that the guy was definitely a little strange, but all and all, he seemed pretty harmless. At least he wasn’t mean like Sean or ignoring me like my dad always did. That counted for something. I felt myself relaxing a little bit more. My stomach was a little better, too. This ride might not turn out to be so bad after all, I thought. In fact, it might turn out to be pretty good.

Ronny liked to talk. He told me he’d grown up in Oklahoma on a ranch (that’s why his accent sounded so different) and had worked at a bunch of jobs, of which I’ll list a few: cowboy on a ranch in Montana, maintenance worker on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, forest ranger in Idaho, gold miner in Colorado, and a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River. I think he also had been a bush pilot in Alaska and worked on a lobster boat up there, too. So he’d done a lot, and I remember being impressed, my imagination running away with me, picturing myself in each of those scenarios. Despite my initial misgivings, I was beginning to warm to the guy. Not once did I think for a moment that he might be making all those jobs up to impress me, relax me, and get on my good side.

Around midafternoon, we stopped for gas in western Minnesota near the town of Benson. I got out and stretched my legs. The temperature had to have been around 90; the heat reflecting off the payment was rippling, and even the tar in the parking lot felt soft under my tennis shoes. I looked west out across a big cornfield toward the horizon. There was nothing out there but more and more corn. The stalks looked shriveled, the leaves faded. The wind blew hot air from the south. The only thing alive were some crows across the highway, feeding on something on the ground. It was pretty humid, too. Even though I’d never been in one before, I got that feeling that being outside right now felt like what it must have felt like to be in a sauna.

I was picturing myself swimming in a nice, cool lake somewhere, floating on an inner tube, when Ronny asked, “Quinn, are you hungry?”

His voice startled me. He’d finished with the gas and had come up beside me. He put his hand on my shoulder. I was surprised to see him not sweating at all. But I was. It was running down my back and I could feel it beading up on my forehead. I looked toward the gas station, still conscious of his hand on me. It felt a little strange; my dad never did stuff like that, but to be honest, it didn’t feel too bad either. Next to the gas station was a little cafe with a sign that read “Ma’s Place.” It looked good to me.

“Sure,” I said, thinking suddenly that I really was hungry. Visions of pancakes with butter and syrup dripping off the sides and an order of sausage filled my mind. All I’d had to eat that day was my usual breakfast of a bowl of Cheerios and I’d had to eat them dry since Sean had taken the last of the milk. I suddenly realized that I was beyond hungry: I was starving. “That’d be great.” I turned and smiled at him.

Ronny smiled in return and said, “Be right back.” I watched as he went to the truck. I had a sudden clutching feeling inside that he’d take off and leave me stranded in this little town all by myself out in the middle of nowhere. But to my relief, he didn’t. He simply started the engine, pulled away from the pumps, and parked by the cafe. Then he got out, came over to where I was standing, put his arm around my shoulder, and led me inside. I have to admit, I was relieved he had stayed with me.

The cafe was air conditioned and the cold air hit me so hard it took my breath away. We sat in a booth with red vinyl seats that were slippery but comfortable. I quickly cooled off and entertained myself watching the sweat dry on my arms. The waitress was young and, to my inexperienced eyes, really good looking. She had dark, wavy brown hair that fell past her shoulders, just like my mom used to have. She brought us an icy pitcher of water and I drank down a glass in about ten seconds, the water so cold it made the sides of my head hurt.

We sat across from each other and Ronny made small talk with the waitress (her name tag read “Annie”). He even turned around and chatted with the people seated behind him, an elderly couple who looked to me like they just stepped in off the farm. I tried not to stare at the ring of white around the farmer’s hairline and forehead that was probably from the hat he wore when he was working outside, driving his tractor or something. The lower half of his face was deeply tanned and he had on a plaid, short-sleeved shirt and clean pair of bib blue jeans. His wife wore a pretty floral dress and a bonnet. I got the feeling this was a special outing for them. I caught a faint aroma of manure, maybe from the guy’s boots, that I have to say wasn’t all that unpleasant. For some reason, I liked seeing them in the cafe with us.

I ordered three pancakes which, when Annie set them down in front on me (I think she might have even given me a wink along with her smile), blew me away. They took up the whole plate. I drowned them in maple syrup and slabs of butter and wolfed them down along with my side order of sausages (just liked I’d imagined). Man, they tasted fantastic. Ronny didn’t order anything. He just sat and watched while I ate and smiled at me. I was so hungry it never even occurred to me how strange it was that he didn’t order or eat anything. He barely drank any water.

After I finished, I excused myself to go use the bathroom. When I was done, I washed my hands and splashed cold water on my face. As I was drying off, I looked at my reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t believe how red my face was and my freckles stood out like crazy. I was a little sheepish about my looks. Most of the boys I knew and went to school with had nice, shiny, longish hair, long enough to blow a little in the wind. Dad had something against that kind of hair, probably because he’d lost most of his, so whenever he used his electric razor to shave his head, he also did me and Sean. Buzzed us right down to the nub. So, along with being outcasts in town because of our family situation, we were also outcasts on account of how different we looked because of our hair, or lack of it. Now that I’m on the road, I thought to myself, I’ll let my hair grow out. Smiling into the reflection in the mirror at my great idea, I finished drying my hands and joined Ronny back at the table.

He greeted me with, “All set, there, Quinn?” He had been using my first name ever since he’d picked me up. The fact that he was getting so familiar with me was kind of odd, but not all that bad. At least he was talking to me like a person. Not like my dad, who just ordered me around, getting him beers and stuff, or Sean, who didn’t talk to me all, preferring instead to push me around and, of course, beat me up. Ronny talking to me was different, but in a good way, like I was a real person, and that was just fine with me once I got used to it. In fact, it was kind of nice.

“Yeah, I’m good.”

He pointed to my water glass. “Drink up, my boy. We might not be stopping again for a while.”


I dutifully finished off my water and stood up. I noticed Ronny hadn’t left a tip for my pancakes and sausage. I thought about using some of my own money from my wallet, but Ronny seemed in a hurry, so I didn’t. He hurried me out of the cafe and hustled me to the truck. I’ve always felt bad I didn’t leave the nice waitress at least a quarter.

We got in the truck and I got settled. Ronny started the engine and drove out of the parking lot onto the highway. I was pleasantly full and feeling really good, thinking that running away was the smartest thing I’d ever done and that life on the road was the perfect solution to all my problems at home. But after a few minutes staring at cornfields, cows, and the occasional farm house and barn, the heat must have started to get to me, because I began to feel kind of groggy. I put my hand on my forehead and was surprised that it felt cold and clammy instead of hot, which was weird because I was sweating heavily under my T-shirt again.

“Quinn, are you feeling okay?” Ronny asked, looking at me with a strange expression. One I can only describe as both concerned and excited.

“Not really,” I said, feeling my words slur.

He patted the seat. “Just lay your head down here, my boy. Rest. I’m sure you’ll feel better soon.”

He sounded like he cared about how I was feeling, so I trusted him and did just as he suggested.

“Okay,” I said. And I lay my head down.


For all installments of “Why I Don’t Run Away Anymore,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1