“Where you ladies goin’?” The man growls after screeching to a halt on the Oregon highway and hurriedly backing up to meet our dusty clan. After I explain to him where we need to go – a wide circumnavigation of Mount McLoughlin, our final drop-off being the Shelter Cover Resort – he says with a welcoming gesture and a bit of a snarl in his scratchy voice, “Throw yer packs in the back and I’ll take you girls wherever you wanna go – s’long as yer payin’ fer gas!” The three of us look hesitatingly at each other and peer into the cab – there are only two seats available. The truck is white and beat up, our driver is missing a couple teeth and the smell of smoke clings to the peeling upholstery. But we really need to hitch a ride and this guy is apparently taking us wherever we need to go. I am the first to unbuckle my backpack and send it soaring into the back of the truck. “We’re in. I’m Mary, this is my sister Sara and my mom Angie,” I say, smiling at the adventure ahead of us that sixties folklore promise it will be.
It was only the previous day when our brilliantly planned trip went awry. Three days into our month-long hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, we arrived at our first scheduled resort and ran into our first bout of bad news: Mount McLoughlin was still coated in icy snow and we would need mountaineering equipment to pass over it. We didn’t have mountaineering equipment or even the know-how to use it, so we set to work on an alternative plan. By the end of the night, we came up with three options: we could quit, we could risk it, we could hitchhike. Being the strong-headed women that we are, quitting was not an option. Being the smart women that we are, neither was risking it. And so we found ourselves strapping our backpacks on the next morning, bidding farewell to our fellow hiker who decided to risk it and walking to the highway with our thumbs out and our hopes high.
About as soon as I shut the rusty door, I know that our high hopes are products of wistfully romantic naivety. Hitchhiking always had this sort of rugged but glamorous sound to it – it was daring and brave and mysterious. It was the stuff American road trip adventures were made of. And yet here I am: in an old Chevy truck with a grizzled middle-aged man at the wheel, crammed between the door, my sister and the gearshift. Breaking the silence, the man asks, “Hey, any o’ you got any smokes?” As we tensely shake our heads, each of us recognising the hopefully-not-fatal mistake in accepting just any old ride from any old guy in any old car on the side of a small highway in Oregon, he adds, “You girls ain’t much fer talkin’, eh?” We nervously laugh and he just shrugs his shoulders and says, “By the way, the name’s Tiberius Shane McDermont Titus III. But you can just call me Shane.” And with that, Shane cranks up the tunes and starts rocking out to the ‘70s hits pulsing out of the radio.
We must look like a motley crew, I think. Shane is worn and weathered, in a tattered white tee shirt and ripped Wranglers. He’s skinny and his face is leathery, his cheeks high and sunken. He has stubble on his chin that looks like it has always been there, two days old and peppered with grey hair. My mom is next to him, her legs tucked discreetly to the right side of the gearshift, as far away from Shane as she can politely get. My sister is in the passenger seat. She sits squished and uncomfortable, mainly because I am on top of her. I sit diagonally on my sister, my legs are jammed with my mother’s next to the gearshift. My face is pressed unceremoniously against the window and my elbow is always threatening to dig into my sister beneath me, much to her consternation.
“Wahoo!” Shane exclaims, drumming along to an unfamiliar but catchy song. “Well I’ll be darned,” He says, looking at his dashboard, apparently shaken from his radio-inspired drum solo. “I’m almost on empty!”
“We’re happy to pay for gas,” My mom says, obliging and uncertain if we even want to continue riding with this nice but seemingly off guy.
“Groovy, dude,” Shane replies, his right hand turning into a shaka and his voice turning deeply reminiscent of a Californian surfer from a Beach Boys recording studio.
I take the chance to look over at the dashboard. The orange spindle is pointed at the ground, far below the crisp black “E” and climbing even lower still. My mom, noticing the same thing, points to a gas station up ahead that we could stop at.
“Nah, I ain’t stopping at that resort garbage,” Shane says, his face wrinkling in disgust at the thought. “They charge you twice the going rate! No, I know of a place right up here somewhere…”
For the next five minutes, I watch the orange spindle dip lower than I had ever thought humanly possible. I am about to say something when my head is thrown to my left so fast that I almost bump heads with my mom. We just careened off of the highway and into the parking lot of a small gas station. The price of gas is exactly the same as that resort gas that we had passed over awhile back. As my mom gets out of the car to pay and Shane opens his door to chat to the old man pumping our gas, Sara and I exchange wary glances.
“I can’t tell if he’s quirky,” She breathes in a whisper, “Or crazy.”
The situation is too real to laugh, though it is my first instinct. But I simply nod in response and gesture that we get out of the car to discuss the matter further. As we pace around the empty lot, Shane intercepts us. He is about as tall as Sara. He walks as though his legs are bowed, his arms swing by his side in some sort of wannabe macho fashion. He suddenly strikes me as looking like a hungry wolf hunting for his next meal. He approaches us.
“Hey girls,” He says, lowering his sunglasses and peering over them at us. “You want some weed? I got some stuff that would blow your fucking mind.”
We both shook our heads but thanked him politely for the offer.
“Ok, ok,” He says, securing his sunglasses back over his eyes. “Don’t tell your mom that I asked you.”
We assure him that we won’t, but I’m now torn between wanting to take our packs and run and to burst out laughing at the ridiculous predicament that we have found ourselves in. I settle on stunned silence. Shane slinks into the store as our mom comes out. As they cross paths, my mom holds up a cigarette pack to him and we can hear him shout, “GROOVY!” He takes the pack and walks back with my mom to the truck. The tank is full and we’re ready to hit the road again.