“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 promises 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 – she called us the next day to say that she had to turn back almost immediately because of the icy conditions – 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.
“Righteous, dude,” Shane replies, his right hand turning into a shaka and his voice becoming 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 shake our heads but thank 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.
The car roars to life and we’re all back in our tenuous positions: Shane at the wheel, my mother beside him, Sara under me, my head pressed against the jolting window. I look at the speedometer, we’re going 90 m.p.h. on a two lane highway with a posted speed limit of 60 m.p.h. I tell myself to breathe. We can always get out of the situation if it proves to be the worst-case scenario. It’s all going to be ok, I’m telling myself. Everything’s going to be alright.
“Hey you.” I hear Shane’s voice break the shaky chanting mantra that is running through my head. I look up to see who he’s talking to, though I know it’s me. “Hey you,” He repeats, this time pointing at me so that there would be no confusion. “Have you ever smoked weed?”
I look uncertainly at my mom, who nods almost imperceptibly. “Yeah, I’ve smoked weed before.” It seems like the right thing to do, to find common ground with our unpredictable driver who is possibly teetering on the verge of a mental breakdown. His motions are jerky and unstable, his speech is scattered and illogical, his train of thought trails and stutters. He doesn’t seem the type of man to disagree with – especially when he is in control of a car barrelling down the highway at 90 m.p.h., barely paying attention to the road in front of him and cursing out any car that happens to be in his line of vision.
“Oh good,” He says. “Then open up that up, that there in front of you.”
The abrupt end of one topic and the jolt to another startles me. Regaining my composure, I point to the glove box. “This?” I ask, scared and confused by the command seemingly out of the blue. He nods. I wrestle it ajar. It falls open anticlimactically. Inside of it, I see a jumble of junk: rubber bands, matches, old cigarettes. I look to him and ask, “What now?”
He smiles. “Reach in.”
My sister is trying to both stifle a laugh and contain her horror. I try and give her a look through the side mirror, but she is decidedly not allowing herself to make eye contact with me lest she break out in giggles and potentially set off our mentally imbalanced driver. There’s no way around it. I reach in.
“What am I looking for?” I ask, adding on, “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be scared,” Shane says. “Keep feeling around, you’ll know it when you find it.”
At this point, I have no clue what I’m about to touch inside Shane’s old junk-filled glove compartment. I’m thinking severed hands, a taxidermied snake, the secret to a long and happy life. Instead I feel – plastic.
A plastic bag, to be exact.
A gallon sized plastic bag, to be even more precise.
A gallon sized plastic bag stuffed to the brim with green pungent marijuana.
“Oh my god,” I say, my hand still deep in the glove box. Shane smiles in response.
“What?” My mom asks urgently. “What is it?”
“It’s…” I trail off, barely even comprehending how long this car ride is going to be. “It’s…”
“That green grassy goddess,” Shane finishes for me.
“Do you mean…?” My mom starts and, after I pull out the huge bag of weed, she simply says, “Oh.”
“Now dig in there and find my pipe,” Shane instructs nonchalantly. “Oh, wait – I’ve got it right here! Give me that weed.”
I hand over the Ziploc bag and watch, stunned, as Shane simultaneously drives, sings and packs a bowl. Sara is now pinching my side, her look one that says, What the hell do we do now? As if I know. My mom is staring straight ahead, her eyes wide and her face stoic. I can tell she’s thinking over our options. Seemingly deciding on one, she addresses our driver, who is now wrestling with a bag of weed and the steering wheel.
“You know, Shane, we really appreciate you driving us all the way to Shelter Cove, but it’s still a three hour drive,” My mom starts nicely. “If you want to drop us off, it’s not a big deal, we can hitchhike the rest of the way up. You’re going to have such a long drive back down to your home.” Earlier in the drive, Shane told us that he is from Klamath Falls, about fifteen minutes away from where he picked us up. Shelter Cove Resort is three hours away from where he picked us up.
“I said it before, I’ll say it again,” Shane manages, still packing a tight bowl in his rusty pipe. “If yer payin’ for gas, I’m drivin’ you girls wherever you need to go!” He says it almost aggressively, swerving to the right over the rumble strip meant to wake up drivers who have fallen asleep on the long country road. The car jolts over the strip for at least ten seconds before Shane yanks the wheel left and we make a wide curve across two lanes of traffic on the highway, settling back in the right-hand lane.
It’s official. From the very beginning of the drive, I wondered if Shane was quirky or crazy. I look over at him now: his eyes are focused on the pipe in his lap, his legs are pressed hard against the steering wheel, his hands are busy packing the weed from the Ziploc into his pipe. There’s no arguing it. He’s crazy. He may be nice enough and well intentioned and not likely to advertently kill us, but he is also undeniably, unstably, very quirkily crazy. As if to cement my point, he zips up the bag of weed, puts it back in the glove box and hands me the pipe.
“Hey would you mind lighting this for me?” Shane asks.
My mom is stoic again. My sister is in a fit of silent giggles. I’m astounded. Would he be offended if I turned him down? Would he care? Would he think that I thought I was better than him? Would he feel judged? Would me turning his offer down result in a dangerous reaction that could land the rusty white truck in a ditch on the 140? And – the most important question of them all – what kind of incurable disease was I likely to get by smoking out of Shane’s dirty pipe?
I look to my mom for an out. “Well,” I ventured, “I would be okay with smoking weed, but I don’t know how my mom would feel about it…” Trailing off, I look once more to my mom, who – shrugs her shoulders?!
“Ah!” Shane exclaims. “I knew I liked you girls!” He hands the pipe over to me, overflowing with tiny dried up pot leaves. “There’s a lighter ‘round here somewhere…” He rustles around his feet, his cup holder, the glove box. “Eh, just use these matches.”
He tosses me the matches. I hand the pipe to Sara while I light a match. Then, taking the pipe back from my sister, I hold the gritty piece up to my mouth and ignite the green mound in the bowl. I inhale.
Coughing, I make to hand the pipe over to him, but he says, “No, it’s ok. Smoke all that you want to.” So I take another hit. Then another one. If you can’t beat ‘em… I think, after taking my third hit. I hand the pipe back to Shane, where I warily watch as he proceeds to smoke and drive.
We are coasting along Highway 97 now, Sara is watching her iPhone tell her that we have three more hours to go until we reach our destination. A long lake is beside the car, Klamath Lake, Shane tells us, proudly boasting that it is the largest manmade lake in the world (it is the largest freshwater body of water in Oregon, but it is not manmade nor is it the largest of its sort in the entire world). Shane’s comments have gotten more and more slurred and unintelligible. He starts murmuring things quietly to my mother, I can pick out small phrases: “I seen some people die over there”, “I hear Jesus tell me what he wants me to do”, “There has been blood all over this part of the highway”. My mom, trying to keep her cool and figure out what to do next, merely nods and says back, “Mmhm.”
Shane and I are now high. As he passes his freshly packed pipe back to me for a third time, I discretely smoke it then slowly edge the glove box open and slide it in, hoping he won’t notice. He doesn’t. He is happily swerving from lane to lane, tailgating people though there is a passing lane, cursing at people who let him pass and drumming along to the radio all the while. We hold our breath and hope that we can make it for three more hours without any bodily harm.
An hour goes by and we are still on the 97. We pass the turn off for Crater Lake and stare longingly. I wonder what it would have been like to hike into Crater Lake, which is supposed to be the most beautiful part of the Oregon section. It all seems so funny to me, where we are now as opposed to where we thought we would be at this point – ten miles into a daily hike and five days away from Crater Lake. But with three thumbs, some gas money and a crazy driver, we find ourselves here, on the highway, passing by Crater Lake in two hours, a feat that should have taken us five days. I almost laugh at the hilarity of it until I feel that familiar swerve and the old white truck rumbles off of the highway to a halting stop on the side of the road.
“What’s wrong?” My sister asks, anxiously looking at her phone, urging us onward.
“I think I saw my cousin back there,” Shane says, putting his arm outstretched on our seatbacks and, looking over his shoulder, backing up next to cars whooshing past at frenzied speeds in the opposite direction. “He’d be pissed if I didn’t say hi.”
And with that, Shane pulls a U-turn on the highway, pulling out in front of a huge, speeding semi. Our white truck stalls and Shane curses at his gearshift as the semi truck screeches to a halt, barely stopping itself from crashing right into my sister and I. With a honk and a middle finger, the semi driver veers into the other lane, making a wide circle around our stopped car, and continues his drive southbound. My heart is pounding and tears leap to my eyes. This isn’t funny anymore, the fast that he’s crazy doesn’t make me laugh anymore, his smoking and swerving and drumming aren’t just silly passing jokes anymore. For the first time in this car, I realize that our lives are actually in danger. I could actually die, along with my mother and my sister, on the side of this Oregon highway.
“I saw him at this motel up here,” Shane says once we are properly turned around and headed south, apparently ignorant to the scene that just unfolded.
A sign erupts ahead out of the flat landscape. It is a faded pastel pink Motel sign, ancient light bulbs surround the sign like the ones from retro Vegas ads. A shining red Vacancy shimmers off of the sign, the unlit No beside it forever begging to be turned on. Shane turns slowly into the parking lot and creeps deliberately along the sparse row of cars. A gravel road rests beside the motel and goes on toward a speck of forest in the distance. Shane is quiet and for the first time I wonder if I have judged his crazy innocence wrongly. I see the speck of forest in the distance, the isolation that surrounds us, the obvious absence of a cousin and I wonder if we are about to be driven right into an episode of Dateline. I look to my mom and she is thinking the same thing, she pats the knife in her pant leg pocket, her fingers wrapping around the hilt, ready for the slightest provocation. I do the same, my brother-in-law’s hulking serrated knife now not seeming to be as overzealous as I thought it might be.
“Nah, he ain’t here,” Shane says, and with a quick, “Sorry girls,” He whips his truck around and has us back on the 97 heading north in no time.
The tension leaks out of my back slowly, my prickled senses refusing to back down after they had been so carefully raised. Eventually, though, I sit as comfortably as I can back in my sister’s lap and we both watch as the miles tick down on her iPhone. Each mile safely conquered feels like a miracle. We have only an hour to go until we are safe.
With forty miles left, we pass a dead deer in the middle of the road and have to swerve to miss it. “Looks like dinner,” I joke to my mom. I am thrown forward as the truck slams to a stop and veers to the side of the road. My eyes widen in shock as Shane throws the truck into reverse and backs up on the highway, with cars passing and honking while speeding past us. He stops with the deer to our left, separated from us by two lanes of the highway.
“I was joking…” I say feebly, unable to process that Shane could be crazier than he already seemed.
“Be right back girls,” Shane says, jumping out of the car and running to the middle of the road. He grabs the deer by its hind legs and, puffing, he drags it to the edge of the road. He lowers the hatch of his pickup and tries to heave the deer into the back and, inevitably, onto our backpacks. I watch through the rear view mirror. My sister erupts in a fit of giggles and I have to join her. My mom is tense. “Stop laughing,” She tells us, though a smirk works its way onto her stern face. She is trying to stop herself from laughing when we hear a noise from behind us. We look outside, Shane is grunting and heaving, trying to throw the deer in the back. After three failed attempts, though, he closes the hatch and, leaving the deer on the side of the road, gets back into his car. We are composed and solemn now. He looks at us and says, “The one that got away!” And we laugh a little too eagerly along with him.
As Shane turns the keys to start the car, we see a silver Scion that had been parked in front of us peel off. Shane follows the Scion, quickly throwing the car onto the highway and ensuing in a quick chase, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging cars and drawing the angry honks of Memorial Day drivers. The Scion turns a bend and disappears.
“She told me that she wanted my help,” Shane says, shaking his head, “Even though I don’t know her from Adam.”
Another mid-highway screech. Another mid-highway U-turn. Another close call as we stall in the middle of the highway. We are headed southbound again in pursuit of the silver Scion.
“I swear she said she wanted my help,” Shane says. “I think I saw her pull into this place.” We turn into a diner parking lot. Sure enough, a silver Scion is parked nearby the restaurant. Two boys sit beside it, dark haired and young. Their faces are tan and their gaze is squinty as they raise their eyes to the rusty white truck that is stopped in front of them.
“Hey!” Shane shouts at them out of my rolled-down window. “Is this your Scion?”
The boys sit confused and slightly scared. I can’t blame them. A toothless man is yelling at them across three grungy looking women in matching headscarves out of a dinged up old truck. Shane tries again.
“Hey, uh, hablamos Mexicanios?” He says, wrongly assuming that the dark-haired boys are Hispanic and even more wrongly speaking gibberish to them.
The boys are petrified now, so I chime in.
“Is that your car?” I ask.
Whether it is or not, the boys shake their heads vigorously in unison and Shane growls angrily and peels off, spinning his car around and turning back onto the highway.
“You know Shane,” My mom says, “There’s still about an hour to go until we get to Shelter Cove, your gas tank is below the halfway mark, we really don’t want to impose on your generosity any longer.” Her voice is pleading, almost begging him to be sensible. After all, what sane person would drive three women six cumulative hours out of his way in exchange for a full tank of gas? At this, Shane looks slowly over at my mom, his sunglasses sliding down his sunburnt nose. My mom adds, “It’s still an hour, which makes it another two hours out of your way from here.”
“So?” Shane says definitively, pushing his sunglasses up his nose and turning his gaze back to the road, effectively ending the conversation with his flippant answer.
We all look at each other and then at Sara’s phone, which is slowly ticking away, mile after mile, minute after minute. We suppose that we’ll just have to clench our teeth a bit longer. It’s only an hour, I think. Twenty minutes pass and Shane has now taken to honking fervently at passing cars and throwing up some sort of hand signals, to which most people just stare uncomprehendingly. One confused driver returned the hand signal, a look of uncertainty written on his face.
“Hey can you turn the radio down?” Shane asks my mom. “I’m driving.” He says this while drumming on his horn, his attention more focused on getting the notice of other drivers than on the feat of driving. “Holy shit, is he serious?” He exclaims suddenly, pulling off of the highway for a third time and flipping around to head in the opposite direction.
“What now?” My mom asks, exasperated.
“I saw my cousin back there again,” Shane says. “I’ve got to say hi or he will be so mad.”
We wheel around into the parking lot of an empty restaurant, making a winding loop around the cracked concrete. Shane is looking inside empty cars, fruitlessly searching for his elusive cousin. He pulls into a spot and just sits in his seat, silent.
“Hey Shane, can we go to the bathroom?” My sister asks.
“Hell yeah!” Shane says, resuming his happy-go-lucky demeanor, seemingly shaking away the dire silence that had overcome his disposition so quickly.
My sister and mom leave me alone with Shane. I step out of the truck and stretch my legs. Shane follows me, standing beside his beat-up truck with me, looking across the flat expanse of dirt and stretching out.
“You know,” Shane says, “I used to date this girl when I was younger who lived around here. I loved her a lot.”
“Really?” I ask interestedly, trying to turn back the clock on Shane’s life, before the drugs, the sun, the labor turned his shyly handsome features into the hardened and scratched leather surface that it was now. I replaced the gaps in his smile with white teeth, filled in the dark wrinkles with twenty years of daily moisturising, detoxified the widened pupils, erased the cloudy film that seemed to hover over his eyes, heavy and disorienting, shaved the prickly stubble that haunted his sunken cheeks, fed the bony skeleton of a body that girls in the nineties would have envied, replaced the ripped jeans and too-short tee shirt with fitted chinos and a quilted sweater. The phantom of the Shane who had walked a different path was undeniably handsome, his easy smile and hearty laugh was indicative of his confidence instead of a result of his drug-addled mind.
“Yeah,” Shane replies. “Her dad owned Crater Lake.”
I just nod as the phantom disappears, giving way to this man who stands in front of me, stretching his arms over his head as one would when they’ve just woken up. His arms lift his shirt and I see a snaking path of well-defined ribs, a happy trail that is framed by bony hips, the light jeans threatening to fall off after a couple more days of light eating.
I’m saved of needing to reply as my mom and sister come around the corner of the restaurant. We all pile into the car again, now only forty minutes away from our destination.
“Hold on,” Shane says. “I gotta go do something.”
And with that, he left us alone in his car and went into the back door of the restaurant.
“Mom, I think we should get out here and hitchhike to Shelter Cove,” I say.
“We only have forty minutes left,” My mom says. “We’ve stuck it out this far, we can do forty more minutes.”
“Yeah, if we don’t die first from some accident!” I counter. “We’re lucky to be alive right now, to be honest. He drives so badly, he’s high, he tailgates. He might not mean to, but he could very well kill us in this next forty minutes.”
“Look,” My mom says. “We have a ride. If we try to hitchhike, we could be sticking our thumbs out for much longer than forty minutes. Forty more minutes of stress and then it will all be over. Just forty more minutes.”
It was all or none. If my mom wanted to stay, we all had to. Shane stumbles out of the restaurant door, practically falling down the concrete stairs that lead him back to the car. We stop talking and look at Shane. His eyes are wide open, his motions are jerky, he seems to have developed a tic in his neck, every ten seconds his shoulder rises in a spasm. He climbs into the car.
“Hey girls, you want some speed?” He offers kindly.
My mom and I shake our heads and say in unison, “No.”
Sara folds her hands in her lap and says back politely, “No, but thank you so much for the offer.”
“Suit yourself,” He says, whipping the truck into gear and squealing out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.
After about fifteen minutes, we turn off of the 97 and onto Highway 58. Almost immediately after turning off, Shane comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the highway, the woman driving behind us has to wildly swerve to avoid rear-ending us. She honks angrily at us and Shane honks back, shouting “Fucking bitch!” at the disappearing car.
“My gas is getting low,” Shane says, “I think I’m going to go home.”
He pulls over to the side of the road and we all get out. I’m a mix of feeling relieved and nervous – we do still have to find a ride to Shelter Cove, about thirty miles away. But getting out of Shane’s car brought with it a huge rush of thankfulness, excitement and relief. I climb into the back of his truck and lower down our packs.
“Hey,” Shane says, beckoning me over to him. “You got a bag or something?”
I dig in my pack and fish out a brown paper lunch bag. He turns on his heel and searches his truck for something. My nerves mount again as I wonder what he could possibly be getting. He returns with a fistful of weed and, motioning to my paper bag, stuffs it with two more handfuls. I’m shocked but I manage to get out a confused but heartfelt thank you and he nods as though he’s done his duty. I lower my pack to the ground and jump out of the truck, going to stand with Sara and my mom on the side of the highway. Shane walks over to us. I wonder how we’ll depart. Will it be a wave? A handshake? A salute?
Shane throws his arms around the three of us, mumbling a very emotional, “Love you girls,” into my neck, where his face is buried. When he pulls away, I can see tears gathering in his cloudy eyes.
“We love you too, Shane,” My mom says, handing him forty more dollars. “Thank you for driving us this far.”
“It was no problem,” He says, taking the money and stashing it in his back pocket. He waves goodbye, gets in the cab and speeds away. We watch his car drive off into the horizon, the sun falling lower in the pale blue sky. And with our packs clipped and tightened, our boots relaced and our hair pulled back, we walk in a straight line, pounding out our familiar beat with the soles of our boots and the dust of the road. My heart is full and pumping. It is stretched to capacity with an unfamiliar combination of fear, adventure, passion, courage, anxiety, determination.
I extend my hand and stick my thumb out bravely to the highway, the PCT, the world.