By Tamim Ansary
Twenty years after graduating from Reed College, I went back to Portland for a college reunion. My friends smiled when I told them my plan. One of them said, “A reunion! I hate that kind of thing: wallowing in the good old days, it’s sentimental.” Another said, “A reunion! I hate that kind of thing, everybody competing to show off what they’ve become and how successful they are.”
Those objections did not resonate for me. I didn’t know what I wanted from the reunion, but it wasn’t to wallow or strut. It wasn’t even about the reunion, actually. I was making a pilgrimage back to Portland, where I had spent my first six years after graduation. In that era, countless clusters of us lived in communal houses scattered throughout southeast Portland. We who lived in those houses had far-flung history with one another, intricate connections that gave our relationships a complexity rivaling that of the extended families, clans, and tribal networks I had grown up with in Afghanistan. Any of us could walk into any of those communal houses and be among friends. And some of those folks still lived in Portland. Going north for the reunion wasn’t really about going back to Reed. It was more about going back to visit the Portland I knew after Reed, in those six counterculture years.
And besides, I hadn’t hit the road for a while, and hittin’-the-road was an impulse that still lingered in me from the Portland years, even though I was now a married man, a father, a homeowner, a respectable freelance educational writer. Hittin’ the road was a thing we did routinely back then, people like us: when we felt depressed—when we felt elated—when we felt ourselves falling into a rut—when we felt ourselves clicking on all cylinders… If a hat dropped anywhere on earth, we were off. Or at least I was.
I don’t know why I thought of this trip back to Portland as a “pilgrimage” though. I must have been back at least twenty times since leaving town. And I have to say, as I drove north that summer, memories of all the other times crowded into my head. It wasn’t easy to separate which things had happened when because, in some odd way, everything that is past feels equally long ago, does it not? and bits of earlier journeys kept showing through layers of the later ones, as if all the journeys were storyboards painted on transparent cels. This journey had a different texture only because it was actual, not remembered; but that was an illusory distinction, for I knew that someday, this too would be a set of memories faintly visible through later memories to an even older me.
Usually, I took I-5 back to Portland, but this time I chose 101, the coastal highway, to the California border. It’s the slower way to go, but I wanted the better scenery.
Just past Santa Rosa, I saw a hitchhiker with hair to his shoulders and black boots on his feet. He carried nothing in his hands and nothing on his back. I was reminded of my own self blithely hitching across the continent at nineteen. I let up on the gas but as I got closer, the lighthearted 19-year-old dissolved into a guy who was closer to his mid-forties. He looked tough, too. Even from a distance, I sensed the case-hardened slate of his eyes and spotted aggression in the set of his jaw. The sleeves of his blue work shirt had been torn off, revealing muscular arms covered with tattoos. I had slowed down, but now I speeded up. His face dropped into a scowl and his eyes darkened, and I felt guilty. I had given him hope and then snatched it away, but I wasn’t about to change my mind.
A fleeting question passed through me. When did it shift? When did hitchhikers stop being fresh-faced eager young college students and become tattooed forty year olds who had just broken out of prison? I put the quesiton out of my mind and kept driving. I was in Ukiah, or maybe Willits, getting gas, when a spunky-looking older woman knocked on my window and asked if she could get a ride up the road. She wore a flamboyant sunhat, and a jean jacket hand-embroidered with beads, a look I knew well from the counterculture days. I said sure, assuming that she lived in town somewhere. As soon as I started driving, we fell to chatting. She regaled me with striking anecdotes about adventures she had weathered, all of which I have now forgotten, but it sounded like her whole life had been like my early years. She was grateful to have ended up here at last, she said, in this placid backwater of a rural town, living with a younger couple.
Her grown child and his or her spouse, I presumed?
No, no, she said. No, just good friends, good friends but they had children. And what about me? Did I, by any chance—?
I interrupted to ask her whereabouts she lived, because we seemed to be reaching the outskirts of town. She gestured vaguely up ahead. “Over there…”
And where exactly did she want to be let off?
Not far now… She’d let me know. Getting back to her question, though—did I have children, by any chance?
Yes, I did, I informed her—one child. Our little Jessy. The apple of my eyes. And then—somehow–I found myself gushing on about fatherhood to this random hitchhiker. How old was Jessy, she wanted to know? Ah, six! A wonderful age! Did I ever take her to the zoo? Funny she should bring up the zoo. I was just thinking about the first time Jessy glimpsed a giraffe. It was a hilarious anecdote, and when I told it, my passenger laughed so hard, I felt proud of my story-telling skills. And was Jessy in a good after-school program, she asked? It must be so hard for working parents. I had to sigh. How did she know about our recent difficulties with after-school programs? She had a knack, this old woman, for popping just the right question. Maybe she had been a journalist at one time. When my voice finally ran down, she said she knew exactly what I meant. The family she’d been living with? They had two children, such dear little things, and taking care of them was her role in the home. Oh, she was very good with children. She began quoting testimonials from the many different families whose children she had taken care of. What about me, she asked? Did my wife and I need someone to live with us and take care of little Jessy?
I said no and asked again: where was she headed exactly?
“Just up the road,” she repeated, even though we had no passed beyond the outskirts of town and were in the country. That’s when it dawned on me. This old woman had already reached her destination. Getting into my car had been her goal. Now she was just trying to stay lodged in there long enough to forge a life-changing connection that would inspire me to invite her into my home as a member of our family and put my daughter in her care.
It was so not going to happen. But we were on the open highway, and what was I going to do with her? Finally, I forced her to specify a destination: Eureka, she said glumly. Eureka was a hundred miles away, but I said okay and gave her a ride all that way, even though both of us knew nothing awaited her there. I stopped in the middle of that lonesome-looking coastal town, near a string of cheap-looking motels. The old woman got out reluctantly. The day was ending, night would be upon us soon. A light drizzle of rain was beginning. Pretty clearly she had no place to stay, but I couldn’t help asking, “What’s your plan?”
She leaned down and looked at me through the window. “I don’t know, sir. To tell you the truth, I’m a little bit scared.”
I gave her two twenty-dollar bills, which was everything I had in my wallet. It didn’t matter to me, I had credit cards. “Well,” I said, “get yourself a room for the night.”
The rest went unsaid. What about after tonight? Good luck, and fare thee well.
I know which year this happened because I was on my way to my 20th college reunion, which must have been 1990. That’s when it must have been that hitchhikers stopped being college students on the brink of life and became broken down older folks with no place to go.