Time is an invisible ghost that slips in and out of our consciousness. It can only be seen within the tracks that it leaves behind.
The kid caught me by surprise. With no chance to consider what I was doing, I pulled off to the side of the road, stopped and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Where you headed?” I had to yell at him so he’d hear me above the sound of the traffic roaring down Interstate 90.
“I need to go down to where I-90 joins I-25,” he answered as he stuck his head into the window. His face was young with a glow of red cheeks and no signs of lines or wrinkles. “Should I just throw this in the back?”
“Sure,” I answered as he opened the rear door and laid his backpack in the back of the car. It was actually closer to what you’d call a knapsack; sort of a soft brown canvas job like you’d have seen back in the 1960s. As he got in the front seat and buckled up I noticed his T-shirt and shorts were the same reddish-tan color as the knapsack, the same color as his hair and his complexion.
“I’m headed down to just north of Sheridan so I can get you at least a couple hours down the trail.”
“Great,” he answered. “I just need to figure out where I’m going.”
Now he was getting my attention. I waited for his story.
“I’m hiking the Continental Divide. Got shut out of northern New Mexico by the fires and made it to Bozeman. I’m trying to get back down there so I can get that missing 100 miles done. Maybe if I can get to Rawlins, I can head down that way and hike it north to south.”
“Wow, good for you man.” I glanced over at him as we drove down the road. This guy was for sure not from around these parts. “Where are you from?”
“Well, not from here,” he answered evasively.
The country rolled by the windshield, and I waited during the silence that time allowed us. I guessed him to be from a city, all fresh and looking for himself in the expanses of the West. I’d been that guy long ago.
“I’m a long-haul trucker for most of the year. Summers I take off and cover ground,” he added by way of explanation.
“Awesome! That’s just what you’re supposed to be doing,” I cheered. “You always travel alone?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “A couple years ago I paddled my canoe from Three Forks, Montana, to Saint Louis.” He was silent for a minute and then spoke again. “There’s a trail that goes all the way down the West Coast and through South America. Maybe that’ll be my grand finale.”
Long-ago images began to creep into my mind: the black shiny boot of a park ranger as it kicked my pocket knife away from my head and off the wooden bench I’d been sleeping on in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; the roofless KOA bathroom in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where I curled up on the floor as a tornado killed six people outside during its romp through the country; endless miles between places that had no hold on me.
“What do you do?” he asked. He seemed genuinely interested.
“I used to do a little of what you’re doing. Really I guess I spend most of my time looking for stories.”
He looked at me, his bright blue eyes questioning, shining with innocence. “Stories?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m a songwriter, a storyteller.”
It was his turn to be impressed. “Wow. Like, you sing and play? How long have you been doing that?”
I turned my head toward him and tried out the words. “Fifty years.”
“Wow,” he said quietly, looking straight ahead. “I’d sure like to do that.”
“Nothing holding you back. I’ve got three boys about your age. They all write, sing and play. You could too.”
“Man,” he said. “You lived back in the good times. Things were an adventure back then. Now everybody’s getting into everybody else’s space.”
As we rolled along he asked me about the lunar eclipse, Custer Battlefield and ranch life. I was surprised at how little he knew about what he’d seen in all the miles that he’d traveled. And then, much as we’d begun, we were pulling off the interstate.
“Find your story son. Follow your gut and keep your eyes open.”
“Thanks,” he replied as he got out of the car. A storm was beginning to blow in.
I glanced over my shoulder as I drove off. He had his thumb up and was headed south with a song that sounded like yesterday. It moved to the beat of his boots on the ground.