Roadside Messiah

The rain started slowly, a single gentle tap on the nylon above my head, but enough to wake me from my mediocre, uneven snooze.  Then another.  And another.  Then twenty more in rapid succession, and eventually the steady hiss of liquid being poured rather than rationed. I probably grinned, thinking of the layers of waterproof material between the water and myself.  I rolled over and tried to fix my makeshift pillow–a pile of clothes including ketchup-stained jeans, a crusty fleece jacket, and a clean t-shirt on top–before letting my head and smug smile collapse, reconnecting with my delirium in seconds.  The ground under my back had a strange concave, like a shallow hammock sunk into the Earth, though it was much less comfortable than it looked when I pitched the tent.  It provided a sort of half-sleep.  The kind of sleep that doesn’t feel like sleep, but when you actually wake up in the morning, must wearily admit that it probably was because you don’t remember anything.  But it wasn’t morning yet, more like three am, and I was satisfied knowing that the rain couldn’t get me and I still had four hours to achieve a REM state.  Storms were part of the hitchhiking experience, living with the elements, life on the fly; a welcome addition to the adventure of travel-by-thumb.

The days leading up to the rainstorm had been incredible.  I left Christchurch on a Tuesday, me with my bulging backpack squeezed into the handicap seat of the last Metro bus heading North–butterflies in my stomach and absolutely nothing in my head.  I gazed out the window at the low scrub brush dotting the edge of the road and grumbling cars wandering the other direction, into civilization.  My first hitchhike.  An open adventure, a chance to experience the mystique of having no plan and no schedule.  And no guarantees.  The bus lurched to a stop and the driver muttered something over his shoulder, either “piss off, ay” or “this stop, ay”.  I couldn’t make it out.  The metal frame of my backpack groaned as I lifted it onto my shoulders, and the driver probably did too as I assaulted him with my over-enthusiastic smile while simultaneously lodging myself in the bus door.  Only temporary.  A couple wiggles, a “cheers,” and I was off.

I don’t remember the first people who picked me up.  It could have been the British couple who seemed to be on the honeymoon from hell or perhaps a gameshow of Newly Wed and Miserable or even participating in a science experiment about failed socialization.  It might have been the father/daughter combo that involved an awkward triangle of furtive glances in the rearview mirror, or it could have been the young Kiwi in a fohawk and wifebeater who offered me beers and drank them himself while pointing out potential spots to throw a “mental party” sometime.  There were those and so many others.  They all blend together, 20 kilometers to the next intersection, another ten, a glorious 50.  I really didn’t care.  I was determined to keep my smile.  Nothing could stop me.  Each ride, the same routine:  Car stops, I hobble over with my bulging home slung on a shoulder, throw it in the back, get in the car, and ready…set…go!  Rapid fire questions.

“Hey thanks so much for pulling over!”

“Oh.  No problem ay.  Where ya off to?”

“I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  Anywhere.  North.  Might try to get to Nelson.  I heard Kaikura is great.  Do you know about the weather?  Where do you live?”

“Uhm.  Alright, sweet as, well, uhm I live up in Picton, yeah.  Not sure about the weather.  Yea, I’ll drop ya off in Kaikura eh?”

“Sure sounds great.  I’m stoked to see it.  What do you think about New Zealand?  I’ve only been here three months.  I fucking love it, so great.  Do you ski?”
And on and on it would go.  Etcetera.  Et. Al.

I had a few nights between my origination point and the rainstorm, nights of camping on the beach, camping back in the woods, camping in people’s yards.  They had been wonderful nights, made possible through the kindness of humble stewards in a beautiful land, sweeping my pie-eyed twenty-year-old self up and pulling me along on a mission that I was convinced would lead to ever more meaning, metaphysical or otherwise.  I talked too much but nobody seemed to care; they were glad to share in my enthusiasm for their homeland.  And I was just glad to be alive.  In four days of spontaneous glory I gave the Universe my unwavering trust.  It felt like a secret was revealed, an attitude shifted, a corner turned.  So it’s no wonder that I put my head back down with that smile, that innocent smile of life before Life.

Because the sleep had been so spotty, I wasn’t sure what was happening when I noticed a pencil floating near my face.  It could have been a dream.  I was in my tent after all, curled up in my winter bag, rainfly still securely connected.  I could have ignored it, smiled again, and gone back to bed, back into layers of dreams upon dreams.  But then I wiggled my toes.  Yep. That’s water.  Yep.  That pencil’s floating, for real.  Fuck.

I sat up with an urgent lurch.  Electronics.  Where are the electronics.  FUCK.  iPod, check.  Phone, check.  Wallet, FUCK.  My wallet was stashed in the hanging-but now-underwater pocket.  I yanked it out–completely soaked.  Headlamp: Upper net.  Still dry.  Phew.  I put it on and surveyed the scene.  The shallow hammock, that inviting shape that seemed so perfect just hours before had become a muddy bathtub.  In my haste to leave home, I forgot a tarp.  My backpack and its innards–the clothing pillow, a notebook, a non-fiction book, a cooking stove, etc–lay in soggy shambles near the foot of my sleeping bag.  Even the top of the tent was soaking.

I couldn’t hear the rain any longer, but it was still dark.  My long underwear leggings were  also wet, stuck to my legs like some sort of frigid adhesive.  Only my chest and stomach were spared the watery fate.  My brain seemed to be moving at an appropriately swamp-like pace as I sat in the slosh, staring blankly at the thin beam of light illuminating the disaster.  My emotions were lagging, waiting for my mind to shift gears and valiantly figure out how the adventure could continue.  “No,” my body seemed to say, “we’re going to withhold a response like an adulterous politician: Official statement forthcoming”.  The seconds clicked and my genitals shrank in the cold water.  My mind took note, then back to baseline.  Dismay.  How many dreams were broken that night, I’ll never know.  My body began to lunge.  Wet articles disappearing into the murky confines of my pack, shoving motions amidst vile semantics.

Daylight was breaking as I pulled myself dripping and defeated out of the tent.  I heaved my pack off to the side and said fuck again.  I gave my shelter a final death stare, furious at the rainfly for delivering all the water into the ground hammock.  My dismantling of the tent felt permanent and I didn’t care if I ripped it as I pushed the poles out and collapsed them.  Soon, the only thing left was the nylon itself, a blue and white shell flopped like a grocery bag in a mud puddle.  “Fuck you Kelty.”  I rolled it up and stuffed it into the bag.  Then I dragged everything over to the primitive bathroom and sat perched underneath the awning, watching the grey sunrise as I wished for a cigarette.

Other people in the camp began to stir, to awaken, to heed the call of nature.  I looked up at them as they wandered, squish squish squish, to the bathroom.

“Man.  That rain, it totally flooded my tent last night!  Check it out.  Look, I’m soaked!”

“What?  Oh.  Hehe.  Yeah, thankful I had the camper.”

And that was all.  In they go, take care of business, then back out, squish squish squish, into the camper.  This enraged me even more.  If I had been a Christian, I’d have renounced the faith right there.  But I was not lucky enough to have dogma to exact my revenge upon.  No, all I had was the nebulous and infantile belief that the Universe was built to take care of me.  It left just as quickly, just as flightily, as it had come.  I was simply there, bereft of my briefly inhabited paradise, stranded at a campsite in clothing that nobody would ever want in their car.

I sat there in a despondent hunch a while longer and observed the growing activity, doing mental calculations–converting kilometers to miles and back to kilometers; days to hours to minutes; despair-hope-despair.  I had made it four days/96 hours/5,760 minutes.  The number haunted me.  There’s never been an epic poem or a lyrical ballad about a four day adventure.  A flood?  Maybe.  But all the floods that wash the pages of history involved at least one of the following:  Divine madness, a life or death decision, a real boat, God, abundant amounts of animals, or all of the above.  New Zealand doesn’t have a single predatory species, and I didn’t have a boat. I decided to go home.  But how?  Answer: Hundreds of kilometers, completely saturated, by thumb.  I figured the odds of making it back to Christchurch in one day were around 30 percent, leaving me with a 70 percent chance of either camping through another rainstorm or spending money I didn’t have to sleep in a hotel.  And that’s only if someone was nice enough to pick up a depressed sponge.

The sun was well up by this time, a bleached orb, hanging like a dusty cellar lightbulb in the bleak, featureless sky.  The river raged above its banks, frothing a dirty hostile brown at the edge of the campground, accenting the relentless green of kiwi forest.  The trees were fine.  They were dripping, slouching with the weight of fresh precipitation–but in their silence they were patient, thankful even, for the sudden opportunity to quench their thirst.  Suddenly–maybe a tree beamed it to me–I had an idea.

The campground had a canteen, a little general store made of logs that sold overpriced coffee, week-old croissants, bug spray, and all the candy you could dream of.  It would probably be open by now…yes, yes it was definitely open considering somebody just walked in.  I gazed from my outhouse perch to the canteen a hundred slushy meters away.  Moving would involve participating in my predicament.  No longer would I be an inert microbe at the whim of nature’s blind condemnation.  To enter that structure would mean acknowledging my role, accepting that I was a player in my own salvation.  Even though I wanted to pout a little longer, I knew the time had come.  I picked up my stuff and trudged over, relishing the fleeting moments of feeling sorry for myself.

The lighting inside was what you’d expect out of a log cabin in a rainstorm.  A few uncovered bulbs buzzed with a golden halogen warmth, attracting moths and allowing the food to appear edible.  At the very least, it was dry.  I approached the counter and tried not to return the sympathetic smile from the woman standing behind the cash register, although I was only partially successful.  It’s almost impossible for me to not return a smile, even amidst an existential crisis.

“Ay, morning.  You get stuck out in that rain there last night?”

“Yep.  Sure did.  Hitchhiking too.  Now…now I don’t know what I’m doing.  Trying to dry out I guess.  For starters.”

“Yea, you look right soaked.  What’d you do, forget to put the rain cover on ay?”

“No.  It was on.  I set up my tent in a small valley.  I just figured that it was so nice yesterday…I donno.  I guess I just didn’t really think about where I was setting up.  It was dumb.”

She chuckled.  “Reckon you’ve never camped in New Zealand before, then?”

I nodded.  “Not until this trip.”

“Yea, the rain’ll pop up quick, ay.”  She smiled again, then back to business.  “What can I getchya?”

Back at the table, I resumed my hunch, allowing the steam of burned coffee to infiltrate my nose.  Her words bounced through my mind.  Something about the Kiwi accent always sounds upbeat.  Chipper.  Abnormally optimistic.  Maybe it’s the way they say “ay!” after every statement, or the fact that they sound almost British but have shucked the boring etiquette, or simply that they are actually, really, genuinely happy about living on an island paradise at the edge of the world.  Even though the coffee was shit, I was starting to feel better.  My pants were drying from the crotch outward, my brain was coming to terms with the miscarriage of my trip, and I had to admit that being inside a cabin always stirs up some fuzzy nostalgia.

Over the next few hours I built and tried to maintain a sugar rush (candy being the cheapest thing in the store) while asking each customer if they were heading toward Christchurch.  None of them were.  Or perhaps I hadn’t tucked my still-soggy backpack far enough under the table.  As I waited, I finished the crossword and read the trite jokes contained in the Kiwi version of the “friendly coffeehouse entertainment publication” that has become so popular these days.  I tried to come up with my own jokes, but couldn’t get past “knock knock”.  I switched my strategy and started asking people which direction they were heading and watched as they played private games of Russian Roulette, hoping whichever direction they chose was opposite mine.  I subtly checked my armpits and eventually stopped eating sugar, thinking it was my deranged energy of faux-friendliness and blue tongue that was scaring them away.  The woman behind the counter was sending me dirty looks, all signs of her earlier sympathy having evaporated with the water in my pants.   By the time noon arrived, I’d come full circle and had my head planted down on the table, wondering how I would commit suicide considering New Zealand didn’t allow guns.

After another ten minutes of wallowing, fifteen at most, I saw the woman at the register point toward me as she rung up tea and muffins for an elderly couple.  I heard the word Christchurch.  I put death on hold.  After paying, they came over and sat down at the table next to mine, obviously eager to chat.

“Hello there.  Got a little wet last night we heard.”  The accent was American.  I could talk to these people.  Or at the very least, pay them.

“Yeah.  I set up my tent in a stupid spot.  I was trying to hitchhike up to Nelson but I’m so wet I think I’m just going to go home.”

“Home.  That’s in Christchurch?”

“Yep.  For the next year, at least.”

“Well.  We’re heading that way.  Not all the way to Christchurch, but we can get you to the main highway.”

“Really? That would be amazing!”

They nodded cozy grandparent smiles.

“Thank you so much.  It’s been a long day.”

“No problem.  We’ll just finish our food, and then we’ll be off.  That sound alright?”

“That’s absolutely perfect.”

I murmured a weak thanks and goodbye as I stepped out of the Jeep, gulping down fresh air.  My mind was locked up with bits of trivia about Cleveland, the GDP of Cincinnati, places to avoid in Akron and why Lebron James will be the best of all time.  It was one of those rides that can’t end soon enough.  Hitchhiking carries the risk of winding up in a car with people you have nothing in common with, and this…was that.  They were nice folks, sure.  I just really didn’t care to know the state flower of Ohio as my feet festered in the microclimate of my leather wetlands.  I suppose it was a taste of being on the other side of things, listening instead of talking.  Maybe even learning.

No matter.  I was free of them and their midwest fever and the reality of the next step hit me with the first gust of wind.  The day was already getting chilly and I looked up at the sky to see the same cataract of shapeless cloud staring back at me.  In the distance, things were darker and I noticed the streaky blur of the horizon.  I couldn’t tell which way it was blowing, but based on how things were going, I had an idea.  I sighed and then lifted my arm, shifting into game day position.

While standing on that road, the theory of relativity shifted in my mind–from abstraction to concrete establishment.  A car would be approaching, a small hatchback maybe, and suddenly everything was fine.  The journey, the rainstorm, the disaster were past.  I would get into the car, smile, shake hands, perhaps chuckle at the witty joke about my good fortune the driver was sure to crack and then fall into the blissful sleep of knowing that I would be back to conquer the open road again, that the battle was lost but the war was not.  The car fifty meters away, me explaining archetypal floods to a room full of friends.  Thirty meters, “of course I checked the weather report the next time haha.”  Ten meters, my discovery of the Ark of the Covenant.  One meter, first human to step foot on the Martian surface.  Whoosh.  As it passes, everything accelerates again.  The car is going 110 and the driver is changing radio stations, the passenger is asleep, and my thumb is once again a dumbbell.

Distortion aside, I must have stood on that open expanse of asphalt and snack wrappers for at least 3 hours.  The storm to my left moved cautiously and I tried not to watch it.  I beamed positive thoughts to every vehicle coming my way, and eventually to the ones going the other direction in the off chance they decided to turn around.  The hope/despair seesaw was becoming horribly unbalanced, like when a chubby ten year old insists on ruining the playground fun of normal-sized eight year olds.  When the rain started to drip down again, the now-anorexic eight year olds just left the seesaw and probably went to die in a gutter.

As the Kiwi’s would say, I was totally gutted.  Another fucking rainstorm.  The drops stayed small and sparse but they were terrible for morale.  A realization began to flood into my mind as I surveyed the benign pasturelands of rural New Zealand:  I had no idea what I was hoping to achieve when I set out on the trip.  My eyes scanned the surroundings–an ashen tarmac stretching awkwardly through endless golden fields that would make a pleasant family-friendly postcard in the right lighting–for an answer.  It hit me that I was waiting on a revelation, an obscure promise from some trusted source that everything would be ok now and forever and I could spend the rest of my life with a serene smile glued to my face.  Isn’t that supposed to happen at some point?  In the transition from child to adult, aren’t we given all the answers in a divine explosion of maturity that descends in the very moment we need it?  I glanced over my shoulder at the impending doom of obese and unsettled clouds.  If ever there was a time…

My heart began to thump.  A car was coming and it was slowing down.  It was slowing down!  I held my breath, a lump of joy squeezed through the lead vest of depression and illuminated the whole scene again.  It was a sunrise, a mystical experience, a religious conversion.  The car had it’s blinker on.  It was pulling over.  To me.  The car was coming to rescue me.  My backpack was a downy pillow that I swung in Herculean fashion over my shoulder.  I had known it all along.  The rainstorm had been a test of my faith, imploring me to dig deeper and sure enough, it led me to this exact moment of undeniable revelation, to a driver who would undoubtedly contain the knowledge I was born to receive, exposing the  underlying psychic connection of humanity I had long suspected.   I don’t remember his real name, but I had already made up my mind to call him Jesus, (pronounced from now on in the Mexican way, Hey-soos) the lord, my personal savior.

Jesus popped the trunk of his brown 90’s sedan and I plopped my backpack inside and slammed it shut.  I walked to the left side of the car and got in the front passenger seat (everything is backwards in the Southern Hemisphere).  There was a pause as Jesus and I took stock of each other.  Him, staring with aged eyes and bulldog wrinkles accented by silver strands at me, soggy, smiling and expectant.  He said nothing, and instead clicked on his blinker and merged back onto the road.  I didn’t know what to say, unsure of what I felt even, and so I decided to let us ride in holy silence until Jesus wanted to break it.

“I didn’t want to pick you up.”

“Ha ha. Ha.  Uhm.  What?”

“I almost never pick up hitchhikers ay.  It’s been…I donno, reckon twenty years at least since the last time I picked up one of yeh.”

His words shocked me immediately, but it didn’t seem like there was much to say in response, so I sat and allowed myself to be boiled in awkward stew.  After a moment, he continued.

“Buncha arseholes.  You read the papers, seems daily someone’s getting wrecked or beat on by a vagrant.  No, hitchhiking’s not what it used to be.”

I nodded.  It seemed too strange.  I allowed a brief moment of wonder, curious if I had some distinctive characteristic, an obviously redeeming quality, which separated me from the class of people Jesus was openly insulting.

“Yep.  I dono what got into me today.  I reckon I felt bad for ya, standing out there in that rain and all.  Jus’ drove through it myself, it’s a mean one coming this way.  Even though I didn’t want to pick you up, somethin in me just wouldn’t let ya stand out in a storm like that.”

“Oh.”  My mind looked for some sort of adequate response.  Being young and American, I was untested in the realm of inconvenient honesty.  I went with the forced chuckle card and followed it up with a humble/gratitude combination.

“Well, I mean, thanks so much for making an exception.  I really appreciate it.  I got stuck in a nasty storm last night and..”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“Uhm.  Al..alright?”

He nodded a “and that’s that” type of nod and returned his attention to the road.  And so we settled into audible silence.  I prayed for Jesus to turn on the radio, or hum a tune, a hymn, a psalm, a mantra, I didn’t care.  My mind seemed to be short circuiting as it tried to catch up with the emotional deluge of the recent developments, the past 24 hours, the whole trip, life in general.  So many paradigms shattered, so little time.  How do you just tell someone you don’t want to talk to them as you sit in a car right next to them?  And on a day, this fucking day, when I needed some attention more than I ever have.  I needed his wise words or a reassuring pat, a pep talk and a dinner invitation.  I needed to be adopted.  But Jesus seemed unaware of my brewing turmoil and instead contented himself with the flat horizon, his hands held safely on the steering wheel at 10 and 2.

The painful edge of silence didn’t last long.  The painful part, that is.  Jesus made it clear that not only was talking unnecessary, it was actively discouraged.  I would be fine just as soon as I could recede into the bunker of my own mind.  The buzz of wet tires against pavement soothed me and soon I found myself in a trance, head pressed against the window, ignoring the likelihood of Jesus’ resentment toward my degenerate soul and greasy hair.  Three hours.  I could handle this for three hours.  Trial by fire.

“Fuck this guy, this guy’s an asshole.  I can’t believe he fucking said that.  What is his problem?  It’s fucking raining out there.  He didn’t have to pick me up.  I don’t even want his fucking ride.  I could camp.  I should have camped.  Next time I’m going to tell him to pull over.  Not this time.  But jesus.  Next time for sure.”

Turns out, cerebral refuge was nearly as hostile as the oxygen in the car.  Cozy?  Sure.  It provided familiar comfort, protecting me from the adverse winds of human abrasion.  But beyond the endless inner monologue of indignation and pride, I still felt I was missing some important point.  The pieces didn’t add up.  Why would a bitter asshole suddenly decide to change 20 years of practiced indifference?  And why would he tell me about it?  Despite the previous warnings and at the risk of ruining a perfectly valid psychic wall, I decided to obtain answers.

“So.  What…what do you do in Christchurch?”  The words sputtered off my tongue and I held my breath, ready for a psychic lashing.  Jesus’ eyes darted from the road–still flat and featureless–to me, and right back to the road.  He was thinking.  Considering whether he would kill me with a knife or just violently shove me out the door as we drove and watch my body tumble in the rearview mirror.  There must have been other options, asphyxiation or a secret passenger seat eject button, considering how long he remained silent.  I was about to give up.  The glance must have been a warning or a last chance type of thing and I actually felt better.  I had tried.  Some people are just born fuckers.  Not me, but some other people.  I flopped my head against the window, taking pains to find the same grease spot and hopefully avoid pissing Jesus off any more than I already had.  I let my ears find the rhythm of the road again and for the second time I allowed myself to float away, into unrealistic possibilities that were much better than where I was.

“I’m retired.”

God dammit.  I was just getting into a really nice daydream.  About skiing.  Ok.  He wants to talk.  Ok.  Let’s talk.

“Oh.  Alright.”

It seemed like there was more coming.  But there wasn’t.  His statement was a crumb, the first clue, and perhaps an invitation.  I asked another question, less worried this time.

“So, what are you doing with your retirement?”

The response was immediate.  Something was happening.

“Well, I like to fly planes.  I had my own, years ago ay.  Sold er.  I rent, though.  When I really feel the need to get up.”

This was it.  An opening.  Airplanes.  I could talk about airplanes.  The mood in the car was lifting.  Not even Jesus could be indifferent to talking about defying physics.

“Really?  No shit.  I have a friend back home who is training to be a pilot.  It’s pretty epic.  It seems like a great way to make a living.  I would love to fly an airplane someday.”

Just like that, mouth unleashed.  But the truth was that I really was excited about the prospect of aviation, even enough to momentarily forget my grudge.  I was hitchhiking in New Zealand after all.  The world was a magical place where people could change, metal could float, and rainwater could dry.  I kept talking.  It felt good to talk and Jesus seemed to be warming to the idea himself.  We stuck to the topic of flight for as long as it took to detect the springy Kiwi cheer returning to his voice.  Somewhere in that conversation I realized that it wasn’t about me and things got better.  I didn’t feel so shy as I asked Jesus about the dynamics of flying blind, with only instruments as a guide or if he ever considered being a flight instructor, which he had.  Eventually, we started to slow down.  Flying was exhausted, but now we were very much inhabiting the same car.  It was his turn.

“Wow.  Haven’t thought about all that for ages, ay.  Thanks…thanks for askin.”
I nodded to him.  “No problem.  It’s pretty cool stuff, flying.  I think, at least.”
He nodded back to me, settling further into his seat, wanting but not wanting to ask me a question, to keep the conversation going.  He took the chance.

“What’re ya doing in New Zealand anyway?  Shouldn’t ya be back home, getting yer education ay?  You’re what, twenty two?  Twenty three?”

“Twenty.”

As I said it, I realized just how young it sounded.  George W. Bush had been president for over a third of my lifetime.  I had been watching Disney cartoons during his first term.  I only shaved every three weeks.  I had no idea what I was doing in New Zealand.  Following some unconscious force which compelled me to run away and learn simultaneously.  I answered.

“I guess I’m not really sure.  I came here with my girlfriend.  She’s going to school.  I kind of just want to travel around.  I was sick of what I was doing at home.  I don’t know really.”  I looked out the window, embarrassed.  It hadn’t yet occurred to me that I could be there doing whatever I wanted.  I felt a pressure, of entirely my own construction, to justify not only my trip but my life–A reason.  Surely it was coming.
Jesus nodded.  I wasn’t sure if it was an expression of understanding or simply an acknowledgment of having heard.  He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he stared at the road, formulating.

“Ya know, that’s alright ay.”  He paused after the next inhale, wanting to continue.  I stayed quiet.

“Honestly, whatchyou’re doin…I wish I woulda done the same at yer age.  I really do.  Now I’m 68 years old.  Single.  What am I gonna do, ay?  Go out to the highway and stick my thumb up?  Tell em my wife died and I’m tryina figure out what I want ta do with my life?”

“You’re wife died?”

“Bout a year ago.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“She was a bitch.”

He coughed.  His hands were white, squeezing the wheel.  Suddenly I wished I hadn’t said anything.  The worst tragedies in my life were the death of my cat and a sudden inability to find joy in playing with Legos.  I couldn’t relate to this.  The waters went deep and I was still in the kiddie pool.  But I had to respond.  The hanging silence was too much.

“Oh.  Well, uh, well, wh..why?”  I stared straight ahead as I asked the question.  It didn’t matter what I said, only that I said it.  The tinder was in place, and I braced myself for a potential forest fire.

“Fuckin hell.  She never understood shit.  Terrible woman.  ‘Buy me a ring.  Why don’t you ever treat me right?  When are we going to Australia?’  The woman was a wench ay.  We never even got along, really.  I thought I was in love.  She thought…I dono.  I reckon she’s happier dead.  Reckon I will be too.”

I nodded.  I might have added a “hmmm.”  Death.  Another concept I had literally not considered.  Not until meeting Jesus, that is.  It was evident to both of us that we were lost in the woods, the trail of acceptable hitchhiking conversation having been deserted in favor of a more direct route to the top of the mountain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the shift opened me.  The rainstorm…what rainstorm?  Now it was just me and Jesus, in a car.  Two hours to go.

The conversation, starting where it had, involved Jesus talking and me listening.  What business did I, a 20 year old punk, have in going punch for punch with a retiree bearing his soul?  I nodded amiably, my neck a squeaky hinge, creaking up and down, side to side–responding to stories about a failed business, and then another failed business.  His partner was stealing money out from under him.  His “friend.”  I smiled, frowned, and gasped accordingly as he told me about the time he nearly crashed his plane, his recovery from alcoholism, and the anger that refused to leave.  I didn’t cry when he did.  I only watched as the tears formed and reluctantly squeezed from the corners of his eyes.  We sat in silence while he thought things over, and I listened while he tried to reason with the past.  I would give my opinion when he asked for it, but only enough to keep him talking.  I knew that he wanted to.  I let him bellow in rage and I accepted every bit of fatherly advice that would follow each outburst. I did cry when he told me that he really did love his wife, that his whole failed marriage had been his fault, that it was never her he was angry with, that she had died because of him, that there was so much he wanted to tell her but never had.  And that this moment was the first time he had realized any of that.  Nodding.  And silence.  We were almost home.

We finished the ride together, in solidarity as two men positioned an equal distance from eternity–twenty years on either side of forever.  There hadn’t been much to say after the last part, the part about his wife.  He had seen what he needed and so had I.

I could see the outskirts of the city looming in the distance.  Christchurch.  Home, but different then before.  I knew that I would probably never see this man again, and indeed I haven’t.  As we neared the edge of town, I thanked him for the ride and for the conversation, the advice.  I told him I hoped he would buy another plane and go to visit his friends on the North Island because it seemed like what he wanted to do.  He agreed.  Then he laughed and thanked me for hitchhiking, for having the patience to deal with his misplaced negativity, for listening to a complete stranger tell a sob story.  I told him it was the exact story I needed to hear and he finished by admitting it was the exact story he needed to tell.

When we got into town, I told Jesus to drop me off anywhere.  There were Metro stops all over town and we really didn’t have anything else to say to each other.  Each extra moment, each unnecessary comment, only detracted from the honesty.  Better to remain quiet and leave each other to contemplate the possibility that Life has no cure, and that we can live with that fact if its shared.  He pulled over.

I gave him a corny salute as I got out, a trademark from my days as a boy scout combined with a weird need to ease heavy situations with sarcasm.  My backpack was still soaked as I pulled it out of the trunk, but I didn’t care.  Everything would dry.  Maybe I would go hitchhiking again, maybe not.  It didn’t matter.  I patted the top of his car and flashed him a thumbs up before turning to make the walk to the bus stop, thinking of the hot shower waiting for me.  His car merged into the roundabout and was gone.  I set my pack down and then sat on top of it, resting my chin on my fist.  I took a big breath–the intoxicating smell of exhaust filling my nose–and patiently thought about nothing as I waited for the bus.

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What I’ve seen on my rounds is that if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to reflect at the end of a life, then love is revealed as the great currency. It’s the thing. The treasury. It’s what mattered. Few gloat on a business success, or property portfolio at that point, how they royally screwed someone over.

How well did I love?, who did I love?, and how was love central to the life that I made for myself? And I have to say, sometimes folks don’t like the insights they receive at that latest of moments.

But if we’re reading this, than anything is possible. It is. The doorway to mercy is still open.

When the lots are counted, when we are gathered in, we will find that it was love that mattered. Love expressed, given, received, fought for. So for those of us fighting right now, I say; keep going. As a culture, as an individual, believe in the full life that is your bequeathed inheritance, not the subterranean half-life that terror and impoverished minded bullies will try and spike your wine with. You are too good for that. Remember Rilke: “wherever I am folded there I am a lie”

–Martin Shaw

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