Different Kinds of Strangers

A goat ran back out from behind the rusty pickup truck in the driveway. We’d been watching him for nearly thirty minutes. He was the starring performer in today’s feature production in Strong, Maine, population 1,156. After our most recent hitchhiking drop-off, my hiking partner and I had found ourselves in a town where only one or two passenger vehicles pass by over the course of an afternoon in between a smattering of logging trucks. There were three through roads in Strong, and we stood at their intersection in the heart of downtown. There was a gas station which was also a diner. There were five or six chickens in the yard of a gingerbread-trimmed house across the street, along with a goat next door. We ended up here by chance. The town was small enough to provoke wonder about how its residents ended up there, too. 

I shifted the weight of my backpack and stuck out my thumb in a wide circling motion with my arm, making the act of hitchhiking into something of a dance routine. My hiking partner cracked a smile—he tended to be solemn-faced, without meaning to be, but I liked to make him smile to offset the doldrums of the gray sky and our thus-far unsuccessful hitch. I gave my widest grin, showing off all of my teeth. The corners of his mouth curled slightly more.

“I like this town,” he said. The long wait wasn’t getting to him like it was getting to me. 

“Me too. I’d like it more if someone could pick us up, though,” I replied. A green pickup truck rolled by slowly, and we both stuck our thumbs out higher, as if there was anything else to distract the driver from us, other than our goat friend. The truck didn’t stop. 

Pickup trucks were the most likely vehicle to stop and give us a ride. After months of hitchhiking on and off the Appalachian Trail, we had a reasonably good statistical base from which to measure our likelihood of soliciting a ride from the driver of a given vehicle. Minivan? Close to zero chance; no mom wants their child influenced by the ways of a wayward hitchhiker. Luxury vehicle? They floor it as they approach, not wanting to be in the presence of potential poverty for any longer than necessary. I’d taken to doing something extra ridiculous, like a somersault or a salute, every time I saw a Tesla or a Porsche approaching. They still wouldn’t stop, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun. A sedan was a good 50/50; chances improved proportionally with the number of bumper stickers on the back. But a pickup truck—oh, a pickup truck. There is no brighter glimmer of hope than a pickup truck as it rolls around a bending byway. If it’s fancy and new with a low towing capacity and some upper-middle class commuter at the wheel, things are different, but an old farmer’s beater truck, filled with hay and composed of more rust than paint? That’s money, baby. That’s a hitchhiker’s golden ticket.

The truck that had rolled by was just that. My hiking partner pointed behind me suddenly—the pickup truck had turned around, and was pulling over towards us. 

“Can’t believe that I love pickups now,” I remarked quietly. 

“You just look so sad,” said the woman at the wheel when she rolled her window down. That offended me. I prided myself on keeping a cheery expression even when some vacationer’s Jaguar splashed mud on us. “I live about a minute from here, so I’m not sure where you’re going, but I’m not doing much for the rest of the day. Where’re you headed?” 

“Kingfield,” we said in unison. Kingfield was about half an hour away. “But if you weren’t planning on going far, we’d be super thankful if you could just take us over to New Vineyard, where this road connects with the 27. Should be busier, right?” I asked.

“Alright. Can I ask what you’re doing in this little town?” She asked this as she put the truck in park, motioning for us to hop in. We threw our packs in the back, and I settled into the passenger seat.

We explained to her that we were hiking the Appalachian Trail, and had to get off because I needed to be treated for Lyme disease, which I had contracted on trail weeks before. We had hitchhiked from Kingfield to the nearest hospital, which was two hours away, and we were now on our way back to the trail. 

“I knew I felt called to help you,” she said, smiling at me from where I sat in the passenger’s seat. She was middle-aged and had curly dark hair. She looked like she was about to tell you a secret. Perhaps that’s because she was. “Can I tell you something kind of unusual? Do you promise you’ll listen?”

I was intrigued. I love the stories people tell hitchhikers. I think they open up more than they would with many other people, more than any other kind of stranger, and almost certainly more than with most people close to them. A hitchhiker is a stranger made temporarily dear to you, someone who now owes you their attention and their gratitude for your willingness to invite them into your car and into your life, if only for a few minutes. My hiking partner and I had people tell us about all sorts of things, from that day’s haul of bass and trout, to the time they met Phish at a college party, to their battles with cancer, to their ongoing divorce. There’s no telling what someone may divulge to a hitchhiker. It engenders an immediate intimacy that I wish was more common in our everyday lives. 

“I beat Lyme disease,” she said, which was not as juicy as some of the other tales I’d been told, but was of far more relevance to me. “Not with antibiotics. Those don’t really work, or at least not enough. Have you heard of holistic medicine?” she asked. I told her I had, but was not particularly familiar with it. 

“Okay,” she said. “You can read this research online—just look it up. I read this in a book on holistic medicine about ten years back, and now there’s tons of research corroborating it. It’s just not technically FDA approved. Have you heard of Japanese Knotweed?”

“The invasive plant?”

“Yes, but it’s more than that. It’s medicine, it’s food! Hmm—I promise I’m not a murderer. I’m a mom. I’m a healer. Would you like to come back to my farm?” she asked. “I can give you some of my tinctures. I really felt called to help you,” she said.

I looked to my hiking partner in the backseat for counsel. 

“Up to you,” he said. 

“That would be wonderful,” I said, partly because I would quickly die a horrible death if I were a character in a horror movie, but also because I trusted her. 

As promised, her farm was about a minute away. It was beautiful: an old New England farmhouse, tall, classic, and dark green, with a barn attached to the front of the main house. She led us in, and I gasped in delight at a bunny sitting in a cage on top of one of the many hay bales which lent the barn its scent.

 “Come into the kitchen for a second,” she said. “I’m going to get my tinctures. And my labels!” She seemed excited as she disappeared somewhere deeper in the house. 

She returned to the kitchen with darkly colored glass jugs of an inky liquid, stacks of peel-and-stick labels, and a few small bottles. She hummed as she took meticulous pipette-fuls from jug to bottle, labeling each full bottle in a spidery scrawl. 

“Take a teaspoon three times a day until you run out of this one—this is the knotweed. It’s just vodka and knotweed, that’s all a tincture is. And the second one—this is Oregon grape. A few weeks after the knotweed, take a tablespoon of this one once a day for a week. Only a week, you don’t want to damage your liver.” She handed them to me and smiled, and we spent a few more minutes chatting before she drove us to New Vineyard. She gave me her name and phone number, “in case you run into trouble.” 

I haven’t called her, but I think of her often. I still have the tinctures—I didn’t end up needing them—the antibiotics worked!—but they sit on my childhood desk at home in New Hampshire. The woman who gave them to me was one of the many strangers that picked us up with whom I felt a higher level of emotional connection than I do with some people I’ve known for years. It isn’t like love or friendship or a familial bond. It isn’t even the kindness of typical small talk that strangers make when they sit next to each other on the train, or  stand in line together in the grocery store. Strangers meet due to shared circumstances and speak to one another only when the silence is unbearable. (I’m told this is different in the Midwest; strangers love to speak to one another there. Dishonest behavior, in my opinion.) 

A hitchhiker quite literally extends a hand (or a thumb) to anyone and everyone, and it takes a special quality to be the one driver who stops. It could be curiosity, or boredom, or the seeking of adrenaline, or just plain kindness. This makes them a different kind of stranger. It makes them a stranger who made a very conscious decision to be in your presence for far longer than they normally would as they did 80 down some rural byway. They might even have to bang a U-ey to pick you up. (Hitchhiking lesson: know the local dialect as well as the local ride solicitation laws. Some sweet old Yankee might take joy in hearing an assumed outsider say “bang a U-ey”.)

I understand if you don’t want to pick up a hitchhiker. We’ve all heard hitchhiking horror stories that I will not rehash, both because they are gruesome and because they are slanderous to the character of hitchhikers. Hitchhiking has an undeniably questionable rep, mostly due to propagandists who like to discourage good fun, mischief, and rabble-rousing. I grew up laughing at the signs posted on the road by our local prison: “Don’t pick up hitchhikers.”

Now that I’ve resumed a more regular life of transportation by my own means, I only pick up hitchhikers if I have a friend or two in the car with me, and if they don’t look scary. I apologize to all of the innocuous but scary-looking folk out there. I hope they’ll forgive me, and that they get a ride soon. 

My advice: if they’re not too scary, and you’ve got the time, pick someone up sometime. You’ll probably learn something, or feel the serotonin rush that accompanies generosity. If you don’t get either of those things, then at least for a few minutes you’ll have a captive audience to talk to about anything you’d like, judgment-free.

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