Don had a fairly healthy beard, which, by all appearances, hadn’t been trimmed in some time. I guess not shaving would be one advantage of being a hitchhiker. It (the beard) had one unique feature, I think partially because of not being washed as regularly, as, say, mine for example. It was a little matted and kind of had two layers so that when he looked up a little, it looked like he had two separate beards, one coming from his neck, and one from his chin. Even though it was a little warm, he was wearing a pretty heavy coat with the hood pulled up over his baseball cap.
His face was really weathered from walking out in the wind and sun, and he looked like he was between forty and fifty years old but had had a tough life, so he was aging more quickly. If you wonder, he didn’t have a repulsive smell at all. I would have expected him to have at least a little body odor, not having access to a daily shower, but it wasn’t that way at all.
I must tell you about something interesting that happened right away when Don first got into the car. My attitude changed rapidly from inward focused, to outward focused. I had been feeling kind of sorry for myself about all the emotional trauma and everything and was throwing myself a small and personal pity party in the back seat. For some reason, Don’s presence changed all that. It was the perfect cure for that issue in my life. Who knows how long I would have persisted in that state?
But I became interested in his life rather than my own. We kind of started out by taking turns asking him the cliche questions that you ask hitchhikers when you first meet them: where he was born, where he was going, how many states he had been in, . . . I forget what all we asked him, and I think all of us were hoping for some interesting stories, but instead, he answered our questions as shortly and disinterestedly as possible. I’ve always heard hitchhikers are interesting, but Don was doing his best to be a very quiet fellow and it was kind of awkward to be honest. He was seated right beside me and I was trying to think of ways to engage him in conversation.
He said he had been in all the states. I assumed that by that he meant he wasn’t talking about Alaska and Hawaii, but I didn’t ask.
John asked, “How long have you been on the road, Don?”
“For a long time,” Don said. “I just couldn’t find work and that’s when I hit the road.”
One thing that was cool about Don was that he didn’t seem ticked off that he was homeless and everything. He had spent the last night camped out under the overpass a few miles from my house. That sort of thing can feel kind of hip, original, and adventurous when you just do that for the fun of it, and can go home the next morning and take a shower and have a nice breakfast and a cup of coffee, but this was life for Don. He wasn’t going home the next day. He would be trying for the next overpass, or another convenient place of shelter for the next night. It seemed like this was just life for him, and he had accepted that. Not pumped about it, not mad about it either.
I was kind of trying to think of a clever and smooth way to put God in the conversation somewhere and it wasn’t working so well. I felt a little dumb just randomly bringing it up. Yes, I was being chicken. We rode in silence part of the time and John put in a “My Soul’s Delight” by the Concordia Choir. We sang along some with it really cranked it up on “Ain’t Got Time To Die.” I wondered with silent amusement if Don thought we were weirdos. I doubt he had encountered too many twenty-soemthings that would listen to choirs on road-trips as opposed to jamming to rock tunes.
Don also held a type of lunch box/cooler on his lap. I wondered what was in it. Visions of it being chock full of weed or something worse, danced through my head. I also imagined us getting stopped by a cop and Don getting searched. The cop would find drugs or something else on him. The cop would probably be irrational and couldn’t tell that Don looked a lot different than the rest of us, and that we weren’t really with him. We would all be put in the slammer together. It would all be very nightmarish, surreal, and miserable. I told myself to stop being so stupid. I have a very active imagination and it was working overtime that day.
“Could we stop at this gas station?” Don asked, breaking the silence. “I’d like to get some coffee or something.”
“Sure,” said John, who was still driving.
We stopped at small gas station and hopped out. I was really wanting to stretch because I was sitting in the middle and my legs weren’t really designed to sit in the middle seats of cars. I walked into the gas station and bought a ninety-nine cent Peace Tea of the green variety. It’s a really excellent deal because they come in twenty-three ounce cans instead of twenty ounce bottles like the Lipton Green Tea. That stuff usually costs $1.69 and isn’t even as good. Whenever I find Peace Tea it makes me happy because it tastes great, is healthy (all natural), and is cheaper than most.
I paid for it and walked back outside. Don’s coffee was sitting on the trunk of the car. Don stood close by it, smoking a cigarette. We climbed back into the car and fortunately Don’s cigarette smoke didn’t smell up the car very badly. I really don’t like how it smells and I was sitting next to him. The miles until our next stop passed much as the previous ones had: us trying to engage Don in conversation, and talking to each other when it didn’t work. One thing we discussed was the use of instruments in the Bible.
When we stopped at our next gas stop, I took a turn driving. That was weird because I wasn’t even feeling very tired. I hadn’t had much sleep for a while. Just in case, I purchased a Starbucks coffee plus energy drink. When we got back on the road, it didn’t take John very long after sitting beside Don, to ask him about his religious experience. He asked him a questions about what he thought of God, who Jesus was to him, and what would happen when he died.
It turns out Don hadn’t much experience with church. The experiences he had had apparently weren’t good or bad- just something that didn’t affect him much.
John asked him, “Don, what do you think will happen when you die?”
“I don’t know” he mumbled thickly through his beard. “But I think I’ll be okay.”
“Did you know that there is a way you can know for sure what will happen when you die?” John questioned.
He continued, “We believe what the Bible says about that. If you accept the free gift of Jesus death on the cross for your sins, you can live with him forever.”
I don’t remember all the details of the conversation, but among the three of us, we told him about Salvation and that Jesus loved him. Over the course of it all, we made it very clear about how we had screwed up our own lives badly, and that we were not any better than him or anyone else, that we needed Jesus just as badly as he did. Everyone needed salvation, no matter how good they were. Everyone had the sin disease. We told him that in we had sinned many times with our thoughts and actions, and we were murderers, liars, thieves and adulterers, and that Jesus was our only way out of escaping eternal punishment.
We also tried to make it clear that we couldn’t do this stuff on our own; that it was more about the relationship with Jesus than us trying to be good kids. I think all of us had had that experience: trying to do our best, working our tails off to be good kids, and just messing up again and again.
Don had very little to say about any of it. He just looked pensive and a little uncomfortable. He spent a lot of time staring out he window at the featureless semi-desert of western Kansas and eastern Colorado.
The cool part about it was that he couldn’t get away from us. We were driving a healthy seventy miles per hour so he was trapped with us. Of course, we would have dropped him off if he had asked. But I think we both knew that he was getting to his destination a lot faster than if he walked. It was a win-win. He was making quick progress in his journey, and we were telling him about Jesus.
Eventually we stopped talking about it and left him with his thoughts. The landscape changed fairly abruptly from subtle plains, to rugged hills and rocks as we got closer to the Rockies. Colorado has beautiful scenery. The Rockies contain this rough, rare beauty that’s tough to describe: the desert-like foothills nearby turning into sudden sheerness of mountain peaks forming the sky-piercing horizon in the distance; the sun going down on it all and bathing it in an almost other-worldly light. So beautiful, so wild, so pure and for the most part, unblemished by civilization.
We moved on to talking about other things and as we got closer to our destination of Canon City, Colorado, we started getting goofier and goofier. We were saying ridiculous things and laughing raucously about them. We came up with some special “scientific theories” regarding time and space, and traveling within them without actually having to move. Kevin started it by saying, maybe if you lifted off the earth, and hovered above it, allowing it to rotate beneath you, when you landed, you would be in a different place, like Africa or somewhere else.
We knew it wouldn’t work but we were having so much fun hypothesizing, that we talked about this for some time, getting wilder and wilder with our theories. Poor Don probably thought we were becoming daft from too much traveling.
As we entered the city we asked him where he would like to be dropped off. He said he would like to be dropped off at Wal-Mart. That made sense to us. As we neared our destination, John asked Don if it would be okay to pray for him. Don said it would be alright.
John asked God to bless Don and that Don would find Him in his travels. It was a really beautiful and meaningful part of the trip and seemed very fitting that it would end this way. When we got to Wal-Mart, we stopped by the curb close to the entrance and helped him unload his luggage. I was struck by the fact that Don must be in pretty good physical condition to be hauling all that stuff. Some of those bags were heavy, and he was used to carrying them everywhere. We shook hands with him and told him it was good to meet him. One of us told him that we probably wouldn’t see him again, but we would like to see him in Heaven.
We left him standing there on the curb with his luggage, and that was the last time we saw him. John said he felt like this was the reason that this was the reason he came on the trip. We all agreed. I felt like even if my first time snowboarding was a lousy experience, this would make it all worth it.
This is why God smiled when we went snowboarding. He knew we would encounter someone we didn’t expect to meet. He knew that all of us would affect each other’s life stories for the better. We got to tell Don about Jesus and Don exemplified to us a life of simplicity and contentment that puts most of ours to shame.
Picking up a hitchhiker beside Highway 5o was such a random decision that made life so much richer, so much more interesting. Taking risks like that makes life more rewarding for me. Experiences like this make life so meaningful. I wonder why I don’t do it more often. It’s a challenge to myself, to live a life of risk and reward, rather than mediocrity. Mediocrity is safer, but it’s also boring. Really boring.