It was Christmas Even and The Man was driving us home. Although it wasn’t quite 8pm, the sky was midnight dark, and we saw no house lights in the distance. Wind tumbled fat snowflakes in the space ahead of our headlights. When the snow hit the ground, it stuck. The Man drove slowly through the slush on the road as I looked for our turn.
Is that it? I asked again and again, thinking each driveway was maybe the road we were looking for. I’m always amazed by how different the landscape looks at night. I’d been down that road hundreds of times in the last eight months, but I was having such a difficulty finding it in the dark. Finally we saw the road home, and The Man made the turn. We were within a few miles of our little trailer.
Unfortunately, the snow and poor condition of the road kept us moving slowly. It would be a while more until we made it home.
At one point the road drops and one’s vehicle ends up at the bottom of a small hill. I call the area “Dead Man’s Hill” because the road is narrow and when going up the hill, it’ impossible to see if another vehicle is coming down. A driver going too fast and driving too far to the left could become involved in a head-on collision.
That night we weren’t going very fast. As we descended the hill, I saw the headlights of another vehicle approaching in the distance. We weren’t the only fools out on this snowy night.
As we got to the bottom of the hill, something in the sage to my right caught my eye. There appeared to be a small person (a woman, I thought) standing in the arroyo just off the road. As we passed by, she waved her flashlight, as if trying to catch our attention. It took some dedication to be hitchhiking at night, especially on a cold Christmas Eve while snow was flying.
That’s a woman! I exclaimed. Most hitchhikers I encounter present as male, so seeing a female hitchhiker is always something of an event. As a woman who’s done a bit of hitchhiking in my time, I always try to pick up gals looking for a ride.
Does she need a ride? The Man asked.
Yes! I said with conviction. Anyone standing in an arroyo in the dark, in the snow, on Christmas Eve needed a ride as far as I was concerned.
The Man slowed the truck even further.
I’m going to use that little pullout to turn around, he said indicating a wide space in the road.
He pulled into the turnout, then began backing out. He misnavigated and ended up putting our back tire in the icy low spot next to the road. Despite the four-wheel drive being engaged, the tire couldn’t gain traction.
My spirits sank. Were we going to be punished by the Universe for trying to do a good deed?
While The Man tried to get us out of our predicament, the car whose headlights I’d seen earlier approached. The vehicle (an outdoorsy station wagon type, maybe a Subaru or a Jeep) passed us, then stopped just ahead of us. The hitchhiker stepped out of the sage and approached the driver’s side of the vehicle. She was carrying at least one bag and was wearing a dark rain poncho with the hood up.
By this time, The Man had put our truck into reverse and was easing back. I think the slight downward slant of the road let us roll backwards until the tire touched a bit of earth that wasn’t quite so icy. The traction gained allowed us to get back on the road. We were soon going forward again, and we pulled up behind (put not too close to) the station wagon.
The hitchhiker left the other vehicle and came up to The Man’s window.
Do you need a ride? The Man asked. He told me later he was quite confused because he couldn’t believe anyone would be hitchhiking from that spot, at night, while it was snowing so hard.
She said she did need a ride. She told us the area where she lived, and my heart sank again. She lived nowhere near us. We were going to have to drive several miles out of our way in the dark and the snow to get her home. We had already almost gotten stuck turning around to pick her up. But what other choice did we have? We couldn’t leave the gal alone in the dark and snow by the side of the road on Christmas Eve. The only right thing to do was drive her home.
I leaned over to speak to her through The Man’s open window. Come over to this side, I told her.
One of the flaws of our truck is that the front door has to be open before the back door can be opened. Even with the front door opened, it’s difficult to open the back door without getting out of the truck.
I opened my door and hopped out of the truck, careful not to slip on the icy ground under the snow. The air that hit my face was cold.
I opened the back door and saw I’d need to move some things so our passenger could sit. We had a couple of bags of groceries back there and the backpack where I keep the hats I’ve made before I sell them. I pushed everything over to the driver’s side.
By the time I’d made some room in the back seat, the hitchhiker had approached the passenger side of the truck. With the hood of her rain poncho pulled up, he face peaked out at me, but I couldn’t distinguish her features in the dark. I couldn’t guess her age, but I could see she was wearing eyeglasses. That she was short—no taller than I am and maybe shorter—was obvious. She was carrying a disposable plastic bag and a backpack.
I noticed the other vehicle was still stopped in front of us.
What’s that car doing? I asked the hitchhiker since it had appeared that she’d talked to the driver.
I think they’re going into town, she said.
I wondered why the car was still stopped if they were going into town, but figured they must be waiting to see if she got safely into the truck before they left.
The hitchhiker got in the backseat, and I shut the door firmly. Then I climbed back into the front seat and closed the front door behind me. While I was fastening my seat belt, I realized the car in front of us was slowly back up.
What in the world are they doing? I wondered aloud, but no one knew.
The driver backed up the station wagon until it was quite close to us, then stopped. I was perplexed. I think The Man was perplexed too. I don’t know what the hitchhiker was thinking because she sat silently in the back.
The Man pulled the truck to the left and passed the station wagon so he could get to a larger turnout ahead of us. From there he was able to maneuver the truck so we were once again pointed towards home. As we passed the station wagon, The Man heard the driver call out a woman’s name (presumably the name of the woman in the truck with us), and say, I want to hear her say it’s ok! I want to hear her voice!
(I heard the driver of the station wagon say something, but I couldn’t understand the actual words.)
When The Man told the hitchhiker that the driver of the station wagon wanted to hear it was ok in her voice, she said the other driver needed to let go. The Man kept driving.
I have no idea what the driver of the station wagon was yelling about. Did he think we were kidnapping the hitchhiker? Hadn’t he seen her get into our truck under her own volition? The Man thought the hitchhiker had been in the station wagon and gotten out. I reminded him that the station wagon was approaching from the opposite direction when I first saw it. The Man said the driver of the station wagon had probably turned around to come back for the hitchhiker.
Didn’t you hear him call her name? The Man asked me, but I honestly hadn’t.
The hitchhiker didn’t offer any explanations and it seemed rude to ask too many questions. In any case, everything that happened with the station wagon and driver added weirdness to what was already a strange situation.
The hitchhiker chatted happily as The Man drove through the dark and blustery night. She’s been in town, exchanging Christmas presents with her son. It had seemed really important to spend the evening with her son, she said. Her eyesight wasn’t very good, she told us. She needed new glasses. She’d gone through a period when she had constant ringing in her ears, but an ear candle had taken care of it.
In all of her chatting, she didn’t tell us her name and didn’t ask ours. I was exhausted, and The Man was concentrating on the road, so neither of us said much.
When we passed our turnoff, I looked longingly towards home. Even though I knew we were doing the right thing, I was still a little sad to know we weren’t going home yet.
We stayed on the main road and went further back where most of the people in our neighborhood (and I use the term “neighborhood” loosely) live.
Where exactly are we taking you? I asked the hitchhiker, and she named a road The Man and I both recognized.
There is a phenomenon I have encountered in New Mexico and nowhere else. People are extremely guarded when it comes to telling others where they live. Many people I’ve met in New Mexico have refused to share details about the locations of their homes. I’d known one good friend for over seven years before I was allowed to know where she lived, and she only told me because she needed me to pick her up and drive her around to do errands. (I was not invited into her actual house.) Other people I became friends with told me I was always welcome on their property, but made it very clear that I was not to bring anyone else over or even talk about where they lived. All of this to say I wasn’t surprised when the hitchhiker wouldn’t tell us exactly where she was going.
If you can just get me up the hill, I can walk the rest of the way, she said.
The Man and I agreed it would be no trouble to deliver her to her door, but she assured us it wouldn’t be necessary. She said she would show us a good place to turn around where we could drop her off .
We finally got to her road and The Man turned the truck onto it. He drove us up and up and up. When we got to the top of the appropriate hill, the hitchhiker pointed to a wide spot on the left and said we should turn around there. We asked again if we could drive her all the way home, but she assured us she would be fine walking.
The Man stopped the truck near the turnoff. I unfastened my seat belt, opened my door, got out of the truck, and opened the back door. The hitchhiker slid out.
Do you have everything? I asked.
She showed me the plastic grocery store bag and backpack she was holding.
Let me show you what my son gave me, she said, setting the grocery store gag on the ground and opening it up. Inside was a plant.
It’s a jade plant, she told me, obviously pleased.
I made appropriate cooing sounds, as if she had just showed me a kitten or a human baby.
She gathered up her things and disappeared into the snowy night. I got back in the truck, and The Man turned it around. We headed home, glad we were able to help.
Do you think this is the end of the story? We did too. Alas, we’d be seeing the hitchhiker again, less than 24 hours later. Tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story of the Christmas hitchhiker.