Darla pulled off highway 97 onto the shoulder at the 138 junction. She smiled between glazed eyes with her frizzy red hair blowing from the crosswind. I waved at her and as I motioned to shut the passenger side door, she stopped me.
“Waaaait…here take this for the road doood,” she said in a dazed voice. Her face crinkled, with squinty red eyes, as she gifted me a present for the road.
She dropped a fluffy, scintillating, green, nugget into my hand, just one of Oregon’s myriad hydroponically home-grown buds. The skunky smell overpowered the faint aroma of smoky haze, which I soon tramped into down the 138, wildfire territory.
But first, I grinned and waved at her as I slammed the door to her old, stale white, Mercedes Benz. For 55 years old, her soul embraced a youthful presence of peace, love and happiness. With a few puffs of her pipe, she sped off towards Klamath Falls, rushing to make it to work on time for her night shift at Rite Aid.
My thumbs clung to my shoulder straps as I shook my head with a smile as wide as the moon. I laughed as I crossed the street murmuring under my breath.
“And that’s how I knew I was pregnant…standin’ there naked in mah twenties…mah bobcat ran on ova to me…stood up oner hind legs n started suckin’ on mah tit…n that was that…went straight to the doc and they told me the news…”
Her stories made the ride closer to Crater Lake even more enjoyable, not that the view felt lackluster. It didn’t. With dense forests of oak rolling through the steep mountain passes I found myself mesmerized by the blaze of pure colors, the beauty of God’s hand.
It all towered around me still, but at a slower pace, a footsteps length. As I stood there tall with a boasting posture, I looked around me, faintly soaking in the burnt smell of wood and pine needles from afar. A slight haze of smoke enveloped the air in the distance and I realized I roamed miles away from the nearest town, with only one diner, one motel and an abandoned liquor store in my vicinity.
I looked over at another hitchhiker and waved cheerfully at him, but old Santa Claus ignored my gesture with a grim pouty face. He sat there on a faded green military duffel bag, wearing fancy dark blue jeans, cowboy boots, a gray t-shirt holding in his belly and suspenders, with his thumb held out firmly. He looked rough, mean and unapproachable so I turned around and walked into the quaint little Diamond Lake Diner.
Swivel stools, decorated with Raven football upholstery, followed the curved countertop. It felt like a mom and pop shop without the charisma or cheer from the employees. Old memorabilia embellished the dingy walls of the diner. Red and white checkerboard tablecloths draped underneath glass tabletops and beneath them read the notes, receipts and napkins of satisfied customers.
I sat down at a table and waited for a menu, but that never happened. An old woman shuffled around behind the counter, scrambling through her purse for cigarettes. When she found them her craggy disgruntled face held back a smirk of joy. She immediately scrambled out through the backdoor without ever glancing at me, and off her ride sped back to the trailer park. I continued to wait, clacking my fingers on the table in a unmelodic rhythm. An older man stepped out from around the kitchen. His look of melancholy mused into a blank stare.
Finally, I jumped up, walked over to and leaned on the counter.
“Excuse me sir…can I have a menu?”
He pointed down by the cash register without handing me one.
“What a doozy,” I thought as I snatched it in my sweaty hand. I skimmed the pages and surprisingly the prices appeared reasonable despite being in the middle of nowhere. I decided to splurge knowing a long 30-mile walk remained ahead of me. A hamburger and a coke sounded delectable, juicy and mouthwatering, but Old Blue continued to wander around aimlessly behind the counter. He ran from kitchen to cash register, back-and-forth, his movement exhausted my eyes as I tried to follow him. Only one other customer occupied the diner, his food prepared, and half-eaten as he perused the newspaper.
So I raised my finger to gain his attention and shockingly he responded to this gesture.
“Ya ready to order son?”
“Yeah, actually…I’ll have a coke and a burger…does the coke come with refills?”
“Yep, just one…ya wanna add fries for a dollar?”
“Sure do, thanks…”
Finally my stomach stopped thinking for the moment as its light gurgles ceased from haunting my thoughts. Food was on the way in the near future or at least I hoped it was anyway. As my eyes read the exemplary remarks beneath the glass my mind wondered how many napkins, receipts and notes with negative feedback scrawled across them ended up crumpled in the trash can? How many zero tips for horrible service and dine-and-dashes did this restaurant receive in the past? Maybe they proudly plastered all these unsatisfied notes along the wall of the back room with thumbtacks, grinning and smirking as they spit in the food, looking at them as trophies. It made me wonder.
I looked out the window while I waited for my food. That wide shoulder looked perfect for hitching a ride to Crater Lake, but the old, plump man still sat there, his beard as white as the clouds and smile as cold as ice. No wonder people drove by without the slightest concern for him.
Without a word, Old Blue gracefully placed my plate down gently clanging the glass tabletop and handed me a brisk coke with far too many ice cubes. I now understood their refill policy.
I moistened my lips with my tongue and looked at that platter of hot food as if I was an inmate eating my last meal. The grease from the burger melted onto my tongue with each savory chomp. The crisp lettuce crunched while the juicy tomato squirted seeds sticking to the pits of my gums. Then my teeth sliced into the thick piece of onion. Tears of goodness trickled down my face as I gulped the last morsel, slamming down my last drop of coke. Then came the soggy, greasy fries. I didn’t even frown at their squishy texture and vapid taste. I funneled them down my throat squeezing in every extra calorie for my long walk ahead, but I failed to finish them. Instead, I raised my finger in the air again, signaling Old Blue over.
“Can I have another coke and a box for the fries?”
“Sure can…I’ll bring over the tab too…”
I handed him a ten to cover the bill, while I sipped on my coke and curiously looked out the window. My eyes widened as a blue minivan pulled off onto the wide shoulder. A door opened and moments later it drove off, dust spitting up under its tires for a second, before the wheels touched the smooth pavement on the 138. She thrummed onward and I smiled knowing Santa Claus hitched a ride. Now the wide shoulder stretched out calling my name, eager for me to make it to Crater Lake.
Once my phone hit 100% I slurped the last bit of my coke and poured the excess ice into my nalgene bottle. I flung my pack up over my shoulders and for once she felt lighter than normal. That meal gave me the strength and valor to tramp onward, keeping me nimble and spirited.
The door opened and in hobbled Santa Claus with two clear empty bottles in his hand.
“Spare any waddah please…been out there all daym mornin’,” as he shook each empty bottle.
“Bunch a yuppies comin’ in for the eclipse,” croaked Old Blue.
I gazed over at Santa’s hairy forearms. The sun torched his skin burning it as red as beets. My eyes met his face and nose as bright as Rudolph. He stood there drenched in sweat with white crusty lips. In his miserable state he made eye-contact with me and slightly scowled like I owed him something.
I stood there awkwardly and put my pack back down as if I forgot something. I heard the door creak shut and watched as Santa sluggishly limped back across the street. But, instead of plopping his fat ass on his pack on the shoulder, he kept trucking along into the woods, sitting on the fence in the shade.
Out of respect I let him keep the shoulder. I could already hear him bickering under his breath as I crossed the roadway. I did not bother to look at him. I put one boot in front of the other and kept walking along the narrow shoulder, closer to Crater Lake, closer to the dense cloud of smoke, and closer to the multiple uncontained wildfires.
The sun blazed down squeaking its rays through the brim of my hat. I began to perspire freakishly. My lips dried out from thirst and as I tramped along the 138 I felt the inkling of loneliness for the first time in a while. My trip neared its end, another goal completed, but that worrisome feeling began to encroach my gut again, the feeling of being stuck in one place, working, fitting into boring routine. What was wrong with me?
I kept on walking, inching closer to my next job, and after hearing engines rev as vehicles passed me, I heard the screeching of brakes slam. My head shot up from looking at my feet and I saw the door open to a white van. Out hopped a man walking closer towards me. He wore a camo hat with black boots and boy he looked as mean as Santa. A knife dangled in a sheath strapped to his belt. He eyed me up and down as he strolled towards me, feeling me out. I stared into his cold eyes and drifted to his multiple face tats, under one eye a stick-and-poke paw print and the other a poorly done flag. He seemed to relax once we stood face-to-face, but should I get in I wondered and who else encumbered the van?
In that moment of uncertainty he reached out with his hand to befriend me. All that anxiety and fear cleared once I clasped his hand in a firm shake.
“I’m Tim…juss came out to feel ya out…Grace is in the van…she stops for anyone hitchhikin’…was kinda prayin’ ya weren’t a dude, but ya seem aight.”
“I’m Brian Cray and I understand,” I said.
With that notion, I threw my pack up into the van hoping I made the right decision.