There’s something to be said for picking up a hitchhiker. When the day is the right day, and the hitchhiker is the right person, you can witness something extraordinary. Since childhood, many of us have had fear instilled in us that such transients cannot be trusted, are up to no good, and should just find a job. However, all my fears proved insubstantial one sunny day in Denver when I spied an older gentleman hitching on the side of the road. Something about his stance called to me.
He looked tough as old leather and weathered, and several tattoos, faded by time and the sun, made him formidable but not frightening. As I tried to stop, I realized several folks behind me might get a bit peeved at my sudden swerve to pick the man up, so I decided to circle back and retake the exit. I knew all the reasons a young woman shouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker, but his presence spoke without words. Something about his stance said he was the embodiment of something I wanted, needed, to understand.
Since I couldn’t pick him up on the first pass, I circled around after merging onto I-25 to see if anyone else had already collected this gem, and I didn’t see him. I took the wrong exit merging back onto the highway, going north instead of south, which was my intended direction, so I circled once more and took a different route. Amazingly, the man was waiting for me at the next exit, so I stopped, considering it fate that brought me to him.
He gave a joyous hoot when I pulled up beside him. He tossed his backpacking gear into the back seat and sat down, bubbling with profound thanks. “Sweetheart, thank you so much. I’ve been standin’ on this damn highway waitin’ for a ride for hours. Don’t know what’s wrong with Colorado, but nobody’s picked me up.”
I grinned and said, “You know, people here can be a bit paranoid. What’s your name, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir. Calling me sir is like putting an elevator in a shit-house,” he said. “Name’s Jimmy Brown, The Outlaw. Folks call me ‘The Outlaw’ cause I’m free, see. Ain’t nobody or nothin’ that can hold me down.”
I laughed and offered him a cigarette, asking where he was headed.
“South to Albuquerque, NM,” he replied, pausing to light his cigarette. “Gonna go visit my sister. She just got outta the hospital.”
As I drove, he smoked his cigarette and told me about his life. I asked him why he was in Denver, and the story unfolded.
When he was young, he had a wife and a son.
“One night, I got up to check on him, and I walked in and looked in the crib. His face was blue,” he said, holding up my pack of Organic American Spirits, “Bluer than this cigarette pack. Doctors said it was ICS, Infant Crib Syndrome.” His voice was matter-of-fact. He told me how he’d called the ambulance and woken his wife, and she’d shot up quicker than “spittle on a griddle” when he told her their boy was dead. “Docs said he was so used to being in the womb, his momma doin’ everything for him, eatin’, breathin’, and everything, that he just forgot to breathe one time, and then he died.”
They buried him in the Littleton Cemetery behind Arapahoe Community College.
“When we buried him,” The Outlaw said, “I promised my son I’d come and visit his grave every year.”
And this was where things got interesting.
“My pastor,” The Outlaw said, “He and e’rybody else asks me why I keep comin’ back, like, don’t I know my son’s dead and not in that damn grave.” He paused, taking a long draw off the cigarette. “I tell ’em, hell, I know. I know he ain’t there. But it’s not about him, see? It’s about my word. I said I was gonna visit my boy’s grave, and I visit him every year before his birthday, October 31st. Doesn’t matter where in this wide world I am–hell, girl, I’ve been in the Bahamas working on boats and found my way back in time every year.”
I had tears in my eyes when he shared this with me, and I thanked him for sharing it. To me, his words hit home. Do what you say, say what you will do–this has been my mantra for the past six months, and one with which I’ve struggled. His commitment to his word struck me as something wholesome. I asked him how long he’d been making this journey.
“My son would be turnin’ 32 this year, girl. But I’ve been a man on the road for over 41 years,” he said. He grinned at me, showing the whites of his teeth and eyes. “I used to drive trucks, in the day, but now I’m just free. I go from city to city, stay a few days, and if I can’t find work, I move the hell on. Ain’t nobody or nothin’ can hold me.”
I laughed and offered him another cigarette. He took it and lit it, and then, he continued.
“Sometimes I meet a girl, she says she wants to come with me, and I tell her, ‘Honey, when I started this, I said I wasn’t takin’ nothin’ with me that didn’t fit in this here backpack.” He reached back over the seat and patted his backpack for emphasis. “Now, if you wanna try and squeeze your pretty little self in my backpack, I ain’t gonna stop you, but I sure as hell ain’t carrying you. That’s for damn sure.” He laughed and rolled the window down a bit more.
I listened to The Outlaw’s stories as he showed me pictures of redwoods in California, of himself standing next to road signs on state lines, of seals on the beaches of Oregon, beautiful creeks in Montana, and trains he’d hopped in god-knows-where on his smartphone. At one point, he shared some text messages with me from some of the beautiful people he’d met along the way–one Lesbian couple had let him stay in their camper in front of their house one night, and they wrote him after he left early in the morning without saying goodbye, telling him what an inspiration he’d been to them, as they’d dealt with scorn and derision most of their lives for their inborn sexual preferences. He said those girls had been “real sweet” to him, and he didn’t “see why anyone’d wanna do them any harm.” He read the message aloud to me as I drove, and once again, I had tears in my eyes for all the people he’d touched and inspired on his long, unending journey.
He shared much of his life with me during that short drive, and I felt blessed to have picked up such a unique, quirky, and caring man. I dropped him off at a truck stop on the edge of nowhere, some place he’d stayed before, and he grinned at me. His parting words left me moved and inspired.
“You know, my momma tells me all the time, there’s something not right ’bout me, but I say f*** that. I may not be right, but man, I’m free. Ain’t nobody or nothin’ that can hold me down. I never found peace in four walls, and I never will. They close in on me.”
The Outlaw paused, looking me in the eye, and I saw that no matter what he’d experienced, he was happy with his life. This man was one who lived a life full of possibility.
“Officers ask me, ‘Are you homeless, sir?’ and you know what I say? I tell ’em, ‘No, Officer, I’m not homeless. I’ve got a big home,'” he spread his hand wide, indicating the sky, “‘And you’re standing in my living room!'” He laughed wholeheartedly. You could hear his joy like a live thing in that laugh. “I’ve been skydiving, scuba-diving, skiing, para-sailing, and people ask me, ‘Why, Outlaw? Aren’t you afraid to die?’ I say, you only die once. And I do it for the rush. I love it. And I do it to do it. Don’t ever say you ‘wish’ you could do something. I say, just go out and do it.”
I gave The Outlaw a hug and left him at the truck stop, wondering if I’d ever hear from him again. The next day, he called me to tell me he’d made it to Albuquerque, and I smiled to myself. I didn’t know how long he’d stay, but I knew he’d hit the road again. She is his mistress, and she calls to him no matter where he rests his head.
Like a vector moving through the universe, The Outlaw will always ride the highways. May he forever touch those who pull over and pick him up with his stories, his laugh, his smile, and that untouchable, blessed twinkle in his blue eyes.