Hitchhikers and Stowaways

“Uh, did you know you’ve got someone in the back of your truck?”

I do have a history with hitchhikers, so stowaways probably shouldn’t surprise anyone as the next logical progression. But I never meant to become a trafficker.

Much to the chagrin of people advising me toward caution, I’ve long made a practice of picking up hitchhikers. I’m a natural introvert, and exchanges with roadside strangers, whether offering to change a stranded driver’s tire or to give someone a lift always feel like a hard thing to do, as if there’s a great personal stretching going on. That’s why I do it – it really isn’t about some deep love for humanity. The goals are more selfish. I feel a need to keep challenging myself to do something that isn’t natural.

In stories and movies, hitchhikers are revealed to be just one of two things. They can be murderers and rapists. Or they can be misunderstood savants and sages. But that’s not my experience.

I’ve never been threatened by a hitchhiker. Maybe they look at whatever I’m driving and quickly conclude that there’s nothing to be gained from violence and robbery. But I also haven’t met anyone in my travels who offered me deep insights either. They’ve invited me to join all sorts of religious groups and given tracts and pamphlets as a parting gifts, but none of these has provided much help on a path toward big truth. Maybe I’m waiting for the Cormac McCarthyesque murderer-wiseman archetype to come along, one who will whisper one great transcendent thought just before offing me.

Most of the real life hitchhikers I’ve met are just people who’ve been beaten down in various ways. They’re happy to be riding instead of walking, and often eager to fill the drive with chatter. After parting, my head is always spinning from the empathic sense of being drawn into their chaotic lives.

But this week I found myself in a new situation: unwittingly transporting stowaways in my box truck.

Every Tuesday I pack orders to go to UPS on their way out for home delivery to customers throughout the Northeast. We deposit our boxes at a UPS sorting facility to ensure that they spend as little time as possible outside the freezer. In the truck’s cargo area I keep a pile of blankets to insulate the boxes, but they are mostly for summer use as we don’t need additional insulation on these cold winter days.

What I didn’t know was that two individuals found the truck unattended, and apparently climbed in and fell asleep, hidden by the blankets behind the wall of cardboard boxes. I came outside, rolled the door shut, and between the old truck’s rattles and roars and my earbuds tuned in to a podcast about cattle grazing rangeland, I never heard a thing as I drove the half hour to drop off the packages.

Backing up to the loading dock, the folks at UPS opened the rear door, hopped backward, and then quickly came around to the driver’s side with concerned expressions. “Uh, did you know you’ve got someone in the back of your truck?”

My mind tumbled with possibilities. I raced to the rear rollup door to see. There, staring back with bemused expressions were two stowaways, wondering where in the world this ride took them.

The staff at UPS offered these two guys a chance to stay at their shop as long as needed. They even offered them accommodations in exchange for some part time work catching mice. But we talked it over and decided that it might be better for all to give them a ride back to the farm with me.

On the ride home, having changed roles from stowaways to hitchhikers, I could tell that these two riders didn’t fit the stock character mold of hitchhiking criminals. So maybe they were the other kind of hitchhiker, the unlikely possessors of exceptional knowledge. It was worth finding out. I asked them to tell me something deep. They just licked each other behind the ears and curled up to sleep. They know a few things, but they don’t believe I’m ready to hear it all yet. I have many miles to travel before I’m ready.

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