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Dustin made me nervous. The combination of a tough-guy goatee, black-on-black sunglasses, and oversized gangster shirt with way too much gold lettering made him someone I wouldn’t have smiled at had we passed on a sidewalk. A cool chin lift, maybe, but not a smile. Certainly not an hour-long conversation.

Dubstep blasted from his beat-up Toyota 4Runner as he slammed to a dusty stop beside me. At least there was a girl with him.

“Where you headed?” Dustin pushed up his sunglasses, and I could at least see his eyes. I put him in his mid-twenties.

“Durango.”

“I can get you as far as Pagosa Springs.”

I opened the door and found a mess. Car parts, tools, and a lot of stuff filled the backseat. And where I would have thrown my pack, there lay a scoped .22 rifle.

“I’ll make some room for you.” Dustin hopped out and put the rifle in the back, which was even more crowded with stuff. The camo barrel stuck out above the seat and pointed at the ceiling A collection of .22 cartridges, bbs, spare change, cigarettes, and a can of chew littered the floor.

“Are you from around here?” I asked.

Dustin nodded. “We’re both from Chama. This is Shannon, by the way.”

“Pleasure to meet you.”

“We’re going up to meet my brother.” For all his tough-guy appearances, Dustin had a friendly voice. Not high pitched, exactly, but certainly no imposing bass.

Chama's blacksmith artist: maker of knives, horseshoe coathangers, and other pieces of art

Chama’s blacksmith artist: maker of knives, horseshoe coathangers, and other pieces of art

“What’s it like in Chama?” I had only seen the visitor center and an artist-owned blacksmith shop. With a population of 1,200, Chama asked for exploration, but it was a ways from the highway and I had wanted to cover more miles that day.

“It’s a shithole,” Dustin said.

“Really?”

“It’s not that bad, I guess. But when you grow up there, you want out. It’s too small.”

“Not enough options?”

“Small town drama. There’s not enough to do, so people get bored and gossip.”

“You’re just passing through,” Shannon added, “so you don’t see all the shit that goes on here.”

I found out that Shannon works on the town’s narrow gauge railroad, Chama’s biggest tourist draw. Dustin helps his father manage a rich Texan’s ranch.

“The ranch owner’s a good guy,” Dustin explained. “He lets us hunt on his land and fish in his pond. And he’s always polite–acts super thankful whenever he talks with me or my dad. He’s not one of those rich assholes at all. I’ve found some good sheds on his land, too. Have you heard of sheds?”

I store lawn mowers and paint and wheelbarrows in sheds, but if Dustin hadn’t know about those until he stumbled upon them, I figured the Texan wouldn’t have been so appreciative of Dustin’s caretaking skills. “What are they?”

“Antlers deer and elk drop in the spring. I find them and sell them–go hiking in the mountains and make some money doing it.”

Shannon lit a pipe and passed it to Dustin. He turned up the stereo, and house music thumped and marijuana smoke slipped out the windows for the next few miles. I watched red cliffs and bright conifers. The light in New Mexico makes everything vibrant.

Dustin took a switchblade from the dashboard and played with it.

“That an out-of-the-front one?” I asked.

He passed it to me. “I just bought it. Most of my knife collection is somewhere in the backseat.” He reached back and found another knife, this one a fixed blade. “They’re all over back there.”

We talked knives and hunting until we neared Pagosa Springs. Then Dustin rolled down the windows, turned the volume even higher, and dropped his sunglasses back over his eyes. His speakers sounded about to blow. We cruised through town and met Dustin’s brother, Jesse, in a parking lot on the far side.

“Jesse’s wife and kids aren’t with him,” Dustin said, “so he can probably give you a ride to Durango, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I’ll ask him.”

I heard their conversation from the other side of the truck.

“He’s not gonna call the cops, is he?” Jesse asked.

“No, he’s cool. I smoked in the car on the way over here.”

“I don’t want a DUI.”

“He’s cool with it.”

Jesse agreed. Then he gave Dustin a few bills and Dustin gave him a few buds, and the brothers smoked together and planned a trip up the railroad next weekend with Dustin, Shannon, and Jesse’s family, and they talked about Dustin’s new switchblade and sunglasses until Dustin had to leave.

“I love you, bro,” Jesse said.

“You, too.”

Dustin and Shannon turned back east, and Jesse and I headed west. Jesse kept his truck clean and uncluttered.

Local roadside

Local roadside

“I wish I had done something like what you’re doing,” Jesse said after I told him about my trip. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

Unlike Dustin, Jesse was clean-shaven and dressed in work clothes. But he talked in the same gentle way as Dustin, and they had the same smile. “Man, this is good stuff. This is the highest I’ve been in months. I’m twenty-eight.”

“And you’ve got a family?”

“Yeah–three kids. Six, five, and a baby.”

“So when you were my age, you started being a dad.”

He nodded slowly. “I think about it a lot, you know, how things would be different if I hadn’t got married or had kids. I don’t regret it–I can’t imagine life without them, but I still think about what would have been different. I’ve never really done a lot of traveling.”

We talked about his family a while longer, and then about sheds, and then about marijuana.

“Is Dustin a dealer, or is he selling just to you?”

“I don’t know what Dusty’s got going on. Maybe I just don’t know the right people any more, but I haven’t been able to find any good weed in Durango. We were talking when he got out of jail, and he said he could hook me up. Man, this stuff is good. Sorry I’m all over the place.”

“Don’t worry about it. Are you and him pretty close?”

“We are. Always have been, kind of, but I’m really trying to spend time with him lately. Our oldest brother died this year, so we’re all focused on family now. Dusty’s a good guy.”

Jesse drove me a few miles past his house and dropped me off at a Wal-Mart. He told me about Durango (a lot of active people), recommended places to visit (a microbrewery and a local hike), and made sure I knew about the bus system (stops at Wal-Mart and goes north through town). We went our own ways, and I waved to Jesse as he drove away.

Initial impressions are useful. They’re often accurate, and they give me a sense of how to talk with a new driver. Type of vehicle, style of clothing, music choice, things on the dashboard–all are clues to character. I can figure out within a few minutes if hunting is a safe topic, or how to go about the subject of religion, or politics, or drugs. But those impressions only go so far. What matters most in a person–how he treats others, who he loves, what he struggles with–comes out later, and sometimes it comes out as a surprise.

Even after ninety rides, I relied too much on initial impressions. Early in the trip I stopped caring about “red flag” traits, like smoking or swearing–traits that reflect one’s environment far more than one’s character–but I still based my many of my expectations on my first ten minutes with a person.

Dustin reminded me, yet again, that I cannot box up a person, I cannot reduce him to a dictionary definition–not if I really want to know him, anyway. The thug blasting dubstep as he cruises through town is more than an arrogant punk. The middle-aged mom driving a minivan and listening to a Christian radio station is more than a churchy prude. Sometimes the drivers that most intimidate me turn out to be the kindest, and the wisest. Sometimes when an evangelical picks me up in hopes of converting a hitchhiker, she ends up being the most accepting, the most willing to talk honestly and openly.

We have all heard that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we still do. The homeless man. The pastor. The truck with hay bales and rifles. The Prius with Obama bumper stickers. Some of them do match our initial impressions. But many don’t, and by treating them according to our impressions, we not only push them into the very role we dislike, but we also handicap ourselves.

When I meet a new driver, I try to see him or her as a mystery–a mass of stories and feelings and beliefs that somehow made him or her pull over and help a stranger. Sometimes it’s an easy mystery, one I could have solved in a few minutes, but other times it’s a fascinating one. But regardless, any mystery is more interesting than reading the dictionary.