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One of my best rides took me nowhere. I was picked up in Ponderay, Idaho, near the Big R grocery store, and–three hours later–was dropped off in the same spot.

Kathy and Sharon, a mother and nine-months-pregnant daughter-in-law, saw me on their way to get groceries for that night’s dinner. They don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. But as they shopped, they talked about me: smiling and waving, clean, traveling on trust. If I was still there when they left, the women decided, they would invite me to dinner.

I was.

“You aren’t a freak, are you?” Kathy laughed.

“I like to think I’m not.”

“I guess you have to be a bit of a freak to go hitchhiking, but that’s not too bad.”

“My name’s Josh.”

“Want to come to our house for dinner?”

“Absolutely.”

“Great. Sharon’s pregnant, so we’re really hoping you’re not a freak. You seem like a good kid.”

As far as pre-ride introductions go, this was one of my favorites. Kathy just said out loud what everyone else thinks. Both parties always trade a few sentences and glances before the hitchhiker jumps inside, trusting their abilities to spot an actual freak in just a half-minute conversation.

We drove off, and, as usual, I explained my trip. The women shared a little about their family: their husbands like hot sauce spicy enough for their bodies to reject it, and–for reasons unknown but unrelated to hot sauce–Kathy experiences seizures. The seizures, often connected to stress, come as frequently as several times a week or as rarely as once a month. Picking up a hitchhiker is not exactly a stress-relieving activity, and I appreciated Kathy’s dinner offer all the more.

My hosts for the evening. From left to right: Jeff & Sharon, Heidi, Kathy & Michael.

My hosts for the evening. From left to right: Jeff & Sharon, Heidi, Kathy & Michael.

Fortunately, the little dog on Kathy’s lap stayed quiet. The dog is a seizure predicting dog, meaning it has the rare and unscientific ability to anticipate a seizure and give Kathy enough time to sit or lie down before it hits. “She’s saved me from broken bones and lot of hospital trips,” Kathy said. “I hardly go anywhere without her.”

The family got lucky with their dog. Not until Kathy’s seizures began several years ago did they discover their pet’s natural talent. Had they bought a designated and fully trained seizure dog, it would have run them roughly $30,000, and even then, successful pairing with the owner is not guaranteed.

When we pulled into the driveway, I saw the husbands, Michael and Jeff, standing in the garage.

“We tried calling them when we thought about picking you up,” Sharon told me, “but neither of them answered.”

“So they don’t know anything about me.”

“Nope!”

The women went inside to cook dinner, and I was left outside with their husbands. Incredibly, Michael and Jeff were unfazed. The family doesn’t pick up hitchhikers often, but they often open their home to those in need. We did Trip Explanation Round 2, and then Jeff asked how much I knew about bottled water.

“I usually just drink tap.”

He nodded. “That’s good. Bottled water is a product of advertising. Companies and society manipulate us into wanting things that we don’t actually want. Have you heard about the aquifers in India?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Bottled water is using them up. Nestle and Coca-Cola–the two biggest bottled water companies–are buying up aquifers in rural villages. They send in their equipment and take all the water, so the villagers can’t even use their own wells. Once they’ve drained the aquifer, they move on to another village and do the same thing. They’re destroying people’s lives for profit, and no one’s stopping them.”

For the first time on this trip, I started to worry. It was only four o’clock, and we had already started on conspiracy theories.

My expression must have given me away. “We’re not conspiracy theorists,” Jeff assured me. “We just do our research. Most people just focus on Wal-Mart and sit-coms and ignore reality.”

He and Michael moved on to the problems of capitalism and the dangers of processed food. But as they talked, I realized–to a large degree–that I agreed with them. I added a few ideas I had read in Michael Pollan’s books, and I talked about the problems of materialism and “stuff accumulation.” By the time we migrated inside, we got along just fine, bottled water paranoia be damned.

And then, heavenly words from Kathy: “Do you want to do a load of laundry? And shower?”

Once I was clean, our conversation turned–as it so often does between the Cascades and the Great Lakes–to hunting and trapping. After my story of unsuccessfully trying to trap squirrels in my backyard, Jeff went to the garage. He returned a few minutes later, carrying a bent washer with two extra holes drilled through it. “Want to see a locking snare?”

With the washer, he showed me how to rig a wire snare that won’t release once tightened, and then how to set up a deadfall. He gave me the materials. “In case you get hungry.”

When Kathy and Michael’s daughter came home, the family made sure I wouldn’t have to snare animals that night, at least. I did try one drop of the warned-against hot sauce, which the guys judged to be around 90,000 Scoville heat units–or ten times as spicy as a jalapeƱo pepper. My eyes turned red and I sweated through the rest of the meal. Michael laughed. “This is one of our milder ones.”

When I climbed into Kathy and Sharon’s car that afternoon, I expected a meal and some conversation. But as so often happens on this trip, I received far more: cleanliness, lessons in snaring and seizures, true hot sauce, and–most importantly–a family of loving people I can call friends.

And the next day, when I looked up those aquifers, I found out that Jeff and Michael were right.