A Volkswagon Beetle never picked me up. Neither did a Mini Cooper, nor a PT Cruiser, nor a Porsche, Jaguar, Beamer, etc. Ironically, I never rode in a VW van, either.
After one hundred and thirty-seven rides, I had learned to stop hoping for a lift when certain vehicles approached. Any of the cars above were out. Handicap stickers were a sure bet against me. And RVs—whether motorhomes, fifth wheelers, or any type of travel trailer—were just as hopeless.
We learn to extrapolate at an early age. Functionally, it’s a necessity. Run into a sliding glass door, touch a hot stove, and you figure out where bruises and burns come from. Even the basic concept of object permanence is an extrapolation. How many peekaboo games does it take to realize Mom will still be there when the blanket comes up? Yes, she could disappear, especially if she’s speedy and missing a maternal instinct, but with enough cycles of cry-laugh-cry-laugh, we realize she’s not going anywhere.
Once we learn to extrapolate, we extrapolate to learn. What spices work well together? What movie reviewers do you agree with? Where can you safely speed, and where will cops ticket you for going five over? Who can you trust?
I had arrived in Wenatchee a full day ahead of schedule, so I hitched an hour north to camp for the night in Pateros, a town I knew well from family vacations. The next morning, I looked for a ride back to Wenatchee—a ride to my friend’s wedding and the conclusion of the Traveling on Trust project. I gave cursory waves to the RV vacationers that approached, but my hope lay in the pickups and the SUVs.
Again and again, this trip has surprised me, and the thirty-seven foot motorhome that pulled over me surprised me yet again. I met Bob and Kat—about to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary next month—and their golden retriever, Abby.
Bob welcomed me inside and turned the foldout bed back into a couch. “We weren’t expecting to pick anyone up,” he apologized, then climbed back into the driver’s seat.
“We usually don’t pick up hitchhikers,” Kat said, “but you looked young and you smile with your eyes.”
A cane and a handicap sign lay on the floor.
In the hour’s drive between Pateros and Wenatchee, the couple told me about growing up in Aberdeen together, teaching in Kent after their wedding, and finally retiring to a little place in the Methow Valley. Bob doesn’t like traveling, so motorhome trips like today’s are rare, they explained. We stopped at a fruit stand at the drive’s halfway point, and while Bob took Abby for a walk, Kat bought me coffee and told me about her stroke four years ago. The handicapped sign was hers.
“You aren’t supposed to talk about religion or politics,” Kat said, back in the RV, “but I do anyway.” We discussed Christianity, divorce, and the state’s marijuana law all the way into Wenatchee.
After a certain point, extrapolation hinders learning. It doesn’t leave room for disasters, or for on-the-road dinners, or for strangers. New Orleans’s levees could handle expected weather without a hitch, but Hurricane Katrina defied precedent. So did Pompeii, and so did the Flood. On this trip, I would have starved had I followed culinary standards whenever I prepared a meal. But popcorn can serve as breakfast, and although it’s not the best method, you can cook a trout by boiling it in tomato soup. As for extrapolating about strangers, I found a ride in a motorhome. And another in a carpet cleaning truck.
When I graduated college, my friends and I agreed that more than anything else, our education had shown us how little we actually knew. My understanding of the world felt much more complete back in high school, when I was studying the surface of subjects and moving in the same familiar circles. College exposed me to depth, variety, conflict. Now, when I pick up a Shakespearean sonnet, I know that there are at least three different ways of reading it, each supported by scholars and academic articles. I know that even the punctuation is up for debate.
So it is with people.
After riding with a hundred and thirty-eight strangers—plus passengers and those I met in small towns—the extrapolated assumptions I make about people no longer fit. Most of the surprises I found during this trip were people who overthrew my stereotypes. A former bounty hunter now works in the ministry and hopes to plant a church in Africa or Southeast Asia. A grimy trucker helped found his college’s economics honor society. A “tough guy” with tattoo sleeves, sunglasses, and gangster goatee said “God bless” after driving me three miles through Taos. A couple in their fifties, financially successful and some of the most outdoorsy, active people I have met, believe in Atlantis, aliens, and astral planes.
This is not to say I now view people as blank slates. I don’t reject all my extrapolated knowledge about people, either, just as I don’t reject the high school explanation of “Sonnet 18.” And for the most part, I still learn by extrapolating. I’ve learned hitchhiking is not only safe, but rewarding and inspiring. I’ve learned most people want to be good, and they want to be trustworthy—it’s circumstance and social shoehorning that gets them in trouble.
But I try not to stop there. I take whatever extrapolated knowledge I’ve gained with a grain of salt, and I use it as a starting point. So when I meet a stranger, even if he is “your typical Vietnam vet” or she is “a total Colorado hippie,” I keep asking questions. What events in her backstory would she say most define her? Who does she love? What does she think makes a good person?
I took this trip to gain a practical education, to see how life unfolds outside of theories and textbooks. I learned much, certainly, and I know more about people and life and virtue than I did before I put my thumb out for the first time in Mount Vernon, Washington. But as with college, this trip taught me that I know very little. The world and its people are complex. Faith is complicated. Virtue is anything but simple.
I find this exhilarating, and also reassuring. Questioning is eternal, and answers are mutable—offering endless, fascinating discovery. And no one has a corner on understanding. You can figure out some people in a way that no one else can, just as certain people can figure out you better than anyone else. There is no static rulebook to personhood.
Question by question, person by person, I will continue to search for little answers. I won’t extrapolate those answers to explain every context, and I won’t expect to become a master of understanding. But with every bit I do learn, I will grow, and in the process, I will connect with a stranger, or learn more about a friend, or better love a relative. And in the process, I’ll find some damn good stories.