I had my first group hitchhiking experience of the trip with two Colorado Trail thru-hikers and a crazy man. I met the hikers in Buena Vista, a town shadowed by fourteeners and well trafficked by rafting companies. The two brothers, Brian and Seth, had hitchhiked into town to resupply, and they were about halfway through their thirty-five day trek.
“You hiking the Colorado Trail, too?” Brian asked. He was my age, and had just graduated from Florida State with a math degree.
“We going Denver to Durango,” Seth added, the shorter and younger of the pair. Both had several days of blond stubble.
“I’m hitchhiking,” I said, “but I’m ahead of schedule, so I’m going to hike Mt. Elbert tomorrow.”
“Right on, man.” Seth repositioned his pack. “We came over that earlier today. Wicked views.”
I’ve found that hikers are some of the friendliest people, and Brian and Seth–largely isolated for the past two weeks–were downright gregarious. They shared hiking stories as we walked through town.
“Seth’s foot starting acting up, about a week into it,” Brian said. “Really hurting, hard to walk.”
“But then we met this guy,” Seth interrupted, “who just happened to have an extra insole my size that he just gave to us. And later we met this girl, Bekah, who we hiked with a for few days, and she was like an angel.”
“The night we met her, our tent ripped,” Brian explained. “The tarp split and it was raining and cold, and Bekah let us pile into her little two-man tent to stay dry.”
“And the next morning, while we’re talking about it and laughing, some old guy camping next to us overheard and came up and offered us his tent.” Seth laughed. “He was just going to give it to us. But the thing was huge. Like one of those massive, heavy Wal-Mart tents, and we couldn’t lug that around. But, man, this has restored my faith in humanity, you know?”
I did know. “Did you fix your tent?”
“We hitched into a town and bought a new one.” Brian said. “The guy who picked us up drove us around for two hours, to all sorts of outdoor gear stores he knew about. He just said, ‘I’m not doing anything today’ and kept helping us. He even bought us all lunch. You hear a lot about Southern hospitality, but really, the West does hospitality the best.”
The brothers come from northern Florida. Unlike the rest of the state, that region, they say, is still part of the South.
“I’ve never craved sweet tea so much in my life,” Seth complained. As they shopped, he added a can of Arnold Palmer to their supplies. “No one knows how to make it up here. This is the best I can get.”
Restocked, but with their ultralight packs still twenty pounds lighter than mine, the three of us started off for our trailheads. Only one road goes north from Buena Vista, so we decided to hitchhike together until our paths diverged.
Hitchhikers generally agree that the larger the group, the harder it is to find a ride. Groups of all males have it especially rough. But Buena Vista’s locals see enough roadside hikers that hitchhiking doesn’t carry the same stigma as in the rest of the country.
We got a ride with the second vehicle we saw.
We threw our packs in the back of the pickup and loaded into its backseat. “Do you live around here?” I asked the driver, an older man with a white beard and long gray hair.
“I’ve got a ranch house out here. I can get peace and quiet there, finally,” he said. “I used to live in Denver. Shitty place. Too many people, and too many jerks.”
“The country is great for getting some elbow room,” Brian said. “What do you do for work?”
“Disability.” The old man laughed.
“That’s a good gig, if you can get it,” Seth said. “I mean, not the being disabled, but…”
He trailed off, and I watched the Arkansas River flowing beside us.
“I used to panhandle in Denver,” the old man said. “Got treated like shit. Everyone glares at you or ignores you–like they blame you. But no one wants to be out there. And you have to keep moving, because if you stay in the same spot too long, people recognize you and stop helping. One time, I got eighty bucks in one day, though.”
“I bet you’ve lived in a lot of interesting places,” Brian said.
“Hell, yeah. Spent three years in a mental institution.”
None of us responded. I noticed the truck drift over the centerline and then settle back into its lane, and I wished I could check the speedometer.
“I heard those aren’t great places to live,” Brian ventured.
“Horrible. People telling you what you can do and can’t do. No freedom. They experimented the shit out of one guy. Tested all these new drugs on him and made him worse than he was when he came in.”
“Did being there help you?” Brian asked.
Our driver shook his head. “It just made me more bitter. I attacked a bunch of cops with a machete, but the case didn’t hold up, so I got three years in an institution. The case still didn’t hold up when I got out–so now I’m even more angry about it.”
None of us asked the questions we wanted to ask. We kept the rest of the conversation to small talk.
“This is the road to our trailhead,” Brian said. “Coming up–at the corner, see?”
My trail started twenty miles further, but I scrambled out of the truck with Brian and Seth. We all parted ways, there. Our driver returned to his peaceful ranch house, the brothers caught another ride and rejoined the Colorado Trail, and I caught a ride with a pickup and rode up to the Mt. Elbert trailhead.