9.) The Hitchhiking Years: Four Hooves and a Cloud of Dust
When I ventured out of the motel that morning in Gardiner, Montana, I needed to be convinced again about the plan. How wise was it heading out on America's highways with just a backpack, even in the relative innocence of 1972? After all, a great adventure can be a huge drag depending on your attitude. Fortunately, I was soon in one of the more spectacular spots on earth: Yellowstone National Park.
The ride was a VW Beetle and the driver was a young trustworthy type who had a cast on one of his feet. He knew a lot about the park and pointed out a fresh kill in the snow where a bear had stirred after a long winter's nap. This guy was instantly likable and had nothing outwardly wrong with him, except for the broken ankle which he got in some outdoor activity I can't remember.
I made a mistake at this point because you can never tell for sure about people. I mean, Ted Bundy came across really nice, too. For all I knew, the guy could have been a psycho killer who broke his ankle jumping the prison walls. My point is I never assumed, and I never let my guard down completely. This would be the only time, in a sense, and I blame it on Yellowstone.
What a place. I'm not writing a travelogue but Yellowstone was ridiculously beautiful. I don't think the park was officially open yet that season, and there were very few cars around. I was amazed by the scenery in the place. It was incredible as I'm sure many Americans know. In fact, I instantly became a lifelong fan on that April day, and I still read any news stories I see about it, such as the reports of the big fires in 1988. It's the type of place you care about right away for life. Yellowstone rules.
So we were driving around, and amidst the general mind-boggling wilderness there was this one valley that was a strong nominee for the most beautiful place on earth. Right in the middle of it was a hill. I said something at this point that I quickly regretted, and it could have led to an awkward moment. I was merely trying to express how incredible the place was so I said, "Too bad your ankle is broken, or I'd suggest climbing that hill over there." It was around the size of Mt. Tabor here in Portland - maybe a little smaller. The guy immediately said, "Go ahead. I'll wait in the car."
I trusted the guy but the idea of leaving my pack with a stranger was a first. I mean it didn't make any sense at all. Yes, I had the AmEx card in my boot and maybe a driver's license, but my passport and money were in the pack, not to mention my sleeping bag and clothes. The pack was my survival kit - I could make it for a few days in any weather with it, but I'd be just another person without it. Some of this was basic security. For one thing, I'd need my passport to get home to Arabia, so I was risking a lot by agreeing. And besides, I hadn't really wanted to climb the hill. It was just an expression.
But I said okay, and the deciding factor was the park itself. I coudn't imagine getting robbed here, so the scenery even swayed my judgement. I set out to climb the hill, rather than revealing that I didn't completely trust the guy. It was not my smartest moment, but you take chances in life.
For all I knew, this was his racket. He'd just pick up hitchhikers, wait till they suggested climbing a hill, then he'd point to his fake cast, and suggest they go anyway, before robbing them blind.
I started walking and it felt weird seeing the VW get smaller. Eventually, I just got into it, and passed this huge set of antlers on the ground. It was Yellowstone, and I was in awe.
The hill sloped up but at one point there was a little indentation in a place you couldn't see as you walked up. I came over this rise and there, staring right at me, was a buffalo. And it looked pissed off. I was maybe 15 yards away, and it started towards me, so I turned and ran. It wasn't your organized, together kind of running, either. I was jumping over rocks and bushes, and it's lucky I didn't just trip and impale myself on some antlers lying around.
I ran about 30 yards down the hill before I even thought about looking back. When I did, the buffalo was standing where I had been. It still looked a little torqued off, but I did take a moment to appreciate the animal's greatness.
I never made it to the top of the hill, but I walked back to the road and the driver was still there with my pack. In fact, he said, he had been watching me and saw the buffalo before I did. He said he hopped out of the car and started yelling in my direction, waving a crutch in the air, but I was too far away.
The story was undeniably exciting, and a Mom-friendly incident, so it was depicted on the crude map I drew for her, as you can see below. I had arrived near Yellowstone with my faith in the trip at a low point, but everything was better now. I had gotten away with trusting a complete stranger, and not only was he good to his word, but he had tried to save me when he saw I was walking right towards a buffalo. That was a positive experience.
Finally, there was Yellowstone. This place had its own point: That the world we live in is spectacular, and the idea of putting on a pack and going to check it out, made all kinds of sense. The hitchhiking trip seemed like a good idea once again, and I was ready to carry on.