Nobody hitchhikes anymore, I thought as I drove by him.
Particularly nobody that age.
He had on one of those old square cut baseball caps with the mesh sides, a thin, faded t-shirt and pants that were held up over his Buddha belly by suspenders. On his feet were a beat up pair of old cowboy boots and hanging from his shoulder was a canvas bag of some sort. To top it all off he was leaning on a cane.
But there he stood, his free arm stretched straight out in front of him, thumb raised as if to say,
“You better believe it, this old man wants a ride.”
It was 100+ degrees out. I couldn’t leave him there. I made a u-turn and went back to get him.
Turned out, the old hitchhiker was 86-years-old, his daughter had taken his car keys away from him that morning saying that he was a menace on the road and he wasn’t going to let the fact that he didn’t have his car keys stop him from getting to where he wanted to go.
“Thank you, ma’am, for picking me up,” he said with his country-like accent.
I told him he looked too old to be an axe murderer and that was why I picked him up and that I was sorry but I wasn’t going too far down the road before I had to turn. He said that was okay, he’d take his blessings any way he got ‘em and that he’d catch a ride from there. He was “real good at catchin’ rides.”
Yeah. He’d done it before. Lots.
“But back in the day people stopped more than they were stoppin’ today though.”
Today, he’d been standin’ there for about an hour and you’d think all them other people would realize he weren’t no axe murderer.
“People are afraid today,” he added.
I asked him where he was going and he told me that it was like this here—he’d met a gal.
“Well, excuse me, ma’am.” he said. “I met a lady.”
I told him I knew there had to be a woman involved.
“Now how would you know that?” he asked.
“From the determined way you were stickin’ your thumb out,” I teased, “had to be a woman involved.”
We laughed and he explained as how he’d met this lady at church and he kinda liked her right away. She were just, you know, a fine woman—a woman with a laugh—and he wanted to git to know her and then she fell and broke her hip and she couldn’t drive and he had been visitin’ her and then his daughter took his car keys away.
Sounded to me like the daughter didn’t want the old hitchhiker to have anything to do with the woman and that was why she took his car keys away and just as if he was reading my mind he said,
“I think my daughter don’t want me to have nothin’ to do with that woman more than she don’t want me to drive.”
I told him he took the words out of my mouth and by this time we were where I had to turn and he pointed and said I could drop him off at the corner up ahead.
I pulled the car over and he asked me if I minded if he prayed for me.
“Now?” I asked him.
“Ain’t no time like the present,” he said and took my hand and began a heartfelt prayer to Lord-God-Father-Almighty that I be happy, healthy and safe and that Lord-God-Father-Almighty didn’t forgit that I picked up old people hitchhikin’ by the side of the road even though there were lots of axe murders around.”
“Amen,” I said—
-wondering to myself when was the last time I actually said Amen and he got out of the car.
Just before he closed the door, he leaned down and shot me a beaming smile from his wrinkly old face that made me think I could almost see the boy in him.
“I’m headin’ off to a new life,” he said. “Thanks for bein’ part of it.”
I looked at him. His stained and stretched t-shirt, his faded pants, his beat up cowboy boots, cane and canvas bag and my heart actually lept a little bit in my chest for him, for his agelessness and for his nerve.
“Hope I can give you a ride again,” I said.
He shut the door and as I drove off I glanced in my rear view mirror to see him take his stance; arm straight out, thumb boldly in the air, fully expecting someone else to give him a ride.
A ride that would get him even closer to his new life.
A different version of this article originally appeared in ElephantJournal.com