I gave Ken a ride the other day. Picked him up at the I-12 on-ramp and took him across Lake Pontchartrain into Greater New Orleans. Ken was white haired, probably in his late fifties, although he looked older from a life spent in wind and sun. He said he was hitching to Texas where some folks he knew had a ranch and would hire him on for fall work and let him stay in their bunkhouse.
Our time together was only about forty minutes but I heard some great stories. He spoke of stopping in to sleep in an abandoned house once and finding two cases of beer and a pound of pot hidden there. He chewed the fat that night, making up for a long period of lean. He told me about a time when he accidentally scared the hell out of some teenagers who tried to break into another abandoned house where he was sleeping.
He told me how strange it was to him to find all the useful stuff that people threw out along highways. His shoes and his jeans had been discovered beneath a bridge, and it made me wonder who had lost them, and why. He himself had misplaced a sweater that he'd once found, and he lamented that loss although he wasn't terribly broken up. Easy come, easy go, he seemed to be saying.
Ken reminded me of a line from the song, "Me and Bobbie McGee." "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Ken was free, and I think many of us have moments when we envy such freedom. I don't feel that way for long, though. On a bright day with a little breeze, when someone offers you a ride and maybe slips you a few bucks for a bite or a beer, then the way of the road might have its pleasures.
But what about when the sun beats on your bare head like a hammer while you stand for hours along the blacktop with your thumb out? What about when the nights turn cold and you can't find enough clothes along the highway to keep you warm, and the abandoned house you're sleeping in has no heat to combat the holes in the walls where the chill comes creeping? What about the mornings you wake with sickness in your belly and there's no one to lay a hand to your forehead and whisper a comforting word?