More than ever, my heart goes out to hitchhikers. One might think Covid would discourage them from thumbing it, but apparently not. They’re still out there. I see them once in a while along my usual circuit from Woodstock to Phoenicia, i.e. along Wittenberg Road – occasionally Route 212, for variety – to Mount Tremper, down Plank Road to my home town. Even though it’s technically faster, I rarely take Route 28.
I know there are those among us who do not mask up, and/or who think the pandemic is some kind of conspiracy (don’t get me started on how strange and infuriating and perversely fascinating I find these folks, some of whom are friends), but are there enough of them to provide lifts for these poor carless people? Because unless you’ve got a pickup in which a hitcher could jump in the truck bed, or some such like, I don’t know anyone but an anti-masker conspiracy theorist who would risk picking up a stranger along a country road. Or any road.
That fact is one of the many aspects of this pandemic that saddens me. Seeing these lonely hitchers is like driving by the closed sign on the Upstate Films marquee, or inadvertently standing a little too close to someone and having them freak out and move away as if you’re radioactive, even though you are masked. If you’ve slipped into a benumbed state of temporary pandemic forgetfulness, these now-quotidian occurrences can zap you right back into despair.
I’ve picked up hitchhikers a fair amount in the past, so I’m able to console myself a little. A diminutive elderly man who lives in a Mount Tremper apartment complex, for instance. Several times pre-pandemic I picked him up on Wittenberg. He was unmistakable in black knee socks, shock of white hair, shoulder bag, pretty sprightly. Always bound for the Woodstock Library. Needless to say, I’ve not seen him of late, about which I’m actually relieved. I hope he’s okay.
Then there’s the strange, beautiful young woman who approached me at the Valero in Phoenicia. She asked for a lift to the Woodstock Green, then, upon arriving there, offered me $50 to take her on to Kingston, which I could not do. This was last year. She had an eye-of-the-hurricane calm about her, her big eyes focused on the middle distance. My uncanny knack for sensing an unquiet mind hummed.
These two and a few others had marked an end for me to a couple-of-decade moratorium on picking up hitchhikers. When we first began visiting the area in the early Nineties, my wife and I gave two different hitchers rides in our ’78 Datsun B-210. (The worst car we ever owned.) These two rides were maybe six months apart. Oddly, both men – white, affable – turned out to be trouble. Like clockwork, as soon as they plopped into the back seat, each said something racist. We stopped picking up strangers for some time after, especially when we were raising our son.
Now, because of Covid, I’m back to passing travelers by, my heart sinking as I mouth an apology, hoping I won’t someday be the recipient of some retributive karma, i.e.: I’m in distress on the roadside, in need of a kind stranger, and people repeatedly pass, all with very good reasons why they can’t stop and help, their eyes remorseful but determined.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.