A Familiar Face On The Open Road
The long, lonesome highway
On a lonely on-ramp to Interstate 10 outside of El Paso, I was one of a dozen anonymous hitchhikers equally distributed along 500 feet of hard concrete pavement. I stood at the front of the line, technically closer to my destination than my competition, but also further down the ramp and the last to be seen by potential rides. By the time they reached me, drivers were reaching their merging speed, more concerned now with the road ahead and their destination than acknowledging the last person that they would see in the city of El Paso. It never occurred to me to wonder where the other hitchers were going. I just wanted to be picked up before any of them.
Most wore what can best be described as road clothes, a sort of hitchhiking uniform of wrinkled, loose-hanging garments in dingy colors that did an admirable job of hiding road dust, but also left no doubt about the wearer’s pressing need for a ride. Most of the group looked to be twenty somethings, some older, some slightly younger, with a smattering of hardened, leathery-skinned types who gave the impression that they routinely hitched from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, then crossed the street and stuck out their thumbs for the trip back.
This isn’t the environment that nurtures the kind of camaraderie that might emerge from a group of strangers working together to rescue the occupants of a burning building. There are no we’re-all-in-this-together attitudes that bring each member closer together when joining forces to sandbag a rising river. Friendly “hey, how’s it going” attitudes are rare and even eye contact is avoided. It’s not overtly hostile, but it’s every man for himself on the open road, and we all knew that short of an empty tour bus pulling over, it made more sense to kill each other than to band together as brothers.
I wore what I usually wore: a paisley red bandana over my head, a pair of worn Levis, a plain, un-tucked tee shirt, and a pair of weathered work boots. With my pony tail and the blue flannel shirt in my pack, I was sure that I had captured the hip Neil Young look that I was so into at the time. Today, this same look has reemerged as the retro-hip appearance that you would expect to see on the cover of a Keith Urban album, but shamelessly recycled and only half as cool. It was my hope that a driver facing a lonely drive across New Mexico might appreciate my subtle intellectual underpinnings and choose me over the rest. “Now here is someone that I can relate to,” he might say to himself as he slowed down beside me.
My take on the double take
Also working in my favor was the fact that I have one of those faces that looks like a thousand others. I often get double takes from people, especially when I first walk into a restaurant or a crowded doctor’s office waiting room. The natural reaction is to look up from your salad or magazine and, however briefly, take note of the new person that has just entered the room. With me, I often get this quick, secondary consideration by one or two people. At first, upon getting these looks, I thought that I was a standout, someone worth looking at more than once. But I’ve grown to realize that I am really the opposite--people only look at me because I look so similar to someone else they know. More times than I can count, strangers have come up to me and said things like, “Aren’t you Richard, my brother’s college roommate from Albuquerque?”
“No,” I say, “not me.”
“You guys could be twins, really.”
“Yeah, I get this a lot. I guess I just have one of those faces.”
The funny thing is that I don’t see what they see. I have slitty eyes, like I’m squinting into the light all the time but without the crow’s feet and facial scrunching. My wife tells me that it’s only a matter of time until I have to get my eyelids surgically lifted before my eyes close up completely. “You really should talk to a plastic surgeon,” she says, “before it’s too late.” Outside of Asia, I would think my eyes alone would place me in a tiny minority, but they don’t. The persistent familiarity could be about body language too, which none of us ever sees in ourselves. To the people observing us, it’s the total package that shouts out our personalities and creates points of comparison. But since I lack a comprehensive video record of myself, I just don’t see it.
Cheap but never reliable
I had a sinking but not unfamiliar feeling in my stomach that morning along the on ramp that I was going to wither and die in the middle of nowhere. It’s that hollow, empty, almost panicky feeling that I always experience at least once when my thumb’s in the air. Until a car finally slows to a stop beside you, the immediate future is a complete unknown.
With the morning sun in my face and the meager number of cars coming down the ramp, I had thoughts of walking back into town and selling some blood plasma or calling my parents to ask for money for a bus ticket. To add to my anxiety, I didn’t feel that I deserved a ride over anybody else. After all, some of the others might have been out there for days and, out of fairness, really should be picked up before me. “Oh, thanks for stopping,” I considered saying to the friendly fellow who might pull over to pick me up. “But wouldn’t you rather pick up that guy and his girlfriend back there with the German shepherd and conga drum?” The reality was that the day was heating up fast and I would have taken a ride with just about anybody—and never looked back.
Hitchhiking has never been considered the safest method of travel, but it does rank up there with the least expensive. During my first two years of college, I couldn’t afford a car so I would often get a ride from a friend for the four hour trip to my parents’ house. I rarely thought far enough ahead to arrange for the return trip, so after two or three days, I would finally say, “Well, it’s about time I headed back.”
“Do you have a ride?” my dad would ask.
“Well, no, but I was hoping that…”
Unwilling to make the eight hour round trip to take me themselves, my parents would drop me off on what became a familiar on ramp about 45 minutes away from our house. On the surface, it seemed a little irresponsible on their part, but for my parents, it was a simple pragmatic gamble: Was their 19 years of investment, plus two years of college tuition, books, and room and board, worth the chance of finding my nude and decapitated body buried in a shallow grave just 20 minutes from the safety of my college dorm? As it turned out, it was, because my father never had to calm my poor, sobbing mother at my funeral. “He almost made it,” my mother would have cried. “He was so close. So very, very close”
Instead of laying me permanently to rest, they would just wave good-bye to me each time, and then make a u-turn in the same, customary intersection, arriving home in time to watch a Sunday golf match, or catch up on some accumulated ironing. Years later, the subject has occasionally come up and my mother always says the same thing: “I can’t believe we let you do that. What were we thinking?” Now, as a parent, I draw a similar conclusion. Yes, what were they thinking?
A pickup in a pickup
It was mid-morning when a older Ford pickup started down the I-10 on-ramp a little slower than was typical. It passed each person in the queue, the driver visibly scrutinizing each one through his passenger-side window. As he passed me, he pulled over to the right and stopped just past the merge sign that I had been leaning against. He reached across the bench seat and opened the door from the inside. “Where you headed?” he asked.
“Hop in,” he said.
“Hey, thanks,” I replied, “I really appreciate it.” I got into the front seat and squeezed my backpack into the usual place between my feet on the floor. As we started to pull away, he said, “Well, you’re lucky, pardner, you looked like the safest one of the bunch.” Then, as we merged into traffic, he added, “And at first, I thought you were my neighbor's son Justin. You look just like him. You surely do.”
I’ve learned to expect this indirect recognition over the years, and now, when I see someone give me the double take, I assume that they have just made a mental connection pairing me with someone else, the same reaction that a crime investigator might have when the fingerprints match. I’m not noticed because I’m unique; instead, I stick out in the crowd because I’m so similar. At the very least, it’s harmless, and at times, it has helped to move me down the highway.