I walked backwards, facing traffic with my arm up, thumb lit like a beacon. It was my first time hitchhiking, but I had been given discourses from veterans and I felt I understood the principles. In less than fifteen minutes I had my first ride. A woman in her early to mid-twenties opened the passenger door.
“I can’t take you very far, but I can get you a little farther along.”
“Sounds good. Thanks.”
It was a very short ride, twenty minutes at most, but in that time the woman had divulged to me the recent death of her mother. I apologized, fumbled consolations, having never known the death of anyone close to me I felt like I couldn’t offer much perspective. She wasn’t telling me anything for any reason other than the fact that I was a human to speak her sorrow to, and I was much cheaper than a psychiatrist. Her pain was sharp, it was fresh and she would not be recovering from it any time soon.
I was full of misguided yogic enlightenment and the philosophical confidence of my early twenties so I told her that everything would work out eventually. I let her know that things happen how they are supposed to happen and that even though it hurt now, she would heal some day and be stronger than she was before.
Who knows, maybe the things I said would have a deep impact on her and go on to shape who she would become. Maybe she would contemplate my words later and think I was full of shit. That’s the beauty of a conversation with a total stranger whom you are most likely to never meet again. You never know what might come from it, or what the lasting effects will be.
I said goodbye when she dropped me off, told her again that things would get better, they always do. She thanked me and drove off half-smiling. It was only a few minutes later when I got my next ride, a man in an SUV. He was headed to work and could only take me a short way. We talked little and listened to the radio. He gave me a bottle of water when he dropped me off at a crossroads.
I waited very briefly for my next ride from an elderly couple. I sat in the bed of their pickup truck while I smiled at my luck so far. I hopped out of the truck lightly when I was left off at a gas station. The old man driving smiled a mostly toothless smile at me, waved and drove off.
I had traveled around fifty miles away from Taos, I guessed. Mountains loomed to the east, the high desert spread in its rugged and daunting beauty in every direction. I found a piece of cardboard on the side of the gas station and scrawled out my destination: Denver, CO. My hitchhiking tutors had advised me that this was advantageous in many ways. I had also been told that gas stations were some of the best places to get rides. I ignored this piece of advice, too energetic and anxious to be on my way.
It was a pristine day in the southern Rocky Mountains. It was early May, the storms of spring were left behind with April and the sun would not drink the land dry until the later days of June. The sky was a sharp lapis lazuli with a few billowing clouds. It was warm, but not hot.
I skipped along on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. Traffic was sparse but each time a car passed I flashed my cardboard sign, my thumb, and a winning smile. They sped past me at 75 miles per hour with a mighty wind and dust clouds in their wake. I continued this way for half an hour, then an hour, then an hour and a half. The glimmer in my eyes and the spring in my step were fading. I thought of the gas station, but gave up on going back because of how far I had already walked.
A house came into view on my left, which comforted me a little, at least I wasn’t in complete desolation. As I came closer a dog from the property came out to bark at me. I had nothing else to do, so I barked back. He didn’t find it as entertaining as I did, he must have found it fairly threatening and he took the defensive very quickly. I was passing too close to his domain. He came onto the highway, viciously barking. I backpedaled, facing him, but trying to make sure I was always moving swiftly away from the house.
He made steady advances and his threats were growing closer and more sincere. He was only medium-sized, but he looked lean, hungry and rabid. He was perhaps ten feet from me when I realized I might not be able to distance myself far enough from his property to satisfy his protective instincts. I prepared myself for the worst. I thought through the best form of defense. I needed to protect my neck and the veins and arteries of my wrists. The feet would attack first and quick, explosive jabs might be necessary, but I had to make sure he never got in too close to me. My body grew taut like a bowstring. Though I had next to no fighting experience of any kind, my body reacted like it knew what to do, with boiling blood and adrenaline.
Just when I thought the dog would make his move, a roar from the highway took his attention from me. A truck, maybe a quarter-mile off, was coming toward us. The sound and movement seemed to hypnotize the dog. He forgot about me, forgot about everything but the truck. He turned from me and swayed, mesmerized, into the middle of the road. The truck, an F350, was going full speed and not slowing down. The whole scene seemed to suspend time, though only several seconds could have passed. When time returned to normal there was a sickening crunch of flesh and bone meeting metal, there was a squeal of rubber on pavement and there was death and disaster hovering in the air.
I ran to the dog. Though there was no chance he could have survived I had to know for sure. His eyes were open, but blood was leaking from them, and from his mouth and nose. No breath, no life, it was gone just like that. The driver had pulled over and came out.
“I didn’t see him until it was too late.”
I couldn’t respond. I was numb and hollow.
“Somebody should, uh, tell the family,” he said.
“I’ll do it. Don’t worry.”
And that was all I said to the man. My backpack and my presence on the highway answered most of his questions and kept him from sticking around. He got right back into his truck, mumbling apologies and drove off. I walked to the house and knocked. I waited a minute or two. Finally someone came to the door. A Hispanic woman in her mid-twenties answered. She looked scared and wary. I couldn’t blame her; they surely didn’t get many unexpected knocks on their door, let alone from strange backpacking vagabonds.
“Uh, I’m sorry. Your dog, did you have a dog?” I stumbled. She nodded. “He came out barking at me when I walked by and he, he, umm, he got hit by a truck. He’s, he’s not—umm. He died.”
She only nodded, she didn’t speak. I had no idea if it was a language barrier or shock, but I could think of nothing else to say or do. I wished I was home, I wished I had never left, had never followed the hunger of my wandering, had never put myself into circumstances so desperate, so beyond my control. I wanted to leave the porch so I could be alone to weep, which was all I felt like doing.
“¿Necesitas agua?” she asked kindly.
I shook my head, pointed to my water bottle.
My words were paltry but I’m sure she could see it in my eyes.
“I should keep on.”
I pointed toward the road.
I backed away and as soon as I was on the road I let my feet lead me further into nowhere while tears blinded my eyes. I didn’t let myself cry often. When the tears came they were months of welled up sorrow, homesickness, guilt, heartache, and weariness. And I kept thinking that if I had not taken the path I had taken that dog would never have come out to chase me off, he would still be alive. It wasn’t the truck that killed the dog, but I.
Levi Andrew Noe was born and raised in Denver, CO. He is a writer, a yogi, an entrepreneur, and an amateur oneironaut. Levi won first prize in 2011 and 2013 in Spirit First’s international poetry competition. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Ink Sweat & Tears, Connotation Press, The Harpoon Review, Five 2 One Magazine, LitroNY, 101 Words, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Birdy, River Poets Journal, Elephant Journal, and Japan Travel, among others. He is the editor-in-chief and founder of the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival, Audio Art Journal.