On a cold November evening in 1969, I struck out on a cross country trek by making a small sign that read, “East”, stood on the corner of University Avenue and 6th Street in Berkeley. I had never hitchhiked before and only had $1.65 in my pocket, but was determined to see the country. Four days later I was at my great aunt’s dairy farm in western New Jersey where I was invited to stay for Thanksgiving that year. A few years ago I wrote a fictionalized version of a portion of that journey which I offer below.
CAUTION: Soft Shoulder Ahead
He kept walking even though it was pointless. The smooth two-lane road stretched out for miles before disappearing around an outcrop of jagged rock and he knew that there would be no more life on the other side of that bend than there had been in the last 40 miles. There was no wind, not even a breeze as he stepped backwards through the still air, watching the sun hover over the horizon. Occasionally he tried to shade his eyes from that vast orange ball to scan the road for another vehicle. Eventually he turned back towards the East and noticed that his shadow proceeded him by at least thirty yards. When he raised his hands in the air, he added another twenty-five feet to this elongated version of himself. In casting this grand image across the Wyoming landscape he could cause his shadow to touch the tops of boulders and reached across the entire road. And when he jumped up, he became detached from the road. He imagined this shadowy version to be a thin tall traveling partner who mimicked his every move, not as mockery, but as a sign of earnest reverence. Within a few moments the light faded and as it did, so did his companion.
When the sun disappeared the temperature dropped and the cold began to penetrate Jerry’s second hand Army jacket. He started wondering if he should have stayed with his last ride. When the wholesale light bulb salesman and his brand new ’69 Mustang had turned south on Route 47 Jerry had the option of remaining in the warmth of the car. Even though he wasn’t sure of his exact destination he knew it wasn’t south and thought it best to keep some semblance of a plan rather than leave the entire adventure in the hands of chance.
Only four cars and two trucks had passed him in the last few hours and the hope of a ride before night became less and less likely. As he looked up he saw that one by one the stars began to flicker on. He glanced over his shoulder every now and then to look for headlights of a possible ride. Each time he did, he would stop for a moment and bask in the spectacle of the ever-changing evening sky. Over the years Jerry had stood on the shores of the Pacific Ocean watching glorious sunsets paint the lining of a hundred clouds, yet there was something unique about this particular evening that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Maybe it was the colored wash of light touched with streaks of gold and set against the immense arena of the high mountain sky that took his breath away. Or perhaps it was being alone in the vastness of the Rockies that made him feel as if the heavens had decided to put on a show just for him. Whatever it was, he was grateful for bearing witness the end of this day.
The Portland suburbs felt very far away from the evening sky and this deserted highway, yet Jerry had only been traveling for two days. He didn’t try to understand or analyze why he had decided to stick out his thumb or why he climbed into that old Chrysler station wagon, pushing himself into the seat next to several squirming children. He had taken a walk to clear his mind, just an evening stroll with no intentions of going anywhere except around the block.
Yet when the mother and sole adult in that first car leaned out the passenger window and asked him where he was going, he just said, “East.” She told him to climb in the back seat and he did. She didn’t ask any questions, didn’t even ask him his name. She just sat there, fumbling with an outdated Flying A map of the Western United States that had been folded and refolded too many times. She was attempting to navigate by the glow of a dim dome light, while a young boy of questionable driving experience was doing his best to steer the station wagon along the winding roadway.
The attention span of the driver seemed limited and the car continually crept over the double yellow line and into the thankfully vacant oncoming lanes. Each time it did Jerry gripped the vinyl upholstery and imagined a story on page six of the Oregonian about a local high school graduate who was killed in a fiery crash while hitchhiking. He pictured the reporters calling his parents and asking for their reaction, which he was sure would have been one of indifference. He hoped that his obituary would not delve into his completely directionless life or discuss the “wasted potential of today’s youth” or, worst of all, use his really awful yearbook picture to accompany the story. He also thought about Kim and how sad she would be, although there was some comfort in knowing at least someone would miss him.
Just as he had perfected the details of his life story, the mother instructed her son to pull into the rest area just ahead. It was time to take a break and she asked Jerry if he would like to wait with them. Thanking them politely, he said that he needed to keep going.
From there Jerry had accepted rides from a retired sheriff’s deputy who eyed him suspiciously, a thirty-something woman who taught fourth grade and who couldn’t help expressing concern for a young hitchhiker, a soft spoken Marine lieutenant on leave between tours of duty in Vietnam, and finally the light bulb salesman. He had walked for more miles than he cared to count and had learned to rely on his sense of hearing for finding a vehicle as much as his eyesight. So he was more than surprised when his shadow reappeared in the headlights of a car less than a hundred feet behind him. Quickly he stepped onto the gravel shoulder and stuck out his thumb. He tried not to look too desperate or too vulnerable, all the while attempting to display an expression that was both friendly and self-assured. The car streaked by him without even slowing down, but as Jerry turned to watch it go by, he saw the glow of brake lights as it pulled to the side of the road. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Jerry ran up to the beat up old Plymouth, the kind with low fins along the back and a body the size of a small boat, and opened the passenger door.
“Almost didn’t see ya there! Where ya headed?” came a friendly voice. Jerry scanned the inside of the car before answering. The voice belonged to a rather slight woman that Jerry guessed was between 60 and 70 years old. The back seat was so packed with boxes and clothes that he could hardly see out the rear window. Old paper coffee cups and candy wrappers littered the floor and the air reeked from the stale cigarette butts that overflowed the ashtray. “East,” said Jerry.
“Me too! Hop in and let’s get goin’,” she said as Jerry climbed into the passenger seat clearing a spot for his feet by cautiously pushing the garbage to one side. The tires spewed dust and rocks into the dark as they found the road and sped into the night.
“So where are ya comin’ from and what are ya doin’ way out here? Been on the road long? My name is Esther, but you should call me Essie. By the way, what’s your name?” she managed to say without taking a breath. “Sorry to ask so many questions, it’s just been awhile since I had a driving partner that could talk back. Hey! You hungry? Grab a candy bar,” she said pointing to the glove compartment.
Jerry tried to remember the last thing that he had eaten. It must have been the grilled cheese sandwich that the Marine had bought for him sometime around 11 this morning, so a candy bar sounded like a feast. He opened the glove compartment and was greeted by a half dozen Hershey Bars, with and without almonds, scattered throughout what seemed to be a vast array of useless junk. He started to take one without nuts but saw it was partially eaten. Pushing aside the rusted pliers and the role of electrical tape he grabbed one with.
“Thanks,” he said as he peeled back chocolate colored wrapper and the thin foil that covered his dinner. Never had a candy bar tasted so good. He savored each bite with the knowledge that his next meal was some vague place in the future. “I’m on my way to visit a friend in Denver,” he lied in between bites. Well, it wasn’t a complete lie. A family friend had moved there about three years before and he figured that if it came down to it he would be able to find Dr. Chambliss somewhere in the Denver area by going through the phone books.
“Denver,” said Essie with a air of skepticism. “Never did like those high altitude places. Ya just can’t make a good cup a coffee in a place where the water don’t boil at a normal temperature. Ya ever notice that?” Jerry nodded, not really knowing what she was talking about. As he finished the Hershey Bar he relaxed some and took a deep breath, very relieved he wouldn’t have to walk through the night.
Just as he leaned back against the seat he gasped as he felt what could have been a cold, wet Q-tip touch his ear. Jerry instinctively lurched forward frantically brushing at his ear and grabbed for the door handle.
“Whoa! Take it easy there. Jasper just likes to get a sniff of folks before he’s properly introduced. Besides, I still don’t know your name, so I can’t make introductions.”
“It’s Jerry,” he said, still a bit shaken.
“Well Jerry, please meet Jasper. Jasper,” she said speaking to a very large gray cat sitting on top of the seat back, “this is our new travel buddy, Jerry.” With that the cat let out a sound that was more a cross between a moo and a quack than any resemblance to a meow. Jasper then climbed down onto the seat and onto Jerry’s lap as if to make amends for having scared him. “Well what do ya know,” said Essie, “I don’t recall a time he ever took to anybody that quick. You don’t have any catnip on ya, do ya?”
“Not that I know of,” said Jerry “Does it grow wild? I could have brushed up against some recently, but I don’t know what it looks like.”
“I was just kiddin’ about the catnip, but it’s true that Jasper don’t usually take to strangers like that. You must be okay,” said Essie, “You know, cats can see people’s auras. That’s kind a like a soul, but it hangs around outside a’ your body instead of on the inside.” Jerry looked over and could see Essie’s face lit by the greenish glow from the dashboard. He thought she might be slightly off or even worse, completely crazy. But there was a kindness and warmth in her eyes that Jerry had rarely seen. He felt that sitting there in this weather worn car, riding through the vast emptiness of Wyoming, he was safe, even though he wasn’t sure what he might be safe from.
“I’m sorry,” said Jerry, “I haven’t been much of a conversationalist. I think that it’s just because I haven’t slept much in the past few days and it’s catching up to me.”
“Well, you close your eyes for awhile and Jasper will let me know if I’m about to make any wrong turns, now won’t you Jasper? I may wake you up in a bit and have you do some drivin’. That is if you have a license. What am I sayin’?” she said without waiting for an answer, “All boys have a driver’s license. It’s part a growin’ up. Now I remember I didn’t get my license until I turned 47. It just wasn’t somethin’ that I had any use for. Before that I just …. now listen to me goin’ on and you about drift into dreamland. You just rest awhile and I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
Essie reached into the back seat and pulled out a fluffy wool sweater that she handed to Jerry for a pillow. “Thanks,” he said as he propped it against the car window and leaned heavily into its softness. He kept his eyes open for awhile watching the road slip past in the darkness. At one point he thought he saw a rabbit dart through the headlights but by then he was already being lulled to sleep by the hum of the engine and the gentle motion of the car.
He awoke several hours later and found that the sound he thought was the engine was only Jasper purring loudly from his perch atop the seatback. The car was not moving; it was pitch black outside. “Hello,” he called, not being able to quite remember her name through the fog of awakening. Then it came to him, “Essie?” The only answer was the rhythmic cadence of a contented cat. He peered out the window into the darkness and decided she must have gone for some kind of midnight stroll. He opened the car door and stepped out onto the gravel shoulder.
“I didn’t want to bother ya, but now that you’re awake come on up.” Essie’s voice came from somewhere overhead. Jerry could barely make out the large rock outcropping near the side of the road and as he glanced up he nearly fell over. The sky had become a vast upside-down ocean filled with waves of multi-colored light. A green wave followed by lavender and then red would start near the northern horizon and race across the heavens washing up on the shores of the Milky Way.
He first thought that it was some kind of trick. Perhaps a light show from a nearby town or the glow of fireworks from some unknown celebration reflecting off of clouds. But there were no clouds and there was certainly no town nearby. “It’s the northern lights!” he cried out as he remembered the images in his astronomy books. He had dreamed of seeing them one day, but he had no idea when he would ever make it to Alaska. Now here they were in the middle of Wyoming, right in front of him. He could hardly believe it as he stood there with his mouth open, trying to watch the entire sky without moving his head for fear of missing something when he began to hear the voice. Finally on the third try it sunk in, “Are you comin’ up here or not? You can see a lot better from this perch. Don’t bother lockin’ the car, I think it’ll be just fine for a few minutes,” Essie’s mild sarcasm was lost on Jerry. She realized she was speaking to someone who had just been struck dumb by Mother Nature, so her tone was not one of aggravation, but more of impatience at trying to get Jerry settled in on top of the rock so she could return her attention to the cosmic show.
“Go ’round to the back side and just work your way up,” she said coaxing Jerry to actually move. “It’s only about a fifteen foot climb. Don’t worry the lights’ll still be dancin’ when you reach the top.”
As his eyes grew accustomed to the faint light, Jerry was able to pick out footholds on the rocky face. He didn’t allow himself to look up while he was climbing since he knew he would just get caught up in the sky again, so he concentrated on finding the right places to put his feet. When he finally did look up, he found himself within one last pull of the top. Essie lay on her back across a flat rock and seemed oblivious to his presence. He scrambled the last few feet, found a spot to stretch out and was instantly transfixed.
As he watched, he felt as though the lights were passing right through him, stirring his brain with some giant spoon. Bringing up thoughts, images and emotions that he wasn’t even aware of. He wanted to laugh and to cry at the same moment, yet he just stared without moving, afraid to look away.
Eventually the aurora began to fade until what was left was the immensity of a sky overflowing with stars. The two had been lying in silence for so long that Jerry was startled by the voice a few feet away. “Kinda makes ya think, don’t it?” Essie stated. “First the dancin’ lights and now lookin’ down into this sky.”
“Looking down?” Jerry asked.
“’Course, lookin’ down! I guess you never heard a’ the infinite well. Hmmm.” Essie paused for what seemed like minutes. At last she said, “Then close yer eyes and take a deep breath. Go on close ‘em. Now feel the ground under yer back. Really feel it. Know that it’s got hold a’ ya and it won’t let go. Ya got it?”
Jerry nodded, even though Essie couldn’t see him.
“Then, where yer ready, open yer eyes and look down into the sky.” Essie voice flowed across him, giving him a sense of security he had not known in years. He felt the hard rock surface beneath him as if he was attached to the earth by magnets. He sensed his body growing heavier with each passing moment as gravity pressed in on him. He slowly opened his eyes and was instantly overcome as the universe seemed to swirl before him. “Breathe.” Essie’s voice seemed miles away. “Breathe,” she repeated. This time he drew a long deep breath and the dizziness began to wane. As he focused on the sky, Jerry had his first sense of the true vastness of space.
Eventually they climbed down, groping for toe holds along the dark rock face. When they reached the car Essie asked Jerry if he wouldn’t mind driving a bit. His experience on the rock had left him exhilarated, so he felt he could easily take over maneuvering this oversized vehicle along the empty desert roadway. Essie climbed in the passenger side and was asleep before he had a chance to even turn the key in the ignition.
As he pulled onto the road it took him a few moments to adjust to driving such a large car, especially one with bad suspension and no power steering. Eventually he got the hang of it and soon he was comfortable enough to begin replaying the sights of that evening. The lights of the Aurora kept running through his mind as he tried to keep the vision fresh, but it seemed as if he was remembering something from years before, as if this were some ancient memory that he was struggling to recall.
After a few hours Jerry noticed the silhouettes of the distant mountains becoming more distinct as light from the approaching day slowly began to clear away the night and the stars that he had gazed down into began to fade. Soon the sky turned a soft pale blue that mixed with tinges of pink and orange, followed closely by a spark of brightness as the sun reached over the horizon.
Essie continued to sleep, curled up with her head against the window. Jerry wanted to give her as much time as possible to catch up on her lost night, so he kept driving, figuring that they would eventually come across some sort of civilization. He was right in his assessment, for around 8:30 he saw highway signs that the town of Cheyenne was coming up in another 20 miles. Then south to Denver.
• • • • • • • • • • •
Jerry’s photography class had been unexpectedly canceled, so he decided to use the time printing some of his recent work in the darkroom he had set up in his family’s basement. As he was placing one of his negatives of an abandoned house into the enlarger his mother called down, “Jerry, something arrived in the mail.”
Reluctantly he switched off the darkroom lights and went upstairs. His mother handed him an envelope with a return address in Memphis, Tennessee. The name of a Doctor Michael Whittenstein was in scrolled type above the address and it was clearly made out to his name, but there was no stamp.
“Do you have any idea what this is about,” his mother inquired. Jerry just shook his head and then, with a bit of uncertainty, he gently pulled the flap up off of the back of the envelope and removed a piece of stationery and opened it slowly;
Dear Mr. Jerry Granger,
I have been asked to inform you of the passing of Ms. Esther Lipshitz. Prior to her death she requested that I send you the attached parcel…..
Without finishing the letter Jerry looked up and saw the large carton by the front door. Holes poked into the sides, it was covered with large red labels suggesting special handling and tags that read “Caution.” He stepped over to the box and as he pulled a portion of the lid open, he heard the distinct sound of purring. Before he could fully remove the top a familiar grey head poked out eliciting a muffled cry from Jerry’s mother.
“What the…?” she said more out of need to say something.
“Do you remember I told you about the woman in the old beat up car who gave me a ride? When I saw the northern lights. Remember? I told you about this.”
“Vaguely,” she replied. “But not anything about a cat.”
“I told you about Jasper. I think you’ve just blocked out most of what I told you about that trip.” Jerry wasn’t sure why he was having this conversation. There was a cat in a box and a letter from a doctor in Memphis with information about someone he’d known for a day who was now dead. “I’m sorry, Mom. Could you please give me a minute? I need to figure all of this out”
As Jerry’s mother left the front hall, he picked up the letter from the doctor and sat on the floor near the box. The rest of the doctor’s letter noted when Essie had died and gave more information on the bequest of her cat. He gave his regrets and best wishes and then referred to Esther’s note. Jasper bumped Jerry’s arm with his head and flopped over. Jerry looked around for the envelope, reached over and picked it off the floor. A piece of lined notepaper was wedged into the bottom. He pulled it out, unfolded it and gently ran his hand across the paper to smooth out the wrinkles.
I actually hope you aren’t reading this and that Dr. Whittenstein’s calculations of my condition are off, but I’m guessing that he’s probably right. I’m kind of amazed I made it this long, considering. Anywho, if it does comes time for me to leave, I wanted you to have Jasper since nobody ever caught his fancy like you did. Hope this is OK and not too much of a surprise.
Now don’t go all gushy or sentimental here, but if you could do me a favor, that would be great. Now and then, on a nice night, take Jasper outside and look down into the stars for me. I never got tired of doing that. You’re a good kid Jerry. Take care of yourself.
Jasper rolled onto his back, pushing up against Jerry’s leg as his purring grew louder.