My body is jolted awake by a cold wind, and I roll over onto shards of glass and dirt and my dreams are brushed aside as I come to the sharp reality of where I am (who really knows) and where I need to go. It’s just becoming daylight, and cars are starting to bustle about, people are making moves. I know that I am in Pueblo, after having arrived here (unplanned) last night via a coal train. Today’s mission is to get the hell out of Dodge. I go to the gas station and get myself a coffee and a blueberry muffin, and am shocked at my appearance when I look in the bathroom mirror. My face is covered in coal dust, and if you would have guessed what I did the night before, you probably would have guessed right. I scrub my face vigorously with soap, and it takes me a good ten minutes to revert back to my normal skin color.
The sub-standard gas station coffee tastes better than it ever has, and I devour the muffin in about four large bites. I begin walking in what I think is a westward direction, trying to find Interstate- 25. I pass by an old man, just waking up for the day and looking outside his backyard. I pass by some kind of jail, covered in heavy-duty barbed wire fence. A man zips by me on a BMX bike five sizes to small for him. The town is a maze of industrial plants and mostly low-income houses. Stuff lays out in the yards, forgotten and discarded. This town is run-down, shabby, on first impression– it smells of industrial fumes and cigarette smoke. Pueblo literally means a “Native American Indian settlement for the people”, but the only people I see walking around happen to be white. Even the parks in this town are sad, for some reason that I can’t put my fingers on. I throw on my Ipod and crank the song “Blue Beard” by Band of Horses and this seems to chase the small-time blues away.
Some five miles or more later, I finally find myself the Interstate merge, after having got turned around a few times. I stick out my thumb facing the northward direction towards Colorado Springs. A surly looking guy wearing a huge backpack and walking along the railroad tracks towards my direction approaches, and we exchange hellos. ” I’m comin’ from the Helena, Montana area,” he tells me. ” Road a train all the way from there. I was riding last night and some dumb ass done pulled the emergency brake. Shot me clear across the car and I bashed into the side, hurt like hell,” he grumbles. He tightens the straps on his pack, and carefully climbs over the small fence along the tracks. We wish each other luck, and he takes off in the opposite direction.
Pueblo seems to be a tough crowd for hitchhiking. I wait about twenty minutes and somebody does eventually pull over. “I’m only going a few exits, cause my friend as a flat,” he tells me. I tell him sure, and hop in, anything to get me out of Pueblo. The front seat is littered with all kinds of trash and debris– old pop cans, potato chip bags, papers and bills, old cigarette cartons. I literally can’t see the bottom of the car it’s so filthy. The guy doesn’t seem to care.
” I was a sniper in the Marine Corps,” he says, after we exchange the usual introductions,” then I was a state trooper for eight years, and then I decided to quit that job and now I own real estate and rent it out… today I had to evict a few of my tenants…” Jim is a big guy with flabby skin, a few tattoos, and yellow and tainted teeth.
He shakes his head. ” I love my tenants and all… but see, I have to kick them out when they start having other people live with them under the table that aren’t on the lease.”
Jim tells me that he is from Louisiana originally, and he wound up in Colorado “by random chance.” I ask him if he has ever had any encounters with alligators, and he tells me that he has. He shows me his fat fingers on his right hand, and shows me how his pinky finger has been stitched on. ” I used to hunt gators in the south,” he says. ” They are hard to hunt, cause you have to make sure you shoot them when they are coming up for air. If you do it on their way down, they will sink, and usually it aint’ worth it to go in after them, cause… well, there buddies are in that lake also, and they might attack. My pinky was once bit off by a gator,” he tells me. I try to determine if he is telling stories or the truth, but it’s hard to tell. ” I told the doc’ to sew it back on cause I was born with it, and I’d like to die with it.”
Jim is a very dry person and not once during our ride does he show the slightest sign of a laugh. I thank him for the ride and hop off the exit he gets off of, which turns out to be in the middle of nowhere.
I start walking along a frontage road that follows the highway, sticking my thumb out for the drivers to see. I get a few honks, but nobody actually pulls over. It’s ten o’ clock and the sun is already out full force, with no trees for shade and a relentless heat that parches my face. I tie a t-shirt over the top of my head for protection. A half hour later, I take shelter by the only lone tree in the area and nap in the grass. I walk some more, and nobody stops still. I nap in a tunnel that goes under the highway and when I wake, I forget that the cement ceiling is that low and bash my head on the ceiling and an intense pain shoots through my head that I try to forget about and douse myself with the last drips of cold water in my bottle. No more hydration for me; I hope I get picked up soon!
I take shelter in another tunnel, the heat too intense for anyone to handle and sit on my backpack. My cell phone has a dead charge, but it actually turns on this time, and I try to call my brother to get him to pick me up, but it just turns off again when I call. My mood at this moment can’t help but be gloomy. I decide to go walk some more (what else can I do), and notice a truck has pulled over outside!
I jog up to the guy, and he says that of course, he can give me a ride. My spirits are lifted again, the trouble is over. I sure am glad that “Nature Called” for this guy, otherwise nobody probably would have been on this road. ” Some things are meant to be,” he tells me. ” I was supposed to be there for you to give you a ride… some things are beyond us.”
The Native American man’s name is Mekwi, and he says that he worked for the park service for many years. ” I only retired a few years ago,” he tells me. “Now I live in a trailer that in the mountains of Raton, New Mexico. I recently divorced my wife and live all by myself– it’s peaceful, and filled with solitude. I’m heading to Colorado Springs to see my grandson’s soccer game… I became really close to him because he was born on the same day my father died.”
I ask him how it was working for the park service as a ranger. “Oh, it was great until the end,” he tells me. ” It was great outside of the BULLSHIT, and there aren’t any jobs without absorbent amounts of bullshit anymore. Let me tell you, these new guys would come in with their bachelor’s degrees, and act like they knew what they were doing, with zero actual experience… you know, someone has to teach you to be that stupid.”
About life in general, Mekwi offers his years of wisdom. “Life really is short,” he tells me. ” I’m 64 now, and my brain still thinks that I’m 20! You see, your brain doesn’t really age… but your body will slowly fall apart, and it will catch up to you. So I recommend to follow what you’re passionate about, and nothing else… enjoy things now rather than later, because time really does fly. The older you get, the faster the pendulum starts to swing.”
He laughs about it all, despite this. ” We used to hitchhike all the time in the seventies,” he tells me. ” Even at my age now, every once in a while I’ll have a flash back and remember all the great times and good people I spent my time with… let me give you some advice here– remember that you can spend your time making money, but you can’t buy time with your money… so in the end, all material things and money are essentially worthless.”
With that, we arrive in the Springs and he sets me off at Uintah Exit where I can walk the short distance to my brother’s place.