In 2009 Jane (not her real name) moved to rural southeast Washington from Portland in search of a new life and a closer relationship to the natural world. She was 37 at the time, a 6-foot-tall Irish woman with sensible red hair, calm eyes, and hard-won rules about the way the world should work that she remained faithful to even as the people in her life seemingly refused to. She didn’t buy a car, even though it made finding a part-time job difficult and turned going to the nearest Quaker church on Sunday mornings into a 135-mile roundtrip bike ride, but she didn’t let that stop her from getting out and enjoying everything that the Pacific Northwest has to offer. She started an environmental design business shortly after moving to Trout Lake and traveled up and down the west coast going to conferences and meetups; she’s been biking to and from church for four years; she uses a network of “trail angels” to get rides to and from hikes in the area; and once a year every year since the move she’s picked a 5-day hike, generally somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail, and relied on a combination of trail angels and rides with strangers to get to and from the trailheads (she insists that she’s never hitchhiked because she doesn’t put her thumb out, but the mechanism otherwise is indistinguishable).
I met Jane this past Labor Day weekend in Mt. Rainier National Park on the road to White River Campground, she wanting to check out the Sunrise lodge as a detour from her annual trip and me en route to a weekend of car camping and day hiking with some friends who had arrived earlier in the day. She was wearing a huge pack and walking by the side of the road, so I pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride—in 2004 I spent 7 months in New Zealand and Australia hitchhiking as my primary mode of transportation (I proudly used my thumb), so I try to pay it forward when I can—and I took her the last couple of miles into camp and didn’t think much more about it.
I ran into her again our last morning on my way down to the river; we talked a bit and it became clear that she was heading for home, so I offered her a ride down to Paradise lodge and then out of the park. I picked her up towards the front of the campsite a few hours later, and we spent the next four hours or so driving to Paradise, meeting up with a couple of my friends from the group and hiking back to the cars with them, and then heading west until I wished her good luck and dropped her off at the intersection of 706 and 7, in the parking lot of the Elbe Bar & Grill.
The unspoken contract of hitchhiking, ridesharing, or any other form of transportation that involves getting free rides from strangers is that the passenger is trading conversation for transportation. There’s a certain form of fleeting intimacy that comes from sharing a car ride with someone you don’t know and who you’ll almost certainly never see again, and it’s the reason why hitchhiking remains my favorite mode of transportation to this day. Jane did most of the talking in this case—my role in our conversation was primarily to bear witness to her internal monologue and occasionally guide it a bit by asking questions or answering her questions about me—and it was fascinating to observe the way in which she revealed the contours of her world to me, slowly, circuitously, somewhat cautiously, and with a sparseness of detail that seemed to introduce two questions for every one it answered, to draw me further into this world of hers where there were absolute rules of right and wrong but things were always more complex than they seemed. “Where do you live?” and “What kind of work do you do?” were both 45-minute answers at least; and her original goal was to get back home in time for church, but aside from telling me about the 135-mile roundtrip she never mentioned her religion at all in a conversation that spanned work, relationships, family, backpacking, loss, friendship, and belonging.
A lot of what she told me I would consider too personal to put into this blog post, anonymized though it is, but the overwhelming sense I got from her was a mixture of intense loneliness and unlikely hope. She was divorced, living in a tiny rural town of 400 people, most of whom were at least 20 years older than her, and her steadfast refusal to buy a car made every aspect of her life more difficult; she had started a business 3 years ago but hadn’t gotten any paying clients yet, there were no friends or family that she was close to, and she carried with her from Portland a deep sense of having been wronged by people she trusted…and yet her basic faith in the goodness of humanity remained unshaken. She talked about her past experiences as outliers that didn’t fit with her overall vision of how the world worked, and she refused to compromise her standards to reflect the injustices she’d suffered. She used a lot of very peculiar turns of phrase over and over again—“fiscal earnings”, “love relationship”, at least three contextually modified versions of “friendship”—that implied a whole system of Newspeak-style linguistic order beyond them, an attempt to create order out of chaos through language.
At the time I thought that it was a naïve way to see the world, expecting it to live up to an idealized internal vision rather than adapting your internal vision to reflect the world as it actually is…but the question that was on my mind for a good portion of our time together was what gave her hope, what kept her going on a daily basis through the work setbacks and personal setbacks and the lack of people to turn to for support; and in retrospect I think it was her internal sense of right and wrong, the same reason that she was willing to bike 135 miles round-trip to go to church and put her trust in complete strangers to get her where she needed to go on longer trips.
I don’t know how happy she was—she was never very emotional, even when she was describing things that would make most people I know break down and cry—but I hope that she finds what she’s looking for in life, and I’ll think of her every time I hear the name “Trout Lake.”