Last night I did something I haven’t done in perhaps 20 years. I picked up a hitchhiker.
This is something we’re constantly told is dangerous, a big no-no on the personal security scale. Back when I was a teenager, hitchhiking was common and popular. I can recall in the late 60’s catching rides frequently to get into town from a rural area. It was something young, free-spirited people did, popularized by hippies and adopted by many others. Then things started getting uglier. Stories of psycho hitchhikers abounded, and soon nobody would stop anymore. As rides became scarce, people stopped sticking out their thumbs.
Occasionally I’d see throwbacks at freeway entrances, particularly in Berkeley, where dusty young couples or students on vacation break would sit with signs indicating where they wanted to go. Even these disappeared; nowadays the only signs are begging for spare change.
The last hitchhiker to whom I gave a ride was back around ’82, a sixteen year old runaway girl on the side of highway 17 in a remote stretch outside of San Jose, trying to get to Santa Cruz. I figured she needed to get out of there before someone with bad intentions offered her a lift. I dropped her near the beach, and that was that.
Last night, however, as I was returning home from teaching a class in Pleasant Hill, I spotted someone walking down a long lonely piece of road, carrying a potted plant. This person was simply sticking out a thumb while walking, not even bothering to turn around. This is often the sign of someone who’s lost hope of getting help. There was something so forlorn about this person I almost stopped right then, but there was no turnout and traffic behind me kept me going. I passed so quickly I couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman.
I drove on a couple of miles to the freeway, debating if I should go back. Logic kept telling me to leave this alone, that I didn’t have to get involved or take a risk, that someone else would take care of this person’s need. The further I drove, the more my conscience pricked at me. I realized I was giving in to fear based on social conditioning, and something was telling me that this was a moment I would always doubt if I simply looked away. What I recognized was a feeling of shame at not being willing to see a fellow human being for who they were. A little voice said that sometimes we are tested on our compassion, and the deeds we choose, for good or bad, become part of our character.
By this time I was miles away on the freeway, coming to the last exit at the crest of a ridge before a long stretch with no turnarounds. I realized this was the last opportunity I would give myself to make a decision, and so on impulse I turned the car around, driving the seven or eight miles back to where I’d seen this person. I figured if the person had a ride by then, no problem. I had time to spend, so no big deal. If they were still there, I’d at least take the opportunity to check them out and assess the situation. For once I didn’t have a dog with me in the car, but I’m usually armed in some way and control of a car is itself a position of power if things go awry.
Sure enough, the person was still on the rural road, taking a rest by sitting on a guardrail in the middle of nowhere. I could see it was a man, medium sized with a beard. I turned around at the next intersection and went back. By now he was walking again, barely bothering to lift his hand. I pulled up behind him and hit the high beams several times before he realized what that signified.
It turned out this guy walked all that way from the Pleasant Hill BART station, about 8 miles or so, having missed the last bus. The plant was for his wife, who’d had a heart attack two days earlier. He was trying to get to the hospital in Martinez to visit her. Aside from the long distance I went before deciding to help, the actual detour to drop him off was relatively short, but I saved him at least another hour of walking on a dark and winding country road. This person was not only not a danger to me, but it felt like a blessing to have helped this man.
I’ve always felt that my intuition was something to be trusted, a deeper level of consciousness. John Wong, my late Tai Chi teacher, talked a lot about listening to one’s inner voice. Last night that voice was loud and clear, telling me not only that this person was not a threat to me, but also that in some way, I was being tested on my compassion and also my ability to perceive the message being sent.
If one chooses to ignore that quiet inner voice, it becomes silent or gets buried beneath the shrill self-involved noise of the ego. On the other hand, listening to and acknowledging that voice invites guidance from a higher source of consciousness into our lives.
If my intuition had said “beware” there is no way I would have given this person a lift. There certainly have been times in my life that I received warnings of danger, some of which have been validated. First one must pay attention, recognizing the feeling comes from a deeper level. Then one chooses how to proceed. In my case, it took perhaps ten minutes to get past my rationalizations to acknowledging a need to act outside of my normal parameters, but once I did, the feeling was strong that I was following the correct path.
I believe tests like these are not random, but come our way to measure our trust in our inner guides. Had I ignored my intuition last night, today I’d be wondering if I had done the right thing. Today, though, I have no such doubts. To the anonymous man to whom I gave a ride, I was a blessing. He doesn’t know it, but he was that to me as well.