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Rembert Explains America: In Vermont With the Hitchhikers

Catherine Deneuve

As I hung up the phone last week, I couldn’t believe it. My mother had gotten a ride from Aspen to Denver. From a stranger.

The more background you have about the story — a trip to the Aspen Institute, an overheard phone call, having a flight to catch — the less sketchy the adventure sounds. But that’s immaterial. At the end of the day, my mother was a bona fide hitchhiker 1,500 miles away from home for three hours.

Because of that tale, I made a U-turn in the middle of Vermont on a Tuesday afternoon.

Three minutes before directionally disobeying Teena, my British GPS lady, I drove past a man and a woman on the side of the road, thumbs out, looking for a ride.

I knew there was nothing to gain by picking them up. No payments, no gifts, no networking opportunities, and, conversely, a very real potential for a serious “misunderstanding.”

If I was lucky, they’d just steal the car and leave me in a ditch. If I was lucky.

But even as I was certain this was a gigantic mistake, for some reason I found myself walking toward them, asking where they were headed.

The woman answered my nervous query as a truck loudly raced by, and I couldn’t make out her response. Instead of asking her to repeat herself, in an extraordinary rookie move, I offered up my destination.

“I’m headed to Hanover.”

“Great,” the man said. “We can go to White River Junction.”

Damn it. I was hoping they were headed somewhere out of the way, giving me an easy out while securing some much needed karma by attempting to help. But their destination — a familiar one — was five miles away from mine. Truth be told, it was actually on the way. I was stuck.

I waved them on, and they smiled and followed me to my car. This was so bad.

♦♦♦

Jeff and Sam. They were a couple, both resembling thru-hikers I’d watched for years stumble through my college campus, situated adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. Jeff, from Vermont, had a healthy build and a scruffy red beard. Sam, from upstate New York, was a slight woman with short curly hair. They placed their hiking packs in my trunk, a place I genuinely feared would be my new home in about 30 minutes.

Jarko

I took my place in the driver’s seat, turned the car on, and suddenly Jeff was sitting shotgun. Of course he was, because that’s what people do when they get in cars, but I wasn’t prepared for it. Veering out of the parking lot onto U.S. Route 4, I realized just how intimate a four-door sedan could be.

We were so close to one another.

My GPS said I was slated to arrive in Hanover in 54 minutes. Considering the slight detour, I knew I had roughly one hour to handle this terribly uncomfortable situation I’d gotten myself into.

I could do it. I knew I could. It’s just 60 minutes. That was nothing. It’s just “Mirrors” seven times. I had this.

Although the drive seemed doable, I wasn’t close to convinced that this couple meant well. Yes, they were polite and gracious, but it still felt like a trap. I desperately needed to prove to myself that they were who they claimed to be: two people simply trying to get to White River Junction, Vermont.

So I turned down the radio and started lobbing them questions about their past. Questions about past hitchhikes. And towns visited. And people they met. I knew if I asked where they were coming from and Jeff said “Detroit” while Sam mumbled “Cleveland,” things would go bad, quickly.

But they passed the first test. Their stories were lining up, but in the paranoia of my mind, it felt a little too perfect. Almost as if it were a practiced script or something.

I was still terrified. Terrified of this fantastically nice couple.

The chitchat continued, but all I could concern myself with was Jeff and Sam’s body language. After a quick glance to the right, it became clear Jeff was sitting very purposefully. His hands were nearly glued to the top of his knees, very much in plain sight. And because no one actually has ever sat like this naturally, it was apparent this was a sign.

An “I mean no harm” sign.

Not once did he reach for his pockets. Hoping this wasn’t yet another trap to drop my defenses, I finally felt at ease. Looking in the rearview mirror, it was clear Sam was doing the same thing. She was leaning forward and had situated her full face perfectly in my line of sight. Like her man, she, too, was gesturing that she’d come in peace.

These were professional hitchhikers.

And for the first time, I acknowledged that this was not simply a one-sided situation. Even as veterans, they were hoping I was as genuine in my good-natured demeanor as I seemed. It was clear the only way Jeff, Sam, and I were going to get through this was if we worked together.

That feeling of camaraderie lasted about six seconds, until I remembered that I was outnumbered by two strangers in a rental car driving through rural Vermont with no cell service and a singular game plan of driving off a bridge honorably should one of them even look at me wrong.

So I faked a phone call.

It’s worth noting I’m very good at this. If you see me on the phone, even in non-hostage situations, chances are there’s no one on the line. The purpose of this phone call: to create a situation where, as two murderous hitchhikers, they are so moved by my story that even they, murderous hitchhikers, decide to take a day off and continue on their murderous hitchhiker ways tomorrow.

The gist of the phone call:

Hey mom, it’s me. Yes, I’m only about 45 minutes out. So excited to see you, it’s been so long. So glad you’re feeling better. I can’t believe she’s graduating tomorrow, what a great day for this family. Oh, this is the happiest day of all of our lives. Nothing can go wrong. Love you, bye.

Looking back, I probably laid it on a little thick, but this was no time to half-ass anything.

The additional purpose of this fake phone call: I turned on the recorder on my phone.

When I did this, however, it released a giant beep, one that would never actually sound if you were merely on the phone. Imagine trying to sneak a picture of someone, but the flash blows your cover. Now sprinkle a dash of life or death on it. That’s how I felt at that moment.

This was very bad. Why was I even recording this? As evidence? To prove that they did actually seem nice at first?

It was a panic move, the first of many. Two minutes after the fake phone call, I turned off the passcode lock on my phone. I have no idea why, but my survival instincts, at that moment, told me in case of a sticky situation, I didn’t have time to type in those four digits.

Five minutes later, I turned it back on. In a change of plans, my survival instincts were now telling me that I didn’t want them to have access to a phone, my phone. Who knows, my passcode could be my only leverage.

I was going insane.

Needing to calm down, I turned on the radio and began asking questions, less about their past and more about the art of hitchhiking. Being a detective had become stressful, and I just needed to be told stories.

Santana’s “Smooth” plays on the radio.

Me: Do you feel like, by this point, you’ve gotten pretty good at getting rides?
Sam: I think you’ve got to smile. Don’t hide your face a lot.

Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” plays.

Me: What was your longest hitchhike?
Jeff: Ricky was 650 miles, like Connecticut to south of Richmond, Virginia. A trucker. Actually, I almost think John Leonard gave us a longer ride.
Sam: It was because he took a break every chance he got.
Jeff: He was not in a hurry. It took about three days.

Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” plays.

Me: You find some states are harder to hitchhike than others?
Jeff: We were in Mississippi and we couldn’t even get a ride, but then this guy Bobby was hitchhiking in the same direction as us, and once we got to the ramp, two or three cars pulled over at the same time.
Sam: We made it all the way across Mississippi.

Regardless of what was said, my reactions were extremely “Jeff and Sam”–sided. Something resembling a joke? Laugh-track laughter from the driver’s seat. Something slightly controversial? I was a member of the Maury Povich studio audience. I needed them on my side, and at this point, this was the only way I knew how.

As we neared the finish line, only 20 miles away, the window of opportunity for foul play was nearly up. We were almost through the most desolate, rural stretch of this drive and with every passing minute, we were closer to the bustling metropolis of White River Junction, population 2,286.

I was also, for the first time, beginning to feel pretty terrible about all of the things I’d thought about them over this drive’s first 40 minutes. Here they were, traveling across the country in a nomadic fashion, quite similar to myself, but because their method of transportation was somehow less socially acceptable, my gut instinct was that they weren’t who they said they were. And that they were bad people, with bad intentions.

And just a day earlier, I’d noted the glares and suspicions coming my way as I’d walk through a rural town in which I didn’t seem to belong. That look — “What do you want?” or “Why are you here” or “Why are you really here?” — was commonplace, and I hated it.

But this was the way I was treating Jeff and Sam, because they were different and I’d been socialized to assume certain things about them. My guilty conscience had me close to coming clean and apologizing for the slew of horrible things I’d thought. But our conversation was now at its most free and natural, and I didn’t want to ruin that. So I asked another question.

Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One” plays.

Me: Is it harder to hitchhike as a couple or going at it alone?
Jeff: Girls have an easier time hitchhiking alone than guys. Easier for couples, though. It’s tough to find couples that are serial killers.

It’s funny how quickly things like confidence and safety and trust in your fellow man can fly out the window.

I couldn’t believe Jeff went there.

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That laugh was not fun. That laugh was my “Well, I had a good run …” chuckle. So many times during this ride, it felt as if the sequence of events mirrored something I’d seen in a teen horror flick. Following that script, this was the time I looked over and Jeff’s hands would no longer be sitting in plain view on his knees. And, in the backseat, instead of Sam’s smiley face in the rearview, there was a woman with a black skullcap over her face. No eyeholes.

But in reality, despite that horribly uncomfortable comment, Jeff and Sam continued to be their normal, potentially great, hopefully not evil selves.

It was at this moment, 15 miles outside of White River Junction, that “A Matter of Trust” by Billy Joel came on the radio. I laughed, because for the entirety of this ride, the Vermont DJs were narrating my ever-evolving relationship with my hitchhiking companions. “Under Pressure,” “Heat of the Moment,” and now “A Moment of Trust.”

And just like that, my fear of these two strangers completely dissipated. The situation in my mind had turned so absurd, and at times, the fear was so real, for a moment I’d convinced myself even the radio was in on my untimely demise.

But it was clear, for the first time, with 10 minutes left, that I was actually going to make it.

The conversations, for once, were less about me fishing for answers and more about wanting to talk. And, for the first time, it was less “10 minutes left” and more “Only 10 minutes left.”

Me: How do you find places to camp along the way?
Jeff: I’ll camp on the side of the road, I don’t give a shit.
Sam: One time, a cop came up to us and said, “Lady, you kids need to get out of here. You’re in the wrong part of town, a cop was killed last night.” And then he drove away, didn’t even give us a ride.

I had no idea what Sam’s story really had to do with anything, but I loved it. I was just so thrilled by the prospect of being safe. I asked where it took place, not to see if they would say the same answer, but because I just wanted to chat.

Sam: Kansas City.
Jeff: Kansas City, Missouri.

I was giddy at this point, that I’d live to see another day, and decided to play dumb, simply because I wanted them to keep talking:

Me: Wait, so how does Kansas City work? Is it in Missouri and Kansas?

Jeff gave me the Kansas City breakdown. I didn’t really listen, because I know about Kansas City, because I’m a 26-year-old American. But I was extremely pleased to be having this mindless conversation with a man in my car who had no interest of harming me.

I’d been driving for three straight days and was alone for the entire stretch. It was during this Kansas City conversation that I realized I started to feel a bit lonely. Really lonely, actually. And, go figure, my saving graces were two strangers that I thought, 50 minutes earlier, were planning to kill me.

With four miles remaining, I was finally at the junction: Should I hop on Interstate 91 toward my original destination of Hanover or continue straight to drop off my new pals? Passing the on-ramp, Teena got fussy and told me to hit a U-turn. As usual, Teena didn’t know the whole story. I made the final push to White River Junction.

I asked them where they wanted to be dropped off in the village, but they didn’t seem to care. So I picked a strip mall parking lot, not unlike where I picked them up. They mentioned staying overnight and then possibly heading west to rendezvous with another hitchhiking couple a few days later. “Thinking toward Chicago and then the Seattle area,” Jeff said as I pulled in to park. “But we change directions like the wind.”

Getting out of the car, I realized this was the final moment. Their final chance to do something reckless or to affirm my newfound appreciation for kind humans. They removed their backpacks and I shut the trunk. I stood there and waited. Do we hug? Exchange numbers? Laugh about that thing that happened 20 minutes earlier?

None of those happened. They simply shook my hand, thanked me for the ride, and told me to be careful out there. Stunned, I nodded my head and they were gone.

Jarko

Watching them walk away caused one of the greatest adrenaline rushes of my life. The kind caused by truly feeling as if you’ve just lived through something. I drove off, embarrassed by my fears and judgmental nature, but ultimately thrilled that I’d let two strangers in my car.

And I’ll never do it again.