There is a place in America that feels freer than the others. It’s an escape and it’s far enough away that it feels strange. The summertime Mountains of Colorado.
Maybe you can get there when you still have your youth. Nothing can replace the smell of the air when you are breathing your bones in for the first time. If the air is scented, as the summer mountains are, it’s a magic that never comes back and if it does you’ll always compare it to that feeling.
The flowers bloom then and a man will see them and want to cry or look at it and think ‘how come this is so beautiful, I just want to run into the hills and be free.’ But as soon as you get out of your car the boulders are so big you sprain an ankle or fall on a rock and you learn that beauty is in the eye and that’s enough.
Tim had driven into town, down from the mountain where he was working for the summer. He’d seen the fella trying to hail a ride back up the mountain from the understood pick up point. This was common in ski towns in those days, before CNN, the true precursor to the iPhone, a CNN in every pocket, killed things built on blind trust.
Not everything, though. Restaurants are built on blind trust and have survived. You can know a restaurant but you can’t know every member of the hot-line. But consider whether this is a good idea, anymore, a CNN in every pocket. Who will bring back the beeper?
After buying groceries, the fella was still there and Tim offered a ride.
“How old are you, brother?” the rider asked.
“21,” Tim answered.
“Aw, man, you’ve got the world by the balls. Let me tell you something, man,” he began after getting situated and Tim flooring it for the higher altitudes they sought.
The stranger had an easy, gregarious manner, much like Tim. Though generous, Tim had a short, quick, and sometimes rude way about him that hid nothing. There was no lying in him. Similarly constituted folks picked up on this and took advantage of the opportunity to save time, say what they had to say, dismissing nicety and getting to the point. Some people have a point of view and see time slipping away.
Being a hitchhiker means you have no past or future, professionally. Now, hitchhiking is a matter of course, with ride share, but then it was a matter of social contract. That contract was killed and it was CNN that pulled the trigger, long before the iPhone.
There is no reputational basis for hitchhikers to stand on, as individuals. All business is built on appearance alone. Whether or not you’re friendly and a good conversation has no bearing on your likelihood of being picked up again. This makes it one of the most honest conversations you’ll ever have. It’s why no honest conversation takes place in an uber with its rating system, like it did in cabs.
The man was healthy and well fed, looked like he cut trees down for a living with an axe.
“After 35 we’re all the same age. We’re all on borrowed time, by then, and everyone knows it,” he said.
The man looked to be about 40. Tim considered what he said, looked sternly at the fella and did not comment, eyes burning.
“Youth is gone at that point, it takes a few years for this to set in, which means once it does it’s even further in the rear view,” he went on.
Tim looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the valley, green, red, blue, and yellow with all that sunlight, receding as they climbed the gorgeous mountainside that trailed a boulder strewn river full of clear water, towards higher and higher epiphanies of sun-splashed freedom.
“If anything, a 35 to 40-year-old is a man without a country. If he has any brains, he’s mourning the loss of his youth, praying he used it wisely. He hasn’t yet been invited to any other party, if you know what I mean. He is in the wilderness, alone, man. Build up steam right now. Build up a head of steam that will get you to the other side, or just burn out like a meteor; your choice, both ok.”
“Where are you headed?” Tim asked.
“The Berm, to get a beer.”
“No, man, just thirsty. But as I was saying, if you show promise, the graybeards will open up to you and stop granting you all the exceptions of youth, the way you didn’t grant me the exceptions of a stranger, which is good.”
Tim looked at him with the same sternness and questions attached. He looked hungry for information. The mountain awakens in you the humility and knowledge that you don’t know much; can’t know anything in the shadow of the awe-inspiring thing around you.
“Yeah, man, you’re just seen as either unlucky or stupid for any lack of accomplishments, it’s no longer granted the exceptions of youth, as I’ve already pointed out.
“And this has nothing to do with money, man. And don’t worry, no one is all the way there. I’ve never met anyone accomplished in all areas of life at any age, but most poignantly, this one.”
The word “poignantly” hung there for a moment in Tim’s brain. He didn’t want to get too lost, left behind, like the valley in the rear-view mirror.
“If it’s not love its money, if it’s not money its intelligence, if it’s not intelligence it’s empathy, if it’s not empathy it’s happiness, if it’s not happiness it’s meaning. The wilderness finds everybody. ‘Only the good die young.’ No one has all the bases covered. That’s why you can’t compare yourself to anyone, man. The wilderness finds all of us.”
Tim couldn’t imagine this. He was Tim; 21-year-old Tim from eternity and alive in paradise.
“But it’s better to have made it to the wilderness than not to have made it at all.”
At the top of the mountain the fella insisted on leaving a 20 on the seat, quite a bit of cash then, and hopped out the car, said “I’m thirsty, think I’ll head for a beer,” and walked on down the road.