The hitcher had stirred my curiosity.
I asked Paul if he travelled a lot and he said he’d travelled through twenty-seven countries. This was a “wow” for me and we chatted about the countries. He also had travelled around Europe but most of his recent travels had been to Asia. He said his “students” had made him curios and he visited some of them. For some reason this caused me to check his left hand and, no, there was no wedding ring.
He must have travelled all over the US, I thought, but I was startled to learn he’d only travelled up and down the West coast. I think he said he’d been to New York once or twice though. He was from California but visited his sister in Washington often. And this was the first time he’d been to Montana and Wyoming.
I tried not to be too inquisitive but asked, “What do you do in California?”
Paul replied, “I’m a professor. I teach English as a second language.”
“You must know a lot of languages?”
He said no, all the classes are taught in English because everyone enrolled already has basic English skills. I wanted to push down on this but decided to leave it with a “cool” for now. The thing is, Paul had a lot of visual credibility as a professor. I had no difficulty picturing him in that role. Nonetheless, this professor was creating many puzzles in my mind, like what was a professor doing hitchhiking from the Little Big Horn on a Tuesday in late September? Why wasn’t he in his position, teaching?
We talked a lot but not non-stop. Most conversations were stimulated by something in vast surrounding lands, then flow from topic to topic. He seemed able to speak on many subject with some degree of knowledge.
Eventually, Paul explained how he’d flown into Billings, Montana the previous day and that final next goal was the Black Hills near Rapid City. He had wanted to spend the night in a Native American village, but friends advised against that in very strong terms. I told him I’d been warned by friends that Native Americans were sometimes hostile to strangers in the little villages along I-90 in South Dakota. Still he seemed determined to meet the people.
From time to time I was thinking, what an interesting man I had picked up.
We even talked about my interest in artificial intelligence, especially in natural language processing. He understood the problems related to natural language inference in computers. We toyed around with several sentence structures that present challenges to computer software, for example: “I went to the mountains, which was fascinating.” He’d seen experienced authors using structures like, “I went to the mountains. Which was fascinating.” We agreed that the language evolves, in this case for nothing more than dramatic effect.
We pulled into another gas station to fill up and take a short break. I noticed that was a bit more weathered and tired than I’d observed back when we met. And although it wasn’t a big deal, I did note that he didn’t offer to pay for any gasoline.
The next 100 miles was very long and drawn out and we didn’t speak much. Paul nodded off a bit. He seemed very tired and commented that he “didn’t sleep well on the bus.” Again he created a puzzle as I tried to connect the sequence of events that brought him to here.
We rolled into the last fueling station before we would reach Rapid City, fueled up, grabbed some sodas and headed off.
Our conversation resumed with more vigor as we began to close the last hundred miles. I was curious about his work, this “English as a second language” thing and asked what the curriculum is. I asked if students conjugated verbs and that kind of thing and he explained that at the lower levels they did that type of thing, but there were eight levels. The highest level he taught would prepare students to write research papers for post-graduate work in a form that would be acceptable to the most demanding professors. Ok, this finally sold me that he was or had been an educator.
Paul had a lot of questions for me too and, curiously, I wasn’t sure if I was relating to him as me, Yordie, or my human. It was perplexing. I was living way outside my human’s comfort zone, so my answers drew from my experience, Yordie’s experience. Regardless of the identity issues going on inside my mind and regardless of issues his story raised, we were getting along well.
About four hours into our journey I came right out and asserted, “You are an adventurer, aren’t you?”
He hesitated as if he’d been caught. Then quizzically he said, “Yes, ever since I was a child” and “It’s in my blood.”
Those who’ve followed my blogging know that in my virtual life I’m an adventurer, so it’s something I understand at my core. I said, “I am too but mostly in virtual worlds.”
From this point on I felt that I was travelling with a kindred spirit. He may not have even been employed as a professor, he may be broke or close to it or maybe he was understating who he is. It didn’t really matter to me because I believed he was living his dream. Only the rarest of men could do what he was doing, and even rarer the woman. He was a 45-year-old man, single, out on the road, alone, exploring the lands and peoples, using his wits. He really is an adventurer. At least, that’s what I want to believe.
When we got to the downtown exit in Rapid City and I took him to the bus station. As we said goodbyes, I asked, “Are you going to spend the night in an Native American village?”
He said, “I don’t know, I’ll just see how it goes but I want to talk to the people.”
I thought that was very idealistic and brave but had to joke, “Well, don’t get scalped!” He laughed for the first time in five hours.
He never offered to pay for any gasoline. We didn’t exchange emails or anything, this was just two strangers who’d passed a long, tiring day together saying farewell. It seemed to perfect.
After the goodbyes, I let my human take charge of everything for the rest of the journey; I just observed. The truth is, for a single woman travelling alone, even if she sees herself as an adventurer and even if she has a handy 357 magnum revolver, perhaps it’s best not to pick up hitchers.