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John and I drove on in silence. The question, at least in my mind, wasn't why a pack of children would chase a speeding car down a highway; it was what they pictured doing if they caught us. I was raised by atheist parents who were as upset by the poverty of the third world as I imagined religious families were by the agonies of Christ. Lacking God, one could say that our religion was compassion for people who had a lot less than we did. And yet, at least in my imagination, these wolf-children of Torreón would have happily torn us to pieces if given the chance. It was outside Torreón where I first realized that my well-groomed compassion for the poor wouldn't protect me for a moment in the very parts of the world where it was most deserved. It was as useless as our sledge handle— and as dangerous to rely on. It gave me only the illusion of safety.
Sometime later we stopped in a wide-open little cowboy town and walked into a cantina for a drink. It was mid-afternoon and there were half a dozen young men inside—copper-dark mestizo guys in jeans and vaquero boots with knives in their belts. I think one even had a revolver. They were horsemen, they worked with cattle—some were wearing spurs—and we ordered a couple of beers and talked with them for a while. One of them put a couple more beers in front of us, and we talked some more, and we were all having a fine time until John and I decided it was time to go. I asked the bartender what we owed.
Silence. The bartender glared at me."¿Qué?" he said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "No entiendo—I don't understand."
I repeated, louder this time, that I wanted to pay for our drinks. An iron quiet descended on the room and made my stomach feel like it was going to slide down my leg onto the floor.
"¡Está pagado!—It's been paid!" the bartender said delivering each word as if it were a nail he was driving with a hammer. "¡Vayense!—Get out of here!"
The men shifted unpleasantly around us, and it started to dawn on me what was going on. I'd offered to pay for our drinks because to do otherwise seemed presumptuous, but these men had taken it as a rejection of their generosity. I'd made it seem as though their money wasn't good enough for us. It was the kind of insult—among drunken men in a Mexican bar in the mid-eighties—that knives and guns get drawn over. The bartender was furious because he didn't need a couple of gringos getting greased in his bar.
"I'll explain later," I said to John, who didn't understand as much Spanish as I did, "but we've got to get out of here."
An old friend of mine once observed that the arrival of a stranger in a rough town often presents locals with two options: Feed him or kill him. He was referring to some ancient time when the dilemma was literally that stark, but his larger point was that all societies must choose whom they let in and whom they keep out, and letting someone in entails more than just opening the city gates. Once you do that you become to some degree responsible for the stranger's welfare. Travel, then, at its crudest, is the art of convincing people to take care of you rather than spurn you—or worse. It's a knife-edge that makes a life spent at home feel not fully lived.
We left Mexico through Nuevo Laredo and angled east through Houston and Galveston and New Orleans. It was October, and as we drove north the weather got cooler and the foliage went from green to yellow to red. These were the colors of fall where I had grown up in Massachusetts, and it meant that we were home; it meant that we didn't have to worry much about anything.
I spent the following year working in a restaurant in Boston and trying to write for local newspapers. I also trained for a marathon, and in mid-October I bought a backpack and some other camping gear and flew out to Minneapolis to run the first marathon of my life. I finished well, and the following day I got a ride out to the highway with my pack and started hitching west. I had a week's worth of food, a knife in one pocket, a canister of pepper spray in the other, and $500 in traveler's checks in my wallet. My legs hurt so much from the race that for a while I had to walk up stairs backward.
My plan was to cross Montana, Idaho, and Washington before it got too cold, then work my way down to Los Angeles and return home across the desert and the Deep South. I figured I'd make it back by Christmas. My first night was spent in a blizzard in the South Dakota Badlands, the second in the desolate little town of Gillette, Wyoming. The next morning, I limped out to the highway and stood in the shrieking wind under a high, cold, cloudless sky with my thumb jabbed out. Freight liners barreled past me. Locals drove by in pickups and threw beer bottles that exploded against the frozen pavement.
After two or three hours I saw a man working his way toward me along the on-ramp from town. He wore filthy canvas coveralls and carried a black lunch box, and as he got closer I could see that his hair was matted in a way that occurs only after months on the skids. Gillette was a hard-bitten mining town that had fallen on bad times, and I thought that anyone walking out to the highway looking like that on a 20-degree (minus 6-degree Celsius) day was probably pretty desperate. I put my hand on the pepper spray in my pocket and turned to face him. My backpack was on the pavement by my feet. I was ready.
"You been out here long?" he asked.
"Where you headed?"
"Warm out there."
"You got enough food?"
I thought about this. Clearly he didn't have any, and if I admitted that I did, he'd ask for some. That in itself wasn't a problem, but it would mean opening my backpack and revealing all my obviously expensive camping gear. I felt alone and exposed and ripe for pillage, and I just didn't want to do that. Twenty years later I still remember my answer: "I got some cheese."
"You won't make it to California with just a little cheese," he said. "You'll starve."
At first I didn't understand. What was he saying, exactly? I kept my hand on the pepper spray.
"Believe me," he said, "I know. Listen, I'm living in a car back in town, and every day I walk out to the mine to see if they need me. Today they don't, so I won't be needing this lunch of mine."
I began to sag with understanding. In his world, whatever you have in your bag is all you've got, and he knew "a little cheese" would never get me to California.
"I'm fine, really" I said. "I don't need your lunch."
He shook his head and opened his box. It was a typical church meal—a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of chips—and I kept protesting, but he wouldn't hear of it. I finally took his lunch and watched him walk back down the on-ramp toward town. I learned a lot of things in college, I thought, and I learned a lot from the books I'd read on my own. I had learned things in Newfoundland and in Europe and in Mexico and in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts, but I had to stand out there on that frozen piece of interstate to learn true generosity from a homeless man.
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Pick up the May 2006 issue for 38 amazing family escapes, wild beaches, and cool festivals; Sebastian Junger's lessons from the road; and the best bikes for summer.