Ed Colby: Hitching a ride on memory lane
December 10, 2002
Aunt Minnie and Uncle Helmer always kidded me about the strangers I brought over. Minnie still says, “You used to bring hitchhikers to spend the night at our house!” But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I was young and the world was wide, I left Aspen in the spring to seek my fortune. I’d worked the summer before on Woody’s commercial troller, and my heart burned. I dreamed of fat Alaskan king salmon, and a rolling deck beneath my feet. I could do that. I just needed a boat.
Somewhere past Grand Junction I roared past a little flower child and her companion standing by the road. If she’d stood on top of his bald head, they wouldn’t have measured 10 feet tall. I did a double take and backed up.
She wasn’t beautiful. She was barely cute. But her blond curls tumbled around her shoulders, and her blue eyes sparkled. They were French. Anne spoke passable English, Jean only a little. He had an uncle in L.A. They were just about broke.
They stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at vistas of the American West. In Green River, Jean pointed. “Cowboy!” he gasped. Later, Anne confided that Jean was convinced that we would come over a rise, and there would be Crazy Horse and a thousand braves. My new friends’ innocence and wonder arrested me.
At a Provo cafe the waitress said to Jean, “Honey, do you want more coffee?”
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When she left, Jean turned to me and said, “What does ‘honey’ mean?”
I said, “It’s what waitresses in Utah call people, especially men. It means she likes you.”
“Why?” he said.
Anne said, “All the people are very friendly. In Europe, we don’t talk too much with strangers. Maybe our friendships have to be deeper. We say Americans are not deep. But many French people are sad in their lives. I like this country. It is so empty.
“Here there are possibilities. In Europe, life is more … regimented. In France you can only be a fisherman if your father was one. But here you just go to the ocean and buy a boat.”
I said, “Maybe Los Angeles will be more like Europe. It’s a very big city.”
She said, “Actually, we are not going to L.A. We are going to a small nearby village.”
“What’s it called?” I said.
“Pasadena,” she said.
For some reason we stopped along the road, and I turned around to see Jean urinating right next to the busy highway. He looked astonished when I said, “You can’t do that in America. The police will arrest you.”
“Why?” he said.
In Bountiful I parked down the block from Minnie and Helmer’s. My pickup had a camper shell. I told my friends, “I can’t invite you in, but you can sleep in the back of the truck if you want, and we’ll be on the road in the morning. Just be careful where you pee.”
When I tucked those two in, Anne grabbed my arm. “Ed, there is a gun,” she said. I said I might need it to shoot a bear up in Alaska. Her eyes grew wide. “Sweet dreams,” I said.
Helmer was out of town. Minnie and I talked late into the night. Finally she pried it out of me. “Where are they now?” she demanded. Then, “You bring those kids in here this minute!”
Anne and Jean looked sheepish when they came in sleepy-eyed with their backpacks. They brightened when Minnie opened the refrigerator. She put clean sheets on the bed in the guest room downstairs.
Minnie and Anne hit it off, but after breakfast I said, “I have to buy a boat.”
I felt wistful when I dropped off Jean and Anne in Winnemucca and turned north to take the shortcut to Coos Bay. We exchanged addresses, but I knew I’d never see them again.
Even today, when we visit Minnie, she sometimes brings it up. She always mentions the fragrant perfume that Anne wore in the morning. We wonder aloud what ever became of those two.
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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