The year I was twenty, I hitchhiked 7,500 miles up and down and back and forth across America to see and feel the country. One night I found myself shivering at a dark and desolate Montana crossroads where I’d been dropped off.
It’s 11 p.m. There have been no cars for nearly an hour.
Two cowboys in a Ford Ranchero pickup truck stop and tell me I can ride thirty miles to Missoula in the truck’s back bed.
I think for a nanosecond, then take the ride.
For five or ten miles I freeze and wonder if I can last thirty miles.
They stop the truck and holler back that I can get in the cab.
One gets out and motions me into the center seat.
I look at their faces by the light of the open door: thirty-five maybe forty years old, slight beer-buzz in their voices, the smell of cigarettes wafts out of the truck.
I’m not dying to sit between these guys.
But I’m cold.
I do it.
In the middle of nowhere they stop again.
They both hop out quickly.
My heart leaps.
I grab my bag and jump down to the road, they casually start taking a leak.
“‘S matter, boy,” one says, “you shaky?”
The moon is full. The country is empty. I hear unfamiliar sounds.
Get back in?
I look around me.
I don’t want to get back in.
But I do.
Only this time I sit by the door.
In the truck, there is just the glow of the dashboard and a silence that scares me.
I have lost track of how far it is to Missoula, my destination.
Rounding each corner, I pray to see lights of civilization.
But there’s only more darkness.
One of the men suddenly chuckles and says, “John, let’s see about this boy….”
The truck swerves into a field at roadspeed, skids sideways, I open my door, jump, tumbling over and over into the grass, get to my feet and run tripping over rock outcroppings and getting up to run again.
The men shout.
A stream of light shoots to my left and I collapse to the ground.
I look back. The truck’s spotlight is sweeping across the field.
“We’re gonna get your ass you know that, boy, might as well show your face!”
The light waves back and forth.
I hug the ground as close as I can.
Each time the light passes over me I jump up and run farther away.
“You all done but the fun, son!” comes a shout.
Will they bring a light out into the field and find me?
I’m afraid they will.
The sound of my pounding heart will surely give me away.
But they never move.
They yell, they sweep their light, but they do not come for me.
After a while, I hear the truck’s engine start.
I peek up above the grass.
I watch the truck back out of the field onto the road and drive away.
I lie flat on my back and look up at the sky.
The sky seems to contain every tiny white-dot star in creation.
I feel the cool air.
My racing heart slows.
I get up and by the light of the moon walk out slowly through the grass, over the rocky spots, to the edge of the road.
I set down my bag and take a deep breath.
In front of me a mountain sits in black silhouette against the starry sky.
I close my eyes, stretch out my arms, work my shoulders back and forth.
For a few minutes I don’t move.
Then I pick up my bag and stare down the dark road, hoping for the hint of headlights.
Copyright (c) 2019 by Layng Martine Jr. All rights reserved. Layng Martine Jr. is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and wrote or co-wrote such songs as “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (Reba McEntire), “Rub It In” (Billy Crash Craddock), and “Way Down” (Elvis Presley). He’s also the author of a New York Times most-emailed “Modern Love” essay. He and his wife, Linda, live in Nashville, where they raised three sons.