I can tell you firsthand, there is no better feeling than leaving a West Texas oil rig after working fourteen long, twelve-hour days. My friend Jared and I worked the night shift, which meant we got off work at midnight on our last day. As per tradition, we stopped at the first gas station we saw and bought snacks and a case of beer for the long drive home.
I pulled out of the gas station, and standing at the intersection’s traffic light was a man obviously looking for a ride. He wasn’t as dirty as most of the homeless people I’ve seen. This guy hasn’t been sleeping in the streets, but more than likely was trying to get across the country and didn’t have a car. Other than standing on the side of the road in the middle of the night, he looked extremely ordinary. He was about our size, he maybe had ten years on us, and he wore blue jeans with worn cowboy boots and a plain v-neck shirt. What stood out to me though was the big olive-green seabag on the ground beside him.
”I hated toting those things around when I was in the Marines,” I told Jared as we approached the light.
”Dude, we should give him a ride!” Jared responded as he cracked open his first beer.
”No fucking way,” I said, not taking the proposal seriously.
”What do you mean no way? He could have been a Marine too! Are you seriously going to let this guy walk with that heavy-ass bag? So much for no man left behind,” Jared chided.
”Where is he even going to sit? Just cram him in the backseat?”
My Honda Civic was already short on space. Jared was sitting in the passenger seat and our travel bags were thrown in the back. I normally get teased by the other guys on the rig for driving this tiny cat when most of them had huge jacked-up trucks with mud tires. Don’t get me wrong, I had one of those trucks also. I just didn’t drive it across Texas with gas being almost four dollars per gallon.
”Nah, I’ll get in the back,” Jared countered.
”And let him sit up here with me?” I asked.
”Absolutely. If he’s crazy you definitely don’t want him sitting behind both of us,” Jared said, only half-joking.
The reasoning was solid, but it didn’t matter. Jared had already made up his mind and was rolling down his window. “Hey man! You want a ride?”
The hitchhiker looked us over like he was trying to decide if we were playing a joke on him or not. “Where y’all headed?” he asked.
”We can take you as far east as Fort Worth if you want,” Jared told him. Apparently, I wasn’t a part of the decision-making process, regardless of being the car owner and driver.
”Hey, that works for me,” the man said with gratitude in his voice.
Jared hopped out of the car and offered to carry the man’s bag to the trunk for him, but the man quickly snatched it off the ground. “I’ll get it,” the man said. “It’s pretty heavy.” He wasn’t lying. The weight of the bag rocked my tiny Civic as he dropped it in the trunk and slammed the hatch shut. “Do y’all want me to climb in the back?” He asked.
”No, don’t worry about it,” Jared replied. “I’ll take the back. You know, don’t want you cutting our throats or anything.” Jared slapped the hitcher on his shoulder as a sign that he was only kidding. He lifted the lever on the passenger seat and the chair slid forward. After stacking the bags as best he could against the far side of the car, Jared climbed in and pulled the passenger seat towards him, locking it in place. Jared wasn’t necessarily a big guy, but he was certainly too big for the back seat. The hitchhiker climbed into the car, and we were off.
West Texas highways are long and straight, which gave us all plenty of time to get to know each other. The hitchhiker, Carl, actually had been in the Marines but was stationed in Camp Pendleton while I spent my time in Camp Lejeune. Jared enjoyed hearing us swap tales and was cracking open a new beer every fifteen minutes like clockwork. That’s how I knew we had been on the road for 45-minutes when Carl asked, “Hey man, would you mind pulling over for a second? I need to check on something real quick.”
”Sure,” I replied as I put my hazards on and pulled over to the shoulder. Another thing about West Texas roads is that they are dark.
“Thanks, I’ll just be a second?” Carl said as he opened the door and headed to the trunk.
”See! Aren’t you glad we picked him up? I’m definitely having more fun than being just stuck in here with you,” Jared teased.
”Hell, I guess you always had the choice of driving yourself. But that would mean you’d have to pay for gas,” I told him.
”I pay you back with my company,” Jared laughed and handed me a beer. “Here.”
I don’t normally drink and drive, especially on these roads, but I didn’t figure one would hurt so I took it. As I cracked it open, Carl opened the door and climbed back into the car. I was worried he would say something about me drinking, but he didn’t even seem to notice. “You want one?” Jared offered, as he handed a beer to Carl.
Carl took the beer and opened it, but I could tell his mind was somewhere else. Jared, on the other hand, didn’t notice. “What’s in the bag? That’s a shit-load of clothes and toothbrushes to be carrying around all the way across the country,” Jared asked. Honestly, I was curious also. If I was going to hitchhike, I would have packed much lighter than Carl had.
”Nothing you need to worry about,” Carl said, never taking his eyes off the road in front of us.
I was a little shocked. “What does that mean?” I said, probably with more attitude than I meant.
“It means it’s none of your business,” Carl said. Wherever his mind had been before, it was here now. He looked sternly at Jared and me, letting us know he wasn’t about to change his answer.
The tension in the car was so thick you could taste it. Jared, to my surprise, sat quietly in the backseat and I just focused on the road. I turned on the radio when I couldn’t bear the silence anymore. “How in the hell are you going to ride in my car for free, and be such an asshole over a simple question?” I thought. My mind started to race about what he might have in the bag. Drugs? Guns? Both? The only reason I decided to keep my mouth shut was that I really didn’t know this guy. Just because we had all been getting along didn’t mean he didn’t have a gun and was just waiting to kill us both and take my car.
”I love this song,” Carl said as ‘Wagon Wheel’ by Darius Rucker came on.
I was so grateful somebody finally broke the silence. I agreed with him and turned up the volume.
”The original was way better,” Jared said, joining the conversation as he cracked open another beer. Honestly, I had thought he had fallen asleep. Before I knew it, we were all singing along with Darius, and every other country song that followed. Thankfully, the mood in the car had shifted.
“Fuck,” Carl said about an hour into our concert. “Hey, I need you to stop again.”
”For real?” I asked. “Do you have a puppy in there or something you are checking in?”
”Just stop the car please,” Carl said with a hint of aggression.
”This is the last time,” I told him as I pulled over onto the shoulder again. I looked at the clock and we were only two hours into our drive and still had a way to go. Carl didn’t say a word as he got out of the car, slamming the passenger door behind him.
”Dude, we are never gonna get home like this,” Jared said from the backseat.
”Tell me about it,” I said. “Still glad we picked him up?”
”I want to know what’s in the bag,” said Jared.
“Well, I’m not trying to get shot. I say the next town we pass we drop him off. We can tell him we are changing plans or something.”
”Or we just tell him we don’t want to be driving around with a dead body in the trunk.”
Jared barely had time to finish his sentence before he heard the trunk slam shut. Carl walked back around to the passenger side and climbed in. I pulled back out onto the highway. The tension was back. “So, for real, do you have a dead body or something back there?” Jared asked. I couldn’t believe he just asked that.
Carl turned and replied, “I thought I told you it was none of your fucking business what was in the bag?”
”Hey, fuck you, man!” Jared said. He was drunk and had had enough. “We give you a ride, I even share my beer with you, and that’s how you are going to talk to us? What’s in the fucking bag?”
Carl raised a finger and pointed it at Jared. “If either of you asks about the bag again, I guarantee you will regret it,” he threatened. He didn’t scream. He didn’t even raise his voice. He just stated it, like it was a fact.
This was too much for me. I stomped on the break, not even bothering to pull over this time. My tires squealed and the Civic came to an abrupt halt. “Get out,” I said. “Get out. Get your shit and fucking walk. You aren’t about to threaten me in my own damn car.”
Carl looked at me, and I could feel his cold eyes boring into me. I stared back, praying he didn’t decide to call my bluff. Jared was drunk and crammed in the backseat so he would be no help if Carl decided to hit me.
”Fine,” Carl said through clenched teeth. He pulled the handle to his door and kicked it open. He stood up and put everything he had into slamming the door back shut. As he walked to the rear of the car, I pressed the gas pedal to the floor and sped off.
Like I said before, West Texas highways are dark. In seconds, Carl was out of sight as I raced full speed down the highway. I expected to hear gunshots or something as I made my getaway, but nothing ever came. Jared was laughing hysterically behind me, and after we made it a reasonable distance away, I joined him. “How crazy was that!” He said.
He wasn’t lying. Together, Jared and I have made hundreds of trips chasing oil rigs and we never had an experience even close to that one. It was maybe my favorite story to tell, and every time I tell it people always ask me what was in the bag. I simply laugh and tell them, “It’s none of your business.”