It was on the second night that I met him. On a lonely stretch of highway, just like they said it would be. I hadn't seen another pair of headlights for miles. There was nothing but blackness, except for what my headlights showed me, in front of or behind me. And then there he was, in the middle of nothing, on the side of the road. The scenery had been blank for so long that I thought I’d imagined him when he fell into my headlights. This must be him, I thought to myself. It would've taken hours to walk here from anywhere.
I put on the air breaks and the truck slowly came to a hissing stop, just before the man. He was dressed in a solid green, long-sleeve button-up shirt and blue jeans. A cloth bag was strapped to his back. A tattered brown Stetson held down thick black hair that he wore in long braids. I unlocked the passenger door for him and reached down to touch a finger on my shotgun to make sure it was still there. You never know who you'll run into.
I had heard the stories. “Drive tractor-trailers long enough out here in the West and you'll get a visit. Everyone does.” I thought they were just for the new drivers. You know, to scare them. I had taken a long hazardous cargo run from California to Texas and they told me it was bound to happen. The total trip was supposed to take 24 hours of straight driving, broken up to four days with breaks here and there, stopping to sleep at night. Laws and regulations. No one wants drivers getting that Thousand Yard Stare and annihilating a few economy cars. You get it.
They say he's The Spirit of The West, whatever that means. And exactly who it is out here that I'm supposed to meet, depends on who you ask. Some say it's the ghost of Bass Reeves, still riding the plains to exact justice on the villains of the West. Others say it's Billy the Kid, riding to maintain his villain-hood. If Google them, they don't even remotely look alike. Bass had the coolest mustache in history. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.
The romanticism of the West captivated me as a kid like it did a lot of other kids. My Saturdays were filled with Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies. My math classes were filled with daydreams about adventuring to and surviving in untamed lands that God himself forgot he made, millions of years ago. Nothing but my trusty six-shooter, boot knife, and faithful horse to protect me against the wild forces trying to kill me. My teachers never understood.
So, when I graduated high school and all my friends went off to join the military, I took the first bus out to California, got my trucking license, and never looked back. The freedom of the open road has been my office, ever since.
I just started my first long haul and of course, before I left the guys had to tell me all about getting a visit from the Spirit of The West. They all had different ideas about who he was, but they all agreed that he would appear as a hitchhiker on a lonely stretch of highway. I was supposed to stop for him or else I would get serious bad luck for the rest of the trip. The kind of bad luck where I might not live to finish it. I didn't take it seriously, but it's better to be safe than sorry, right?
The first day was pretty uneventful. The weather was nice. I finished Isaac Asimov’s Foundation on audiobook. With exception to the road itself, the otherwise untouched landscape was like driving through a calendar. So, I stopped at a few places to take pictures. And that was it.
As he climbed up into the cab, I saw that he was Native American. In my mind, I went through all the Natives I remember reading about in the history books. Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph... Then I quickly realized how stupid that sounded.
“Where ya headed?” I asked him as he climbed up to the shotgun seat and settled in.
“Thanks for stopping. I’ve been walking all night. You wouldn’t happen to be headed to Phoenix, would you?” He pinched the front of his Stetson with his forefinger and thumb.
“Just so happens, I'm headed that way,” I replied. I released the brake and started the truck back on its course down the road. I was never big on conversation with people I didn't know. That's one of the things that drew me to trucking. Besides, how do you make small talk with the Spirit of The West? “So, what brings you out this way?” I asked. I thought it was a nice open-ended question. It didn't matter how he answered. He could lie to me, and it wouldn't matter.
“Traveling to see my family,” he said in a soft voice. “My mother died recently.”
“That's horrible. I'm sorry to hear that.” I told him.
“Don't be. She would tell you that she's glad everything doesn't hurt anymore. She was almost ninety years old when she passed.”
“Wow. Yeah, I suppose I would feel the same.” And that's as far as the conversation got. It didn’t really feel right to follow it up with, “How about this weather.” So, we drove in silence for a few miles. The road was just as dark, uniform, and ongoing as when I found him. I was about to turn on the radio to drown out the constant hum of the engine that tried to put me to sleep when all of a sudden, he started talking.
“A long time ago, all this land belonged to my people. Nations like the Hopi and Navajo would ride these plains, hunting thunderous herds of buffalo. Then one day, Spanish missionaries showed up and told us we were sinners and called us heathens. Nothing was the same after that.” He looked out his window into the dark like he was remembering something. And he stopped talking.
“I remember seeing a documentary on that. The Europeans did the same in a lot of places. They ended up killing and hurting a lot of people.”
“They did. It was more exaggerated back then, but the problem was the same as it is today; everyone thinks their way is the only right way. They try to impose it on other people, and it never works. My grandfather would love to tell the story of the Coyote and The Fish. The story is long, like a lot of our stories. But the short version is this – There was a time when the Earth was new. The great creator just finished making all the plains, the trees, the grass, the rivers, the far-off mountains, and all the animals that live in these places. Coyote was also made at this time. He was well-meaning but too curious for his own good. One day Coyote was walking by the stream, and he saw some fish. He panicked, thinking they were drowning. So, he frantically rushed to catch them in his mouth and throw them on the shore. He did this for as many as he could catch. Now, at this time at the beginning of the world, the animals weren't able to make their animal sounds, yet. They could only talk. So, the fish on the bank of the river all started complaining that they couldn't breathe, and that they were too hot.
“Coyote was confused and said, ‘But I just rescued you from the river. You're saved, now!’
“To which the fish would only say, ‘We can't breathe! We're too hot! Put us back!’
“Coyote was so angry that his heroism was not appreciated that he ate the fish. And that's why fish are so quiet to this day.”
“Your grandfather tells some dark stories,” I told him.
He smiled and said. “They get a lot worse. But I can spare you those. My grandfather says they scare white people.” If he was trying to make me not want to hear them, he was doing a terrible job.
“I would love to hear a story that scares white people,” I told him, plainly and hopefully.
But then he said, “Maybe the next time you catch me. You can let me out at this off-ramp. I can walk the rest of the way.”
Grudgingly, I did as he asked. Just past the off-ramp, I pulled over to the Emergency Lane and brought the truck to a stop. As he was climbing out of the cab to make his way into the night, I told him “I'm really glad I got to meet you, Spirit of the West.”
He said, “Spirit? My name is Jeremy. White people are so weird,” then shook his head. He descended into the night, shut the door, and walked away.