Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.