The hitchhiker smelled earthy, of wet hay or crushed grass. He was young, bearded, and wore a sheathed knife strapped to his leg.
For a long time after he got in the car, no one spoke.
The gentleman driving was in his sixties. He and his wife were vacationing up in the mountains for the summer. Now, they were going down to the valley for their weekly groceries.
The gentleman watched the hitchhiker in the rearview mirror. He regretted ever having picked him up. In fact, if he had seen the knife earlier, he would never have stopped. He didn’t know what had gotten into him.
The knife made him very uneasy, and he began to drive faster. The sooner I get rid of this character, the better I’ll feel, he thought.
“You might take it easy around these curves,” cautioned the hitchhiker. “There are a lot of hair-pin turns around here.”
“See, Harold. It’s not just me.”
“Hush, Bertha. Young man, I have been driving forty years now. I think I know what I’m doing.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to slow down,” said his wife.
“People go over these cliffs all the time,” said the hitchhiker.
Just as he finished saying this, a hair-pin turn came up.
The old man had to apply the brakes and maneuver very quickly to avoid going over the side. And even then, the two right wheels skidded the shoulder of the road. The hitchhiker sat forward and grabbed the back of the lady’s seat.
“See, Harold!” she screamed.
The old man was forced to slow down. He had both hands clenched tightly around the steering wheel and his palms were sweating. But the more he thought of the knife, the harder his foot pressed down on the gas pedal.
“Are you folks from around here?” asked the hitchhiker. He had decided conversation might slow the old man down.
“Oh, no! We’re from Kansas,” said the wife. “My husband and I are vacationing up at Brainard Lake. We have our trailer up there.”
Keep talking, thought the old man. He’ll get all the information he needs, and tonight he’ll come back with his friends.
He tried giving his wife a warning look, but the road demanded all his concentration. So instead, he settled for a “hem, hem.”
His wife did not hear him, or if she did, she completely ignored the sound.
“Do you live around here?” she asked the hitchhiker.
“Peace Valley,” he said.
“Is that like a hippie commune?”
“Not exactly; we . . . ah, sir, there’s another sharp curve coming up. . . .”
“I saw the sign.”
The old man slowed the car to a reasonable speed. Far below, they could see their road and the cloud-shaded peaks of the surrounding lower mountains. The hitchhiker sat back in the seat and refused to look down again.
“I swear, I dread these drives into Boulder,” said the nice lady. “Harold drives like a madman sometimes. I don’t know what gets into him.”
“I want to get back up before dark,” he said.
“It takes us only an hour to do the groceries.”
“Still,” protested the husband.
I’ll kill her when we’re alone, he thought. I will literally kill her.
“Why don’t you buy your groceries at Ward?” the hitchhiker suggested.
“It’s a little town near where you’re camped. They have a grocery store and a cafe. You could probably buy most of what you need there.”
“Hear that, Harold? We have seen the sign. It says Ward Cafe and has a dirt road winding down the side of the mountain. But Harold figured it was an abandoned mining town, and so we haven’t stopped.
“It was,” said the hitchhiker. “But the young people have built it up again.”
“Hmm. Is that where you live?”
“No, ma’am. I live at Peace Valley.”
“That’s right. Is that very far?”
“About three miles into the woods from the road where you picked me up.”
“And you walked that whole distance?”
“It’s nothing. I walk it every day.”
“‘Nothing’ he says. I walk a block and get winded.”
“That’s lack of exercise,” said the hitchhiker. “People have become too dependent on the car.”
“You sound just like my grandson,” said the woman. “As a matter of fact, you look a little bit like him—except for the beard and long hair. Doesn’t he look like Jimmy, Harold?”
The old man looked back in the rearview mirror.
Looks more like a tuft of tumble weed to me, he thought.
“Yes, a little,” he said.
They had been climbing and descending, mostly climbing while they were conversing, and now the final descent began. They rounded a shoulder in the mountains and far below appeared their road and a deep blue lake cupped in the mountains. They went around another curve and the lake disappeared.
The old man rode his brakes the whole way down. Still, the car kept gaining momentum and screeching around the curves. There was already a very strong odor of burned rubber.
Then, suddenly, the road leveled off and the lake reappeared, much larger, with a small town in front of it that the peaks had hidden earlier. In the late afternoon sunlight, all the buildings appeared to glow with an inner light.
“That’s Nederland up ahead,” said the hitchhiker. “I’ll be getting off there.”
“You’re not going on into Boulder?” asked the old man.
“No, I’ll go another day into Boulder. They’re probably having a heat wave down there anyway.”
Coming into the small valley, the temperature had already changed considerably; it was much warmer.
The old man drove slowly through the rural outskirts. Nederland was a typical mountain community, with the majority of houses all bunched in the center and the rest of the town scattered sparsely all over the surrounding hills.
“You could probably do your groceries right here,” said the hitchhiker.
“Oh no. No, we’ll go on into Boulder,” said the old man.
In the center of the town it was warm and dusty. The houses were all old and dirty looking. A wind blew and started a dust cloud down one of the dirt side streets.
Civilization again, thought the old man.
He eased the car off the road and stopped in front of the Nederland Post Office. Like all government agencies, it was the sturdiest building in town.
“This is fine,” said the hitchhiker. “Thank you.”
“Nice meeting you,” said the old lady.
“Yeah. See you around.”
The elderly couple drove off very slowly now.
Damn fool, thought the hitchhiker. It’s drivers like him that make me almost want to get a car sometimes.
The young couple stopped at the Ward Cafe on their way across the mountains. They had been trying to make Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park before the end of the day. But the way their VW was running, they were lucky to make it this far up.
“You go inside and order something to eat,” said the young man. “I’ll put gas in the car.”
“I’ll wait,” said the girl.
There were two relic pumps standing outside the grocery store half of the building. But no one seemed to be attending them. James honked his car horn.
A young boy stepped out of the grocery store. He looked about twelve, carried a small knife, and wore his hair in a ponytail.
“Two dollars regular, please.”
The boy wound the old pump handle and inserted the nozzle in the tank. Then he leaned back against the car and watched the faded numbers skipping past.
“Tell me,” said James. “Do you know how many more miles it is to Estes Park?”
The boy shrugged.
“You’ll have to ask inside,” he said. “I just mind the pumps.”
James paid the boy the two dollars. Then he backed up the car and parked it across the street from the cafe. Below him now, he could see the town of Ward, scattered all down the mountain slope. It was a very derelict-looking town.
He locked the car doors and joined his wife on the steps of the cafe.
Inside, the cafe was quite large. It looked like something out of a western movie. There were animal heads and miner’s tools all over the walls. There were also large photographs of the town when it had been a mining community. The photographs were old and faded, but the town looked about the same.
James and his wife went and sat at the long counter opposite a huge wall mirror. On the mirror before them, they could see the front picture window and their car and the mountains beyond.
Behind them were the dining tables, arranged in a circle in the center of the room. The tables were all covered with checkered cloths, and each had a jar with wild flowers in it. There were the booths set along the right wall, with a door and steps leading down into the grocery store half of the building. The kitchen was off to the left in a separate room.
A few longhairs were sitting at the counter, drinking beer. A young couple occupied one of the booths.
The waiter came over now. He was a long-haired, bearded freak, too.
“What will it be?” he asked.
“Do you have pies?”
“Fresh homemade pies untouched by sterile machines,” recited the waiter.
“What kind?” asked the girl.
The waiter went to the glass cabinet and checked. He shooed a fly away.
“Blueberry and cherry, right now,” he said.
“Blueberry,” said the girl.
“Cherry,” said James. “And two large Cokes.”
“Would you like icecream on the pies?”
“No, plain,” said James.
“I’ll have vanilla on mine,” said the girl.
The waiter cut large chunks out of both pies and lay a large scoop of vanilla icecream on the girl’s dish. Then he replaced the pies back in the cabinet and brought the two plates over. He set forks and two Coke bottles before them.
“Is that all?” he asked.
“For now,” said James.
The waiter threw a dishcloth over his shoulder and walked to the end of the counter. There he started a conversation with another long-hair.
“What do you think of this place?” asked James.
“Scary, but I like it. And you?”
“Definitely. It has charm.”
“Maybe we can stay here.”
“You mean that?”
“Why not? We both like it. Besides, we already saw the rest of the country once. This is new.”
“I don’t know. . . .”
“Remember, ‘he who hesitates is lost.’”
“I’ll ask the waiter,” said James.
They finished their pies and drank the ice-cold Coca-Colas slowly, enjoying the taste. It had been a long time since they had enjoyed a cold soda. James called the waiter over.
“Was everything all right?” he asked.
“Great. We were wondering, are there many places for rent here?”
“Here, none.” The waiter smiled. “You’re the tenth person today to ask me that question. No, there’s no places for rent. Everything is taken up. But you might try Nederland or Gold Hill.”
“No, we like it here,” said James.
“How about campgrounds?” asked the girl.
The waiter scratched his head. “Well, there’s the canyon, about six miles down. Or there’s Brainard Lake. . . .”
“How far’s that?”
“Three miles up.”
“Is there snow there?” asked the girl.
“Hey, Rusty. Is there still snow up in the Brainard Lake area?”
“More than you’ll like,” said Rusty.
“Good, we want to see snow,” said the girl.
The guy named Rusty walked over now. He had hair the color of rust. He was also tall, heavy, and wore a lumberman jacket and patched jeans with a sheathed knife strapped to his right leg.
“You people going up to Brainard?” he asked.
“It looks that way,” said James.
“Mine if I come along?”
James paid the waiter. On the way out, they passed an elderly couple coming into the restaurant.
“Hello, again,” said Rusty.
“Hello,” said the nice lady.
Outside it was already early evening, crisp, and it looked like a storm was forming. They got into the car and started up the dirt road leading to Highway 119. The hitchhiker gave the directions. He pulled out the knife from its sheath and began cleaning his fingernails.
“How’s this Brainard Lake?” asked James.
“Like really far out, you know.”
“How about fishing?”
“Fine, if you’re into that. But you need a license there. Like where I live, it’s really far out. There’s this lake right behind my cabin and I just fish right off the porch. Like the other day I caught some really far out rainbow and speckled trouts.”
“Where’s that?” asked James.
They were climbing up a very steep grade now and the VW engine was straining in second gear. James’s ears kept popping and unpopping.
“You people want to turn on?” asked the hitchhiker.
“Sure,” said James.
The hitchhiker pulled out a marijuana cigarette from behind his ear. He lit the joint and passed it on to the girl.
“This is home-grown stuff,” he said. “We call it Boulder Bad.”
The grass was a florescent green color. And it scorched the throat going down.
“I can see why it’s called Boulder Bad,” said James, coughing.
“It takes ten to really get you off,” said the hitchhiker. “Then you get a headache for the rest of the day.”
They drove past Red Lake now. It was off to the left through the trees and there were a few mobile campers parked along the north shore of the lake. Then they rounded a curve and the forest closed in behind them again. The temperature was dropping steadily. Through the trees in the distance they could see the snow-crowned peaks of the true Rockies.
“This is beautiful country,” said the girl.
“You think this is beautiful, you should see the western slopes,” said the hitchhiker.
“Where’s that?” asked James.
It sounded like a town to him.
“Well, we’re on the eastern slopes now. So, if you were to take a car and drive over the mountains, the western slopes would be on the other side of the mountains.”
James looked back in the rearview mirror. The hitchhiker looked perfectly serious.
One of us definitely has been affected by the grass, thought James.
They finished smoking the first joint and the hitchhiker lit a second one. Then by the time they were half-smoked with the second one, Brainard Lake came up.
“I’ll get off here,” said the hitchhiker. “I have some friends to see. You can camp anywhere along here. Have a good time.”
“Thanks for the grass.”
The hitchhiker made a face.
“Here’s another one for later.”
He handed them a joint and started down the cinder road toward the lake.
“There’s some really beautiful people here,” said James.
“Yeah, but he smells funny,” said the girl.
“See, Harold. They all wear knives here.”
“I still don’t like it,” said Harold.
The elderly couple was sitting at the Ward Cafe, enjoying a late snack. The room was crowded with young people now. Outside, it was raining.
The waitress came over. She was very young and wore a floor-length dress with hiking boots. Her hair was pinned back in an old-fashioned bun.
“Would you like anything else?” she asked.
“No, thank you. I don’t even think I can finish this pie. Who did you say made it?” asked the lady.
“Dale’s the cook, but we all helped,” said the young waitress.
“It’s very good,” said the lady.
The young waitress smiled and walked over to another table.
“She wasn’t even wearing a bra,” said the old man.
“Oh, Harold. It’s the times.”
Two young men walked into the restaurant now. They were both covered from head to foot with dust and both carried knives on their hips. One had a thick black beard. They sat at a table opposite the elderly couple and the young waitress walked over.
“How’s the prospecting going?” she asked.
“We dug a lot of dust,” said the bearded one.
“Maybe tomorrow,” said the girl.
“Yeah, tomorrow we’re going farther up into the mountains. We figure we’ll be gone a couple of weeks.”
“I wish I could go,” said the young waitress.
“We’ll take you when we find gold,” said the younger miner.
The old man got up.
“I’m going to get some cigarettes,” he said. “Finish up.”
He walked across the worn wooden floor and through the door, down the three steps to the grocery store. It was a very limited store. Only the essentials.
There were three long-haired youths drinking beer by the entrance, watching the drizzle outside.
At the cash register stood another young girl dressed similarly to the waitress. She was talking with a girl who was buying a loaf of bread.
“. . . that’s how they raped her,” the cashier was saying.
The old man edged nearer, pretending to study the cigarette display.
“But couldn’t she run away or something?” asked the girl customer.
“Run away? There were fifteen guys. They tied her up and beat her and made her do all sorts of things. She says they told her if she didn’t cooperate, they would kill her.”
“Christ, that happened here?”
“Just a few miles down the road. It’s a motorcycle gang. They’ve been camped in the canyon for some time now. Anyway, some of the guys in town are planning a meeting for tomorrow night to get together and run them out.”
“I hope they do. Christ, I use that road everyday. But how did the girl get away?”
“One of the guys took pity on her and untied her. He told her to get the hell out fast and not to even look back. So she hiked up the canyon and across the forest for three days. When she got here she was all bruised and bloody; hadn’t eaten in five days. But she’s all right now.”
“And I’ve given rides to hitchhikers along that road,” said the girl customer, shaking her head.
“That’s how they got her,” said the cashier. “Only she was doing the thumbing. Those guys are crazies. Excuse me . . . yes, sir?”
The old man was standing right in front of the cash register now, listening. He had quite given up his pretension of studying the cigarette display.
“Oh, ah, a pack of Camels, please.”
The girl searched her display case and came up with the correct brand. The old man paid her and went back up the steps to the cafe. His wife was still sitting, sipping coffee.
“Still, Bertha?” he asked.
“Sit down, please.”
The old man objected, but he sat down anyway. It was already getting gray outside and he wanted to be on his way. He hated driving at night, especially in the mountains with the roads wet.
“Watch that kid over there,” said the old lady. “Every time someone leaves, he walks over and eats their leftovers. He must be starving, poor thing.”
“They’re hard kids, Bertha. Very hard.”
The old man watched the leftover kid a little while.
“We better be going,” he said, finally.
“All right, but leave a nice tip.”
The old man left a quarter tip. And the old lady left half her blueberry pie on her plate. They walked out the door hand-in-hand.
All the way up to the camp, the old man was silent. It was obvious he had something on his mind.
When they arrived at their trailer, he went inside and lit their Coleman lantern. It was cold in the trailer, but the heat from the lantern soon warmed the little room. They sat in the cubicle kitchen and stared at the dusk outside. Already, a few campers had their fires going. A cold wind was blowing hard off the lake.
Then it was night. The blackness closed in around the little trailer and opaqued everything.
“Listen to that wind,” said the old man.
“It reminds you of Kansas, doesn’t it?” she said.
“Yes, it does.”
There was something strange in the old man’s voice. For a long while, neither spoke again.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said finally. “Perhaps we should leave. I don’t think we belong here.”
“No, Bertha. You were right. I think I understand that now. These are hard kids; they have to be. Remember the first time we came to the mountains?”
“Remember! You were twenty-five and I was nineteen.”
“That was thirty-eight years ago.”
“Our honeymoon,” she said.
“Those were good times, the ’30s.”
“Very good times, Harold,” she agreed. “But why talk about it?”
The old man’s eyes were shiny.
“We were hard then, too, Bertha.”
“We should never have left here; or leaving, we should never have returned,” he said.
The wife looked at him, but said nothing.
“Trying to go back to anything, once the ripeness is past is . . . no good.”
He tried to say it nice, but it came out clumsy sounding. It was an old truth he had relearned now too late in life, and he wanted, needed, to share it. But the right words would not come.
“We’ll leave tomorrow, all right?” he said instead.
“Maybe we can even go down to Florida,” he said. “We’ve never been there before. Leave the mountains . . . for a while.”
The old lady took his hand and held it. She knew it took a lot for her husband to say what he had said. And it tore her inside to hear him say it.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said, “but the cold has been aggravating my rheumatism.”
“We better go to bed,” said the old man. “We’ve got a lot of traveling to do tomorrow.”
He picked up the lantern and lighted their way into the bedroom. Outside, the branches from the blue spruce trees rubbed against the sides of the trailer and the wind whistled shrilly.
The old man turned off the Coleman lantern and lit a cigarette. Then he climbed under the blankets and smoked quietly. The old lady was soon asleep.
But for a long time, after the light had ceased, the old man lay awake and remembered.
In the warmth of their fire, the young couple sat and smoked the marijuana cigarette the hitchhiker had given them earlier. The fire crackled and shadows danced on the trunks of the surrounding trees.
“It’s a beautiful fire,” said the girl.
“Yes, it is. I’m glad we collected that wood before the rain,” said James.
In the road, someone was walking toward the lake. They could only see a black shape and hear the clopety-clop-clop of the stranger’s boots on the cinder road. They heard him a long time after the figure disappeared.
“Looks like our senior citizens have retired for the night,” said James.
“Kind of early, isn’t it?”
“You know how it is when you get to be that age; you need all the beauty sleep you can get.”
“That wasn’t very nice.”
“No, it wasn’t. I’m sorry.”
James leaned forward and fed another log into the fire. The wind was blowing hard, flattening the flames.
“Did you see them?’ asked the girl.
“Yeah, they drove up in their huge Lincoln Continental and got into their nice comfortable trailer.”
“You sound jealous.”
“No, not really. More sympathetic. They’re missing so much.”
“Maybe they’re too old to rough it,” she said.
“Then let them go to some hotel on Miami Beach.”
“My, aren’t we hard tonight,” she said.
“It’s the grass.” He laughed.
The smoke from the fire shifted around suddenly and blew into James’s face. It made his eyes tear. But he refused to move, and, finally, the smoke shifted again.
“I’m glad we found this place,” he said.
“Maybe we can move here . . . for good,” she said. “I’m sure we can find exactly what we want down in Ward, if we wait long enough.”
“You mean that? About staying?”
The wind gusted through the trees and almost put out their fire. Then it was silent and cold and black, and the fire made the only sounds.
“We better get to bed if we’re going mountain climbing tomorrow,” said the young man.
“I hope we see snow.”
“We will, even if we have to climb the highest peak.”
The girl took the flashlight and went inside the tent. James stayed behind and checked the tent stakes to make sure they were secured. Then he urinated on the fire, kicked some dirt over it, and went inside, too.
The girl was already in the sleeping bag.
“I hope this wind doesn’t blow the tent down,” he said.
“If it does, we’ll really be cozy then,” she said.
James stripped down to his underwear. “Damn, it’s cold!”
“Hurry in. I’ll keep you warm,” said the girl.
Suddenly, the monster came to the hitchhiker again. Lying on the hard cot, listening to the wind outside, the monster stole silently upon him.
He finished the cigarette he was smoking and stamped the butt out. Then he rested his head back on the cot and stared at the ceiling.
Outside, the wind was blowing hard and cold. He could hear the lake’s water breaking on the shore. The wind came in gusts, but the waves broke steadily. It was the waves he liked to listen to.
It’s going to be another cold night, he thought. Tonight and tomorrow. Why is it I can’t get used to this cold? California was never like this. California. Ah, yes, California.
He was beginning to get the old urge to travel again. The monster was definitely stirring within him tonight.
Colorado’s becoming too crowded, he thought. Too many new people coming in. Too many tourists. Too many younger freaks. Married freaks.
The land was losing its charm. Even Ward was becoming too established. Motorcycle gangs. Police committees. When he had first come, the people were different. They were hard people then. Real people. But most had left now. In fact, he was one of the few still remaining from the original crowd. And now the trend followers were coming in; they were spoiling the land.
Time to travel, he decided. I’ve already outgrown this place. Colorado is definitely spoiled.
But there were other places. He had heard some fine things about New Mexico and Arizona. In fact, some of his friends had headed that way. That’s where he would head. He needed a change of scene.
Tomorrow, early. He would start out for New Mexico or Arizona. He didn’t have much to pack.
Now he closed his eyes and rested peacefully. The monster was in complete control, and it would keep through the night.
See Fiction and Poetry for more short fiction by Lazaro Aleman.
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.