Every authority figure I know has warned me never to pick up hitchhikers. Beware of homicidal maniacs, they argue. Usually, I agree and wouldnít throw caution to the wind. Yet when Phil asked me for a ride, I surprised myself and said "yes." I hadnít known him for more than 10 minutes. Why did Ido it?
Well, I liked him instantly. And about then, living adventurously, if not dangerously, seemed a big improvement over the last two years of my life that had been spent working a soul-sucking job as a research technician.
Sitting at my bench manipulating pipettes day after day, I had felt life passing me by. One day, in May 2000, I gave notice, and two weeks later, my car loaded with gear, I struck out solo from my home in Massachusetts. Destination unknown.
Letting the Fates decide my route, I drove down the east coast, wove through the southeast then went westward to Colorado.
At the tidy college city of Boulder, having my dinner in the local hostel, I began feeling as if I had truly left humdrum behind and entered a Twilight Zone inhabited by wild and free, comical characters unlike any I had ever known in my past life.
One guy at the other end of a long table bore an uncanny resemblance to Neil Young in his younger days. I caught his glance and felt right away that we were on the same curious wavelength.
We traded knowing smiles as a gnarly-haired, red-headed, red-faced Scot amused the rest of us hostelers with his life-on-a-park-bench misadventures. Meanwhile he busily procured a beer, and the makings of a bologna sandwich from deep within his army rucksack. He opened the beer, and it sprayed all over me – and my food. Without so much as an acknowledgment of his faux pas, the Scot continued his tale, which caused the Neil Young look-alike to laugh outright. At that outburst, I shelved my indignation and laughed along with him.
I moved over next to this jocular fellow and introduced myself. He replied that he was Phil from New Zealand. He looked like a Kiwi to me: hairy, stocky, rugged with a slightly goofy grin. He said he was waiting for friends to arrive in a week. I said I was going to Rocky Mountain National Park. He asked me for a ride. I said "yes."
What was to be a two-hour drive turned into a week of adventure. We decided to attempt a climb of 3,600 meter (12,324 ft) Flattop Mountain, a strenuous hike that would lead us over the Continental Divide.
Without Phil I would not have made it to the end of the 8 km (4.5 miles) uphill trail. Unused to the thin air, I felt the dizzying effects of altitude sickness. Phil, a seasoned mountaineer, explained that our bodies would adjust, which encouraged me to trudge on, repeating to myself "one-foot-in- front-of-the-other," until I realized we had actually reached the summit. We experienced a joint moment of elation and embraced each other in triumph.
That high lasted until we returned to our campground and found our tents and gear lying in a heap by the Ranger Station, the Ranger seething because we had left the grounds without renewing our campsite reservation. Actually, we had tried, but the Station hadnít been open early in the morning when we had to leave in order to summit during a safe window (early afternoon).
"Pay me for the day, pack up your gear, and leave this campground immediately," she spat through clenched teeth.
I probably would have argued the case with her and made matters worse if levelheaded Phil hadnít apologized and paid her on the spot.
It was peak season. All the campgrounds in the Park were full, and it was the same situation in surrounding towns. The sun began to disappear behind the mountains before we found the one remaining barren, dusty site left. But we had food, we had beer, and we had been to the summit of Flattop Mountain Ė victory was sweet.
The next morning we traversed the Rockies via the Trail Ridge Road then spent several days in the high desert region west of the mountains. At night we admired the starlit desert sky and spoke of our dreams.
Then it was time to meet Philís friends in Boulder. The drive to the bus station was palpably downbeat as I thought about how much we had shared in such a short time. We exchanged addresses then goodbyes. Phil boarded the bus and as quickly as he had entered my life he was gone.
In August, I returned to Boston to begin medical school. Soon, my thoughts became consumed by my studies, relationships, by paying the bills and cleaning the bathroom. The carefree part of me was slipping away.
Then one gray day in November I received a package postmarked New Zealand. Phil had sent a copy of every photo he had taken during our time together. Here were beautiful memories in a stack: Lavender and yellow alpine flowers. A marmot mom playing with her rambunctious cubs. A plump pica looking like a tailless chipmunk with enormous satellite-dish ears.
Here was the blue-green lizard that had struck a drowsy-eyed pose for the camera the day we hiked in Colorado National Monument. At the bottom of a remote gulch we felt like explorers in territory known only to us and this one photogenic lizard.
Here we were, Phil and I, straddling the Continental Divide, arm in arm, hair flapping in the wind.
My eyes watered up with the flood of memories and emotions. What if I hadnít allowed gut instinct to prevail over common sense, I wonder?