There was a woman on the side of the road last week asking for a lift. I pulled over, cleared the passenger seat, and she hopped in for a 20-minute ride that became the highlight of my day.
I hadn’t picked up a hitchhiker since I was in Oregon seven years ago when a trio of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail wanted to skip a section near Crater Lake. Back then, I was probably reckless, driving a small Toyota Camry with nothing to protect myself from the three strangers who stunk up my car.
They turned out harmless. One offered me a marijuana joint tucked behind his ear when I dropped them off. I declined and drove on.
Hitchhiking is common in the mountain community I moved to last month. Located about a half-hour west of Boulder, Colo., there’s usually someone holding their thumb out in the center of town that’s home to just 130 people. I always went right past them, unsure if they were an axe murderer who was prepared to turn me into a victim on “Dateline,” but last week’s stand out on the side of the road was a little old lady with pink hair. If I got robbed by her, that would just be embarrassing. I told her I was headed to Nederland, a neighboring mountain town with a population of about 1,500, another 25 minutes south.
“Perfect, I am too,” she said while climbing into the car. She gave me her name, but for the purpose of this column, I’ll call her Linda. I asked her where she lived; she said it was 400 yards up the mountain where I picked her up.
Sheer curiosity, more than anything, led me to pull over. Who is this little old pink-haired lady hitchhiking on the side of the road?
I had just finished reading Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 2019 book, “12 Rules For Life,” the day before. In it, Peterson describes the importance of active listening in rule number nine, which is to “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.”
“If you listen,” Peterson wrote, “without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking — and with very little deceit.”
“People will tell you the most amazing, absurd, interesting things,” Peterson added. “Very few of your conversations will be boring. “
So I picked her up and decided to listen. I wasn’t in a hurry, my neighbor needed a favor, she didn’t appear threatening, and I thought it a good opportunity to put Peterson’s rules into practice. She had quite the life story.
At 77, Linda lives off the grid at the top of a mountain. Her home is at 9,500 feet, with no electricity or running water. She hitchhikes to Nederland to go to the library and grab groceries, even in the winter.
“I just bundle up,” she said nonchalantly when I asked how that worked out in January. Snowpants are everyday apparel in 30-below temperatures. But her life wasn’t always so remote.
Linda was an Orange County housewife in the 1960s. Her father put her husband through college to become an accountant.
“I had no interest in being an accountant’s wife,” she told me, disillusioned by pretentious cocktail parties in southern California. An elite west coast dream was Linda’s personal nightmare.
One day a friend of hers gave her LSD. The “trip” inspired her to go home, divorce her husband, and move to Colorado in 1972. She’s been here ever since, with a resume that included time as a secretary and a ranch hand. At 77, she’s happily retired and remains healthy enough to hike up and down the mountains for daily necessities. Given all we know about trees as key to health and longevity, I bet she’ll live at least another 20 years on her mountaintop surrounded by evergreens. She certainly didn’t walk like she was headed for a nursing home anytime soon. I took her to the library in Nederland and then headed for the gym at the community center.
Sometimes our neighbors need a favor. We often forget that.
I’ve lived in a variety of places now, from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, to four blocks from the White House. But I’ve never lived in a town of less than 150 people until now. When I went to the local bookstore in Nederland, I wasn’t asked what street I lived on. I was asked which house.
I always found it ironic how the denser a community becomes, the more anonymity presents itself. Ask residents in high-rise apartments who their neighbors are; they often can’t tell you. Ask them where their food comes from, and they’ll say, “From the store.” Local news? Waste of time.
When I was still in Denver two months ago, I went through three weeks without a car. I couldn’t pull teeth to get a neighbor’s help, and it almost felt uncomfortable to even ask despite the social justice yard signs signaling their own supposed virtue. The smaller the neighborhood, the richer the community, even if it’s conventionally poor.
Community is important, but it takes effort. Cities designed to be effortless aren’t conducive to fostering such flourishing communities. It’s no wonder, then, that despite more Americans living an urbanized lifestyle than ever before, the nation is grappling with an epidemic of loneliness.