Sunday, June 04, 2006

John I Love You

A few years ago I picked up a hitchhiker on the I-5 somewhere in Oregon, probably between Corvallis and Portland, but possibly on the way to Washington or down to California.
Driving that particular stretch of Interstate 5 is by now hypnotic; I have travelled that road so many times that only a few landmarks register, the rest passing without concious notice until suddenly, I have arrived at my destination. The 45th parallel sign is one such landmark; the Albany paper mills another. I remember the turf business on the east side of the highway, with the "We keep rollin' a lawn" sign, because Dave once pointed to the tiny shack near the sign, saying he would like nothing better to work there and live forever in that little house.
Also distinct is that almost wherever you pull over along this road, be it at a rest area of just on the side of the road because, say, your engine exploded or you're picking up another hitchhiker, you are surrounded by green. Trees, hills, grassy slopes. It was on such a grassy stretch that I picked up John.
I can no longer remember his real name, but only that he had short dark hair, was somewhat slight of build and wore Oregon/grunge clothing: worn trousers and some kind of plaid flannel shirt. We talked a little bit - destination, that day's weather, his wait and walk, and whatever story he wanted to share: up to me to decide whether to believe or not.
Sometimes talk flags. As one who has been a driver and a rider in these situations, I recognize the ritual and the responsibility of keeping up an interesting stream of chatter if it seems expected. After all, talk is often the reason a driver will pick someone up - for entertainment, to break the monotony of a long drive, to keep from falling asleep. But it's tiring, sometimes, for both parties. If you've been walking and riding for some time, having to decorate yourself over and over for each new driver can be an effort. And maybe the driver just wants to give a ride, without having to get too involved.
As in so many situations where communication is too great an ordeal, music, in this case, was the answer. That day is was Sinead O'Conner's Universal Mother. Soon enough the song "John I Love You" came on. I hadn't even realized that my rider was paying attention; he had been quiet and contemplative for some time, lulled, I thought, by the motion and the endless green. The lullaby played:
There's life outside your mother's garden
There's life beyond your wildest dreams
There hasn't been any explosion
We're not spinning like Dorothy

and he came alive. "This song - it's amazing. Who is this?" I told him, and he listened, entranced.
A little while later, he got out of the car as our paths diverged. "That song," he said, "it changed my life."
It changed mine a little too, I guess, because now when I hear it I remember him and that day and that little green otherwise indistinct piece of Interstate 5.

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