Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Picking Up a Stranger

RC Lee started my journey.

There was a very long desert road. It wasn't really desert. The road to the Sierra Nevada's is paved with some weird stuff...old broken houses with old broken memories. Diners with nobody to eat in them and nobody to live around the food..and the tables and the waitresses with pencils in their hair and grease stains on their pink skirts. It's a strange sort of desolate beauty that draws on your silence and forces you inside for a while as the road slips beneath your tires and your mind slips into itself.

There are stretches of road that you see in the movies. The kind that are straight and long and stretch into the horizon or the mountains or someplace infinitely far away but close enough that you can see where they fade away into nothing. It was exactly this sort of road that I found a beginning. Journeys begin somewhere always. Even if you don't know where they began. I know where this one began.

He was walking into the horizon. He was walking into nothing really. All alone. Nothing but a bottle of water. And the water was dirty...taken from a rest stop bathroom faucet 4 miles before. His skin was burned with sun and time walking away from where he started. Salt and pepper scrubbed his face in an unshaven bristle with deep sun creased lines in his face that exposed his character to anyone who cared to notice. No arm was held out. No thumb extended. But he walked into the horizon with confidence that can only be gained by owning nothing but himself.

My van sped past him without a pause and the silence within increased until it was deafening. He was going nowhere. He was walking into twenty miles of nothing. Twenty miles of road stretching into nothing and yet he was walking. I know I turned the wheel but it was something else that made the van turn back. I went back three miles and pulled over to pick up the man who was alone walking into nothing.

He got into my van and didn't say anything. “It's hot out there. Have a seat.” I pushed the AC vents to the passenger seat and he slumped back and closed his eyes for minute. The silence was perfect. I didn't need to talk very much and neither did he. As the miles slid by, I did most of the talking...but it was always met with short precise answers. And the answers were exactly what they needed to be.

Memories have a way of shading themselves with lessons learned after the memory has been burned into the proper creases in your brain. These are no different.

“What's your name?”

“R.C.” And the formal response followed...”R.C. Lee”

“Here, have something to drink R.C. Lee” A large can of peach mango tea sat unopened in the pop out cup holder. I handed it to him as he put down his old plastic bottle of water.

“What are you going to drink?” He asked this with a sincerity that was unexpected from a man in his heavy black boots.

“Brother, what am I going to drink..who cares...drink up.” He had no teeth but his faint smile was beautiful to me. Here's a man walking through the desert with a dirty bottle of water and he was worried about what I was going to drink. He drank most of the can in 2 miles while I rummaged around behind my seat to get at whatever road food I could reach. Pringles and a Milky Way. He would eventually gum his way through most of both. “Why are you walking on this road? What brought you here?” These are questions that I think everyone should ask themselves at the right moment in their lives.

“Well, I started walking across the country from Florida about 8 weeks ago.”

“OK Forest Gump!” I got a full smile in exchange for that comment. “Why would you do that? Where are you walking to?”

“I'm going to see my Brother in Carson City.”

“And you couldn't drive..or take a bus?”

“I don't have any money. I'm going to work with him in Carson City.”

“What kind of work?”

“Laying flooring.”

“How old are you?”

“59” A senior citizen by some standards.

“You weren't even holding out your thumb. How is anyone supposed to pick you up? You're just walking. Why wasn't your arm out?”

“Somewhere in Texas, my arm just got too tired to hold out anymore.” The simple honesty of this statement took a few seconds to sink in. But it sank deep. A weary man content to be weary for a while. Not sad about it...not a victim of circumstance...but OK with not reaching out to anyone. OK with walking alone and asking for nothing. Needing nothing.

“That's it? How do you get rides? How do you eat? What kind of people pick you up?”

“I get picked up by cars full of women mostly.” This surprised me but he did look a sad sight walking by the road that I'm sure pulled on a few of the gentler heart strings that came upon him.

“What's the furthest anyone has taken you in your travels?”

“80 miles.” In a walk across the country that had to be less than pleasant, 80 miles wasn't very far.

“What's does R.C. Stand for?”

“Rosy Cruz.”

I slapped his knee and said, “You're a good man Rosy Cruz Lee. I bet I can take you further than that.” His expression was clearly one of a man who had not been called by his full name in a very long time. It was a slightly surprised expression tinted with a pleasant look that was welcome on such a road worn face.

We ate our road food and talked in brief little spurts. I asked most of the questions and he gave what answers he could. His father was woodworker and he always wanted to be as good as his daddy with the tools. His brother died of a fever when he was just a boy.

Sitting beside me was a man who had nothing at all. “So...do you have a wallet..anything other than the clothes on your back?”

“No.” His voice was always soft and sounded like he needed to drink some water.

“You have no money, no ID, and nothing but what you can carry?” Which was really only his clothes and boots.


“Cool.” This was not said with pretense or some false sense of glory in being destitute. I said it from my heart. From a place that sensed the strength in standing on your own...naked as you came into the world...or as close as one can get while walking by the road.

His wallet had been stolen at some point and he continued on his journey with no way to place himself into the world he walked through. And he was good with it for the moment. And the world didn't seem to notice.

A Burger King called to my hunger and we pulled off the highway and into the drive through. A large glossy poster stuck to the window next to the drive through...a perfectly massive breakfast monstrosity with finely folded fluffy eggs and slightly smoking bacon...the corners of the cheese melting down onto the freshly baked biscuit bottom. He stared at the poster while we waited to order. “I wonder if that tastes as good as it looks on that window.” We found out exactly how good it tasted...along with hash brown tots and orange juice. Hunger can get past a mouth full of gums when it needs to.

Burger King was behind us as we drove through more flat grassy fields with the Sierras moving closer by the mile. We drove towards the great Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains...to Bishop. From Bishop I was meeting a friend and traveling up to the ancient bristle cone pines. Trees that started growing when the great pyramids were a design in Pharaohs head.

There was a camera in in my van. I had never used it more than casually in the two years I had owned it. Leaving on this trip had a been a journey in itself and my camera was part of that journey. I felt something begin to change for me in the week leading up to this trip. I knew my camera was going with me. I knew I was going to use it. And I knew that I would take a picture of someone special. Premonitions are so often overstated and even more often under recognized...by ourselves and those around us.

“R.C., can I take some pictures of you when we get to Bishop?”


“Because you're my friend and I want to get a picture of you before we go our ways.”

“OK, sure. You gave me a ride all this way, I can let you do that.”

We got to Bishop and parked in front of a gallery of fine art photography. I had intended to visit the gallery and my plans had not changed because of R.C. “Hey, do you want to come look at some pictures with me and wait for my friend to get here? I want her to meet you.”

It was a gallery like many devoted to great artists....the finest prints on the walls, and proper sales people devoted to praising and selling the work of their master. The gallery was filled with beautiful prints of nature and glaciers and flowers and perfect scenes of serenity. Each picture was well lit and some of the best ones were tucked away in little alcoves or set further aside on the wall to add emphasis. The sales people were all women who obviously sat in an air conditioned gallery a lot...the kind of women with tight buns in their hair and the perfect amount of accessories to accent the colors in the outfit they had chosen the night before. Her face was perplexed at the sight of me and R.C. Standing by the front entrance. She walked over and stared at us for as second before speaking. “Hi, can I help you?”

“I'm here to look at the art!” Regardless of her less than warm nature, I was smiling when I spoke.

She looked at R.C. And you could see his stained clothing and sunburned face in her eyes. “Are you here to look around too?”

Before R.C. Could even reply, I put my arm around him and looked at her. “This is my uncle R.C. And he's here to look with me.” She looked slightly defeated and walked away to allow the dirty homeless man to look at some fine art.

The gallery was ice cold compared to the 100 degrees outside. My friend was going to be a while before meeting up with me, so we took our time. There were a lot of beautiful pictures hanging on the walls. There were Tibetan prayer flags, and Arctic glaciers, but there were mostly pictures from the surrounding Sierra Nevada's. And they were stunning...mountains capped with snow and fresh spring flowers in first bloom after a harsh Sierra Winter. After several minutes I noticed R.C. standing in front of a picture hanging in one corner. He stood still with his arms by his side just looking into the picture. I walked over and stood next to him and stared at the picture too. It was a large vertical print of a crumbling glacial ice shelf. The blue in the exposed glacial wall was nothing short of spectacular the hue of which was so deep that I thought it had to be unreal. Of course it wasn't. We stood in silence for a minute looking into the exposed icy wall. R.C. didn't say a word.

“That's a nice picture huh?”

He paused a while before answering. “I like it a lot.”

Here was a worn man who had been beaten down by the desert sun. A man who had to be taken by an ambulance the week before to a remote hospital for severe dehydration. They stuck water into his veins for a few hours and then sent him back out to walk into the sun. And when he got two days away from the hospital, they had to take him back again. And now he had escaped the little piece of desert with the caring police and noble ambulance drivers and clean transient hospital beds. He made it past the rest stop with the dirty water and sleeping travelers. Here he stood in the corner of an icy gallery staring at the crumbling ice of a far away glacier. “I like it a lot too R.C.”

Bishop is a small town filled with a few locals and a lot of tourists during the busy months. We left the gallery and I grabbed my camera so that we could walk around and take picture among the little shops and back alleys. He didn't say much as we walked around and that was OK. Silence usually makes me awkward with others, but I was content to just walk around with him and take random pictures. He was so patient. I knew nothing about how my camera worked but I just kept taking pictures of him. And he just kept letting me. I loved R.C. for letting me do that. It was the first time I ever saw someone through the lens. Truly saw them. I used a wide angle lens so I had to get very close to take the pictures I wanted. And he let me. And it was OK. A few times he even smiled when I asked him to. He was beautiful. He was my friend and there were some perfect moments during that hour. Some would contend that all moments are perfect but I think that perfection is only realized when you see the moment for what it is right then...not through the lens of memory, or nostalgia, or over a cup of coffee the next day...but you see it as perfect while you are living it. Those had never happened often for me. My life had always been a stream of momentary denial to bring me to some future place where I could enjoy the memory of what had happened more than I enjoyed the actual experience. But that day, there was no denial. I would have enjoyed that day regardless of any memory to relive in my head or retell to my friends. I was living with R.C. and life was sweet. We walked through empty alleys and behind a church. We looked through books at a book store and strolled past shops with antiques and bits of local jewelry craft.

My van was parked in front of the gallery and I put my camera away as my friend pulled up to meet me. There was a new backpack in my van that my dad had given me. It was a large black canvas bag with a bottom that looked like a road worn rubber tire. We stood by my van and I grabbed the bag from the cluttered mess in the back. “Would this bag help? Would it be too heavy for you to carry?” The bag was meant to be a luggage bag for a motorcycle but it was designed with built in backpack straps. Even empty, the thick rubber bottom made it heavier than a normal backpack. He put it on and adjusted the straps to fit his small frame. The bag looked huge hanging on his back.

“I can carry this. It's not too heavy.” It occurred to me when I looked at him with this huge bag on his back that the bag was empty. It was just a bag.

My friend Kathy approached the car where we stood fitting him with his new backpack. Introductions were made and I spent a minute explaining to her how my path had crossed with his. We decided to go over to Target to buy some basic supplies for the empty pack on his back. We all talked as we drove around town and Kathy asked some of the same questions of R.C. that I had – all of the whys and a few of the wheres. And R.C. answered them in the same quiet fashion he had answered mine. We bought him a fresh shirt and socks along with some basic toiletries. We didn't have a lot of money between us but we bought what we could. There was some applesauce and water and a few other dried goods but we didn't want to buy too much or the load would be too heavy for him to shoulder. There was enough for him to have a clean shirt, clean water, and a cleanly shaved face.

I didn't want to drop him off. We sat in the Target parking lot and I wasn't sure how to let him go. The afternoon was wearing on, and Kathy suggested that we try to find a place for him to stay for the night before he left Baker to continue on to his brother in Carson City. There was a campsite several miles back on the highway so we drove back to see if we could pay for a night there, or if they even would allow one person to camp alone...with nothing to sleep with. They wouldn't. There was a large shade tree in front of the campgrounds under which RC and I waited while Kathy talked to someone in the office. The shade was cool and I took a few pictures of RC in the warm summer wind. When Kathy came back I handed her my camera and put my arm around RC. "Take our picture together Kathy. I want a picture of me and my friend." When I looked at the picture later I thought...We were happier in that picture than either of us had been in a long time.

We drove back to Bishop wondering where we could take R.C. and somehow came across a laundromat that had pay showers in the back. The laundromat was air conditioned and empty. We paid for a shower and got several dollars worth of quarters. Kathy looked at R.C. and said, “When you are done with your shower, put your fresh shirt on and come out here and wash your shirt. Then do a load of laundry and wash your socks. Then do another load with your pants.” If this was a place for paying customers only, then he had enough quarters to keep him in A/C all day long doing his laundry. She hugged him.

Before he walked into the shower room, I looked at him and I started to cry. “I love you R.C.” I gave him a big hug.
“Thank you.” was all he said. He was crying too.

We walked out of that laundromat and I couldn't stop thinking about R.C. I knew that I would never see him again. I got no address. I didn't ask him to call me. We didn't keep in touch. And it felt right. Our time together was done. We had each given each other something. I'm not sure what he took away from our time together but I know what I took away. I met a total stranger and shared my life with him with no fear. We connected as people and he let me take his picture. It was a simple sort of magic. Two paths crossed for a moment and my camera happened to be there when they did. Somehow, my camera snuck up on the universe and stole a few moments as they were happening. I didn't plan anything. I didn't really ask for anything. I lived my life and took a few good pictures by doing so.

What did R.C. get? Every time I look at the pictures from that trip I would like to think that he was happy. I would like to think that he considers me a friend. I would like to think a lot of things but only R.C. really knows.

R.C. & Me - Friends