I was racing through Eastern Washington on a two-lane road, risking reckless driving through the straight stretches, my headlights carving tunnels through the night. Nothing but sagebrush and orchards existed to distract me during this hour-long serpentine from Wenatchee to Pateros, and with the past three hours pressing on my lower back, I was ready for a tent and a sleeping bag. A beer, at the very least.
I shared the car with Will and Calvin and a weekend of climbing gear. It was our first chance that year, an eye in our hurricane of schedules. And on this side of the Cascade Mountains, the sun had already dried the cliffs of their winter. One day of climbing and two nights of camping and an eternity of driving down this aching, winding road when I rounded a turn and my headlights found a hitchhiker.
It looked like a woman.
I pulled over a hundred yards past the stranger. Calvin slid across the back seat to make room, and without an interrogation, and without even a decent glance, I waved her inside.
We all introduced ourselves as I shifted through the gears. I put the woman in her forties, or maybe badly aged thirties.
“You’re out here late,” I said.
“How long had you been trying for a ride?”
“I started walking at noon.”
“The Beebe Bridge.”
“I mean, this is a hard road to hitchhike on, but… Shit. Ten hours. I’m sorry.”
“My phone died, so I had to walk.”
“And no one stopped.”
“I probably looked bad when I started walking. I was pretty hungover.”
The woman shrugged again. “Do you have water? I’m really thirsty.”
“We’ve got some bottles in the trunk that you can grab when we stop.”
“I can take you as far as Pateros,” I said. “Where are you headed?”
“Do you have a way to get there from Pateros?”
“I can walk.”
“That’s like seven miles.”
“I can walk.”
I drove all of us to the peach orchard where we would camp. My family owned a piece of it, property of the Hatch Family for four generations. A grassy half-acre with a well and a septic tank, where my family traded the fruit for upkeep. The place—The Property—served as an RV destination for Labor Day Weekend, a forward base for quail season, and an undeveloped home for any time we wanted a vacation.
We almost lost it last summer when a wildfire burned 400 square miles of Okanogan County. The Carlton Complex was the largest fire in Washington’s history, and as it fanned through summer sagebrush and blew across rivers, President Obama issued a State of Emergency.
“It’s every road. Every road lost something,” one sheriff said. “It looks like a moonscape; there’s nothing left.”
My family tracked the fire through news reports and Facebook feeds, texting one another updates as it crept closer and closer to The Property. Of the 300 homes the Carlton Complex destroyed, 30 came from Pateros. The town was evacuated. Its roadside welcome sign caught fire.
I gave the woman a water bottle and a bag of Chex Mix when we pulled into The Property. While Will and Calvin unloaded the tents and the cooler, I unlocked the gate to make room for my brother’s car, still a few minutes behind us. And then, after an all-too-brief moment to twist and arch and stretch, the woman and I squished back into my car and struck out for Brewster.
“You hitchhike often?” I asked.
“How has it been? Mostly good people? Any bad experiences?”
“A few. You have to look after yourself. Know how to get yourself out of trouble. And you have to trust God.”
“Hitchhiking’s safer than the stigma, for sure.”
“Sometimes I take my daughter with me. She needs someone to show her the ropes.”
“How old is she?”
The woman finished one water bottle, and I offered her a second.
“Are things growing back yet after that big wildfire?” I asked.
“They’re starting to. I didn’t like when everything was burnt. Everything’s so exposed. You can’t hide.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could hear everything. I didn’t like it.”
The woman didn’t elaborate.
“The fire came right up to the edge of our property,” I said. “It damaged a few trees, but that was it. We got lucky.”
The woman pointed ahead of us. “Take the next turn up here.”
“Do you live in Brewster?”
“My friend does. Can you drop me off at her house?”
“Just tell me where to turn.”