The First Ride
I throw my battered old suitcase into the back of the pickup truck and move to the side of the cab. A man on the passenger side has stepped out and holds the door. He gestures for me to get in. I do and slide over, next to the man driving. After a moment, the other man gets in next to me and slams the door. The driver to my left smiles as he grabs the long gear shifter between my legs and guns the motor.
Not long after this, after I’d had a little more experience hitchhiking, I would never let something like this happen. It’s kind of basic hitchhiking sense to always be ready and able to get out of a vehicle fast if need be. My adult self is a bit annoyed that my newly free and independent-minded young self could have still been so naïve. It’s only pure luck that these two young men are no threat to me.
“Here ya go buddy,” the guy says with a smile. He hands me a can of Olympia Gold and tosses another to the guy driving. I smile back and look at both men. We then all pop the tops of our cold beers and take a nice long, refreshing gulp. My two new companions toss their heads back and shout at the top of their lungs as we start rolling. Rolling down Oklahoma state highway 64. The road I’d been walking all that day.
I’ve been picked up by two cowboys, bronco-busting best buddies on their way to Winfield, Kansas to ride in the Cowley County Fair Rodeo. Happy, friendly young southern men in their early twenties, the driver tells me of how his best friend here on my right just got out of the army and that they are on a quest to hit all the small rodeos they can find, before getting back to whatever life had planned for them next.
These guys are truly living in this moment and enjoying every bit of it.
I sit on the dusty bench seat and happily listen to these two friends. My head constantly turns left and right as I follow their conversation. It’s clear they were happy to pick me up and have another person to talk to, but I doubt my presence really mattered that much. I’m usually a talkative guy myself but with these two, I hardly say a thing.
Looking ahead, the road I’m on now becomes a bigger highway. To save a little time, we turn off 64, go a few miles east on highway 60 and get on I-35 heading north. We cross the state line and get off near Wellington (just south of Wichita) onto Kansas state highway 160 and continue heading east to Winfield. The boys want to see a bit of the competition before their event tomorrow so they need to get on the rodeo grounds before dark. That’s when the grandstands fill up for the main events.
The sawed-off Olympia beer can on the dash in front of me sloshes a bit. It’s getting full. The boys are chewing tobacco and spitting into the can as we go. The dash of the old Ford is hot. It’s been a hot August day in northern Oklahoma but I’d not noticed at all before. I’d been so happy walking; the heat was just another sensation to relish.
Now, the air in the cab of this old pickup truck smells of sweat, beer, road dust and rotting wheat stalks (from the fields outside) and stale tobacco spit. Fortunately, the sun is getting close to setting and we soon arrive at the fairgrounds and park around back of the grandstands where a place is reserved for cowboys scheduled to ride.
I follow my new friends to an area on the side of the arena where other cowboys are standing and getting ready to watch the next event. I look on as a gate opens on the opposite side and a bull leaps with his rider hanging on with one arm. His other hand waives about as the huge animal bucks and snorts and twirls around. Trying desperately to dislodge his tormentor. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn to accept the chilidog and another beer being handed to me.
We drive to a grassy spot and sleep by the truck. Looking up at the stars in the clear Kansas sky, I again feel completely free. Unfettered by time and space. My companions snoring in the dark, I smoke a hand-rolled cigarette and listen to the night. The horses, bulls and other animals of this rural southern county fair are quiet now. The faint sounds I hear in the distance beyond the sleeping rodeo grounds are unidentifiable to my ear.
I’m awakened by the Ford’s engine starting up. “Let’s go pal! We’re burning daylight”.
To my surprise we drive to a motel near the freeway and check into a single room. The boys do this to take showers and prepare their leathers. I’m now privy to what appears to me to be a sacred ritual for these young rodeo cowboys. They remove the tarp from the bed of their truck and carefully take down two ornate leather, riding saddles. These men treat their saddles with utmost respect and care. Every strap and buckle is checked, cleaned and oiled with a special cloth and oil.
After my shower, we all go to the motel’s cafe for a hearty breakfast. My new friends are all business now. The talk is of riding technique and possible competitive challenges. They are getting ready to do what they came here for and they intend on doing it well. Although I still feel the friendliness of before, I can tell that I am now a potential distraction. They look at me and now practically speak as one as they give me the option of joining them at the rodeo tonight or…
The beat up (but now quite beautiful to my eye) old Ford pickup truck pulls to the side of the road near the westbound onramp to Kansas state highway 160. I get my suitcase from the bed and thank the two fine young men whose company I’ve enjoyed for the last twelve hours. I walk up the ramp to this new road and continue on my way with a full stomach, a warm heart and a fresh twenty-dollar bill.
Life couldn’t be better right now.