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Saving A Stranger by Matt McDonald
 

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  • I joined a car-sharing program last October and feared the box controlling my ignition would eventually malfunction. It did.

    “You gotta be fucking kidding me,” I sighed, fumbling with a rainbow of wires spilling from
    the device. Two eerie words jumped off my phone – No Service.

    My lifeless car sat on Tehama Canyon Road, the squiggling mountain artery to Star City, an abandoned mining town in northern Nevada. Thirteen miles from anything, it’s a place where the FM channel scans endless loops from 87.5 to 108.

    ..........

    OK. You’re not going to die out here, man.
    As I pack days of life – food, water, layers, extra socks – I remember Nevada has ranked the most dangerous state five years running. But I set off walking – it’s all I could do.

    An indifferent northerly wind slaps my left cheek with 20-degree gusts, while my brain churns out some really ugly thoughts.

    Holy shit, that looks like a car. I begin sprinting and flapping wildly, as if waving off a 747’s final approach. Closing in, I can see two profiles.

    “My car won’t start,” I pant, interrupted by a dog’s roar. “Can you get me to town?”
    A middle-aged woman and a guy about my age (late 20s) share a deep pause.
    I know exactly what their silence means.

    “Alright,” the woman says. “But we’re gonna smoke first.”
    I flash down to the Cherry Coke can in her right hand, which cradles a fat bowl of pot.
    “But you better make friends with Jake; he doesn’t like you,” she says. “Go throw him a stick.”

    Making an instant, inexplicable decision that these are good people, I go all in.

    ..........

    I learn about Carla and Luis on our hour-long, post-smoke hike guided by Jake.

    Carla is Luis’s aunt – not in blood relation, but somehow in function. She handles the graveyard shift at the local truck stop, the only non-mining job for Imlay’s 38 residents.

    Of Cherokee and Seminole descent, Luis wears messy, finger-length black hair and a week of stubble. His shorts – longer than capris, but shorter than jeans – confuse me. Luis is out of work and recently moved back in with his mom. He shares her tiny box his daughter and five others, including Carla.

    Luis's worldliness surprises me. We argue out the pros and cons of Android v. iPhone, and he blares music from his speakerphone while I guess the artists – many from the late ‘90s – Korn, Fuel, Counting Crows, Ja Rule, etc.

    Luis tells me the tragic story of his five-year-old daughter’s molestation; the accused is his ex-wife’s current husband. He says he's glad I'm here to talk about this stuff because there's no one our age nearby.

    “So you just travel around and take pictures?” Luis asks.
    “Yeah, I had to escape the rat-race of the San Francisco tech scene,” I answer.
    Realizing what just escaped my mouth, I stop.

    But our blatant differences don’t matter today. In a way, we both need each other.

    ..........

    Now a family of four, we float towards town in Carla’s late ‘80s Buick Century. Apparently won over by our earlier stick games, a waterlogged Jake sits comfortably in my lap.

    At the truck stop, I chat with the car-sharing company and fill my saviors’ gas tank. Carla is reluctant to accept this gift, but I sense excitement as she talks about being able to visit Reno (a 270-mile round-trip).

    When I finish the call, Carla speaks first, “We’ll take you back out there.” Maybe she’s unwilling to pass my fate to another Nevada stranger. Or maybe we’re just enjoying this.

    Carla and Jake witness Luis’s herculean moment at Tehama Canyon - head down, cigarette bouncing in his right cheek, he gets my car rolling in reverse, while I rapidly release the clutch.
    A chorus of beeps announce it’s worked, and we all high-five (well, except Jake).

    A natural awkwardness follows, but this time, Luis breaks it.
    “Wanna see the canyon where we normally go?” he asks.
    I pause, needing only a moment to reflect on my luck – that they strayed from their “normal” canyon today. “Sure, let’s go.”

    Luis jumps in my car, and we connect his phone to the stereo. It’s the first time he’s ever heard his music on a stereo system.

    The four of us spend the rest of the day together, following Jake’s lead down a gorge bubbling with half-frozen waterfalls. Before we bump start my car to leave, Jake climbs my right shoulder with his muddy paws. Standing at my height now, his eyes long for our day to continue.

    I still haven’t washed Jake from that jacket.


    Version with pictures here: http://mattsmcdonald.com/stories/saving
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