August 24, 1996, on California Route 99-North, at the Taylor Road on ramp between the towns of Keyes and Turlock:
While standing at the entrance to this ramp checking for messages, a heavy-set Latino in his mid twenties came limping up the ramp shoulder toward me from what seemed to be from out of nowhere. He asked if I could give him a ride to the nearest gas station; that his truck broke down and he had a bad leg. Although a little apprehensive under the circumstances, and not being able to see this so-called truck and with no way to validate his claims, still I agreed. Being that I was driving a 4-door rental car and, since it would just be a minute's ride, I didn’t want to move all my stuff--brief case, snacks, water bottle, maps, and such–I asked him to sit in back.
As we drove toward the village of Keyes, he asked, "So, what do you do for a living?" Not sure if he was just making innocent small talk,still this type of immediate personal question from a stranger in a car during a hitchhike always makes me uneasy. I guess I flashed back to those couple of times I got picked up thumbing by guys who asked if I was married or had a girlfriend--obviously feeling me out to see if I was gay or at least would be willing to stray off the straight-guy reservation with them, to which I responded that I'd be getting out at the next exit, which I would be without incident.
But it also dawned on me that maybe this guy might be just a wary about me; a 40ish dude exhibiting my own curious behaviors. I told him I was a scientist, but neither elaborated on that nor had the desire to explain the hitchhiker research thing to him in the short time we would be traveling together.
So we rode on in now a dense, deafening silence. Driving through what there was of a town--Keyes being in an expansive, rural agricultural region--I pulled up to a dark-skinned man in a ball cap sweeping his driveway to ask where the nearest gas station was. Apparently, with me in the front and a passenger in the back, and for whatever other reasons, as an incongruous pair of strangers, we must have presented as a suspicious spectacle. He asked why I wanted to know. I responded, while cocking my head toward the back seat, "His truck has broken down and I'm just giving him a ride." Pointing down the street, he peered at us with a neighborhood-watchful eye as we drove off. I would not be at all surprised if he hadn't made at least a mental note of the license plate number and our general facial features–just in case he might soon need to recount them to a cop.
We got to the station not a minute later. As he sensed my relief at ridding myself of him, my rider halfheartedly thanked me and I said good luck the same fashion; at once, happy he was gone and feeling a pang of guilt that I suspected anything more than his urgency to get on his way and out of his predicament, and thinking that he must have thought I suspected he was up to no good just because he was Mexican--if in fact he actually was. Fact is, I would have felt that way about anyone just popping up out of nowhere and asking for a ride on the side of the road. I think. I hope.
As I went on my way and got back onto Route 99, I noticed parked on the shoulder a maroon-colored pickup--I assumed his. I thought to myself that he must have been square with me and that I had not given him the benefit of the doubt. Had I lost my nerve at picking up strangers or was I justified in my suspicions?
All I know is that on the road, you cannot let your guard down when deciding who to give a ride to or take a ride from. It is always a snap, gut decision. Thus, I've come to the conclusion that, although I did nothing to further race relations and tolerance in the world that day, I at least performed the act of a Good Samaritan; albeit clinical, sterile, and reluctant in execution.
Message I found at this on-ramp:
Route 99-North, Keyes/Turlock, California, at Taylor Road on-ramp:
L. Rhodes to Sacramento from LA 8-31-76
Route 99-South, Keyes/Turlock, California, at Taylor Road on-ramp: