Every time I pick a hitchhiker up off the side of the highway, I make sure to tell them the same three things. The first is that, while they are a guest in my car, which of course comes with privileges like music choice and temperature control (for their side, at least. I like my half of the car at a constant seventy degrees), it also means that, well, I'm the host and that affords me certain privileges as well. Vaguer privileges, you know? The kind that don't matter until something comes up and I have to say, “I'm the host and what I say goes.” The second thing I tell them is no names. I don’t need to know yours, and you especially don’t need to know mine. The third thing I tell them is that they can talk as much as they want, but if they start asking questions, well, I might not always answer them.
One day -- I think it was around noon but I could be wrong -- I picked up someone who, instead of sticking their thumb out, I saw violently waving what looked like a conductor’s baton, who spent a good fifteen minutes fiddling with their seat, with the radio, and their passenger fans without telling me how far I was supposed to be driving them, and who only responded to my rules explanation with a grunt and a nod. I seriously considered shoving them out of the car right then and there, to be honest. The only reason I didn’t, well, I don’t actually know why I didn’t, but I do remember thinking about it.
The road at that point was straight and narrow. Shimmers of heat emanated from the road, and I had to lower my visor to be able to see properly. But such was the nature of road trips, even if I didn’t know where I was road tripping to.
They had tuned the radio to a classical music station, and we spent the first hour or so doing nothing but listening to a violin quartet playing what I later learned was Art of the Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. The car was silent otherwise, though I did notice that my passenger started crying about forty-five minutes in. Even when the song ended, he continued to weep.
Eventually, though, my passenger did speak. “Bach died before finishing this, did you know? That’s why it ends so abruptly. Bach was working on the climax, but before he could finish, he got sick and never was able to return to it. So, ah, excuse a few tears for a fallen great. Sorry, you said it was okay to talk?”
I reiterated the rules to them. They could talk, and I certainly would listen, but I wasn’t about to respond if I didn’t want to.
“I just need to go a few more exits, I think,” they said. “I’m late for a family thing. That hunk of metal on the side of the road all the way back there? That was my car before it broke down.”
“And you salvaged your baton?”
They waved their hand like they didn’t want to talk about it. “Only the necessities,” they said, and the matter was settled.
There’s this hitchhiker I remember picking up who was tall and dark, the stereotypical kind of tall and dark that people write about in books, though that perception might have been because of how they positioned themselves so that at first I only saw their blackened silhouette against the setting sun. They nearly introduced themselves before I went through my rules, which I was only barely able to prevent. Still, they insisted I have something to call them, so we decided on The Drifter. At the moment, I kind of dismissed it. I thought, who was going to listen to me ramble about this?
“Look, just kick me out whenever,” they said. “I can start walking any time. I just waved you down ‘cause I wanted a little conversation.”
“I might not talk,” I said again. “I have a right not to talk.”
“Yeah, you might not,” they said. “I guess you might not.”
I don’t want to imply I’m a bad driver or anything, but I did nearly run a hitchhiker over once. It wasn’t my fault, you understand. They were right in the middle of the road wearing a pitch black robe when it was just past midnight, and, well, sometimes I turn my headlights off and just look at the stars. You might say that’s dangerous, and yeah, you’d be right, but when I find a stretch of low light-pollution, I’m not not going to do it.
This passenger was feisty, well, once I told them the rules of the road they were. They sat patiently in the passenger’s seat and listened, but as soon as they buckled up and I pulled away they whipped out what looked like a priest collar and started waving it around like they were pulling rank. “I am on a sacred mission,” they said, “and you are the chariot God has provided me until my pilgrimage is complete.”
I remember telling myself, “Well, at least I was already planning on a long night.”
“There’re a lot of things you can learn from music if you listen,” The Conductor said. “It’s just like learning a second language. Maybe even easier than that.”
I nodded along, more interested in listening to the music they were playing than their overlapping commentary.
“There are three voices here, well, some would say four, but I say three because it’s only these three that are really saying variations on the same theme. I would say even the untrained ear could notice that, as long as they’re paying attention.” They chuckled, probably at some inside joke. “One of the voices, you’ll notice, sometimes diverges wildly away from the other two, but still manages to weave itself back in with the other two by the end.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“It’s, uh, this one right here?” The Conductor said. They whistled a little tune, which sounded like it fit right in with what was playing. “It answers more questions than it asks, if you understand my meaning.”
“Okay, I know you said don't expect much, but I’ve got a question for you,” said The Drifter as they tried to get more legroom out of the chair settings. “Why did you pick me up?”
I shrugged. “You flagged me down.”
“Uh huh,” they said. “That doesn’t mean nothing these days. Nobody picks nobody up. So why did you?”
I spent a lot of the next few miles pointedly not answering the question, instead focusing on the road ahead of me. It wasn’t a difficult drive -- the hardest part was making sure not to drift any particular direction -- but it was better than the alternative.
Eventually, The Drifter realized I wasn’t going to respond. “Alright, forget I said anything,” they said. “Was just making conversation.”
I couldn’t help but let my eyes drift upwards, past the horizon and towards the amber sunset sky, full of not only clouds but also mile-high billboards, advertising everything from twenty-four hour restaurants to hotel rooms for a hundred dollars or less. “Respite in two miles,” the signs seemed to say. “Just take the next exit.”
I passed them by.
The Zealot had not stopped talking since they got in the car. They jumped between subjects like they expected me to be transcribing their manifesto, piecing it together from all the intelligible bits and making do with all the rest. Eventually, they settled on a single topic. “It is inconceivable to me that anyone would kill anything,” they said. “If there is a soul, it is equal in all living things.”
“Mhm,” I said. Normally when I’m confronted by awkward conversation, I look down at my feet, but that’s impossible in a car, so I had to make do with looking up at the stars. I’m sorry I can’t adequately describe to you what they looked like -- maybe if I were a poet -- but it really does make you feel small, especially where I was without city lights to blur it all out leaving only the brightest stars behind.
“Bach truly was the brightest,” The Conductor said. “Very few come close.”
I believed them. I mean, they probably knew what they were talking about more than I did. It didn’t seem like a controversial opinion, at least. I’d seen enough books with Bach’s name on them to at least know that. They were making me want to know more, though. “What’s this one called?” I said.
“Right now we’re listening to part of Musical Offering,” The Conductor said. “This section is called Ricercar a 3.”
That only made me more curious. “Ricercar?”
The Conductor paused as they tried to think out an analogy. “What’s the best way to explain this?” and “Let’s say that- no, let me start again” were common phrases over the next few miles. Sometimes they would come up for air with a new attempt but never got very far. I almost regretted asking.
“It means ‘to seek’,” they said on one such try. “You’re looking for something.”
“Okay,” I said, “what does that have to do with music?”
“Oh, here’s a good analogy. Imagine it’s an I-Spy for your ear. An ‘Ear-hear’.” They laughed at their own joke. When they saw that I did not, they whistled the theme again.
“I see,” I said, though I wasn’t really sure if I did. I didn’t want to admit it, but it all seemed a little muddled. The music was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t really have the ear for any more than that. The Conductor whistled it to me again and again and I still couldn’t pick out the theme among the rest of the voices. It honestly made me feel inadequate.
“Man’s inadequacy stems from their desire for a glorious end,” The Zealot said, or at least that’s what I think they said. Between me trying very hard to not pay attention and not being very interested it was hard to tell. “Man knows that it is abhorrent, it is against the laws of nature, to destroy another soul, so they must reassure themselves that at least they are in control of their own, that they can do with their own soul how they please.”
I’d had enough at this point. “Doesn’t The Bible say something about giving Man dominion over all the fish and the birds and every living being that moves on the ground?” I said.
They scoffed, the kind of scoff that meant they thought my line of thinking was beneath them, and said, “We’re supposed to be caretakers, not mass murderers. Taking a living thing, processing it, and eating it, doesn’t that sound like a serial killer to you?”
I admit I wasn’t expecting much conversation from The Drifter after I brushed off their last question without even giving it much thought, but after a couple miles of open road -- a couple miles of wheat fields and not much else -- they asked another question. “Where are you headed?”
This one I was much more comfortable answering. “I dunno,” I said. “I just drive out here to think sometimes, and it’s nice taking other people where they need to go.”
Apparently, that was another wrong answer. “Come on,” The Drifter said as they looked out the passenger-side window. “You don’t think you’ll run into a serial killer doing that?”
I looked at The Drifter and, without a hint of emotion in my voice, said, “What are the chances of there being two serial killers in any given vehicle?”
“That joke wasn’t funny the first time I heard it,” The Drifter said, still not turning away from the window. “And keep your eyes on the road.”
I did as I was told, a little disappointed.
The Drifter turned back around. “Okay, look, I’m sorry I didn’t laugh. But, I mean, I dunno, you’re not giving me much to work with here. I mean, the only people, in my experience, who say they’re going out to ‘drive and think,’ are people who are looking for a bridge to-”
Now they were really looking at me. “You’re not actually thinking of, you know?”
I tried to pivot. “How many times has this happened that this a recognizable pattern for you?” I said, but they ignored me.
“Death is a part of life,” The Zealot said. “It’s only natural that people would want to control every aspect of their lives, so of course they must also want to control their deaths.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You’re describing a -”
They cut me off with a wave of their hand. “Go out and ask anybody right now. They’ll agree with me.”
Obviously, I couldn’t do that, so I just kept driving.
The Drifter was going at a mile a minute now. “I’d ask you to pull over so we could talk about this without you getting distracted, but I think you’d drive off if that happened, right?”
“Probably, yeah,” I said. In truth, the idea had only just occurred to me, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of knowing that.
“So I’m just going to tell you a quick story, and then I’d like to get out. Okay?”
They looked at me like they were expecting me to nod. Now, it wasn’t like I didn’t want to respond, but I didn’t nod. Even now, I’m not sure I could say why. Maybe it was because, truth be told, I wanted them out of the car as much as I think they wanted to get out, but that's just a guess at this point.
In any case, The Drifter began their story. “This is a dream I have sometimes,” they said. “I don’t remember when I started having it or why I keep getting it -- well, I guess I get it because of situations like these, but eh -- the point is that I’ve had it an uncountable number of times over the course of my life.
“In my dream, I’m walking down the side of the road. I remember checking over my shoulder a couple times, looking for cars to pick me up, but nobody’s coming for as far as I could see. Then I start floating upwards. Not too fast, about the speed of a balloon, but you know, it’s still an uncomfortable feeling not having your feet on the ground, right? But there’s also not much I can do to stop it, especially not in a dream.
“So I reach the height of some nearby trees, and that’s when I finally see a car. And that’s when I feel helpless. So I start waving at it. I whistle as loud as I can, wave my arms, everything you could imagine to try and get this car to see me. Of course, they don’t stop. As they drive on past, I don’t remember hating them, though. I kind of understood why. I remember thinking, why would they even notice me? Keep your eyes on the road and all that.
“So I keep rising, and pretty soon I’m among the clouds. Or I would be, if there were any. This is where the loneliness sets in. Not even clouds are near me, the only car I’ve seen wanted nothing to do with me. I know the phrase ‘It’s lonely at the top’ isn’t technically right here, but that’s what it felt like.
“Eventually, though, I stop. I’m at the end of Earth’s atmosphere, the barrier between us and the heavens, and I reach my arm up to pierce them. If I’ve gotten this far, I reason, I must know what’s beyond this. So up my arm goes, and it hits this ceiling. A barrier. So I press harder. Nothing’s going to stop me from doing this. Finally, it breaks, and I can see what’s beyond.
“A child could have told you this:” The Drifter said. “There’s nothing but the vacuum of space up there.”
“Not even in your dream?” I said.
“That’s it. That’s all there is.”
The mile-high signage had returned, this time complemented by those closer to the ground. The brown signs drew particular interest from me, advertising scenic views and national parks. They wanted me to see everything wherever I was had to offer, all I had to do was drive a few more miles.
“Okay,” I said. “Get out of the car.”
The Zealot finally requested being dropped off at a small chapel just past an exit sign, with the highway still ahead of me. “Bless you,” they said as they got out of the car. “May God show you favor at the end of days, or whenever He sees you, if it’s sooner than that.”
I didn’t really say anything to that. I already wasn’t sure how I felt about driving them as far as I had in the first place, I didn’t need more reminders. As soon as I could, I drove on, as far as my car would take me.
“A few more exits” was much further than I had expected, but I’d appreciated The Conductor’s company so it didn’t really matter. I felt the same sense of loss I do with any good passenger.
“I’d invite you inside, but it’s more of a friends and family sort of thing,” said The Conductor. “It’s a wake, and people who can’t commiserate would probably just feel out of place.”
“I understand,” I said. “I guess I’ll just be on my way”
“Thank you again for the ride. Whatever you’re looking for out on these roads, I hope you find it.”
As I was merging back into the highway, I noticed headlights coming up behind me. These were the dead hours, when nobody but people like me ever traveled, which only made them stand out all the more. They got closer, though either they didn’t notice my car or deliberately kept their hi-beams up. I imagined the car crash. They were going a faster than I was, but not by much. I thought if I was ready for it I might be able to maintain control of the vehicle. But as they got closer their headlights began to reflect my rear-view mirror, making it impossible to concentrate. It was all I could do to stay in my lane and hoped they noticed me.
And just like that, they were gone. They dropped their headlights, switched lanes and sped past into the night.
The signs reappeared. They started as mile markers, tracking my progress down the highway, little green rectangles peppered with white slowly ticking onwards. Seventy-three. Seventy-four. Larger signs began to appear again. “Seventeenth Avenue. Two and a half miles,” one said, beckoning me to the rightmost lane.
“Seventy-five,” the mile markers said. “Seventy-six.”
Another sign was approaching, the final announcement that I could stop driving if I wanted to. If I needed to. I was in the correct lane for it. All I needed to do was follow the lane markers. But instead I merged back to the left, back towards the open highway.
The passenger seat was empty. I remember feeling relieved about that, ready for whatever the morning gave me. I could see dawn forming just beyond the horizon, a single solitary strip of red against the nighttime sky. And then I let my gaze drift upwards once more, looking to the stars. No, not the stars, the space between. The ever-brightening sunrise made the dimmer stars fade away and the darkness that took their place looked a little bit more inviting. As I drove further, even the brighter stars disappeared, and in that solitary moment just before sunrise, I couldn’t see anything in the sky but void.