A Hitchhiker on Death Valley’s Scenic Byway

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Listen to this story narrated by master storyteller Otis Jiry

Hardin was driving east along SR 190, also known as the Death Valley Scenic Byway, when he spotted a man in a wheelchair.

The man held up his thin arm briefly, wearily cocked his thumb like he didn’t expect anyone to stop, then dropped it back to the wheel. With both hands he spun the wheels forward at a pace a tortoise might have overtaken on a good day.

It was the peak of the day, and a brain-frying 129 degrees. Heat waves shimmered off the highway like faraway lakes. Hardin had been driving in the relentless desert for hours without seeing man or animal. He was looking for his turnoff at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, near the settlement of Furnace Creek. He had important business to take care of there.

Furnace creek consists of a visitor center, museum, and headquarters for the Death Valley National Park Service. The tiny village, with less than 20 inhabitants lived in a nearby campground. Most who lived there made a living working at the Park’s major tourist facilities, the Inn at Death Valley and the Ranch at Death Valley. There were also few retired senior citizens living in the campground.

Hardin was so surprised to see a man in a wheelchair in the middle of nowhere, he passed him by. He went a mile before turning around and going back. After making another U-turn he was parallel with the man.

“Can I give you a ride Mr.?” Hardin called out after opening the passenger window.

“Reckon I could use one,” the old-timer replied and spat out a wad of tobacco. His long beard was stained with tobacco juice.

Hardin pulled ahead of him and off to the side of the road. He popped the trunk of his SUV and walked around to the back. He helped push the old-fashioned heavy wheelchair through the soft sand and to the passenger door of the SUV. The old man stood shakily and steadied himself with the open door. When he was securely inside, Hardin closed the door and pushed the wheelchair around to the back and loaded it in.

Driving down the road, Hardin tried to make conversation with his unusual passenger.

“Where you going out here, anyway?” he asked conversationally.

“Furnace creek.

How about that! That’s where I’m going.

After that it lapsed into silence, and Hardin refocused his thoughts on the business ahead. If all went well, he’d only spend a matter of hours in the hot hellhole. A day at the most. He prided himself on efficiency. Stopping to help someone wasn’t something normal for him. If he wouldn’t have been so surprised at the sight he might not have stopped. Plus, he was bored. But the old bastard turned out to be a lousy conversationalist.

At one point Hardin had to piss and pulled over to the side of the road. He asked the old man if he needed to go? He said he didn’t. As he got out he made sure to take his keys with him. Just in case. You never knew. He took his time and stretched his arms and legs afterward, trying to ease the dull ache of a very long drive.

It was getting dark when Hardin spotted the turnoff. He could see a few distant lights and followed the dirt road to a campground. “Is this where you live?” he asked.

“Yup.”

He stopped the car and got out. Two old men were sitting on rickety lawn chairs in front of an old mobile home. They watched him with curiosity as he unloaded the wheelchair and took it to the side of the SUV. He helped the old man out and into the chair. There was an awkward silence before Hardin finally said, “Well, here you go.”

The old man looked at him as if he were sizing him up and grunted, “Thanks.

Hardin got back in the car and drove over to the Inn at Death Valley. “Screw the ungrateful old bastard,” he mumbled out loud as he pulled up to the Inn. He’d reserved a room for the night, even though his business wasn’t expected to take him long. As he checked in the clerk gave him a sealed envelope with his name on it.

“This is for you sir,” he said, like Hardin couldn’t read or something. He went back out to the SUV and grabbed his overnight bag, and his gun from the glove department. It was all he needed. When he got to his room he opened the envelope. There was a photo with a man’s name written on it, and an address. The thought of getting a good night’s sleep was irresistible. He decided to take care of business in the morning when he would be more rested.┬áThe air conditioning in the room lulled him into a comfortable sleep.

The next morning after having a cup of coffee and a light breakfast he studied the note and photo again. The address was in the campground he was at last night. Driving over to it he thought about the old man in the wheelchair.

When he got there, the two old men from the day before were sitting on their lawn chairs, talking with his hitchhiker friend in his wheelchair. He pulled out the photo again and got out of the SUV. As he walked up to them he called out, “Hi! I’m looking for Jude Grishom.”

He held the photo out and waited for an answer. As he looked at the hitchhiker something slowly dawned on him. He imagined him without his long beard. Like the shaved face in the photo. Instinct took hold and he pulled his concealed gun out and said, “Hey, Jude! This is from Harry Connell!”

To his surprise nothing happened when he pulled the trigger! Jude smiled at him and threw the bullets on the ground by his feet. He pulled out an old six-shot Smith and Wesson from a bag hanging off his wheelchair.

“You tell Harry that Jude said I’ll meet him in hell someday, but he’s going first!

Hardin spun around as the first shot caught him in the chest. The next three shots brought him down and he died in the sand.

“Well boys, old Harry ain’t ever going to quit sending these goons after me. I’m going to get tired of trolling the highway for ’em one of these days, and I’m going to hunt him down,” he said, as he stood up and stretched his legs.

As It Stands, every good favor doesn’t always warrant a reward.