One Sunday morning our hiking group met early a truck stop. We re-shuffled, carpooling to our destination. An older man named Dave was driving his new white truck. I sat in the front as an attractive young French woman named Fannie jumped in and climbed into the tiny back seat. We took off, all sharing some details about ourselves on the way. Dave was having a little difficulty with her name, repeatedly calling her “Frannie”, instead of “Fanny”. Her English was understandable enough for me to learn that this was her second day on a work visa in the U.S., and her very first hike here.
We soon ran out of pavement. I was glad it was Dave’s truck and not my little Hyundai bouncing along on the dusty, rutted road. In 30 minutes we were climbing out of the truck as other cars were arriving.
We met in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. I started on the hike walking with one of the few people I knew, a woman who I didn’t know was an expert on cloud formations we could see in the distance. I know she’s smart and she probably knew what she was talking about. Limping along from a recent hip injury, she also told me about the time she was struck by lighting. The conversation made me uneasy as we walked toward the stormy looking horizon.
Hiking for miles and switching often on dirt roads, I tried to remember each turn we took. Eventually, we reached a bluff overlooking a river. I thought it was really interesting how everyone spread out in little groups, eating their lunches all along the bluff. I still remember some of the conversations, eating as we watched the big clouds moving in. More discussion that day about cloud formations and lightning strikes, something fun to think about on the open prairie.
Even alone I would have enjoyed them, but the human dynamics were always interesting on these outings. As the group would spread out, I got to know many people one-on-one. If one person talked too much about themselves, I would eventually move on or walk alone for a while. Often it seemed I actually enjoyed the quiet time even more.
After a short break, we trekked straight across the open prairie, back towards our starting point. Using landmarks and compasses, we reached a relative consensus and headed in what we hoped was the right direction. I remember thinking about the camaraderie I felt at the time with these relative strangers, as we hoped to find our way back to our cars.
Late in the day we arrived at Dave’s truck. Fannie and I switched places on the way back as I settled in to my little back seat cushion. All went well until we were about a mile from our exit, when the truck’s right rear wheel blew out. It was getting dark as we limped over to the shoulder. Stepping out of the truck, I noticed the temperature had really dropped since sunset.
Dave took control of the situation, but was obviously unfamiliar with his new truck. It took him a while to even half-way lower the wheel using the spare’s crank mechanism. Fannie and I did our best to assist, but Dave was resistant and intent on figuring it all out on his own. Normally a fairly patient person, I soon noted that both Fannie and I were shivering while watching Dave struggle in the cold wind. Not at all unlike me, I suddenly found myself under the truck and pushing up on the wheel, releasing it from the bracket. Dave’s job was over. I shoved the wheel out from under the truck and began to shimmy across the gravel as car were whizzing by on the freeway.
Upon emerging, I was not expecting to see Dave standing there as Fannie, in her spotless seafoam-green parka was hoisting the big truck wheel onto the hub, balancing the heavy wheel with her knees from a squatting position. Within seconds, she was spinning down the lug nuts with both hands at the same time, faster than I had ever seen anyone do it before. I could not help but wonder if her dad had owned a French Michelin tire store overseas, or possibly she was on a Le Mans pit crew. Either way, her long fingernails did not impede her ambidextrous skills in getting the spare mounted in no time. She tightened up the last nut and we managed to get back in the truck just as the downpour began. It was a short 2-minute drive back to our cars.
I was an interesting day. Nothing really extraordinary happened, but still, I actually remember thinking about how the day had played out as I drove home. Watching the clouds develop, seeing the little groups of people spread out across the bluff, the blind leading the blind across open prairie. And I can still see Fannie’s bright parka, illuminated by oncoming headlights, bright as ever against a black background.
Every day I hiked with them was a good day. And for so many reasons, I suppose it could have gone a lot worse.