During college, I decided to take some time off and hitchhike around the country. It was a different time and back then lots of people were doing it. Lots of people were getting murdered too, which is why not so many people are doing it anymore.
One time, I decided to hitchhike from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay area. I put my thumb out at San Diego State University, where I was going to college. I got several rides up the coast past Los Angeles and never had to wait for more than a few minutes between them. Mostly, people were nice and were willing to pull over. I had floppy ears and looked harmless enough too, which helped.
There’s an unspoken rule when you hitchhike, more common sense, I guess. When a car pulls over to give you a ride, instead of telling the person driving where you need to go, you always ask the person where they are going. That will give you a second or two to check them out and see what they’re like. If, for instance, they say they are going to a reptile convention or an assault rifle show, you can tell them you’ve been there already and catch a ride with someone else.
At about Santa Barbara, I found myself stuck by the side of a highway for almost a day. After twenty-four hours, I was desperate to get moving again. Finally, a van pulled over to the shoulder toward my outstretched thumb. I wasn’t thinking about anything except getting farther north, so I climbed in before the van had even come to a stop and threw my backpack in the space between the two front seats.
The guy driving looked about forty years old and had a huge beard. I was a little envious of his beard, actually, and imagined that someday I could have that kind of a wild man look. The windows were cracked, and it wasn’t long before I caught wind of a toe-curling body odor. I did a quick check to make sure I wasn’t the source. This guy could’ve knocked over a water buffalo at fifty yards. No matter. I was moving again and that was all I cared about.
As we picked up speed, I noticed the dashboard was covered in rose petals. That’s weird, I thought. Was this guy a florist? I was guessing no; or business must’ve been slow because there were no other flowers inside the hollow, creepy, windowless van. On the driver’s side, on top of a different stash of flower petals, was a picture of a guy’s feet in a gold frame. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking this is starting to get weird. Why does someone have a picture of a dude’s feet framed and set on top of flower petals? I wondered. My best guess was that the bearded, stinky guy wasn’t a podiatrist. My weirdometer needle was pegged.
After fiddling with my backpack a little and looking out the window, I asked the guy, “So where are you headed?” No answer. This is precisely the reason that I disciplined myself over the years to always ask someone where they are going before getting in with them. But on this occasion, I had been stuck in the ice plant by the highway long enough to go to seed and had somehow forgotten my rule. I let a few long moments pass in the off chance he was just taking his time to answer. After a while, I figured that the first question didn’t land so I offered in a cheery voice, “So where are you coming from today? Isn’t it a beauty? I love this time of year, don’t you?” No answer again. Not a good sign.
I continued staring out the van window trying to put out an I’m-not-freaked-out vibe. Then, without any prompting, the driver turned his head really slowly like the bad guys do in horror movies.
“Do you really want to know who I am?” he said in a voice covered with emphysema and evil. “Sure,” I bandied, trying to keep the mood light. We were going to be in the van for a while. Might as well get to know each other, find areas of common interest… you know…
“Oh,” I said, kind of wishing I had some holy water in my canteen.
I know it wasn’t the most probing response, but it was all I could come up with at the time. It also seemed more succinct than, “Stinks to be you. How’s the plan to destroy the world coming together?” “How’s your mom? Do you have a mom?”
In reality, I was totally freaked out. If I had packed my Depends I would have strapped them on. I told satan, who I was surprised to note was smaller than me, to pull over and let me out of his van. While it was nice to be moving again, I figured he wasn’t ultimately headed where I wanted to go.
Satan acted like I hadn’t said anything and kept on driving.
Playing it cool, I told satan more directly that I wanted him to pull over or I’d kick his butt. I think that it’s good to be direct with satan, and I figured he probably had already heard all of the swear words I knew and maybe a few more. Satan pulled over, and I got out.
Dust from his creepy, petal-filled, feet-idolizing van swirled around my face as he drove off. I took a shallow breath and tried to shake off the oddity of what I had just experienced. To be completely honest, I was thankful to be safe and I felt bad for whoever he was going to see next.
When I put my thumb out again, I was a little apprehensive. Eventually, a station wagon with peeling fake wood siding pullover. It overshot me by a hundred yards and reverse lights came on. The car rushed backward on the shoulder, crunching gravel the whole way.
The driver was a woman, and as I walked up to the window, I briefly scanned the back for pitchforks or any other evidence of the underworld. The only unusual thing was a really large black box behind the backseat. Suppressing the thought it might be the remains of a previous hitchhiker, I asked the woman where she was going, and she said she was on her way to a wedding in San Francisco. That sounded fairly safe, so I climbed in and we pulled onto the highway.
After a while, choosing to believe the best in my new traveling companion, I decided to get the conversation going. I asked in a casual voice that I’m sure sound a little mousy, “Hey, what do you have in the back?” I was almost afraid of the answer before it came.
“It’s my harp!” She beamed, turning toward me. “I’m doing the music for the wedding.”
“Yeah?” I laughed. “Your harp. Of course.”
I settled in my seat in her station wagon with fake wood siding, felt the warmth of the afternoon sun, grinned, and fell asleep.
I learned something hitchhiking that day. I learned that even though I needed a ride to get somewhere, I had a lot of power over who I’d hitch a ride with. I know it sounds simple, but life is like that. You become the people you hang around, and to a great degree, you end up going wherever they’re headed. When there is someone else behind the steering wheel, it needs to be someone you’d trust with your life, because you’ve given a great deal of control over your life to them.
Psychologists are now theorizing about the separation of the brain and the mind. The brain is the stuff in your skull. But the mind, they say, works a lot like the Internet, a map of information collected from all of our experiences and interactions with other people. In other words, we become connected together and are influenced more than we think. If there’s a dude who isn’t great, I mean truly evil, it’s important to get him out of your mind as fast as possible. Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t give satan much airtime and just sent him packing instead.
All this is to say that we have a lot more power to decide who we do life with than some people think. And if you make a bad pick like I did, you need to do what it takes to get out of the car.
I don’t mean to sound callous, because the bad ones need friends too. They just don’t need you. Jesus doesn’t give satan any grace. He just speaks the truth to him and tells him to go away. If satan had come back saying he was sorry, that would be different; but of course he doesn’t and he won’t.
Some people learn to be altruistic and caring, and some people don’t. You always know right away in the makeup of the people you meet. What I’ve decided is a pretty good idea is to just ask people where they’re going before you get in with them. If they aren’t heading where you want to end up, just wait in the ice plant by the highway a little while longer.
Hear more entertaining and insightful stories from Bob Goff this Tuesday on LIFE TODAY. Taken from Love Does by Bob Goff. Copyright ©2012 by Bob Goff. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved.