The Drifter

The gravel crunched beneath his boots as he walked. His footfalls sounded at a slow and steady pace along the side of the old highway. The timeworn brown looked more of a mottled gray in color, stained from the years of hard working and hard living.  His legs were long and lanky, covered in denim that was rugged and dirty and worn at the knees. His once white T-shirt was now an off white at best. He wore an old jacket he had picked up from a second-hand store in Amarillo.

His hair was long now, down to his shoulders. It was a light brown when it was freshly washed, but today it looked darker, weighed down in the days since the last shower. His cowboy hat covered the top of his head and kept the hot, beating sun out of his eyes as he walked. The duffle bag he carried on his back was as old and worn out as his boots. Inside it was every possession he owned on this earth, and that was not a lot.

He could have owned more, had life been different. He pondered the choices he had made in decades past as he walked along that road. Occasionally the sounds of an approaching car would reach his ears. Without conscious thought, he raised his arm with his thumb in the air. Very few people picked up strangers anymore, he did not expect a ride this time. Sure enough, the vehicle blazed on past him. The wind from the pass tousled his hair and sent dirt flying around him.

He had had a chance to own a piece of land once when he was younger. His family had a farm and they had all worked it together. He had despised the acreage in his youth, looking at it like it was a prison sentence rather than a legacy. He had longed for the open road and the freedom. When cars had flown by down the roads that intersected the farm, he had longed to hop a ride with them and go off to anywhere else in the world.

If he had stayed, if he had married that girl from school and replicated his father’s choices, would he be happy now? Would having the warmth of a woman next to him every night, and the satisfaction of another crop planted that year have brought the peace he had never found no matter how hard he searched? There was no way to know.

He had come close to a different life once again years later. That pretty waitress outside San Antonio with the big, kind brown eyes had drawn him in. He left her behind too. His mind’s eye saw her in the rearview mirror of that old pickup he used to have, standing there crying. He knew as sure as the sun would rise the next day that he had left her with a broken heart, knew it because it had been his own. She was young, she would recover in time and find a good man who would do right by her.

It wasn’t meant to be. The road had called him, as it always did. If his old man’s words were to be trusted, he was a good-for-nothing anyway. A bad bet. As the decades wore on, he wandered from state to state. He stayed primarily in the southwest, venturing up toward Colorado for a few years. He’d seen the mountains and the mighty rivers that traversed the country. He picked up work where he could find it. He had been a ranch hand, bus boy, and had done all manner of other odd jobs.

His only true constant had been the bottle. No matter where he went, that was the only place he found the quiet for his mind, the temporary rest from the need to wander. His love affair with such was a likely contributor to the bad end with the waitress. It was undoubtedly how he’d landed in jail in Albuquerque. It was the one mistress he had never been able to walk away from. Indeed, in his duffle right that moment was a fifth in a brown paper sack.

He knew the people that passed by him as he walked thought of him as trouble, a vagrant. In truth, he was just a man lost. A man who gave everything up to embrace the open road. Now, years later, all he had left to him was the open road he had once longed for. He couldn’t say how it would have turned out if he had done anything different. Maybe he would have found that elusive peace or maybe he would have wasted away in the monotony, becoming bitter and angry. Maybe his love for his mistress would have shown up and ruined it all anyway. At least this way the only life lost to ruin was his own.

He kept on walking down the highway, drifting toward whatever came next.

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