I don’t always read the newspaper when we travel. Sometimes it’s just best if I don’t know what’s going on in the world (for example, graphic photos in Mexican newspapers can be especially disenchanting), but one morning on our Alaska trip, I decided to go a little crazy and read some local news stories out loud to everyone in the car. It was an honestly random decision, or so it seemed in those early hours. Everyone was entertained by the large number of animal stories in Canadian news. Politicians were quoted using words like “kerfluffel” with total seriousness. And there was a suspenseful story about a biker who had been chased by a wolf.
Wolves are not especially salient in Canada. Camile had wished to see one, but alas, not a single wolf had made an appearance on our journey up to that point. In the news story, a man was biking to raise money for some cause that I can’t remember. His buddies were some distance ahead of him and he was just biking along, enjoying the scenery. Suddenly, a wolf charged at him from the wooded areas that run parallel to the highway. The cyclist sped up, pumping his legs with all his might with the wolf nipping at his heels and his elbows. He was relieved when he heard a car coming. He waved frantically to try to alert the driver that he was in distress, but the car went right on by.
He was racing down a hill at that point, going faster and faster. The wolf was unphased. The cyclist heard another car coming. Again he waved with furious desperation. Again the car went by. Up ahead of him loomed a giant sloping hill. The wolf was right on him, even though he was going top speed down the hill. He thought about his family. He was sad that his life was going to end this way. He knew he was a goner.
But, then he heard another vehicle coming. This time, he steered into the middle of the highway. It was an RV and when they pulled to a stop, he abandoned his bicycle, threw it at the wolf, and fled for the safety of the vehicle. The wolf continued to “attack” the bicycle as the man ran for the RV and climbed inside. He escaped from the ordeal unharmed.
Later that day, while I was driving, Lydian sat up front with me in the van. We talked about the story of The Cyclist and the Wolf and the much abused story of the Good Samaritan. My fundamentalist upbringing offered me only one perspective, one interpretation of the biblical story. I asked Lydian, “Wouldn’t you feel really bad if you saw that man flailing around and for whatever reason didn’t stop for help?” I asked her. Of course she said she would. But then we talked about the idea of judging people according to their ethnicity or their race or any other singular trait and how the Good Samaritan could also be about that. Camile was sitting in the back seat listening (though she didn’t speak). We considered a few interpretations of the story.
And then, I saw a bear.
“Bear! Bear! Bear!…Bear!…Bear!”
We hadn’t seen anything but moose the entire trip and I’d never been so close to a bear. John had been napping in the back seat. I continued shouting, “Bear!” until I heard myself and realized how stupid I sounded. John blinked and sat up. I stopped the car and flipped around to get a better, closer view.
“Get out and go stand by the bear so I can get a picture, girls…” I said, (joking, of course, although people do things like that for real.)
We sat for a while and watched as the seemingly innocuous animal nibbled tenderly at some flowers. The bear was oblivious to us and five minutes later, we decided it was time to continue on. We saw eight more bears along the highway that day, including two very adorable little cubs and a Mama Bear.
John and Lydian eventually switched places so that John was again in the driver’s seat.
As we were rounding the corner at the top of a hill leading to nowhere in particular in northern Canada, I spied a man at the bottom of a hill. Immediately, I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know how I knew at that moment but I kept my eye on him as we headed downhill. There was something about his body language that was strange. John was looking down at his computer as we came closer to the man. I said nothing, a part of me thinking I was imagining that the man was acting strangely. There were no other cars on the highway as far as the eye could see. His back was to us as he walked along. A hundred yards from him, he raised his arms to the sky and then let them fall and hit the side of his legs, like he was making some sort of plea to the forces that be. Then, he heard us coming.
I slowed down as we got closer because he made some strange micro-movements. I could tell he was going to do something unpredictable and I didn’t want to smack into him. He ran out into the middle of the road. I saw his face. He looked desperate. He yelled at us, pleading for a ride. John looked up from his computer and saw the man. I slowed. Hesitated. The memory of the wolf and cyclist still in my mind. The man lunged for the van and John suddenly and inexplicably rolled the window down 2 inches and yelled, “No!”
We kept driving.
I watched the man in my rear view mirror as we pulled away. He raised his arms again, put his hands to his head.
Was he crazy? Desperate?
I tried to sort out my feelings about the situation. We had talked with the girls about never picking up hitchhikers and how hitchhiking was unwise, etc., etc. They sat in the back seat together, passively examining our reactions to the man on the highway. There was a heavy, unresolved silence between John and I. I stared into the distance, my mouth open and eyes wide with conflicting emotions about what The Right Thing to Do might be.
“He looked really desperate.” I said. “Most hitchhikers won’t just run out into the middle of the road.”
“I thought he looked crazy.” John said.
“But desperate people sometimes act crazy.” I retorted.
“Someone else will help him.” John said.
“Yeah…well, that’s probably the same frickin’ argument used by those people who drove by the man who got attacked by a wolf.”
John was momentarily silent.
We experimented with a variety of different possible scenarios that would cause a man dressed in red sweat pants and a green camouflage t-shirt to behave in such a way. He was a little shaggy, but not homeless-looking. He was smack dab in the middle of nowhere in northern Canada. There were bears. There were bison. There was no cell phone service for miles in all directions. What if something had happened to his family? (We envisioned sick little children huddled together in a wooded cabin). What if he was deranged and intent on killing someone, perhaps us?
Finally, John said, “Okay. Let’s trade places and just go back. We’ll ask him if he has an emergency and then drive to get him help if he does.” John was always good at getting to the meat of the matter with people. I wasn’t entirely sold on backtracking 5 miles at that point. We had driven about eight hours that day and still had five more left to go, but I wasn’t sure if I would sleep that night if we didn’t go back.
We turned the car around and went back to the man on the highway. As we drove, we discussed the various scenarios that could be presented to us.
“What if he says that someone is injured back in the trees somewhere?” I asked.
“We’ll tell him that we’ll go to the nearest town for help.”
The basic plan was to ask if he needed help, but not get out of the car or get too close to him. At the same time, we both knew we’d follow our intuition once we talked to the man. I just hoped the situation was clear cut and nothing muddy. I didn’t want to get murdered for being soft-hearted amidst the mosquitos in the outback of northern Canada.
As we came up over the hill, the man was lying on the ground alongside the road. When he saw us, he got up instantly and ran out toward our van. John kept moving, rolled the window down an inch and asked, “Do you have an emergency?”
“Aw, man, I just really need a ride to the gas station, man…” He said, bringing both hands to his head, slicking his hair back. “Will you give me a ride, man?…I could like pay you ‘n stuff…”
John asked him one last time, if he had an emergency.
The man did not.
We declined to give him a ride.
As we drove away, I felt a little like an ass. I thanked John for indulging with me in hero fantasies. It’s unfortunate that the Good Samaritan of today could so easily be duped into being the next assault or murder victim on the front page of the Yukon Tribune, but I believe that the Good Samaritan of biblical times probably had the same perils to contend with. I may look down my nose as the people who drove by the wolf and the bicyclist (or the injured Jew back in the day), but it just isn’t always easy to decipher unusual situations. People often do the best they can with the information that they’re given. Let’s face it, sometimes the injured Jew, or the flailing man on the highway is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.