A couple weeks ago, I carved a few hours out of my schedule to go for a hike. It may strike some of you as strange that I hike alone, but I’ve been doing it all my life and it seems as natural as breathing. I’m not much of a herd animal – I enjoy a certain amount of solitude. Anyway, at this point I don’t have anyone to accompany me, and I’m not going to give up my favorite pastime.
I steered my old station wagon slowly down a rocky dirt road on public land, pulling off onto a flat spot where other vehicles had parked over the years. There was no one else there that day, however, and I’d seen no one on the dirt road except a pickup that passed going the other way (the driver and I waved at each other in the rural tradition). I grabbed my fanny pack, locked the car and set off on foot along an old Jeep trail.
It was a perfect day – not yet too hot, though that’s coming in just a month or two. I hiked several miles, rested a bit, then turned around and headed back.
As I made my way toward my car, a vehicle suddenly appeared in the distance, trundling toward me along the trail. As it approached, I saw it was a sheriff ’s car. I moved over so it could get by, but instead the officer pulled up and rolled down his window.
“Do you have an old white car?” he asked.
I frantically wondered what I could have done wrong. Was I parked illegally? That seemed improbable.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“We got a call from someone who noticed that you apparently hit your oil pan on a rock. You’re leaking fluids. You shouldn’t drive your car, so we came out to make sure you didn’t get stranded.”
I was annoyed – not at him, but at the unfairness of this turn of events. I had been driving slower than 10 mph! I hadn’t felt the car hit anything.
The deputy emphasized that I should not drive the car and risk ruining the engine. He offered to call a tow truck, and did. Then he asked if I wanted a ride back to my old wagon. I gladly accepted.
When we got to my car, I was amused to see that he had festooned the antenna with crime-scene tape, to attract my attention. He’d also stuck a note on the windshield warning me not to start the motor.
We drove back the mile or two to the main road to wait for the tow truck. For most of that way, a thin line of liquid was visible, like a trail of bread crumbs, leading to a flat rock that stuck up out of the dirt. That was where my ancient Millennium Falcon had suffered its wound.
I was embarrassed that I’d caused the officer to come all this way out to a road in the backcountry, taking him from what were doubtless more pressing duties. I suspected that he thought I was a bit peculiar, a middle-aged (by the most charitable interpretation of that term) woman hiking all alone in the middle of nowhere, though he was too polite to say such a thing.
“I’ll wait here for the truck,” I offered, but he gallantly insisted he wouldn’t leave me until it arrived. So we sat in his car, watching as passing drivers spotted his SUV and quickly slowed down.
At last the truck came and I climbed in to go help retrieve the vehicle.
It turned out to be an expensive hike, but fortunately no fatal damage had been done to my wagon, which will survive to take me on another adventure.
That night I thought about two things. One was the alertness and courtesy of the eagle-eyed person – possibly the pickup driver I’d passed? – who noticed my car was damaged, and called the sheriff ’s office because he feared I might be stranded, there where cell service was spotty. It would have been easier to have shaken his head and done nothing, but that’s just not the way of people who drive on isolated rural roads.
The other was the fact that the sheriff ’s office hadn’t simply blown off the call and said, “Tough luck,” but had actually sent an officer out to look for the hapless owner of the marooned vehicle.
People in law enforcement take a lot of heat when they screw up, and rightfully so. Theirs is a position of great public trust and when one of them violates that trust, the consequences can be terrible. But police tend not to get a commensurate amount of recognition when they do something good, when they make an exceptional effort to help someone with a problem, as they frequently do.
The other day, I was the person with a problem, and an officer came to my rescue. So, thank you, Sergeant Ray, and thank you, anonymous driver who called the sheriff. I hope if I am ever in a situation where I can help someone with a problem, I’ll do as well as you two.
Gail Binkly is editor of the Free Press.