Highway hypnosis. If you’ve ever driven anywhere in rural America west of the Mississippi River, you’ve probably experienced it. I was driving in west Texas one sultry summer afternoon, headed to ... Well, I really didn’t know where I was headed. I’d left El Paso the day before, driving generally east along a series of lonely roads. I wasn’t in any hurry, so I’d stayed off the interstate, preferring instead to meander down the state highways.
A shadow passed over the windshield, bringing me out of my reverie. I sat up straighter in the seat, peering through the dusty, bug spattered windshield at the arrow-straight highway stretching to the horizon ahead of me. The sky was a washed out blue, with only a few wispy cirrus clouds in sight, and there were no bridges over that lonely two-lane road.
“Shit!” I tapped the brake to shut down the cruise control as a white shape loomed at the top of my windshield. A plane? What the hell? The aircraft, a Beechcraft Bonanza with the distinctive V tail, moved out ahead of me, descending toward the highway. I could see that one of the propeller blades was pointed straight down, so the engine was obviously not operating. As I slowed and checked behind me for traffic, the aircraft’s landing gear extended, and the tail dipped as the pilot brought the aircraft into the landing flare.
The landing was perfect; the main gear straddled the double yellow highway centerline, and the nose wheel touched down on the yellow lines – and then the nose strut promptly folded as the aircraft’s weight transferred to it. The nose dropped gracelessly to the asphalt, and I braked harder and pulled to the shoulder as the Bonanza ground to a stop.
I brought my pickup to a stop two car lengths behind the aircraft and opened my door. At the same moment, the Bonanza’s door popped open, and a woman scrambled out onto the right wing walk, went to the trailing edge of the wing, and descended gingerly to the ground. I stepped out into the West Texas heat, grimacing at the temperature change from the air conditioned truck cab.
“Are you okay?” I called as I trotted toward the woman. A man was climbing out onto the wing as I reached the woman, a tall blonde dressed in slacks, a frilly blouse and tennis shoes.
“Yes, I think so,” she said in a shaky voice.
“The engine stopped. I don’t know why.”
The man climbed down from the step, moving carefully since the aircraft was sitting on its nose, bringing the step up higher than normal. Behind him, another woman, this one a redhead, climbed out onto the wing, and started toward the step.
I walked up to the group as the redhead made it to terra firma and turned to face me. The man reminded me of a cross between a fifties movie star and a classic airline pilot; the dark hair streaked with distinguished grey at the temples, the strong jaw, and the classic Ray Ban aviator sunglasses. The redhead stopped beside the other woman and looked at me. “Who are you?”
“Probably the only person within ten miles, I’d imagine,” I replied as I looked at her. “The next town is about that far away, and I don’t think there’s even a house closer than that.”
The redhead turned her head to look at the man. “Reggie, I told you we were running short on fuel,” she said in a hard tone. “We’re twenty miles from the airport.”
Reggie faced her with a snarl. “You’re alive because I got us down in one piece, Sharon.”
“I should be at the airport, not out here on this godforsaken highway, you idiot!”
“Wait!” I snapped as Sharon opened her mouth to reply. “I think we need to solve the immediate problem, yes? The plane obviously isn’t going anywhere, and I’m your only ride right now. We don’t even have cell phone reception until we get close to town, so we have to go for help.”
“I’m not leaving the plane out here unattended,” Reggie said as he turned on his heel to walk around the aircraft’s tail. “I have water, and I can sit in the shade until someone comes to help.”
The blonde turned to Sharon. “I’d better stay with him.”
“Fine.” Sharon turned her head to peer at me more closely. I was, to put it succinctly, the poster boy for “average, middle aged, slightly pudgy white male”. I was healthy, I bathed, brushed my teeth and hair regularly, didn’t smoke or drink, and wore clean clothing.
Her gaze lifted to look at my truck. It was a ten-year-old Chevy extended cab with a truck camper of the same vintage mounted in the bed. The rig was dusty and bug spattered from my recent travels despite my best efforts to keep it clean.
“Are you an axe murderer?” Sharon wasn’t smiling as she awaited my response.
“Not anymore. I broke the handle digging the grave for my last victim. I’m down to my last good kitchen knife.” I smirked at her. “I can call for you if you want to just wait here.”
The blonde looked startled, but Sharon just snorted and shook her head. “I’ll be back in a little while, Stephanie.” She turned back to me. “Let me get my purse and my bag.”
I took out my phone and snapped a picture of the aircraft. “I need the “N” number,” I explained at Stephanie’s questioning look. “You will be reported as overdue soon, and you really don’t want to pay for an unnecessary search. It can run into five figures pretty quickly. I’ll be sure to tell the FAA that you’re down, but safe.” Stephanie nodded in understanding.
A moment later, Sharon reappeared with a carryon bag and a small purse. I stepped up to the rear of the wing. “Here, I’ll take that for you.” She handed it over, and I lifted it to the ground, careful to not damage the wing. “We will be back in less than an hour. Do you have enough water, just in case?”
“I think so,” Stephanie replied.
“Just a minute.” I took Sharon’s bag to my truck, and set it inside the right rear door. Then, I went to the back of the truck, climbed into the camper, collected four bottles of water, and took them to Stephanie. “This should hold you until help arrives.”
When I climbed into my truck, Sharon was seated in the front passenger seat. I started the engine, carefully maneuvered around the Bonanza’s right wingtip, and then accelerated as I moved into the driving lane.
“What an absolute asshole,” Sharon said with a sigh.
“Oh, I was talking about Reggie. I told him that we were short on fuel, but he insisted we could make it. He’s one of these bold pilots, you know?”
I nodded. “Yep. As opposed to living long enough to be an old pilot.” I pointed to the cross country power lines about a mile ahead of us. “It’s a good thing you landed back there. Those would have hurt a lot if you’d hit them.”
“Yes, they would have.” She settled back in her seat, and rode quietly for a few minutes. “So, what brings you to the middle of nowhere?”
I smiled. Sharon’s voice stirred something within me, in spite of her irritation at the situation. Part of me wondered about that, but I pushed it aside to focus on the conversation. “To borrow a term from the Australians, I’ve gone walkabout. I guess you’d call me a drifter, here.”
“That’s interesting. Not to be nosy, but it costs money to feed you and your truck.”
“It does. I retired from the Federal Aviation Administration six years ago, so I don’t have to work unless I want to.” She was easy to talk with, and I glanced at her as I spoke. “You?”
“My family is from old money,” she said with a shrug. “That life doesn’t appeal to me, so I’ve spent the last few years traveling on my own. My parents are decent people at heart, but I just don’t care for their friends.”
“You’re not involved in the family business?”
Sharon shrugged. “Old money, remember? Our business is investments. My grandfather bought real estate all over the West, and that land is covered by several major cities now. My parents spend their days working with the family foundation, basically managing the disposable income from their parents’ investments.”
We rode along in silence for a few more miles, passing a road sign announcing the next town four miles ahead. Then, I spotted a state trooper headed in the opposite direction. I flashed my headlights, rolled down my driver’s window, and waved at the officer as the cruiser approached. I pulled onto the shoulder and stopped, and the trooper, a woman, I noted as she passed, turned her vehicle around and pulled up behind me with her lights on.
After a minute, she approached the truck and stepped up to just behind my door. “Do you have any weapons in the vehicle?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I called back. “I have a license, and I have a holstered handgun in my center console, and several more firearms back in the camper.”
“Okay. Ma’am I want you to step out of the vehicle and move around to the back. Please keep your hands where I can see them. Sir, put your hands on your window sill, and sit tight for me.”
“Yes, Ma’am”, we said in unison, as Sharon opened her door and climbed down.
A minute later, the trooper called to me. “Sir, step out and come to the back of the truck. Please keep your hands where I can see them.”
I walked to the back of the truck, and the officer, a tall, African-American woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail under her trooper hat watched me carefully, her hand resting on her holstered pistol. “Turn around and place your hands on your head.” I did so, and she patted me down, and then directed me to join Sharon, who was leaning against the push bumper on the cruiser.
“Now,” the trooper said, “what can I do for you?”
“Sharon here was a passenger in a light aircraft that ran out of fuel and made a forced landing on the road about seven miles back. The nose gear collapsed, so the plane can’t be flown out. They, the pilot and another woman, need some help. No one is hurt, they are just stranded.”
Sharon nodded. “They are friends of mine; they were giving me a ride.”
“Okay. Wait here.” The trooper went to sit in her vehicle, and spoke on the radio for a minute or so. She got out, and returned to speak with us. “So,” she looked at Sharon, “do you know each other?”
Sharon smiled and shook her head. “He came up just as we landed.”
“They went right over my truck,” I added.
The trooper looked at each of us in turn with an inscrutable expression. “Okay. Just to be a little more sure, please give me your drivers’ licenses, and”, she pointed to me, “your license to carry.” We handed them over, the officer called them in, and then handed them back. “Mister Jackson here doesn’t have any wants or warrants,” she told Sharon. “But, you want to be careful, okay?”
Sharon nodded, and looked at me with a smile. “I think he’s safe enough.”
“Okay, then. You can follow me back; I’ll go wait for the tow truck, or whatever they use for planes.”
“Actually, I think I will leave them to it,” Sharon said with a shrug. “I was just traveling with them, and I have a ride that suits me for a while.”
I looked at Sharon in some surprise, and then turned to the officer. “I’ll be sure she gets where she wants to go.”
“You do that,” the trooper replied. “There are eyes and ears out here, you know?”
I nodded. “Yes, I understand.”
“Good. Now, y’all are free to go.”
“Thank you.” I walked back to my truck, and watched as the cruiser turned around and sped off back the way we’d come. I climbed back into the driver’s seat, and watched as Sharon settled into the passenger seat. I started the engine, and pulled out onto the road, bringing the truck up to highway speed once more.
A few minutes later, she spoke up. “Are you okay with me riding with you?”
“Yes, of course”, I said quickly. “I’m just ... surprised, I guess.”
I had to smile at that. “Guys like me don’t have beautiful young women drop out of the sky and want to go off alone with them.”
“Women like me don’t have men treat them like ordinary human beings instead of walking ATMs, either.” Her voice was tinged with bitterness.
I nodded. “I’m not expecting payment, just to be clear. Money, or anything else, for that matter.”
She laughed lightly. “Oh, my. That subject came up pretty quickly.”
“It did, didn’t it? I didn’t want you to think that I have an agenda. You want to ride with me, I’m perfectly happy with that. I wasn’t planning on stopping at a hotel at night, but we certainly can, so you can have a room.”
Sharon turned to look at the camper. “You don’t have room for two back there?”
“Huh?” I glanced over at her, and she was grinning at me. “Well, yes, but only if you want to share a bed. I mean, there’s only one.”
“Most guys would jump at the chance to share a bed with me.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’m not most guys. And no, I’m not gay. I think that sex is serious, not just a new way to shake hands.”
“I see,” Sharon said quietly.
“Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know you, and what you do in your private life is your business. Adult people can live their lives how they choose. For me, though, I choose to be circumspect when it comes to relationships.”
“Are you married?”
I shook my head, and took a breath. “My wife died three years ago. One-car crash; I think she fell asleep at the wheel on one of her business trips, and ran off the road.” My voice was rusty with grief, and I cleared my throat. “Sorry, it’s still hard to talk about.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“No, it’s fine. I think I died, too, for a while. Oh, I tried to keep my job and just move on, but I couldn’t. I told her family that I had to go. I sold everything, bought this rig from a neighbor, and hit the road. I’ve been all over the country; I’ve practically worn this thing out over the last two years.”
“Has there been anyone else?”
“Until you, no.” My words jolted me, and Sharon laughed softly. “Uh, what I meant was, you’re the first woman whom I’ve actually had a conversation with since Me... , uh, my wife.”
She nodded. “I see. If there is one thing about being a rich man’s daughter, it teaches you to be a shrewd judge of character, especially regarding men.”
“You wouldn’t know it by reading the tabloids,” I said before I could trip the circuit breaker on my mouth.
Sharon grinned at that. “Okay, so point taken. My parents were actually involved in my childhood. I’m the middle child of three, and we really weren’t the average rich kids growing up. We lived in a gated community, but it was just another subdivision with good security. Our housekeepers were a couple from church who had started a maid and gardening service, so Mom hired them to take care of the house. We traveled all over the world, but mostly in connection with the family foundation.”
“So, what about the guys? People still knew who you were, right?” We were passing through the town, and I slowed down to keep from meeting one of the trooper’s friends. I saw a sheriff’s deputy parked along the street, and I noted that he watched us as we drove by.
“Most people really didn’t, at least not at home. We were just another suburban family. My siblings and I were home schooled and tutored since we traveled so much, until we started high school. Then, we all went to a private high school.”
We had passed through the town, and I reset the cruise control for highway speed as she spoke. “What about college?”
“My brother and sister went to work for the foundation. My sister is a surgeon, and my brother flies for a missionary group, ferrying people into places you wouldn’t believe.”
Sharon laughed. “I’m the black sheep, I guess. I was tired of school, and I was tired of the business travel. See, unlike at home, many of the people we met did know who I was. We had to deal with some real winners, too. Oh, we had money, but my parents helped raise funds for some really big projects, and some of the people we had to deal with were horrid. That’s where I found out about the men. My father had men in some of the countries offer to buy me as a wife or something, even.”
I laughed out loud at that in spite of myself. “Really?”
“Yes,” Sharon said with a laugh. “And they were the polite ones. The rich parties were the worst. My sister was nearly kidnapped once, and I was drugged at a party in Europe. Fortunately, whatever they gave me made me barf all over the host’s prize Persian rug, and my mother found me in the bathroom trying to clean myself up after a friend had called her.”
“So, what did you do? With your life, I mean?”
“I became a tutor for other rich kids, of course. Oh, I was very careful about whom I worked for, and with. Some of the little shits didn’t want to take no for an answer, either.”
“Oh, no. I had to literally fight a fourteen-year-old boy once. He thought ‘tutor’ meant ‘personal whore’, and he found out I could take care of myself. Of course, it was hushed up.”
“I can only imagine,” I said quietly.
“Most of them were naïve, spoiled little darlings, like you’d expect. I also took a lot of training courses along the way, since I worked around people who might be targets for bad people.”
“Oh?” I glanced at her. “You seem to know about airplanes.”
“Yes, I hold a commercial, multiengine, and instrument ratings, and I’m also type rated in a Gulfstream Four. I have about a thousand hours in total.”
“Is that all?”
“Funny. I’ve also taken all kinds of self-defense and protection detail courses. I know a little martial arts, and I’m a decent shot with a whole slew of firearms. I’m a fair driver, but not nearly as good as the real professionals.”
“I almost feel sorry for that kid. Almost.”
We drove and talked for the next hour, when another small town appeared in front of us. I saw a Dairy Queen sign in the distance, and my stomach rumbled. “Are you hungry?”
Sharon nodded. “Yes, I am.”
“You ever have a Dairy Queen burger?”
Sharon shook her head. “Not since I was a kid.”
“Let’s go, then.”