THERE ARE probably dozens of ways a hitchhiker could wind up riding in a stolen car, but I only know the stupid one. I'd been standing on the highway leading out of Abiquiú, a small town in northern New Mexico, for maybe 20 minutes. It was barely enough time to put Sharpie to cardboard—SANTA FE, ALBUQUERQUE, TEXAS—and certainly not enough to forget the first law of recreational thumbing: Don't be a dumbass. That rule should hold until you've waited for hours, when heat and boredom and the fear of being stranded start affecting judgment. I'm afraid that wasn't the case.
It was a morning in July 1996, and traffic was heavy. Most of the vehicles were small vans or sedans that slowed so kids inside could wave. Then a lowrider rolled into view, floating over the asphalt until the engine suddenly gunned and it swerved to hit me. I jumped into some weeds as it slid to a stop, then backed up, spraying gravel. The occupants were kids in bandannas and wife beaters, the driver in his twenties, the passenger at most 15, both laughing. When the younger guy rolled his window down, the elder said, "Get in."
This idea struck me as imprudent. "Where are y'all headed?"
"Dang, fellas, I'm not going to Albuquerque," I said.
The driver pointed at the cardboard still held to my chest. "Your sign says 'Albuquerque.'"
I looked at their car, a long, two-door Monte Carlo from the seventies, painted glass-glitter royal blue like a drum kit, with a perfectly matched crushed-velvet interior. The next town, 20 miles away, was Española, the renowned Lowrider Capital of the World. This was an invite to the kind of cultural exchange that prompted me to hitch in the first place. I got in.
The ride got weird immediately. As I wedged myself behind the passenger—the front seat was tilted back so far the car was effectively a two-seater—he adjusted his mirror so it pointed straight at me. The driver did the same with the rearview. Once we were moving, they kept their eyes on me and talked in Spanish, which I didn't understand. Then the driver addressed me. "You fucked up, man. We're going to Kansas. And you're going with us." I opted not to believe him, perhaps as some self-preservation reflex. Or maybe it was because when he gave me a menacing look and turned up the stereo full-blast, "Vacation," by the Go-Go's, came on. He hit the eject button, then cussed and beat the dashboard. The cassette was stuck in the tape deck.
Which was when I realized that the tape wasn't his, and neither was the car. There was no key in the ignition, just a rat's nest of wires hanging from the steering column. This was someone else's lowrider.
For the next 15 miles I reminded myself that the other reason to hitchhike was to get home with a story to tell. This would qualify. The guys went quiet as the tape played on, apparently a mix of eighties hits. "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" played as we passed roadside stands selling statuettes of Catholic saints.
When we hit Española I started to worry. The driver took a left and headed north, clearly not the way to Albuquerque. I decided that if we actually were going to Kansas, there'd be plenty of gas stops on the way and chances to bolt. But he turned into a neighborhood and stopped. I looked out the window at a row of adobes and started thinking about The Silence of the Lambs. I pictured two scenarios. In one I broke free as they led me to a house; in the other I got eaten.
We sat without talking for a long five minutes, the driver's eyes never leaving the mirror. But he seemed to be looking past me. Finally he said, "A cop has been following us the past ten miles. I think he's gone." He turned the car around and rolled into town.
He stopped again, at a little rim shop. "I need to talk to a man who sold me some wheels," he said. "They don't fit. You can wait in the car or you can move on."
I tried to look like I was mulling it over. That seemed gracious. "You know, you guys have been great. But I think I'll try the highway."