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Weekly Wrap: Close Calls.

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Usually, if you’re talking to a writer, the term “close call” refers to a manuscript that’s made it to the final rounds. The rejection letter typically reads like a love note. And still, the bottom line is, No. Another door closes.

Most of us would opt for the other type of close call – the near-death experience – which was this week’s topic at LitPark.

Unless you actually die, it’s hard to tell how near death you came. It feels like I’ve had a few close calls, but I’ll tell this story because it’s the first one that popped into my head. I’m thirteen in this story and it’s the Fourth of July. One of the things people from DC do over the Fourth of July is go to The (Smithsonian) Mall with a cooler and listen to bands who are past their prime. The Beach Boys played that year. I didn’t have permission to go to The Mall, but I used the old I’m-having-a-slumber-party-at-a-friend’s line with my parents and was on my way.

I was with the girls I frequently have nightmares about because they went kind of hot and cold on me. Mostly cold. And on The Mall, we wound our way through mobs of people, accepting drinks and drugs from strangers along the way. This was not all that unusual for us; it was the overwhelming number of people that threw us, and I guess the large assortment of handouts and losing count of what we’d put into our bodies. The Beach Boys sang off-key.

After a while, I got split off from the group of girls I was with. Knowing them, it was on purpose. I never asked. And I wandered around the crowds and it got darker and darker. My memory gets pretty foggy here, and rightfully so, and somehow I remember one other girl being with me but I don’t know who or how I found her.

I’m not sure why we didn’t take the Metro back. Maybe we got disoriented or didn’t have money. Maybe we felt the pressure to get back the fastest way possible. Whatever the reason, we hitchhiked. (I’ve got a lot of hitchhiking stories.) We got offers right away and took the wrong one. I climbed into the front of a truck’s cab and the other girl hopped in the open bed of the truck. The driver was weird and had bottles of beer in the front seat. He offered me one and I said no. I was small for my age, and already close to blacking out, and he knew better.

I remember him telling me I had pretty lips and touching my mouth. His fingers smelled like gasoline. I must have said something that ticked him off because he stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere. And my last memory of that night was me standing barefoot with some girl in complete darkness while the guy pitched beer bottles at us.

I’d been wearing sandals, either Dr. Scholl’s or Bass – the kind that come off when you’re not thinking, and when my dad picked me up at the girl’s house the next day (who knows how we got back?!), he was mad about the shoes. People don’t just lose their shoes, he said.

Probably wasn’t a near death experience, but it felt like it was going to be at the time. And looking back, I’m guessing this girl and I got lucky.

Often, I weave bits of truth into fiction, and I found this very old short story at a now-defunct magazine once run by one of the greatest writers I know. The story is wobbly in ways that make me twitch, but the shoes line is in it.


My cousin, who also has a lot of hitchhiking stories, lives on 99 acres in Bozeman. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. Bears, horses, rainbow trout, a whole mess of sky. This is me and his dog, and I’ll be somewhere in this photo before you know it.

My brother’s out in Montana, too. This is his place in Missoula. (Yes, I am wearing hiking boots with a dress. Why not?) And the reason I’m bringing this up is because LitPark is going on summer vacation, so next week’s posts will be the last for a while. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the gates unlocked – no one’s getting kicked off the swings – and I’ll stop by as often as I can.


Thanks to everyone who answered the Question of the Week: lance reynald, Colin Matthew, Clare Grant, Simon Haynes, Myfanwy Collins, amy, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, *Joe*, Ric Marion, Paula, Claire Cameron, Kim Brittingham, Betsy, Robin Slick, daryl, David Niall Wilson, Gail Siegel, juliet, Carolyn Burns Bass, Jody Reale, Noria, james spring, Kimberly, Terry Bain, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Roy Kesey, Bob Arter, Richard Lewis, Ellen Meister, Stephanie Friedman, Dennis Mahagin, amy, Sarah Bain, Laura Benedict, billie, Mark Bastable, A. S. King.

And thanks to Claire Cameron for the great book, and Lance Reynald for the great interview. See you Monday!

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  • lance reynald
    May 25, 2007

    you would think us DC brats would know better than to hitchhike. though my hitching stories aren’t twisted in as creepy and potentially America’s Most Wanted as this one, I’ve had my fair share of odd rides around the beltway…um…but let’s not get into that…
    Montana, eh? that’s dangerously close to my neck of the woods. maybe I’ll hitch a ride up that way…
    Have a great summer.
    (what’s wrong with hiking boots and dresses?)

  • Myfanwy Collins
    May 25, 2007

    Your near death story is terrifying. Hope you and your family have a great vacation. That Bozeman field is heartbreakingly beautiful. I can see why it would be a favorite place. I love Montana.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    May 25, 2007

    If you are like me, Susan, you shed the sandals the moment you got into the truck. The Creeper probably kept them as a momento and to this day has a women’s shoe fetish. That was definitely a close call.

  • Shelley Marlow
    May 25, 2007

    S, your near death story is all to familiar to a fellow hitchhiking, concert and drig taking at the time, teen.
    I hope you don’t mind that I tell my near death story here since I’m late. I will move it over if you ask!
    A few years ago, I flew from St. Petersburg, Russia, after attending the SLS, to Novosibirsk, then caught a connecting flight to Kyzyl, Tuva, Siberia. I met shamans and studied, then on my way home, I had to get into another Russian plane with sixteen seats on Tuvaskya Airlines on my way back from Kyzyl to Novasibirsk. I had bought my tickets at the last minute, and was given a jump seat, where the one flight attendant usually puts her luggage.
    Once in the air, the plane flew into a storm. Even though we were seatbelted in, the turbulence threw everyone three feet off of our seats. We were in a thick cloud when the plane sped downwards, in a way that noone knew if the pilot had lost control. The plane screamed a high pitch that descended like a bomb. I do not remember any people screaming, since the flight was full of stoic Russians. I quietly thought about dying and prayed to- surprise- Krishna! When you are going to die, I’ve heard the best thing to do is concentrate on Love. Even though I’m not a hare krisna devote, what better way than to invoke Krishna.
    I thought of my girlfriend Martha, and my mother, and how sad they will be if I die now. Then the plane leveled off and flew up above the cloud cover until finding a hole in which to fly down through. The plane flew under the cloud in a downpour of rain until finding the way to the little Siberian landing strip in Novasibirsk.

  • Sarah Bain
    May 25, 2007


    Missoula is only 3 hours from Spokane so if the family needs a break from the family, you can jump over here. C wants to meet the boys that made a film in China. – S

  • daryl
    May 25, 2007

    it kinda wows me that hitchhiking is so common – amongst people our ages? amongst writers? the combination? i’d still hitchhike today if there was half a chance of getting picked up. the SF Bay Area has become such a sterile community that hitchhiking seems to be something that is consensually forbidden by an invisible law or just so frowned upon that people know better than to look stupid by trying to get a ride. the suburbs i live in are so filthy rich, to even own a car older than 10 years is heavily smirked upon.

    anyway Susan, i am so glad you lived through that day/night/experience/ and evil girl friends. i’m glad you have a good husband, your two boys, and the ability to run away to Montana.

  • Susan Henderson
    May 25, 2007

    Hey, Amy Wilentz, my mail’s a little screwy again and not sending mail out, but I got your note and should get back to you this weekend.

    Thanks Daryl, Shelley, Carolyn, Sarah, Myf, and Lance. xo

  • Ellen Meister
    May 26, 2007

    Love Spider Girl.

  • Susan Henderson
    May 26, 2007

    Aw, you’re sweet, Ellen. Not sure I like that story so much. Mostly I remember how looooong it used to take me to write a story. It’s why I like blogging – you have to learn to just let go.

    Thanks for the other night with you and Mark. It was nice to get some good laughs in before I headed into my writing cave.

  • Michael D. Williams
    August 24, 2007

    I have never purposely hitchhiked but have found myself thumbing a ride on three occasions. Once from a Steve Miller band concert, once on I-40 about ten miles from Henryetta Oklahoma and another on a dark deserted road carrying a rifle and a pistol strapped to my side. The first we show up at the truck and wait for the guy with the keys and as car after car drive away and our friend never shows I express my feelings that our ride has departed. My other friend says he wouldn’t leave us but I know that he has. Without warning my friend walks away and returns later with a Sack from McDonalds and a sack from KFC. I know that it is miles to either one and he says “Here is a Big Mac with only one bite taken out and two pieces of chicken no one has touched.” I say thank you but no. We hitch a ride with probably the last car to leave and they drive us to a party miles away from where we need to be. I am by this time hungry and go to the kitchen and begin to cook bacon and eggs. This did not go over to well and we were asked to leave. We stayed until we were done eating and then walked to a 7-11 and called a cab.
    The second time we ran out of gas about fifteen miles from town and I started to run, I ran about five miles before a car stopped and picked me up and drove me to town. I ran about three miles back with a 2.5 gallon gas can before another person picked me up. (If in doubt fill up, you can’t make it.)
    The third was strange, I was sixteen and hunting far from my parents lake home. I had been in the woods all day and walked back to the car in the dark. When I get there the keys are in the front seat. I said ” !” Well you know what I said. There was no way I would break the window, so I began to walk. I walked to the road, I walked down the road and down the road and saw nothing no lights no houses, I just kept walking. After awhile I saw lights on the road behind me and I hoped they would stop, but I was armed to the teeth and would be suprised to have someone stop, but stop they did,two girls twenty and sixteen and a two year old in a car seat. It was pushing ten and I had been on the road for over two hours and was thankful for the ride, still in shock that they would stop for a dark figure on the side of the road with a gun. They drove me to the lake house and back to the car in the woods and wanted me to go drink beer and smoke weed, but I was to tired and wondered what they were going to do with the kid.

  • Susan Henderson
    August 24, 2007

    Michael, I can’t even believe someone would give you a ride when you’re carrying a loaded rifle. In NY, that would tend to make a driver suspicious.

    I have this vague memory of watching a show called the Hitcher when I was in college. Your stories reminded me of it.

  • Michael D. Williams
    August 24, 2007

    I was in the middle of nowhere and it was deer season, so it may not have been that odd of a sight to the locals. The rifle was unloaded by the way, saftey first.

  • Michael D. Williams
    August 31, 2007

    I had to hitchhike again on Thursday. My friend and I canoed and fished a creek in south central Oklahoma. We had floated and drug the canoe for about ten miles when we came to a thirty foot waterfall and no real way to portage around it. Our only option was to walk so we walked about a mile to a highway and thumbed a ride to the three miles to where the truck was parked. An old farmer picked us up and we rode in the back of the truck into town. It was a arduous trip but beautiful and fun. We caught lots of fish but earned every single one.

  • Susan Henderson
    September 1, 2007

    Michael, you need to use this in a story. It’s full of all the senses.

  • Michael D. Williams
    September 1, 2007

    I’ve already started. The coversations alone are enough to move a story and when you add the setting and strugle, it should be a good one.

  • litpark » By Request
    July 10, 2007

    […] tomorrow morning, the small Hendersons and I are flying out of JFK to spend a week in Montana. (Pics of where I’m going are here.) Green-Hand still packs his stuffed animal, which makes me […]

Susan Henderson