I’ve journaled since high school. I rarely read my old entries, but last night I felt a bit melancholy and inadvertently stumbled upon the most harrowing experience of my youth. As I read, I remembered the three lessons this event taught me:

Kindness triumphs over evil.
Give thanks.
Don’t hitchhike.

Back when hitchhiking used to be a regular form of transportation for the young and reckless, I was making my way from Chicago to Denver along old Highway 30, west of North Platte, Nebraska, approaching Ogallala. It was dusk and I stood on the side of the road. A rusty red Ford slowed and stopped. I grabbed my duffle bag and caught up.

As soon as the back door swung open, I had my qualms about getting in. The driver was a big bearded man who wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and introduced himself as Watts. In the passenger seat was a woman at least twice my age with short choppy red hair and yellow teeth. Between them were two guns and a bottle of Jim Beam. Next to me in the back seat was a boy around 15 they called Happy. He was shirtless and giggling.

The next hour went by in a blur. I remember Watts shooting several rounds from the larger pistol out both front windows while taking deep gulps of whiskey. Then, Watts swerved off on a side road and the yellow-toothed woman was staring at me as she dangled the other gun on her finger. She smiled and asked me to take off all of my clothes. Meanwhile, Happy was slapping me in the head, still giggling.

They had me crawl around and around the car on all fours, while Watts pocketed the two twenties and a ten I had rolled up in my sock. Yellow Teeth rode my back, and Happy kicked at me to go faster. Next, I was dancing outside in the darkness to gunshots and a country song blasting over the radio.

They left me there in the dark – bleeding, naked and penniless. It was a long walk back to Highway 30.

Once I reached the road, I was able to flag down the second semi that went by, and the truck driver gave me jeans and a t-shirt to put on. He drove me a short distance to a farmhouse, his aunt and uncle’s place. This wonderful couple provided warmth, food and compassion.

The next morning, they drove me to Ogallala with a bag full of sandwiches and apples. I found a ten dollar bill in my front pants pocket and a salesman going to Denver. I shook the farmer’s big hand and gave his wife a hug. That’s all I had to offer.

The sandwiches and apples lasted until we reached the outskirts of Denver. The lessons I learned from that trip are stored in my journal and locked in my mind forever.