After two runs down the Ocoee on the 4th of July, with only an uneventful rescue of boat pinned in Diamond Splitter from a swim in Tablesaw, I headed back to Smoky Mountain Meadows.
Passing through the Nantahala Gorge, I spotted a beat-up minivan on the side of the road with the hood up, and two grungy women in distress. As I pulled over, another car they had been talking to drove away. I have a well-documented history of attempting to rescue those in distress (with varying degrees of success). I rolled down my window to ask if I could help. Both were in tears. One sobbed that she needed to get to a gas station, so I offered her a ride. “And my dog?” With a history of rescuing dogs, I responded with an easy, “Sure.”
While we talked, the person who had pulled away (another Carolina Canoe Club member) spun back around, and pulled back in. The women waved him off because I could give them a ride with their dogs. Both teary-eyed women and Avery’s TWO big dogs climbed into my car, the dogs clambering over the seat to settle into the trunk on top of my wet kayaking gear. He owes me.
Driving down the road, I asked why we were headed to a gas station. On July 4. With almost everything closed. And the nearby gas stations weren’t service stations. Avery said she needed to call for a tow, but the battery in her phone was dead. She recounted a history of not having money for a tow, but that she could usually work at the tow company for a few days to pay them back. I pointed out I had a phone.
We pulled over at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. She borrowed my phone and made a call. The two of them stepped out of the car to discuss their options. I looked up local tow companies and made several calls – all either closed or providing crowd control for the local fireworks in nearby Bryson City.
When the two of them returned I suggested two options that had occurred to me. First, we could call 911, who could certainly find a tow truck. I also had a second tent in the car. They could stay at SMM for the night, and deal with things tomorrow when it wasn’t the 4th of July. I learned that Avery lived out of her car, and one of the windows didn’t work, so she didn’t want to leave it overnight by the side of the road. Her boyfriend couldn’t come get her, she sobbed, because he’d gone to prison … today. Using my phone, she called her mother-in-law again.
All the while both women were crying, Avery in loud, convulsive gasps. People keep walking past the car, peering inside and clearly trying to decide what was going on. Sex trafficking has been in the news of late. I expected a patrol car to pull up any minute and ask what I was doing to these two women.
Avery reported her boyfriend’s family had borrowed a tow trailer and would come get her. We went through a protracted conversation attempting to translate where we and her car were, the family being unfamiliar with the NOC. While Avery had been charging her phone while we waited in the car, the odds of them having understood the directions well enough to find her appears remote. I dropped her back off at her car and gave her my USB battery/charger to ensure she didn’t end up lost and alone. Again.
Along the course of conversation I had learned that the two women didn’t actually know each other. They had met only that morning, when Willow hitched a ride with Avery. Avery’s car trouble began earlier in the day, with the van staggering its way down the highway. When the van broke down, Avery would tinker with it, repeatedly restoring it to life for a few more miles. Their drive from Asheville, normally an hour and a half, had taken seven hours. With Avery’s most recent problem resolved, how to help Willow? Willow had been headed to the Rainbow Festival in Georgia. “The Rainbow Festival called me. I thought I was on the right path but I’ve taken some wrong turns.” Willow had had a long day. She now just wanted to go back home to Asheville.
It was getting late. I’d had a long day on the Ocoee, and even longer sitting in the NOC parking lot. On the other hand everything was closed. Willow had only a small bag, and no money. So we headed to Asheville.
On the way she kept asking me why I was helping her. Telling her it was the right thing to do didn’t seem to satisfy her. I told her that’s one thing I loved about the kayaking community. Kayaking is an independent sport. Each decision I make, every mistake, is on me. But I also know I have a huge community of people with me who have my back. If something goes wrong, they support me. How could I not pay that forward?
On the way to Asheville I heard her life story. She refused to carry a cell phone. She used to wait tables in Asheville. Now she lived with her boyfriend who didn’t want her to work. She loves waiting tables because she got to meet people from all over and hear their stories. She didn’t know what she wanted to do next. Along the way she borrowed my phone to text someone.
Reaching the outskirts of Asheville, she navigated me to a mostly deserted Wal-Mart parking lot. As we drove through the lot she peered about, clearly searching for something. I began to wonder why I’d been dragged to a deserted parking lot late at night. I thought about the time that Jason had wandered off with two strange women in Budapest, and how that had turned out.
I stopped the car and asked what we were looking for? She expected her boyfriend’s car to be there. It had broken down there. When we failed to locate it, I asked what she wanted to do next? She responded to just leave her there. In the parking lot. I decided perhaps she didn’t want me to know where she lived. It was a safe place, in town, at a location she’d picked. I wished her the best of luck and drove the long road back to Smoky Mountain.
The next morning I picked up my phone to find she hadn’t texted someone. She’d logged into Facebook Messenger, and left herself logged in. Yeah, her name wasn’t really Willow.
I hope that worked out.