Talk to a Stranger

My back ached from the 34 pounds of weight straining my shoulders as I checked my phone for couchsurfer responses. “Shit,” I thought. My screen showed only a cluttered inbox of Denver natives who apologetically said they couldn’t take someone in last-minute.

I sat on a curb and put my heavy pack between my legs. I massaged the sunburnt back of my neck as I read over the message from my prearranged couchsurfer host, sent moments before I hopped off the Amtrak. “Hey! I am so, so sorry, but something has come up tonight, and I won’t be able to host you anymore. I’ll get in touch with some friends and see what I can do.

“Of course,” I thought. “I knew I shouldn’t trust a stranger.

Four hours of waiting under an August sun with an overweight backpack and nowhere to go had drained me. “Maybe I should just get a hotel,” I reluctantly thought.

Then my phone buzzed.

“Hey Lady! Didn’t you say you’d be in Denver right now? Do you have a place to crash?”

It was from Mary Jane, a backpacker I had met briefly at a hostel in New Orleans four months prior.

Air built up in my chest. I exhaled slowly.

“We’re not around this weekend, but we keep the door unlocked. If you wanna get out of Denver and do some camping, you can take our spare car. The keys are hanging next to the stove.”

My thumb hovered over the keyboard. “Are you sure?” As someone who had always been taught not to trust strangers, I couldn’t believe how trusting of me she was.

“Yeah! Take it! I mean, it may shit out on you, but keep it from overheating and it should be fine.

I replayed this conversation in my head as I sat atop the 14,264-foot peak of Mount Evans in the green 2003 Oldsmobile Aurora littered with Carl’s Jr cups and plastic Safeway bags. Fifty feet away, elk and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep chewed yellow alpine avens as yellow-bellied marmots scurried around their hooves. Mist and fog smeared the surrounding mountains, which shook from a deep thunder. Melted hail raced down the driver’s window, while pieces of ice patted the roof.

“The kindness of strangers...” I thought, shaking my head. As someone who had once shifted my eyes at anyone I didn’t know who tried to speak or interact with me, I couldn’t believe I was sitting alone in a car belonging to someone I had spent a total of six hours with, atop the highest paved point in North America. “I gotta learn how to trust more people.”

So I did. And by doing so, I would go on to meet David, a self-described introvert traveling the world alone, who would drive me to Buffalo so I could see Niagara Falls. I would met Shabd on my flight to Reykjavik, my seatmate who would ease my anxiety of flying for five hours by telling me jokes and describing his life back in India. I’d meet Graham, the 82-year-old Kiwi with a love for prawn pies and Willie Nelson, who would share with me his handmade solar shower and a cup of coffee. And, of course, I’d meet the group of Aussies who would teach me to let air out of my tires on sand, and show me a part of Fraser Island—completely vacant of tourists—where I’d see my first humpback whale.

***

When I left Denver a few days later, I boarded the train for San Francisco. I sat next to a couple with dirty fingernails, matted hair, and bags under their eyes. They were hunched over, the girl’s head against the guy’s chest, his head against the window.

The girl—who was deaf but read lips flawlessly—noticed my backpack. “Where are you from?” she asked.

I told her Atlanta. She smiled.

“I’ve been there!”

When I asked why they were traveling, she shrugged. “Why not?”

She looked at the cheese sandwich and bag of Lay’s I had brought onboard with me. “Could I have a chip?” she asked, her eyes wide.

I handed her the bag. “How long have you been traveling?” I asked.

“A year,” she responded through a mouthful of potato chips. “We just keep picking up odd jobs here and there.”

“What kind of odd jobs?”

“Fruit picking!” She looked into the plastic bag and then at me. “I think I ate all of the big chips.” She licked her lips and rubbed grease off her fingers onto her leggings.

I laughed and offered to share my sandwich with her.

“I really appreciate it,” she smiled. “We don’t have any money until we start working on the fruit farm in California.” She bit into the sandwich. “I’ve discovered that if you’re kind, the people you meet will be kind. I can’t tell you how many strangers have helped us out along the way, and how many strangers we’ve helped out when we can. It’s a great system.”

“Sounds like it,” I smiled, handing her the other half of the sandwich.

She thanked me again and placed it on her boyfriend’s tray. He was sleeping. She wiped her hands on her leggings again and reached across the aisle towards me. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Shannon.” I shook her hand. “And yours?”

“Emma.” She brushed her hair behind her left ear and grinned. “See? Now we’re not strangers anymore.”


Photo by Matthew Wiebe
Copyright license — used with permission

Originally from Chattanooga, Shannon now spends her time gallivanting around Colorado, writing about everything from flattened fauna to spiritual midwifery. She likes food that makes her sweat, towns with grit, and the occasional shenanigan. Follow her adventures at The Strange and New.