The Kindness of Strangers

There is a common kindness among travelers, particularly those who have been at it for a number of years, that emanates from the inside out.  You can see it in their faces and the way they walk, you can hear it in their voices when they speak to each other.  I’m not referring to the weekend warriors or the pop-in comfort campers, though they too have a certain merit and charm.  The travelers I’m referring to are those who abstain from hurry and therefore always have time for conversation.  They are the people who can harvest from a single “hello,” hours of quiet dialogue marked by long pauses and far-off gazes.  They are those who celebrate their survival stories and offer them readily to budding enthusiasts (like Jon and myself) to save us the struggle.  There’s never a sense of, “we went through it, so you ought to.”  Instead, it’s more like, “we went through it, so you don’t have to.”  There’s no jockeying for position or staking of claims; when another rig is set up in the best site of the campground, there’s a silent, selfless joy in the fact that someone else got there first.  You won’t often hear a word spoken with a competitive tongue or engaging in haughty attempts to “one-up” another when it comes to tank capacity, square footage or fuel economy, even though these are commonly broached topics.  You will however, become privy to the universal understanding that these vessels are second homes, not hobbies, and therefore warrant a greater degree of respect and reverence.

As we accumulated days on the road, I began to examine where this kindness comes from.  It has something to do with time, or at least the perception of time.  In my case for example, despite living a life that I am madly in love with, I am more often than not tempted by the seductive illusion of time scarcity.  There is never enough.  It goes too fast, or too slow.  Time expands when I’m awaiting something exciting and shrinks when I’m doing that something.  As a result, I generally operate in one of two modes: planning for the next big step or reflecting on the one that came before.  Sure, I enjoy fleeting moments of relishing in the now, but these moments must be carefully designed and are largely reserved for special occasions.  What I am discovering on this trip is, when you don’t have a schedule and you’re free to decide how you invest (rather than spend) your time, all of this scarcity falls away and you’re left with a greater reserve of generosity and kindness.  This begs the question, how do you tap into that reserve when you do have a schedule to follow or when you are exposed to frequent, regular reminders of time passing?  How do you resist the feeling of time scarcity when you have responsibilities and relationships that require tending to?

I suppose in some ways, questions like these are the motivation behind “Soul Traveled.”  What started as a blog title has evolved into a sort of mantra for our trip.  We want this time to be about discovery and getting curious.  We have a loosely defined structure for the places we want to go and the things we want to see, but the trip is more about simply being wherever we are - whether on a mountain top in awestruck silence or in the laundromat completing utilitarian tasks.  We want to find a way to bring “soul” into the everyday experience and eventually carry that wisdom with us when we return to a more stationary lifestyle.  Such wisdom might include how to elude the black hole of time scarcity…but before I get too far off topic, let’s bring it back to the kindness of strangers.

As far as I can tell, unless we are just very lucky, the absence of time constraints (real or perceived) might be the primary condition to which the kindness of these strangers can be attributed.  In it’s place develops an admiration of time and its natural progression.  Rather than trying to fit as much as possible into a single hour of the day, it becomes more appealing to watch how the light changes 108 different times in that hour.  Where it was once common to dine after dark and light the night, it is preferred to surrender to the natural rhythm of sunrise and sunset.

When we embarked on our first solo expedition, we had no idea what we were doing and we carried with us years of conditioning in time scarcity.  During our first few stays on the road, it appeared to us that our neighbors had a tendency to visit at the worst possible times.  There were those who approached too early, while we were backing into a spot or trying to communicate trailer position via rearview mirror.  Or, there were those who came by too late, waiting until we found ourselves mitigating an overflowing sewage drain to stop in for a chat.  With all of these unfortunate timings, we started to wonder what was wrong with people when in reality, they were actually exposing what was wrong with us.

The more we begin to surrender our schedule, the more time we seem to have.  We welcome the casual passerby and now we’re the people popping in at inconvenient times.  And despite the inconvenience, we’re never met with frustration or dismissal.  Whatever activity has been interrupted welcomes the interruption.  Such was the case when we visited Arches National Park.  On our second day there, we had just returned from a self-guided bike tour of the park, we were sun-kissed and sweaty, but maintained the big, dumb grins on our faces.  We rode up to our site and noticed another Airstream had parked in the adjacent space.  Rather than scoping out the situation first, checking in to see if the people were busy or involved in some administrative task, we rode right on past our home and jumped all up in our neighbor’s business.  (It’s only now in writing this that I realize we engaged in precisely the behavior we had been so puzzled by during our first few interactions.  We saw something interesting and we acted upon it.  We didn’t analyze or hesitate and in effect, we didn’t waste time.)  Thinking back on it, our fellow Airstreamer, John, was in fact busy at the time, preparing for the night while scarce daylight remained.  Yet, when we inopportunely barged into his routine, he gave us his undivided attention.  We skipped the small talk and jumped right into personal travel stories.  We explained that we were new at this and how we’d had a few rough nights on account of our batteries running out of juice.  This caused the heater to quit and all of our electronics to moan pitifully as if taking their last breath.  I won’t say that this excited John, because he certainly didn’t take pleasure in our misfortune, but his eyes did light up a little.  And perhaps our timing wasn’t so bad after all because he had been evaluating his own battery situation when we arrived and was probably in the right frame of mind for discussing power consumption, amp recovery, and battery life.  Before we could finish describing our battery woes, John proposed with stark clarity what might be “cooking our batteries” and it wasn’t at all what we, as amateurs, had thought.  I’ll spare the explanation of what was actually going on because it is somewhat complicated and not all that interesting unless you’ve been through it before, you’re an electrical engineer, or you’re my dad.

It turns out, John was spot on in diagnosing the cause of our prematurely aging batteries.  Not only did John spend over an hour with us trying to figure it out, but he graciously insisted that we use one of his portable battery boxes (one of his many innovative solutions to dry camping limitations) so that we wouldn’t freeze overnight.  The following day, he spent the better part of his morning teaching Jon about winterizing the trailer, upgrading the converter and battery maintenance.  To say this man was kind is an understatement.  It only makes sense that his wife would be an awesome human being as well.  I first met Suzie when the two of us simultaneously joined the boys outside after practicing yoga inside our respective trailers.  I felt instantly at ease.  She has a peaceful smile, compassionate eyes and soft way of speaking that makes you feel like you’re the only person on the planet.

I am still in the process of learning how to integrate this reserve of kindness and pay it forward on the remainder of this trip and beyond.  I am committed to an intentional shift from time scarcity to a more sustainable alternative, whatever that may be.  I’ll let you know when I figure it out.  What I do know for certain is I want to be more like John and Suzie.  Where kindness is the natural state of being and peace of mind effortlessly follows.

 John and Jon. 

John and Jon. 

 The source of our heat (John's portable battery box) charging in the sun. 

The source of our heat (John's portable battery box) charging in the sun.