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. 

Soul Travels: Texas & New Mexico

Big Bend National Park January 25 – January 29

Fort Davis, Marfa, Alpine, Balmorhea January 29 – February 3

Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns February 3 – February 5

Alamogordo, White Sands February 5 – February 7

San Lorenzo Canyon February 7 – February 8

Santa Fe, Bandelier, Tent Rocks February 12 – February 16

Jemez Springs, Fenton Lake State Park February 16 – February 18

Darkness Part IV: Solitude



Prior to spending some “administrative” time in the big city of Albuquerque where we completed such utilitarian tasks as laundry, vehicle cleaning, maintenance, catch-up work, etc., we decided to split up the driving time by literally pulling off the road, driving until we couldn’t hear traffic and securing a place to boondock for the night. In our usual style, we arrived just before dark to an area operated by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning that it was publicly owned land, open to all. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t easy to get to. We took an unnamed exit, drove under the highway through a narrow, one-way tunnel and followed a dirt road (I use the term road loosely) for miles until the terrain was level enough to park the trailer. There, we pulled off to the side so that we would be out of the way of any unlikely vehicles that might come in behind us.

It was incredibly quiet and in the rare absence of desert wind, the stillness eliminated even the slightest potential for sound. There were no signs of life, human or otherwise, which was a bit unnerving at first. We had been in untouched places leading up to this one, but only those that required passes and permits. Each place included the familiar exchange of fees and pamphlets that subconsciously brought some level of comfort because it meant that we were allowed to be there. We were safe and people knew, or at least had the means to know where we were.

I have never been one to shy away from new things, especially new places, but the quietude was deafening and my imagination made me nervous. It felt like we were in a really bad horror film all of the sudden. Only we hadn’t reached the scary part yet. We were still in the happy-go-lucky, everything’s fine, just some stupid kids who don’t know someone is watching, part of the movie. Right before everything goes terribly wrong. You know, that cheesy collection of opening scenes that sets the unlikely circumstances in place for the poorly written plot unfold.

Fortunately, there was someone else there who knew better. He kindly entertained my “what ifs” and assuaged my concerns by making tea and encouraging me to look up into the night sky. It didn’t take long before I started to feel an overwhelming sense of ease. We were all alone and it wasn’t scary, it was exactly what I wanted. It was simple and sweet and impermanent. There just wasn’t enough time (or any reason) to be afraid. This amazing experience was happening all around me in the moment and if I wasn’t careful, I might miss the whole thing. Had I been too busy scanning the environment for threats, I wouldn’t have realized that inside the darkness, there was the potential for peace. My mantra that night became, “what you feel is what you find.” I could either examine the darkness for troubling sounds and let my senses play tricks on me or I could open to the reality that was nature at night. I chose the latter. And just like that, I discovered comfort in solitude.





Darkness Part III: Surrender


After Big Bend, we drove into the nothingness of west Texas as far as Fort Davis. On a whim, we decided to visit the McDonald observatory shortly after settling in on our first night. The sky was clear and even as the vanishing sun still backlit the mountains, the stars were strikingly bright.

Upon arriving at the observatory, we surreptitiously scored a few of the last remaining tickets for that evening’s Star Party and waited patiently as night consumed the last moments of day. With soft red lights guiding us, so as not to hinder our dark-adaptation, we made our way to the outdoor viewing area. Shadows merged into nothingness with darkness permeating the air and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I looked up. The night sky unfolded in layers above me, stars magically appeared with each passing moment. The glowing balls of fire boasted a spectrum of blues and reds and whites, beaming their ancient light in all directions. The sky appeared to pulse and the longer I looked, the more I could see. The Milky Way was distinct and glorious, a reminder that we are part of an enormous, rotating cosmic disc of star stuff. When it became darker still, the Zodiacal Light materialized and humbly offered a sense of direction in the black abyss. There was an eloquent astronomer in the center, speaking into a microphone while using a laser pointer to identify constellations and clusters with ease, but I couldn’t spare any attention for information - I was transfixed and completely captivated by the bounty of infinite darkness. And just like that, I surrendered my smallness to the universe.

Darkness Part II: Delight


Several weeks later, after traveling around central Texas, we made the long trek to Big Bend National Park. This Texas treasure was a complete mystery to me and I had no idea what to expect. We arrived at dusk and as we were setting up camp, two girls came by our site, inviting us to a concert that was to take place at 8:00 P.M. They were laughing and lovely as they spoke with an accent that I would later learn was Dutch. As we established our new residence, the light disappeared and what was left was total darkness, save for the light of more stars than I had ever seen in my life up to that point. During that first night, I learned very quickly that Big Bend attracts a particular flavor of mystic, one who esteems its unadulterated beauty and who values the experience of solitude in nature. This distinct quality was apparent because even in a crowded campground, the artificial light was minimal and the quiet murmur of humans was, for the most part, negligible.

With our eyes adjusting to the dearth of light, we carefully made our way toward the public toilets. While this probably doesn’t sound like a glamourous locale for an open air concert, this was the chosen place to gather because it was the easiest to find in darkness. And it was perfect. With blankets and chairs, wines and beers, we joined a neighborhood of travelers from all over the country (and the world) to experience Tangarine. They were a pair of twin brothers from The Netherlands, Sander and Arnout, whose significant others we had met earlier. They liked the sound, but not the spelling of the word tangerine. They were tall, slight and spoke with a soft charm that made everyone feel instantly at ease. They shared bits and pieces of themselves, explaining how they had traveled from the Netherlands to New York City where they rented a camper van. They were now on their way to Tucson to record an album. It was an unexpected surprise to hear what came out when they performed, their music was a skillful hybrid of folk Americana with an articulated edge. They told stories between songs and seemed nervous in an ultra-hip and humble way. They indulged the curious questions of the audience and we were amused to learn that they spoke to each other in Dutch, but they wrote music in English. It was a wintry cold evening so we were all grateful when, seemingly out of nowhere, a divine warm breeze arrived and hovered over our outdoor lavatory amphitheater until the concert was over.

Please excuse me as I get distracted by the small, but sacred details. What I really want to write about is the darkness of Big Bend. The concert is important though, because if it hadn’t been for the Dutch duo, we likely wouldn’t have been outside for that long in the evening chill, facing that particular direction. It was shortly before they wrapped up their spontaneous set that the light began to change. My eyes readily adjusted to newly revealed shapes and outlines, just like they had done in my bedroom back home. The sky gradually lightened as if the sun were about to rise, a subtle a change that would have been imperceptible without the extreme blackness of the Big Bend sky. And just as the crowd collectively became aware of this shift, one boisterous man exclaimed loudly as he pointed in the direction of a massive mountain with a glowing light behind it, “Hey everybody! Look over there!” His volume was disruptive and unnecessary, but he had the excitement of a child in his voice and was silently pardoned by the group. We shared in his wonder as we all became mesmerized by the full moon rising. Having never witnessed this lunar complement to the rising sun, I began to laugh with delight in the darkness. And just like that, it was night.

Photo of Tangarine from

Photo of Tangarine from

Darkness Part I: Discomfort


During the transition between living abroad and living small, I was lucky enough to spend an extended amount of time at home. My parents may have considered themselves unlucky to have their once empty nest once again occupied by one of their own (one who can be messy and sleeps late and sheds all over the place), but it was a very special time for me and I think they may have enjoyed it at least a little bit too. It was the longest period of time I had spent with my parents since leaving home for college and this time, I got to know my parents in many wonderfully unexpected ways. I experienced them as individuals in addition to the parental unit that they had always been for me and when the initial novelty of my being home wore off, I became a part of their regular daily lives. As simple as it sounds, it made me feel closer to them than ever before.

There are a myriad of reasons why I will always cherish that extended stay at home, but I’ll save them for another time. My reason for mentioning it here is because it was in their home that I first experienced blackout curtains. My parents had recently moved into a new house, one with beautiful stone walls and oversized wood beams that made it feel like a lodge. The previous owners had moved out in a hurry and as they did, they left many items behind - an abundance of Christmas lights, miscellaneous tools and random boxes in the attic. They also left blackout curtains in most of the bedrooms, something my parents are still trying to figure out. The summer sun in Texas is indeed intense and perhaps the curtains serve a noble purpose during that season, but in the winter when the days are short, sunlight becomes a precious commodity.

When I first arrived home, my circadian rhythm was completely disrupted. I had been in India for two weeks, returned to Japan for a short 48 hours and then turned around to take the long way home to Texas. Needless to say, my body was confused and tired which made the notion of endless sleep unusually appealing. Blackout curtains were the perfect remedy. The absolute darkness in my room meant that I slept until my body couldn’t sleep anymore and I woke up having no idea what time of day it was. I would emerge from my darkened cocoon with tightly squinted eyes and it took a long time for my body to adjust to being awake. This went on for a week or more and I assumed this was just a case of lingering jet lag, a known side effect of playing hop scotch through time zones. But once my body had adjusted, I still found it very difficult to wake up. My eyes would almost hurt when I resurfaced after a somewhat comatose sleep and I felt groggy for the better part of the day thereafter.

One night I neglected to secure the blackout curtains when I went to sleep. It was the night after bringing our tiny house on wheels out of storage and into my parents’ driveway, which happened to be just outside my bedroom window. Being that I was positively smitten with her, I kept the curtains open so I could look upon Silver Heels as I fell asleep. The following morning, I sensed the light shifting in my room while my eyelids still rested closed. It was still fairly dark, but when I gently opened my eyes, I could make out the shadows and shapes around me. I heard the quiet stirring of my parents in the kitchen and enjoyed several moments of listening from the comfort of my bed. Then, faithfully and without a sound, as it does with each new day, the sun grew progressively brighter as it climbed away from the horizon. And just like that, it was morning.

I woke up feeling refreshed and when I left my room, my wide-opened eyes had already adjusted to the morning light. Understandably, that was my last night of sleeping with the blackout curtains. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but my body intuitively knew there was something deeply unsettling in the artificial darkness.