Recently, my walk home from a 6:45am rock climbing gym date (@Ted this is true commitment!) ended in a 30-minute chat with a 19-year-old troubled stranger whose name I never learned.
I’m about a block away from home, headphones in, listening to a podcast when this kid (well, to be honest, he looked like he could be anywhere from 15-25 to me) starts matching my pace on the sidewalk, walking beside me.
“Got a light”? He asks.
I say I don’t and continue walking. He’s still next to me, walking at the same speed, which I’ll admit made me feel kind of strange.
“Is there a liquor store around here?”
At which point I stop, headphones half off, and respond “liquor store?”. It’s 9am and this kid is probably under 21.
He clarifies that he’s looking for a lighter, which, obviously I should have realized. He’s only one block away from Mission Street, one of the most bustling streets in San Francisco, so I tell him there’s many convenience stores, liquor stores, and Mexican grocery stores within two blocks, give him some directions, and attempt to continue walking. He’s still walking beside me and I’m nearing my house so I slow down and start to take out my key. He turns to me yet another time: “well, actually, I just broke up with my girlfriend and she’s telling me she doesn’t want to talk to me for a week, and I don’t know what to do….”
At which point things turned into something really different than I’d expected when this kid (okay, I keep saying kid but he’s definitely taller than I am and looks pretty strong) started walking beside me.
Thirty minutes later, I’ve learned he’s nineteen years old. He’s walking around the Mission to keep his mind off the breakup before heading into work. He likes playing soccer, and listening to the Weeknd. But mostly, he and his lady are on the rocks and he’s hurting, and he’s aching for a small touch of human interaction.
Human connection. Typing out those words makes It seems vague and amorphous, but it’s also something that’s deeply necessary for us as social beings to feel whole. Throughout our travels and time on the road, Matt and I have connected with amazing humans of all ages and backgrounds, often the types of people we might be unlikely to meet if we were stuck in normal 9-7 careers and city bubbles, people like Don, who we met passing through Smith Rock State Park.
Don handcrafted and designed portions of a bright red mobile camping trailer unit to take on trips to Oregon’s high desert. He lives near Smith Rock State Park, and was bringing his trailer out to the park for a drive to test how it would park in an RV parking spot. He spotted our camper and walked over to say hi and ask a few questions (usually people are interested in the year and engine on our classic baby). A few questions turned into tours of our respective tiny campers. When Matt asked Don if he knew how strict the park rangers were on overnighters since we hadn’t yet figured out where we’d be staying that evening, Don offered to let us park our RV in his driveway and plugin for the night. Then, he invited us into his home, where we heated up our soup dinner, and chatted the night away, connecting about adventures in the desert, fishing, and exchanging photos and stories.
Early the next morning, as we headed back to Smith Rock to get in some hiking and climbing, we hugged Don goodbye and thanked him for his incredibly generous hospitality. Don admitted he’d never done anything like this (this, I assume meaning inviting strangers to stay at his house) before, and commented that this is more of what the world needs– interactions with people across demographics, political orientations and generally walks of life. I couldn’t agree with Don more; if more people looked up from their cell phone screens, smiled and interacted with each other in a real setting, then we’d all be better off. I know that my chat with the heartbroken 19-year-old felt like one of the more valuable things I did that day, and of course I’m still reflecting back on it weeks later. We’ve even kept in touch with Don, both by email and a few chats over the phone. Recently, we’ve been chatting about our solar setup and needs. Don has a background as a product development manager for a company that worked on batteries and such for AC to DC conversions so he’s a wealth of knowledge and has designed his own rig to work specifically for his needs. If timing works out, I’m hoping we will see Don again. Maybe we can even have a little group camp out in the desert.
It’s not something we often make time on our busy calendars to do: connect with other humans outside our social and career networks, but it’s something that we all need, and it’s something I hope we can all make more of an effort to do this year. I’ve considered planning a monthly “random act of kindness day” where I do something to help bring love and kindness to the world around me wherever I am.
Human connection is not guaranteed by living a traveling, vagabond life. I’ve met plenty of people who travel to a new place and never meaningfully interact with people other than the friends and family they’re with. I’ve certainly had my own travel like that. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself with friends and people you know, there’s definitely something invaluable to going new places and really talking to the people who live there. For one thing, you’ll probably learn something new about a different culture (which reminds me of the time my friend Kelly and I started chatting up the locals working at our hotel in the Bahamas and ended up spending more hours than we would have wanted at a Bahamian Bennigans in a strip mall in Nassau where Kelly received a highly accented birthday serenade lap dance from a guy with mostly gold teeth … but that’s a story for another day). Who knows– you might even make a new friend.