I took a little journey a few weeks ago. Starting from my house, I rode my touring bicycle down to the C&O Canal just outside DC, and then rode that and the Great Allegheny Passage trail all the way to the terminus at Point State Park in Pittsburgh. All told, it was 384 miles over 6.5 days. This wasn’t really a backcountry epic like some of our recent adventures, but I love these self-powered, self-supported journeys regardless. There’s nothing better than leaving the car behind for a week to create space for reflection and restoration.
A few mornings into the trip, I took a snack break at a biker friendly cafe near the trail. Outside locking my bike, a guy stopped to greet me and ask about the journey. I went inside, and soon, the friendly owner was asking about it as well. When he offered to fill my water bottles, I went outside to grab them and ran into a young couple on their way in, who were doing the same tour, but in the opposite direction. After swapping trail beta, they shared the story of their bikes getting stolen a few towns back. Their story continued as we walked into cafe, and before long, the whole cafe was engaged in their story and abuzz with many more. (It turns out some juvenile delinquents escaping from a local facility had stolen the bikes trying to make a getaway - up the steepest hill around. Police caught the hoodlums a day later, got the bikes back, and all ended well.) Meanwhile, as I was enjoying my time in the cafe, some coworkers following my progress on the GPS map-share texted me a lighthearted taunt about my laziness in doing more chilling than riding for the last hour.
The whole experience crystallized something I’d been mulling over since the first few miles a few days earlier, when I ran into a several groups of road riders who were similarly fascinated with the journey I was just beginning - and heartily offered their encouragement.
It’s fascinating how a journey like this draws people into the story. All that encouragement has the potential to change the way I see me. But it’s even more compelling how their engagement brings out their own stories and activates their generosity. In other words, it can change the way I see people. Those random interactions along the way often become the most memorable part of the journey.
It starts with the story, of course. Whether in the cafe, or on the road, or even on Facebook - it was pretty apparent to the casual observer that I was on some sort of trek, and they would then just naturally ask about the story. Hearing it, they’d join in, bringing some stories of their own. In normal everyday life, we too often rush past these stories.
The cafe owner is just that guy who made the sandwich. On the journey, we’re immersed in the passion he and his wife have put into the place, see the simmering love story behind the counter, and sense their mutual aspirations to impact a community.
That guy at the next table over is just some local reading the daily paper. On the journey, we learn he lives in the mountains, got burned out working in DC, dreams of doing the same journey, but has his hands full caring for his ailing wife.
That Facebook friend was always nice decades ago when we were high school kids. On the journey, we're surprised to discover she has fond memories of her own time on the trail, and longs to do it again.
In other words, when people engage in the journey, there’s a natural flow into deeper things; a chance to experience who they really are and to glimpse the things that shape them. Connect at that level - and it's easy to appreciate them.
That’s a great thing all by itself. But when people engage with the journey, there’s often a more tangible experience … and that’s being the recipient of their gracious generosity. Try this experiment. Get out of your car and walk into your local Starbucks, and see how many people even bother to greet you. Go back the next day at the same time all geared up and park your fully loaded bike right next to the door. The same regulars, who didn’t even look at you yesterday, who’ve still never met you, will blow you away with the sincere offers of help and support.
For me it started as soon as I got on the trail. There was the massively overweight guy on the C&O who chatted me up with the stories of his exploits on the trail (I’m ashamed to say I internally dismissed his stories as empty posturing.) Then he saw me struggling to keep my bike balanced against a bike rack, and immediately offered an “emergency brake” - showing me how to stretch the little piece of rubber tube over the handlebar to hold the front brake in place. I used his contraption at least 10 times a day, every day. I wish I could go back and give him a much heartier thank you - and hear more of his story.
Then my business partner Scott and wife Debbie drove an hour out of their way to bring me a replacement water filter to a nearby trail stop (and refused to let me get the lunch tab.)
I whined on Facebook how hot and sticky it was - and within minutes, several connections with homes down the trail had offered showers or lodging or a meal or whatever I needed.
I pulled into a bike shop in Brunswick with a floppy fender (causing it to jam with mud), and the owner just gave me some hardware to fix it. (I tried to pay him, he wouldn’t take it.)
The cafe owner filled water bottles (with ice) - and offered several times to give me some more food for the road.
When I wearily pulled into his hunting lodge, the cantankerous owner learned that I’d been looking forward to a cold beer for the last 15 miles - only to find the pub down the road (the only one in 20 miles) closed. So he gave me an ice cold Yuengling from his personal fridge. (And the same cantankerous guy cooked up a rustic dinner for another biker who had just ridden 130 miles, and had been counting on that same pub for dinner.)
Of course, over 384 miles, there were plenty more encounters just like these. Once people engaged in the story, they naturally and sincerely wanted to help, in whatever little or big way they could. It’s like us humans are just wired that way.
Unfortunately, it’s also easy to see why people often bury that trait. Along well-traveled trails like the Appalachian Trail or the John Muir Trail, a small sample of adventurers show up unprepared or with an entitlement attitude. They fully expect others to support, facilitate, or equip their journey - and/or rescue them when things get interesting. Extend that experiment above by riding your fully loaded bike to the same Starbucks, then walk into the store demanding a free cup of coffee and expecting someone to check your tire pressure. You’ll probably get a different response. Most people are happy to give. No one likes to be taken from.
Of course, just like my “emergency brake” buddy, even the ones we dismiss have a story, just waiting to be discovered, if we can detach from the grind long enough to hear it ...
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