Road Trip Through West Texas
A road trip seems to encourage interaction with strangers, especially if you need help or directions. But on Sunday morning, this friendly fellow in Van Horn, TX was not asking for or giving help. He was just loading his car next to ours in the Hotel Capitan parking lot...just happily sharing about his great weekend.
Middle of Nowhere
Van Horn seems to be in the middle of nowhere. But back when Hotel Capitan was built in the 1930's, many travelers stopped here between visits to the caverns and mountains. There didn't seem to be anyone in Van Horn on Saturday afternoon.
When I wandered around the deserted street that Saturday, I noticed these curious posters taped onto a light pole and a brick building. How could you not be intrigued by a local Dance/Party with "cowboy music" that started at 9:01 pm?
Food Over Adventure
Don and I decided against the curious community party on Saturday night and instead had dinner at the hotel ...all to ourselves. In the morning, we came down to breakfast and noticed a lively table with 3 cowboy hats and a woman with a long braid. They were a good humored bunch and I strained to listen, but couldn't find out why they were in such good spirits.
Tony the Poet
Later as we loaded the car, I felt pretty lucky when Tony introduced himself and could fill in some of the blanks. Tony and his friends had come from Nevada to attend the annual Cowboy Poetry Contest in the area. (I think Tony did well, judging by his good spirits!) He told us he also spent some time in the schools performing for children. (I'm guessing Tony had them make signs!) Then on Friday night he and some local musicians brought our quiet hotel to life with an impromptu jam session. And I could only guess what an intriguing atmosphere there must have been at the community center on Saturday night, with children and families and traveling poets from as far as Nevada.
So Thanks Tony!
If someone would have mentioned cowboy poetry to me a year ago, I might have chuckled. Actually I think some of your poetry is more like storytelling and you would be pleased to have people chuckle. But mostly you made me curious. I'm regretting that we didn't let those signs lead us to the Community Center on Friday night. That would have been memorable! I learned a lesson...Pay Attention to the Signs!
Meeting People Through Children
In 1987, I spent a number of days exploring Southport, England while my husband was in business meetings. I was reminded that children can be a tool to opening conversations with strangers. Like the woman who noticed Heidi slumped in her stroller and scolded, "Do you know your baby is asleep!" Or to this wonderful driver of a double-decker bus, who welcomed Heidi onto the driver's seat so she could pretend to drive his bus! He is the stranger I will remember, for his warmth and humor. I remember him as Mr. Oz.
I learned quickly that children play a different role in England. Some restaurants and pub owners turned us away when they saw Heidi in her stroller. When given advance warning, Heidi was welcomed into a ritzy French restaurant. The owner borrowed an antique high chair with velvet cushion from a shop next door. He seemed proud to announce they had only once before accepted a child to their restaurant. But regardless of culture, there are people who delight in children everywhere. Above is a picture of Heidi with Peter, our waiter at the hotel. He was one of those people. We left after each meal with extra supplies of fruit and biscuits for Heidi to enjoy later.
Riding Mr. Oz's Bus!
Heidi and I waited at the bus stop across from our hotel until we spotted a double decker pulling up to the curb. "Where to?" The driver asked when I stepped onto the bus. I explained I just wanted to go a few blocks to give Heidi a double-decker experience. I paid 22 pence and climbed the stairs to find the upper deck empty.
View From Bus
Heidi and I enjoyed looking down on the cabs and cars and watching the tree branches nearly whack the windows with each turn.
After a bit, I trotted down to tell the driver we better get off, but he encouraged us to just stay on and enjoy. Back up we went. I could hear him whistling "We're off to see the Wizard" from his seat. He kind of reminded of the Wizard of Oz.
The scenery changed. From city to suburbs to countryside. Fields and farms, a cemetery, a church...a storybook image of a girl riding a horse down a dirt road. The bus stopped for about 10 minutes when we arrived at the turnaround spot in Banks, a coastal village north of Southport. I asked what the fare was for the return trip. "Oh nothing, I think." Teased Mr. Oz. "Since you've come all the way from America."
The Bus Takes a Rest
In Banks, the bus rested and Mr. Oz stretched a bit. He climbed upstairs and enjoyed the view with Heidi and me. Then he asked if Heidi would like to sit in the driver's seat. He offered to use my camera for a photo while Heidi played with the wheel. Then Mr. Oz asked if I would mind the bus, while he ran into a stone building nearby. He dashed off, leaving me with all the ticket money just sitting on a little tray. A woman climbed on board and laughed at the sight of Heidi and me at the wheel. "So we ride free today, do we?" She said with an accent that matched her perfectly. A tidy little man in a black cap laughed behind the woman. When Mr. Oz returned I stayed with others who had gathered up near the front. We jabbered the whole way back. Everyone had to tell me who they knew back in America. And everyone had to tell me what I needed to do on my remaining days in Southport.
Thanks Mr. Oz!
Not only did you welcome Heidi and me to your bus, but your positive spirit seemed to spread to anyone you came in contact with.
Heidi doesn't remember this little adventure that occurred 25 years ago. But I remember it fondly.
Too Dark to See
In the day, the viewing area looks like this. But a year ago, I stood near the open window on a pitch black night, surrounded by murmuring voices. The deck was swarming with curious visitors, all straining their eyes out towards the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous "Marfa Lights".
Mysterious Marfa Lights
If you come in the daylight, you can read this sign.
What Can You See?
Late on a Saturday night in April, my husband and I decided to head from our hotel in Marfa, TX to Mitchel Flat, 9 miles away. People have gathered in this open field for years in hopes of spotting the mysterious phenomena called The Marfa Lights.
It's hard to know how many people stood out on that dark deck. My eyes never really adjusted to see more than dark shapes, milling about...and a glow now and then of cell phones. My ears worked much better...hearing the constant flow of cars and motorcycles entering and leaving the parking lot...and the voices. I kept my eyes glued to the horizon and listened. A giddy group who had probably had a few beers...some parents explaining to children where to look...a few hopeful gasps and some disappointed responses. And so many questions swirling in the night air. "What's that lumpy thing?" "Are those the lights, or just a car?" "Can we go now?" "Where are you?" The sky wasn't producing any excitement, but the dialogue was entertaining.
My eyes could barely see a thing, but I heard a serious voice answering questions. I could see the shape of a man seated in a folding chair. There seemed to be a tripod beside him, which was quietly clicking at regular intervals. I strained to hear over the now annoying chatter, because I could tell this man knew something about these Marfa Lights.
As it turns out, the figure seated nearby was James Burnell, a scientist and author of a number of books about the lights. He sat quietly in his chair, while the crowd of impatient spectators thinned. And before long he was the only one left on the deck besides my husband and myself.
It was an odd thing to converse without seeing a face. It's amazing how you listen to the clues of a voice. His voice was calm and steady. He seemed neither annoyed by our questions or enthused. Then, he answered our most important question. "So, have you seen any tonight?" "Not tonight." He answered, while his camera clicked away...just in case. He spoke like a scientist, explaining how these mysterious orbs of light were first witnessed by the Native Americans, believing they were fallen stars. He told us a bit about the studies he had done using automated monitoring stations...and yet there really is no explanation for some of the sightings.
Then Mr. Bunnell stopped sounding like a scientist and he talked about growing up in Marfa and how his grandfather would take him out to this spot (which was only a field) in hopes of spotting the lights. He mentioned that he now lives in Dallas, but occasionally makes the 9 hour drive to spend a weekend studying the sky. "This doesn't seem to be one of the lucky nights." He said without disappointment.
Thanks to the Expert on Marfa Lights!
I won't remember your face, but I'll always remember your patience and passion. It's hard to be patient about something you're passionate about. You show that it's possible.
I was out early, exploring the city with my family in the summer of 2006, when we spotted this serious man preparing for a day of work.
The colorful checks, stripes and diamonds of his clothing were the perfect accent on the mosaic bench.
He concentrated on his make up while traffic on the busy Passeig de Gracia roared by him.
The Better Photo
I had been focused on the clown. It was a curious thing to watch...this man studying his mirror, applying shiny colors to his face...so oblivious to the city rushing by. But it was my son, Scott who alerted me to the bigger picture. He quietly moved me to the side where I could see the man who sat behind the clown. The men seemed so similar, bent over paper and mirror. They both blocked out the world, before a day of work. Their bodies were almost like statues, beside the busy street cleaner...motorbike and bus. No one seemed to take notice, except us. Well maybe the couple, embracing across the street. You can barely see them, peering through the decorative iron on the bench.
An Hour Later
We headed back towards the same intersection. Shops and businesses..more traffic now. We spotted the clown, posed like a statue on a box. Layers of colors and patterns now covered his white undershirt. He held a wobbly umbrella over his head. His clunky shoes turned outward, each with a mysterious eyeball!
He didn't speak or move, but held his mouth in a cheery smile, which we hadn't seen earlier.
I gestured with my camera and put money in his tip container. I stepped back and smiled before lifting the camera. When my camera clicked, his nose blinked like Rudolph's!
Thanks, Dear Clown!
We never spoke. I watched you on the bench and on the sidewalk. I can only guess about the rest of your life. I had less interaction with you than most strangers on my list, but you are an easy one to remember!
A Bar in Lake Tahoe
Strangers always talk to each other in bars, so what made this "stranger encounter" stand out?
Greg was not a Lake Tahoe tourist or a local, stopping by for a drink. He was a hiker who had just finished a 26 mile day.
Quiet October Evening
My husband and I were watching the 2011 World Series at our hotel bar when Greg walked in.
He juggled two trekking poles a pack, bed roll and a steel water bottle. He had just stepped off the "Tahoe Rim Trail" and was looking for a food store before bedding down for the night. Billy, the bartender welcomed him in and poured him a complimentary beer. Greg moved towards the stool gratefully, but took a few minutes stretching his weary muscles before settling down.
It seems like anyone who hitchhikes from Fresno, California to start a 165-mile hike that loops Lake Tahoe at elevations up to 10,338 feet... might be a loner.
But Greg was animated and chatty with our small group. He paused a few times to absorb the baseball on TV. He seemed a bit nostalgic when he mentioned how very different he and his Dad were, yet they always enjoyed watching sports together. I had a feeling there was a lot more to that story.
Billy offered to microwave some leftover gourmet mac-n-cheese for Greg. After devouring the steamy dish, Greg offered to pay for the kindness by helping Billy with a furniture moving chore. It was pretty cozy inside, as temperatures were dropping to freezing outside. I kept wondering how it would feel to go back outside and sleep on the ground after hiking a marathon.
In the following days, Don and I hiked a number of trails in the area and I couldn't stop wondering what it would be like to hike alone.
If I didn't have someone to chat with, would I talk to myself? Would I sing, or write stories in my head? Would I ever be afraid? (yes) Would I make up games like kick the rock or count the birds? Would I think more of the past or the future?
On our last day in Tahoe we drove I-80 towards Tahoe City. There was a moment when Don and I both gasped to notice a figure beside the road, hitchhiking in a red shirt. Don braked and turned the car around to greet Greg who had finished his Rim Hike. He was heading home to Fresno, the opposite way we were going. We wished him luck and got back on the road.
Thanks Greg! I've done a lot of hiking since we met you 9 months ago. There's always plenty of thinking time on a hike, and you often come to mind when my feet get into that rhythmic mode. You make me stop and wonder about solitude. You seemed to appreciate it. I'm sure you've had many adventures and much to ponder, since we met you!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers