The day after Christmas, Gary and Evan drove from Austin, Texas to Mariposa, California to visit Evan’s fiancee Tashea and to spend time in Gary’s mecca – Yosemite Valley – where he had rented heated tent cabins in Curry Village. Ever since he spent time there when he was eighteen, the park has beckoned Gary back, and he dreams of buying property near the park. To quote John Muir: “Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
Three days later, a woman from Yosemite National Park called me.
“Gary?” she said.
“No, I’m his wife. Is everything ok?”
“I’ve been trying with no luck to reach Gary. A big snow storm is hitting the park tonight, so we have to cancel his tent cabin rentals.”
“Oh no! For all three nights? Gary will be devastated.”
“We’re canceling on a day-by-day basis. Might just be one night.”
I sighed. “I so hope so. Are y’all ok now?”
And this compassionate stranger and I chatted about how wonderful Yosemite is and I shared my husband’s love affair with the park. “Gary’s 76 years old,” I said. “Yosemite is his favorite place on earth. He worked there when he was eighteen, and we’ve visited several times, taking our three sons when they were little and just this June with their significant others. Last night he got to the Yosemite Bug with our youngest son and his fiancee.”
“He should stay at the Bug,” she said. And she gave me the number for Gary to call when I reached him.
I used Messenger to give Evan the number, but because of spotty cell phone reception, he didn’t receive the news until they were on a bus with their luggage headed to the park. Two hours later Gary called.
“They cancelled our tents?! Where are they gonna put us up?”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “The woman said you should stay at the Bug.”
I heard him huffing and puffing. “I’m walking to the office now. Gotta go.”
That evening Evan called. “What did you tell the lady in Yosemite? All the workers acted like they knew Dad when we walked in. They’re letting us stay at a cottage in Curry Village tonight and giving us an employee’s discount!” Talking with a stranger about my family had brought us unforeseen kindness. We had connected over our love of Yosemite and she showed empathy for an old guy and his son.
I enjoy talking with strangers because I’m curious about their lives. Like the cashier who works weekends at the 7-Day Food Store down my street who stays upbeat even after an attempted holdup. Or the young teacher who first exchanged waves with me and now gives me vegetables from her garden.
We rightly tell young children, “Don’t talk to strangers,” to protect them from sickos. But as adults, shouldn’t we feel free to talk with strangers? To make a connection, to commiserate, to say, “I see you. You’re not invisible or insignificant.”
Stranger talk starts with weather comments. I don’t try dangerous topics like politics, religion, or pandemic advice. But I smiled behind my mask when a very short woman who walks her very fat dachshund wanted to show me pictures of her grandkids on her phone. We always wave now, and I feel less alone on chilly morning walks because most strangers and I have more similarities than differences. Our encounters feed the fresh-faced optimist inside me and send my pimply pessimist with chronic indigestion and facial tics to her room for an indefinite time-out until she’s rediscovered her sense of humor.
The pandemic has separated us in a list of necessary ways, but aren’t we all still struggling to get on with life the best we can? If I ask a stranger, “What’s your dog’s name?” or tell a waiter, “Cool tattoo,” am I not making a connection? Not in the generic, robotic, “Have a nice day,” way. Specificity counts. This past fall, a school crossing guard and I bonded over both being from Louisiana, so right before Christmas, I gave her some boudin from Lafayette. We exchanged holiday greetings and our names that day.
Some friends give me a hard time about talking to strangers. They roll their eyes and take a few steps back as they maybe mutter, “There she goes again.” But I want to be like the protagonist on my favorite TV series Better Things. Writer, actor, and director Pamela Adlon ’s protagonist Sam Fox shares time with a quiet man on a film set or she gets to know the mother of her daughter’s Mormon friend. Her honesty creates powerful moments in her show. I’d say that a key rule when talking with strangers is “understanding, not judging.”
Talking with strangers has given me memories I treasure:
*taking a selfie with a scruffy guy at 7 a.m. outside Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.
*getting a list of good places to eat in Montreal from a couple, nicknamed the Professor and Maryanne, who owned a tiny coffee shop and who got jazzed when I told them,”I’m Ginger!” So the three of us posed for a Gilligan’s Island tribute pic.
*meeting a groovy neighbor six years ago as we both walked our large dogs. She has become a close friend and the mother of my three amazing “practice grandchildren”!
Strangers have enriched my life, and even though every encounter is not hitting the jackpot, connecting with someone else may add serendipity to my life. I never know when a casual chat can lead to knowing three of the most wonderful children in the world!