I have this stubbornly strong belief that it’s important to occasionally put yourself at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. It’s the basis of my whole “why everyone should hitchhike” theory, but I’ll save that one for another day.
Unlike plenty of other trips, I didn’t intend to rely on the kindness of strangers in my recent vacation plans. But the universe had other ideas…
My initial plans to spend my second week off backpacking solo got scrambled by a wildfire in the area. I changed my route to avoid the affected area but by day three I was discouraged by the persistent smoke, foot issues, and some general malaise. I studied my map and discovered an alternate route that could get me out to my car in one long but possible 27-mile day. When I woke up at 430a after a fitful night, my plans were cemented.
After backtracking a few miles, I set off on the route I had identified on the map – a mix of a primitive road and some trail that it was obvious wouldn’t be heavily traveled. Things were going well until about nine miles in, when I came to the end of the road and was expecting a trail head, but instead found a fork in the road and a pair of gates. Despite the “no public access” sign on the gate, the right fork of the road appeared to match the route of the trail on my map. So I proceeded, but my confidence was replaced by the kind of anxiety that comes from knowing that 1. there’s no discernible reason for anyone to be on this road; 2. you are in the thick of gold mining claims; and 3. it’s 4 miles to the next trail junction at which point you’ll find out whether the map was just inaccurate about the road versus trail detail or whether you will have to backtrack, meaning at least 40 miles of walking to get out.
So you can imagine how I felt when, about three and a half miles later, I heard tools and saw life. I approached the old log cabin and began shouting “hello!” in my friendliest tone. And it was then that my luck turned.
I was greeted with a polite, “are you lost?” but very soon it was “I’m Eric.”, “take your pack off” and “would you like a cup of coffee?” I got confirmation that I was indeed just where I hoped I was on the map, great information about the trail ahead, and then, very unexpectedly, an offer of a ride out. Because it seems that Eric’s dad had his lunch packed and was heading out in about ten minutes – the only trip out from this cabin, the only users of the road, in a couple weeks. I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes before settling on, “Hello universe, thank you for the sign.”
As we pulled out of the driveway, Jim told me that he wasn’t much of a talker. He then spent the next few hours telling me about the family that built the cabin in the late 1920s, how his parents had come to own it in the late 1940s, and all the change he had seen visiting each summer for the last 65 years. Dams and highways built, mining fortunes, forest fires and so much more… When we finally reached the trailhead I hugged the man goodbye as he took out his peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-cold-pancakes lunch and loaded my pack in the Geo for the drive home, smiling at my good fortune.
I made it about a quarter mile down the road before I noticed that my gas gauge was below “E”, a full half-tank lower than when I had parked the car there four days earlier. I thanked the universe that I wasn’t going to run out of gas in the dark after hiking 27 miles, and started coasting every possible chance. My luck held, and the Geo made it all 30-some miles to the nearest gas station on fumes.
As soon as I started filling the tank, though, gas started spilling out and forming a pool on ground. Not home free yet. Closer inspection revealed that the rubber hose that leads from the gas cap to the gas tank had been neatly slashed. Someone was so desperate that they siphoned the tank of a Geo Metro. (Side note: a Metro tank holds less than 8 gallons. Absolute best case scenario they were going after $25 worth of gas.)
This story is dragging on far longer than it really deserves, so I’m going to speed ahead. I chatted up the gas station attendant to confirm that I was a further 40 miles from the nearest auto repair or tow services. A few minutes later, he was crawling around under my car in the lot confirming the situation and offering to lend me tools. A few minutes after that, I took his advice on effective application of duct tape and executed a (very) temporary repair. Good enough to get a few gallons of gas in the tank, enough to carry me the 100-odd miles home.
I pulled into the driveway about 7p that night, less than 14 hours after I had set out homeward. It was certainly not the journey I imagined when I set out, and it certainly looked to be going off the rails more than once. But I was home, safe and sound and hours earlier than I could have hoped at the start of the day. All because a couple of strangers went out of their way to help me out, and because I was trusting enough to take them up on their offers.
Thank you, universe, for the most appropriate ending to a trip I set out thinking was all about self-sufficiency and independence.