It’s never the places; it’s always the people

After driving to and through twelve states in twelve days, I’m reminded of my indecisiveness. My computer is flooded with windows of Word drafts at different stages. I jump topic to topic, state to state, unable to pinpoint a focus.

I thought I might write about the outdoors and natural beauty – about the Pisgah National Forrest and hiking to the top of Looking Glass Rock, swimming in Skinny Dip Falls and Sliding Rock, laying down sleeping bags twenty feet from a three-step waterfall, fetching sticks to maintain the fire’s heat, and the oaky smoky stench that we couldn’t leave behind; or about standing atop Palo Duro Canyon watching the sun set, parading colors a skilled painter might hope to replicate; or about laying afloat in Mamby Hot Springs along the Rio Grande Gorge gazing up at stars an astronomer might better fathom but equally marvel at.

I thought I might write about culture, food, and music – about the best ribs I’ve ever had at The Joint, the best biscuit Joe’s ever had at Biscuit Heads, the best migas taco Ben’s ever had at Veracruz Food Truck, the best burger Rob’s ever had at Oskar Blues Brewery, and the unanimous best, well first, crawfish stuffed mushrooms at some unnamed tent; or about Jazz Fest and gospel tents and nine-piece bands made up of kids, friends; or about the all-the-time jazz shows day and night, weekdays and weekends, indoors and on the streets of Frenchmen, Bourbon, and Canal; or about silver dome busses converted to homes and the something-out-of-the-70s trailer park communes.

I thought I might write about the hours in the car – about the unrivaled feeling granted by the open road, or about the Blue Ridge Parkway, or about the chhhh sound of the walki-talkie when the caravan’s lead vehicle came on channel 1 to inform a turnaround, a pee break, a gas fill up, an inspiring JFK quote, or some nonsense road chatter to help pass time during the 4,000 miles navigating closely behind Rob’s 4-Runner on I-81 to Asheville, and I-185 to Atlanta, and I-59 to Louisiana, and I-10 to Houston, and I-290 to Austin, and I-35 to Dallas, and I-287 to Amarillo, and I-40 to Santa Fe and I-84 to 503 to 76 to Taos, and I-25 to Denver and I-70 to Avon.

And I might, we’ll see – indecisive, remember I warned?

The photos of the outdoors and natural beauty, the saved Snapchats of food and festivals, the Google Maps’ screenshot plotting the route spark enjoyable, though fleeting, reminiscence.

More permanent, however, what I think about daily, what needs no such spark, no location tag in Instagram: the people: the friends and friends of friends who paused daily routine for invading passer-bys eager for a couch to sleep on and a shower to rinse off in; the strangers who without reluctance guided out-of-towners eager for direction to the locals’ must-sees and must-dos.

I put these words atop this photo shortly after returning from New Zealand last November.

strangers flown

It’s been my laptop’s background since. The quote comes from Tim Ferriss’ Tools for Titans. It struck me. It read as true, like I knew what he meant.

It reminded me of my time in Perth where two strangers, Craig and Liam, housed me rent-free for five months. It reminded me of my time in Coolum where a stranger, Jay, welcomed my van-mates and I into his home for five days. It reminded me of my time in New Zealand where a stranger, Amanda, picked up four hitchhikers stranded beside a broken-down car in Wanaka and drove two hours out of her way to return us to Queenstown.

And it reminds me, now, of Tim in Atlanta, Wanda in New Orleans, Lauren and Ben in Austin, and Amy in New Mexico, each opening their doors to a group of roving strangers, eager to put it in park for a night or two.

Once strangers, I now call them friends. The former quickly becomes the latter. History is all that stands between the two categorizations – one encounter, one shared experience, one coincident location, one night on a couch, one time sticking a thumb up and asking for help. I might now revise Nemer’s quote, just slightly: “strangers are just people whose couch you haven’t yet asked to sleep on.” A little wordier, I know, but the meal is coming from the same kitchen, as they say.

I enjoyed the driving, the walkies, the hiking, the camping, the swimming, the food, the music, the experience. But the people, the friends, the friends of friends, the strangers now flown, or as the slight modification goes, the strangers whose couch I’ve now slept on – I hold a feeling of gratitude far exceeding, far outlasting any of fleeting enjoyment.

If I withdraw any experience from the memory bank, it’s never the places; it’s always the people.