The sun rises over the snow covered peaks of the Grand Tetons. The arrowleaf balsamroot flowers are illuminated by its golden, warming rays. A sense of euphoria envelopes me as I drive, witnessing this bucolic scene. Life is as it has never been before.
Travel can change us and re-shape our perspectives for the better. The unparalleled quantity of new experiences we encounter reshape how we see the world and ourselves. In traveling, our eyes are opened to our vulnerabilities, strengths, and tendencies, and our perception of the world is challenged; we are confronted head on by our unfiltered selves. This is largely due to the fact that we’re alone with our thoughts (or with a only a few others we know) for an unprecedented amount of time, but equivalently due to the fact that we encounter a broad range of new and infrequent experiences.
My most recent journey from Tennessee to the Grand Tetons and the Rockies presented me with a number of such experiences. Given that I travel in an old 1987 Toyota van, which is not immune to breakdowns, I found my myself camping in the parking lot of an auto mechanic, with views of construction and industrial buildings as opposed to the idyllic scenes of nature, waiting to get my transmission fluid pan replaced.
In this lowest of low times in my most recent journey, I was greeted by a gentleman and his son, whom I’d seen working in the shop on the other side of the fence surrounding my temporary parking lot home. Noticing my Tennessee license plate, the older man asked, “Are you really from Tennessee? That’s a long way to come in such an old van.” which launched us into conversation about my journeys and current misfortune. He later explained that his son was a glassblower and was having a studio opening that night, and that I’d be welcome to attend should I so choose. I gladly joined the party and was welcomed warmly, given beer and food, and treated as if part of the group of fellow attendees that were the glassblower’s close friends and family.
I did not expect such generosity in this moment, especially since, to them, I was a stranger living in an old van outside some mechanic’s shop. This, coupled with numerous further gestures of kindness and humanity to recount here, helped re-instilled my faith in humanity.
In the world of thru-hiking, a special term exists for such abundant generosity: trail magic. Such acts are predicated solely upon our shared humanity. In considering my journeys, I believe this phenomenon is not an anomaly reserved for the world of thru-hiking. Instead, it seems to translate identically to travel in general. Such resounding kindness that we’ll most likely experience in our travels definitely reveals humankind’s best facets, remediating whatever cynicality we might be harboring.
This is a perfect example of where my biases were challenged, as I had tended to suspect that most people looked upon strangers in unconventional situations (such as travel) unfavorably. Over the course of three weeks, this bias was turned on its head, as I experienced further acts of love and kindness.
Through travel, be it to new cities, remote wilderness, or anywhere in between, we can reach a better understanding of ourselves through the experiences and relationships we garner in our travels.