In everyday life, we often talk about the kindness of strangers, little and big things done by people previously-unknown to us, things that humble us and touch us and restore our faith in humanity. In my experience, travelers are perfectly positioned to witness the breadth and depth of this kindness. On the road or on the trail, we find ourselves vulnerable, as we neither know the regions we’re passing through nor have the resources to live in those regions in the same way that locals do. This vulnerability enables travelers to embrace the kindness of strangers, should they choose to do so.
One of the things that I most enjoy about backpacking is the sense of freedom and independence I feel with everything I need on my back. I enjoy being fully capable and self-sufficient, able to make do with the 14 pounds (not including food and water) I’m carrying on my back.
I like not needing to rely on other people, but I love to open myself to the possibility of meeting kind strangers, learning their stories, and sharing time with them. If those strangers become trail angels and offer rides or a place to lay out my tent, I’m tremendously grateful.
I have never been more grateful for or more completely taken aback by the kindness of strangers than I was last week, when I first met Teresa.
When Ant, Pine Nut, and I had arrived in Acton, we went our separate ways as we worked to accomplish our various resupply chores. I headed to the KOA to pick up my resupply box, and Ant and Pine Nut set out to find a ride to town. Thirty minutes later, I’d walked through the septic-scented campground, stuffed the food and sundries from my maildrop into my pack, found nowhere I was allowed to charge my phone, and resigned myself to waiting in the dismal picnic area for Pine Nut and Ant. But, then they walked by. Apparently, their interaction with Acton had thus far been even less successful than mine: They’d not yet gotten a ride.
As we were sharing the stories of our trials and wishing each other well, a couple in a truck pulled up and offered a ride to my hiking partners. The driver cautioned my friends about the dogs in the backseat, but Ant and Pine Nut were already grinning. They replied with the hitchhiker’s oft-repeated “We love dogs!” and jumped in.
I made a split-second decision: “Can I come, too?” I yelled across the lawn. After the affirmative reply, I gathered my belongings and jogged to the truck, which took us to downtown Acton.
Acton is a tiny little town, but it seemed much friendlier than the KOA, in spite of the description of our guidebook author, Yogi, to the contrary. We all hurried into the post office, where I sent home my pants (now that a lack of antibiotics allows me to wear shorts or a Purple Rain skirt) and where Ant and Pine Nut picked up a package from REI.
Outside of the post office, Ant tried on the purple hiking boots from REI, hopeful that they’d help with persistent plantar fasciitis. I searched for an outlet to charge my phone as a petite, athletic blonde woman pulled up in a Lexus and walked toward the post office. As I wandered around the outside of the little shopping center, I heard the woman strike up a conversation with Ant and Pine Nut about the trail. Preoccupied, I only heard bits of the conversation, but I gathered that the woman knew about the PCT because of “Wild” and was interested in learning more about thru-hiking. The next moment, Ant and Pine Nut called me over. The woman, who introduced herself as Teresa, had a trailer outside of her home and invited us to shower and stay in it.
Talking about the experience, Pine Nut and Ant said that they were only a little wary about whether they should accept Teresa’s offer. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t wary at all; everything about Teresa seemed genuine and friendly and safe. In responding to the offer to stay in the trailer, I didn’t hesitate and simply felt a great gratitude at the sudden turn of events.
Minutes later, our packs were loaded in the back of Teresa’s vehicle and we were heading to her home in the outskirts of Acton.
Upon walking in the front door of Teresa’s beautiful and stately home, I was struck first by how wonderful it smelled. I breathed deeply, enjoying the scent of amber and feeling utterly astonished by Teresa’s hospitality.
“What’s your priority?” Teresa asked. “Showers or food?”
We all hesitated, feeling torn between two very good options. Teresa picked up on this and decided to go get pizza while we showered. Even though we offered to pay for the pizza, Teresa refused to take our money. Instead, she showed us how to operate the television and encouraged us to relax with Netflix.
I struggled to understand why Teresa would leave strangers alone in her home. How is it that she trusted us enough to know that we’d simply, gratefully shower and watch a few episodes of Doctor Who? Would I be as trusting of someone I just met? Would it help or hurt if that someone was covered in dirt, had greasy hair, and smelled as though she hadn’t seen a shower in weeks?
When Teresa came home with pizza, she found three very happy, significantly cleaner hikers curled up under blankets on her reclining leather couches. We ate the pizza and got to know more about the miraculous woman who’d taken in a trio of thru-hikers.
Like us, Teresa loved traveling and adventure, but her passion has always been making a difference in the lives of children and animals. She’d had a full career as a social worker and was preparing for a nomadic retirement.
As the pizza was disappearing and the conversation was gathering momentum, Teresa’s partner, Laurie, came home, bringing more food and kindness.
After dinner, Laurie built a fire in the living room fireplace, and we all sat around, exchanging stories and becoming friends. The evening stretched far beyond hiker midnight, and this early riser became incapable of doing anything besides smiling by its end, when Teresa and Laurie pointed us to the guest rooms and invited us to sleep on enormous, luxuriously soft beds.
I might have thought the best details of my time with Teresa and Laurie were creations of my imagination, were it not for the corroborating details that Ant and Pine Nut remember — or for the fact that I would see Teresa and Laurie again, one week later.
To be continued…