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People of the Road

What happens to the ones we meet along the way?



Somebody mentioned the town of Kamloops, British Columbia, to me the other day, and it sent my mind back to an Ireland afternoon when I met a charming and beautiful young woman from that town. I was standing outside the pub where I had just enjoyed a Guinness or two, and after I had taken a picture of the place -- I was feeling quite attached to that pub in that moment -- I looked around to see two big, blue eyes looking at me from under a wave of blond hair and below that a big smile that still makes me feel a little cuddly.

"Do you always take pictures of pubs?" That was the first thing she ever said to me. The last thing she said to me was "Have a great trip!" That was sometime the next day, after we'd spent most of the night in the hostel talking about life and adventure and travel and the folks back home. I was 23 and completely in love for about 17 hours. We never kissed and never communicated again, and while I'm tempted to say that's too bad, perhaps a more realistic view is that without such complications as physical contact and ongoing communication, those 17 hours can stay just like they are: unedited, unspoiled, perfect.

The person who mentioned Kamloops this week is going on a cross-Canada train trip, and there's a stop in Kamloops. Part of me thought I should send along a message -- I still have that girl's name in my address book -- because it would be interesting to hear how her life has come out. Did she stick to her visions of travel and adventure that we talked about in Dublin? Did she put her art first, ahead of money and career, like she said she would? Maybe I don't want to know. Maybe the answer would lead me to a tough question: Have I?

How many people are there on the backroads of our memory? How many snippets of conversation, how many inspired moments (or embarrassing ones) have we shared with complete strangers? It makes me think of a cynical speech that William Hurt gave in The Big Chill. He admonished his classmates that, in reality, they had only known each other for a brief time a long time ago, a time not worth holding onto. He was arguing that they weren't really friends, but I think there's lots of ways to be friends, one of which is to meet each other on a level field of innocence, bringing nothing to the situation and taking nothing from it -- simply being, in a time and place, and asking for nothing more.

Times like that are among the gems we fetch from travel. I still trade Christmas cards with a brother and sister who run a restaurant in Turkey, where I had a few meals almost 15 years ago. I've heard, at a rate of a couple dozen words per year, about marriages, children, deaths, and journeys. I probably wouldn't recognize those people if I saw them today, though.

Another one who "got away" was a fellow Deadhead who, while waiting for a show to start in some far-off theater, told me about his first Dead show back in 1971. It turned out I had a bootleg tape of that entire show, and he gave me his address, excited to hear it again. I lost that address and still feel a twinge of regret whenever I see that tape.

I came across another old friend in John Krakauer's book Into Thin Air. Jim happened to be my guide on a trip to China -- I remember one afternoon, while wandering some ancient ruins, he laid out his career ambitions as an adventure guide -- and then he happened to be guiding on Mount Everest when all those people died.

Wouldn't it be something to track all these people down again? I remember the first recovering alcoholic I ever spoke with, who blew my young mind by talking about having fun without getting loaded. He was from California but we met in Switzerland; I wonder if he's sober today.

There was a guy that I teamed up with for some billiards one night in Osaka. There was much drinking and laughter and high-fives as we chalked up one improbable victory after another. We hugged when it was over, and now I don't even remember his name. I think he was an architect from Maine.

There was a family in China that invited me into their home for tea; I took pictures of them with their new baby -- they all put on nice clothes for the event -- and then I had them write down their address on a scrap of paper. I wrote "CHINA" at the bottom, taped it to an envelope containing the photos, said a prayer, and mailed it. Never heard back, of course. That kid is probably in high school by now.

I remember a girl I met at a hostel in Austria. I had just come in on the train from Switzerland, and she got me so excited talking about it, we decided to go back there together. Madeleine, I think her name was; we made it as far as Italy together.

There was a South African art student who took me to some obscure galleries in Paris; a Texan who spent 15 hours on a Greyhound sneaking sips from a bottle and sharing stories from the road; a ranger at Mount Saint Helens who told me about the airplane he was building in his garage; an English guy who badgered the Mormons at the Salt Lake Temple; the two beautiful sisters I spent a day sledding with

I don't know where, or even who, any of these people are. And while I am curious and I certainly wish them the best, what matters to me is that at some time, in some place, and for some reason, we were together. I look forward to meeting more of them.

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