2022.36 : Gratitude Hangover

Montana, Usa Circa 2022

Our value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.

— Ted Rubin

The following is a true story. Every bit of it. Free of embellishments.

It all started with a road trip… one that I have taken many times over the years. Seven hours each way. Projected 56 hours round-trip. Took 66 hours.

The route is on one of my lists: Top Three of the Middle-of-Nowhere-in-America list. It even rivals Highway 50 through Nevada. This one cuts across western Wyoming and western Montana. At 70 miles an hour (112 km/h), there’s a two-hour stretch without mobile phone service. (Except for two really tiny towns.)

It’s my habit to eventually stop in at every interesting looking store along routes I frequent. It’s in the hope of finding goodies that aren’t the same as nearly every other store – the result of our corporate overlords sucking local culture to death in the name of their support yachts. And yet, I maintain my habit. In the face of a nearly fruitless exercise. The very rare find of unique local food or drink reignites my eternal flame of hope.

There was only one store unexplored by me on this route… a laundry list of reasons why I never have. On the way up, I didn’t stop yet again. I swore to myself I would on the return trip.

This store isn’t in a city, nor a town, nor a village, nor a hamlet. It is literally a wide spot in a two-lane state highway. On a fast blind curve for added excitement pulling in and out of. No post office. No homes. No businesses. Nothing but an all-in-one gas station, store, restaurant (when open) and campsite.

Sunday morning quickly arrives… too quickly. Time to get on the road. Head back. Left early so as not to be in a hurry.

Spotted a new tap house outside a tiny town. Good opportunity to support a small business. Only drinks, no food. Had a nice conversation with the owner. Back on the road, having left civilization, I remind myself to pull into “that” store. Even then, as I came around the bend, I nearly passed it.

Went inside looking for a diet Arizona Iced Tea. None in the fridge. To my surprise they had more Arizona teas in a second fridge on the other side of the store. Brands aren’t usually separated like this.

My view was partially blocked by a mom with two kids, one being a boy about ten years old. I didn’t want to bother them, so I used my height to spy that there was no diet in this fridge either.

Mom noticed and shuffled the kids away and said something polite, to which I replied, “No need to bother, I can see they don’t have my unsweetened tea.” I walk past them.

Suddenly I’m startled by loud grunting noises. They are coming from behind me and the sound is jarring. Did I hear the word “you” among the cacophony? Having lived so long in countries where I don’t speak their language, I have developed an ear for when someone is trying to get my attention. The grunts intensified. My daimon commands me turn around. These grunts are for my attention.

So I do. And there… a sight I will never forget. Maybe the sweetest thing I have ever seen. The ten-year-old had his arm out stretched pointing to bottles in the fridge. I walk to the boy and see he’s pointing at a different brand of unsweetened ice tea. I had seen it, but I wasn’t in the mood for that brand.

Then it hits me. This boy heard me looking for unsweetened tea. Understood me. And wanted me to know I had overlooked it. My heart touched.

Then another realization completely melted my heart. This boy lost the genetic lottery in that his mouth can’t form words. In every other respect he’s unimpaired. This little man risked public embarrassment for loud grunting (in his mind, words, only to have muscles fail him) to call my attention to tea. Tea!

Instantaneously, I knew what to do. I opened the fridge door. Grabbed the tea. Thanked him for being a gentleman. I said to myself, I will buy and drink this brand of tea with great pleasure.

His mom returns and explains that he can’t talk. I reassured her all was good, and her boy did me a kindness.

With drink in hand, I look for a snack. Not an easy task for me as I avoid sugar best I can. I see the family is now at the cashier counter. Mom is doing an excellent job of attempting to convince the two ladies working to take one or more of the many kittens the family cat had recently given birth to.

One of the cashiers sees me waiting and motions me to the side to ring me up. Mom again says something polite. I reply with, “I am in a hurry to go nowhere, thank you anyways, and good luck with your kittens.”

I get in my photography van. My heart filled with joy, I decide to take the longer and safer way out of the station to reenter the state highway.

In front of me is a car pulling away after letting out a passenger. I had to look three times to make sure I wasn’t seeing an apparition.

I roll down my window and yell, “Hitchhiker, is that you!?!” In response I hear, “Rick, is that really you!?!”

The magical hitchhiker (from a month ago) and I are reunited once again in the middle of nowhere. If you haven’t read that story yet, you really should; click/tap here. You’ll read or recall from that story it’s one that only happens in movies. Hollywood demands sequels for all its hits. And it begins.

The hitchhiker and I fall back into sync without a moment’s hesitation. Off to lunch for real food. As a foodie, sharing a meal is what I live for. I can sense the hitchhiker feeling a wee bit guilty. I ask, “Do you think this is free? Oh no. I am putting you in debt. You are a guest in my country. There is nothing you can’t ask for and there is no courtesy I will deny you. As many caretakers of strangers who have taught me. You will pay your debt one of two ways. You will treat me in kind if I visit your country, or you will pay it forward to another.”

A mutual hearty laugh. Balance restored.

The latest riveting stories from the trail. Sightseeing. Scouting where the hitchhiker will pick up the trail the next day. Transport to where the hitchhiker will sleep for the night explaining like a local (which I am not) where the best breakfast, baked goods and supplies can be found.

We both have many outbursts of, “How can today be real?”

The American traditional treat, taffy, a bag of it, somehow ended up as a guilty pleasure of the otherwise very healthy hitchhiker. I was offered one and I ate it with pleasure, sugar intolerance be damned.

Finally, after many attempts to delay the inevitable, another goodbye. No – Another, “See you later.”

I can’t call it awkward, and yet not ordinary.

As a parting gift, the hitchhiker offered another taffy. I didn’t want one, I was too overwhelmed to eat. Thankfully, my daimon yelled at me, “Take it, it’s a gift of deep kindness, not food.” I did take it. I couldn’t bring myself to unwrap it. I had six more hours on the road to relive every moment.

The passenger seat of my photography van instantly became a void created by the absence of the hitchhiker, and it was overflowing with life-affirming energy. A gift of a soft chewy candy: the only evidence that the day was actually real.

My creative mind’s eye saw what needed to be captured. So I put the taffy on the dashboard, and took this photo of the empty seat filled with the most powerful of memories.

And yet.
And yet.
And yet.

All of that alone isn’t what makes me drunk with gratitude.

Brave. Kind. Precious. Young. A gentleman.

If it wasn’t for his single act of kindness delaying me…

I would have driven off THIRTY SECONDS before the Hitchhiker’s ride pulled in behind me!!!

Never reuniting. Neither of us ever knowing. A tragic plot twist even the ancient Greek story and myth tellers would have approved of.

Instead, a man in a boy’s body was generous to a stranger. Single handedly, he righted the fate.

Thank you, little man. Thank you so very much.

Hitchhiker, if you read this, know that every day I am cheering on the successful completion of your life-changing hike. And that I will ask the station employees to ask the mom to read this. She deserves to know the story. Her beloved son is already a man, a good man. His courage gifted us with more precious time.

The next day I experienced what I can best describe as a gratitude hangover. A wholly beautiful state of being that required alone time. I went off the grid to appreciate every bit of it.

And now … know the photograph.

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