On the Generosity of a Stranger
I recently climbed a famous mountain; it shares a name with a popular hiking backpack. The mountain is in Arizona. I’ve climbed it many times before. But on my most recent journey up, the summit was full of surprises.
After a mildly tiring ascent after a long layover from hiking, I was pleased to see the vast panorama of Phoenix. Within view: Scottsdale to the northeast, Tempe to the southwest, Chandler to the southeast; Beyond view: Joshua Tree and California to the west, and the Grand Canyon a 2-hour drive to the north, New Mexico to the east, and Northern Mexico to the south. The sun was falling from its high point and would soon be gone. The park staff were always adamant about getting people off the mountain by sunset (at least verbally). So, an air of anxiety permeated the summit among the more inexperienced mountaineers.
I didn’t fret. I knew from experience I could get down the mountain in less than 20 minutes. And on a day like today, with many people visiting the rock formation, the park rangers would be hard pressed to close the gate on 15 or 20 well-heeled Americans. Nevertheless, I could see people foolishly rushing down the mountain in fear. They were missing a glorious view. Savoring a sunset is a lost art. Perhaps for the young most of all. I noticed plenty of people sitting without a glance toward their black screens, but nearly all of them were middle aged or older. The youths seemed interested in recording their triumph immediately or eager to check-in on all that they missed in their 45 minutes climbing.
The scene was not lost on me. I was taking it all in while sitting on a smoothish rock. I’ve often meditated on this mountain and was beginning to now again when a voice rang out and sound hit my eardrums. Immediately, I felt it was someone trying to talk to me. My strategy at times like this is to play dumb.
But the voice rang out again, “Hey, would you like a Snickers?” Now I can’t feign ignorance because my eyes are open. And what they see is a young woman about my age wearing a blue t-shirt emblazoned with a steer. She smiles and holds out a Snickers candy bar. I say, “No thanks, but I appreciate it.” She is hiking with a man I presumed to be her boyfriend. But their conversation is odd for a couple. I think they might be siblings. She informs me of her tradition.
“I eat a Snickers when I get to the top. It’s how I trick myself to get up here.”
“Smart,” I say.
But privately I wonder about the limitations of such enticements. Are we, that is humans, really nothing better than rats? In any case, whatever works I suppose. I feel going back into meditation would be inappropriate now. So, a conversation ensues. I suggest in a dead-pan way:
“You know, you should call up the people that make Snickers and tell them about your tradition. I think it would make a great commercial for next years Super Bowl. A montage of people putting in work and rewarding themselves with a Snickers afterwards. You could come out on top of this mountain. Be famous.”
“I could go for that,” she said and now turning to her male companion, “what do you think?”
“Sure. Why the hell not? You love attention as much as anyone I know.”
“I do. Don’t I? I think I have a great flair for the dramatic. I would very much like to come out in that commercial.”
We laughed modestly, ingesting the farce and entertaining it too within our imaginations. Maybe I looked dry mouthed or maybe my empty-handed contrast to everyone else up on the mountain prompted her offer, but in any case, the young woman offered me a water bottle. This time I said yes. And soon the floodgates were opened.
In quick succession she began pulling out trail-mix, candy bars, fruit rollups, bananas, cookies, and of course more snickers. After looking around briefly she began calling out to complete strangers, “Hey would you like a snack?”
She offered snacks to a mother-daughter tandem, accepted, a twosome of scantily clad young women wearing Nike tank tops and shorts, declined, a young man reading a book on negotiation, accepted, and me sitting silently, declined; there were others but these I remember. Though not everybody accepted, she couldn’t help but endear herself to those around her.
The young man with the book asked their names, they replied Carl and Jessie. Except not in the order, you’d expect. Carl was the gregarious snack lady. And Jessie the slightly embarrassed confederate. Pretty soon, Carl was talking to or at just about everybody on that mountain. It was entertaining for a while. But the sun was setting and before long people began their descent.
On the way down “Carl” revealed herself to actually be named Jessie. And her confederate? Well, she was his cousin named Carl. They liked to goof with other people. And I couldn’t help but feel these were people after my own heart. Sometimes the best jokes are the ones only you are in on.
She asked me, “Do you think we are odd?”
I said very deadpan, “I think you are very odd. Probably the oddest people I’ve ever met. Maybe even serial killers.”
She didn’t laugh, too nervous going down a steep flight of rocky stairs. But she looked relieved. She wasn’t that odd. She was just friendly and eager to break social tensions among strangers. And more than that, she was generous. Not in a philanthropic sense, but in a simple sense. Generous in a generalizable way.
I thought I’d have more time with this good-hearted woman, but duty called. As I began to find my flow, hopping and dropping down the mountain, she pulled back, helping those scantily clad Nike models down the mountain with her cousin. Generous indeed. Of morsels and moments.
I never saw them again. And after leaving the park, I found myself giving a few bucks in change to a homeless man panhandling in Scottsdale. I must confess not my typical gesture. But when you’re around the divine you don’t mind giving a dime.