By Cheryl Ryan
Lately, when traveling, I download a podcast or two, bring some writing to edit, and make sure my Kindle is charged. The goal being to mostly avoid people while I get to where I really want to be. Let’s face it present-day air travel isn’t what it used to be.
That was my intention as I boarded a bus in rural Arizona for a 2-plus hour ride to the airport, which would still leave four hours before my scheduled flight’s departure. At least the bus was clean, and most of the people boarding were happy since they were picked up from Sedona, Arizona, a popular vacation spot. There was some seat reshuffling with each stop, and once everyone was boarded, my final seat companion settled in.
I characteristically avoided her at first but decided I needed to engage a little so that the rest of the ride wouldn’t feel so awkward. I started making small talk. What brought you here? Where are you headed?
It turned out that there was something instantly comfortable about her. Both of us were in the throes of caring for our parents. We shared some eerily similar experiences and compared a few tips we’d learned along the way. Honestly, it just felt enjoyable to keep talking. So we did.
Traveling Through Alaska
As is so often the case, she was not what she seemed at first glance. I found out that this slight, demure-looking woman used to ride her own motorcycle on long cross country treks, and that she’d put 200,000 miles on the back of her husband’s motorcycle. She talked about several trips they’d taken, but it was the Ohio to Alaska trip that really animated her.
They hadn’t found accommodations particularly good in Alaska, but they did find one unique place. It was a motel made up of several train cars scattered throughout the property, each decorated in a unique theme. It also had a main lodge that hosted evening happy hours and breakfasts.
A Bear Attack
While checking in, she noticed that the owner had a hole in the side of her face. It appeared to be some sort of wound that had long healed. She didn’t say anything then, but at the happy hour that evening, she discovered that the scar on the woman’s face had come from an encounter with a polar bear.
Apparently, polar bears are known to stalk their prey. And this particular bear was hiding in a snow drift at a garbage dump. The bear remained camouflaged while creeping closer as they continued to dump the refuse from the back of the truck. So when it attacked, it caught them completely unaware.
As the bear began to maul her friend, her friend tossed her his gun. It was hard for her to aim while trying not to hit him. But it became increasingly clear that the bear was winning. She took her shots. It didn’t take long before the bear turned its full attention towards her. As the bear advanced she continued to fire, but the bear just kept coming.
She’s not entirely sure what happened next or how long it took someone to find her and her deceased friend. But she knows she was found with a dead bear, and the bear’s claw stuck in the side of her face. And she knows that that was the beginning of her lengthy hospital stay.
As the motel owner recounted the story, she showed them the claw, which she kept on the mantle in the lodge. Then she turned to my new friend and asked if she would like to see the bear. Taken aback, she said, “OK.” And sure enough, as the motel owner led the group to the back room of the lodge, there stood an upright, stuffed, seven-foot polar bear wearing a Mona Lisa grin. And the right paw was missing a claw. The hotel owner said that having this stuffed bear reminds her that she won.
There is a lot about this story that isn’t funny at all, but there is something that really is.
Laughing When You Least Expect It
And this final image made me burst out laughing. I couldn’t help it. We both were. My new friends delivery was exceptional. We both laughed so hard. And one good joke led to another. I’m sure the entire bus thought we were nuts.
It’s always so satisfying to laugh until your stomach hurts with friends, but when you find a complete stranger that can make you laugh like that, that is an unexpected delight.
It was one of the most satisfying meetings that I’ve had with a stranger in a very long time. And the irony is that part of the reason I turned to talk to her was not only to ease awkwardness but that my Mom had recently told me that people never talk to her anymore. They just put headphones on and ignore her.
The Reason We Do Things
She said this made her feel sad and that she missed the days when people would chat with one another. This was in my head when I turned to talk with my new seatmate that day. And I’m reminded while writing this that I will continue to try to say hello more often. I’m sure that most of my encounters will be less satisfying. And yet a few minutes out of my day, even with a grouchy person, could make a difference to someone. And you just never know what might come from it.
I hope your travels bring you unexpected joy, and if this post reminds you of an especially enjoyable travel experience, we’d love for you to share it with us.