A day after our journey, some habits stuck. I found myself walking up to random strangers. I found myself wondering about who they were, where they were going. I found myself wondering if I could help somehow.
All along the trail, we’d found generous, kind people. Wells had joked early on that Missourians were either very nice, or very drunk, and we never encountered the latter kind. There was just a warmer kind of people than you encounter in your day to day life.
I asked a man on the bus in Champaign if he was alright and he said “Yes,” then asked, “Why?” suspiciously. But on the trail, there was only “Yes,” and “Thank you.” There was Bob the Brewer and Kansas City man. There were store owners who would leave their stands completely open and unmanned and trust on the goodhearted nature of the bikers to pay anyway. We stopped to ask for directions and a woman handed us ice cold water bottles from the rear seat of a truck, completely unasked for.
Wells and I got into the habit that most everyone on Katy Trail had been practicing the whole time we’d been biking. We got into the habit of kindness.
When I think back on it, there’s only a few other times where I’ve experienced such camaraderie, the most recent example being the 2011 Illinois Marathon. There’s something about doing difficult things that brings everyone together. We all fight our own demons on the trail, or on the track, or on the road, but the fight is easier knowing that someone else is there with you, that someone else has come before you, and that you pave the trail for those who come after you.
That’s why we smile when we see each other on the trail. “Fight the good fight,” we urge each other, “I’m rooting for you.” And if we can, we help each other out. We tell each other about fallen trees along the way, abandoned towns to avoid, and we tell each other about “bug hour.” We stop worrying just about ourselves and we worry about each other, because we’re all in it together. You and I becomes “we.” And that mentality is what is so strikingly missing from our day to day life.
Think about the last time you saw a stranger and you thought something negative. Maybe you thought they were a bad driver, or had an annoying voice, or that they had no sense of style. Maybe you thought that whatever it was, it just made them a bad person somehow, someone not as good as yourself.
It saddens me when I catch myself thinking this way, and I think that way plenty. But why? Why do we think like this? Because in reality, we are all toiling away at something difficult. We are all on some sort of path – a life path. We know the destination. We know how the story will end. It’s incredibly hard work to make what comes between worth it. We are in it together.
I have stopped feeling the urge to go up to strangers and ask them how they’re doing, what the weather is like, and inquire how I can help them. I have stopped practicing trail etiquette. I have stopped practicing the habit of kindness.
That’s something I’m working on.
By the way, the road ahead is rough, but the sky is bright and the people are kind.