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A smile in the face of adversity

On the road to nowhere

I slept poorly last night. I usually do the first night in a strange place, like the hotel I stayed in. I suppose it’s because part of me expects someone to come along and yell “What are you doing here!?” and chase me off.

I was in Billings because my truck broke down and Billings, four and a half hours from where I work, is the closest shop that we can trust to repair it. So I carefully drove it here yesterday, knowing it might take several days to get repaired.

With that in mind, I brought some backpacking gear in the hope that I could use the downtime to hit the trails in the national forest outside Red Lodge. There’s a small glacier near there, Grasshopper Glacier, that has been on my wish list for many years.

When I woke I crossed the street to the shop and checked on the truck just to be sure it wouldn’t be repaired today. It was still in the yard and the mechanic thought it would be ready by Monday. So I walked a half mile to the nearest gas station, bought some coffee, and started walking to the nearest car rental about a mile and half from there.

On the way I crossed through the parking lot of a strip mall and cut behind the building to save a few blocks. In the narrow space between the building and a fence separating it from neighboring stores a young couple lay sleeping on top of what clothes they had. Their bags were squeezed between him and the wall. His arms were wrapped lovingly and protectively around her like she was a precious jewel and on her face was a most beautiful smile of content.

She was radiant.

I absorbed as much of the image as I could but passed quickly so I wouldn’t disturb them.

I rented a car and returned to the shop to once again verify the estimated time for repair and then crossed back to the hotel to load my things and check out of the hotel.

There was now a sign taped inside the front door that stated in clumsy handwriting, “No vacancy” and in the lobby a woman in her 40’s sat next to two well travelled bags. The look on her face when she watched me come in was weary, wishful, longing. Like she was waiting there for a room to become available. Any room. Any where.

As I brought my things out to the rented car a pickup truck, rusty, dented, filled above capacity with whatever it’s owners could load and hastily cover with heavy plastic, pulled into the alcove by the lobby. A couple, haggard, worn, stepped out and disappeared inside the front door.

When I returned they were already silently climbing back into the battered pickup. It was slow to start and burst to life with a puff of smoke. They drove off slowly, careful not to rock their belongings.

After I checked out I drove across the street to be absolutely sure I would have the time to go camping.

They were done. It took them five minutes to locate the issue and another fifteen to correct it. My plans to hit the trail were beginning to dissipate.

I called my boss and let him know and he was so happy that it was completed so quickly he suggested I get a couple more minor repairs taken care of since I was already there and it cost far less than anticipated.

The new repairs set the completion time back to Monday.

Once again convinced I’d be setting up camp within a couple hours I set off for the Red Lodge and the chance to witness a glacier before it fell victim to climate change.

The picture I used for this post is as close as I got to the trails.

I had just left town and got that gorgeous preview of where I was heading when I got a text. My boss had checked the weather forecast, which governs my work more than anything else, and discovered we are due for heavy rains most of next week. He suggested, and I agreed, that we should get as many hours as we could on the job before the rain came.

I turned around, got to the shop before they started the new repairs, cancelled the work, called the car rental company to close the rental and come pick up the car, loaded my things into my truck, drove four and a half hours back north, and am now contemplating the last few days.

I don’t think I’ll sleep very well again tonight.

Not because I didn’t get to go camping or that my plans changed so many times in just a few days. I have learned to be flexible.

I learned most of that flexibility through difficulty. Hard times teach you to accept what is, rather than insisting on what isn’t, and to move on as quickly and painlessly to the next solution. And the next. And the next. Life is like that.

It won’t be because I’m in an unfamiliar place. I am staying in the same efficiency trailer I spent the previous two summers in. It is very familiar. Too familiar, really. And while I hope I don’t have to return next year I am extremely grateful that it is provided as part of my pay for a job that I am equally grateful to have. Especially now.

Nor will it be the thoughts of those people looking for a place to rest their heads, to feel even a single night of security, that keeps me up. I have been the man with his belongings packed in the back of a barely running truck. I have laid with my back against my belongings so no one could take them while I slept. I have waited long and patient for an opening. So I know the thoughts they are having. The sense of desperation. The fear.

And I also know the amount of courage and determination it takes to wait for that opening. To pack up what they can and begin the search for somewhere, anywhere, better. I recognize their hope and I share it.

No, it won’t be that which keeps me up. Nor will it be the fact that we are facing another Great Depression.

The affluent are fleeing their homes in crowded metropolis for safer places and finding those places unwelcoming, while the poor, their hand-to-mouth existence completely erased, are losing their homes and taking to the road.

This has happened before. Many times. And humans have survived and thrived and we will continue to survive and thrive.

It isn’t even that we are experiencing a pandemic which, at surface, appears as a symptom of our societal decline nor that this virus doesn’t care how you live or if you’re rich or poor, compassionate or narcissistic, loving or hating.

It is simply nature telling us that we have spread to fast and too far and I truly believe that good will ultimately come from that realization and from the way it has opened our eyes to the caring of and for each other.

No, what will keep me up tonight is the smile of that young girl resting in the comfort of her lovers arms.

I will surely lay awake for hours thinking about that simple joy in the face of adversity and the sheer beauty of it.

Far more beautiful than any mere glacier.

Image by the author.

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