49: More than Coincidence

49: More than Coincidence

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

More than Coincidence

A friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face.

~Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

Objectively, it was a beautiful Saturday morning in Colorado. The sun was shining, the air was crisp — a perfect day for an adventure. My mood, however, was dismal as I was limping down the side of the highway holding out my hitchhiker thumb. I whimpered in pain every time I put weight on my left foot, and I was choking back tears, trying not to look pitiful. I was carrying a thirty-pound backpack with three liters of water, a week’s worth of ramen and oatmeal, and two months of camping supplies. I was 1500 miles from home, and I had never felt more alone. Twenty-five miles and two days into my attempted through-hike of the Colorado Trail, I was injured and panicking.

A few cars passed carrying mountain bikes while their drivers sheepishly avoided eye contact. Eventually, a red Jeep stopped beside me. I noticed a firefighter license plate and reasoned that axe murderers probably don’t fight fires in their spare time… right? I put on my brave face as the driver, a middle-aged man with a goatee, rolled down his window and asked what I needed. My voice cracked slightly as I asked if he knew where the nearest urgent care was.

“Not that way,” he said, pointing in the direction I had been heading. My heart sank. “But Woodland Park is about twenty miles that way,” he nodded in the opposite direction. I briefly explained my circumstances and my injury. He paused for a moment, contemplating. “Get in.”

Almost immediately upon throwing my pack into the trunk and plopping my body into the passenger seat, my intuition told me I had nothing to fear from this man. He told me his name was Chris, offered me a phone charger, and wasted very little time with small talk.

“Forgive me if I’m intruding, but I have to ask: Aren’t you scared? I mean, you’re alone, you’re a woman, you’re small, and you’re injured!” I took a deep breath and tried to explain my theory on female-alone-in-the-woods anxiety.

“Yes, I was a little nervous when you pulled up, but I live my life choosing to see the best in people. Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe if you treat people as if they are good and expect them to treat you with kindness, that’s usually how they will respond.”

He looked surprised. “That’s not naïve; that’s brave.” He explained his worldview from his background of firefighting and law enforcement. “I’ve seen a lot of bad things happen, and because of that I never leave the house without a gun. I don’t want to scare you, but there’s a gun underneath your backpack right now. I was on my way to the shooting range when I picked you up.”

Forty minutes later, we arrived in town and pulled up to the health clinic just as it was opening. In the parking lot, Chris hesitated. He explained he didn’t want to just drive away and leave me stranded, but he also didn’t want to make me uncomfortable by waiting for me.

“To be honest, it scares me to think about who might pick you up if I don’t take you back to the trailhead.” I shoved my ego aside and accepted his kindness.

Much to my relief, X-rays determined I was merely experiencing plantar fasciitis — an inflammation of the tissue connecting my muscles and bones that could be easily alleviated with a shoe insert. Hallelujah! All that panicking for nothing!

After a quick trip to Walgreens and a brief “Hi, Mom, I’m fine” phone call, Chris and I were on the road again. The time passed quickly; our conversation was effortless and interesting. In addition to being grateful for his help, I enjoyed his company, and I think he felt the same. As we neared the trail, I was feeling energized and much more optimistic than I had been when Chris had found me a few hours earlier. I offered him gas money, feeling guilty for occupying his entire morning. He refused, saying the only thing he wanted in return was for me to let him know when I had finished the trail. I agreed, but still felt indebted.

“Well, I don’t know if you believe in karma, but I hope the next time you need help, someone is there for you,” I said. I thanked him for the 547th time, and we parted ways.

Fast-forward exactly a week later. I was hiking up the ski slopes of Breckenridge, uttering curse words and appreciating the invention of chair lifts. As I reached the summit, I noticed a man on a mountain bike approaching. I waved hello politely, and he stopped abruptly.

“Oh, my god, I cannot believe I found you.” My heart rate increased as I tried to recognize his voice… his goatee…

“Chris?” I was unsure whether to feel excited or fearful. He stuttered, and his eyes filled with tears.

“I have never been a religious man, but I’ve been thanking God for you every day since I met you.” I felt goose bumps creep across my skin as Chris described the day after he had helped me. He had been riding his bike when he crashed face-first into a tree. He pulled his lips apart to show me that his gums were still bloody, and most of his teeth were missing. Apparently, a random through-hiker had stopped to splash water on Chris’s face and then walked three miles out of his way to drag Chris and his bike back to the highway to help him call an ambulance.

“I’ve been remembering the last words you said to me when you got out of my car,” Chris said. “I truly believe it’s because of you that man was there to help me.”

Chris asked if he could descend the mountain with me, and I happily agreed, grateful for some company. I asked why he was so shocked by the help he received after his accident. Yes, it seemed more than coincidental that a hiker had gone out of his way so dramatically, but surely someone would’ve helped him, right?

“Yes, or someone could’ve robbed me blind and left me for dead!” I was fascinated by this fundamental difference in our worldviews. We became engrossed in conversation for several hours until we reached his car. Before we parted ways, Chris turned to me and said, “Sarah, I feel like I’m the one indebted to you now. You’re at least twenty years younger than me, but I feel like I’ve been talking to someone twice my age. I’ve never met anyone who has impacted me so strongly in such a short amount of time. You’ve truly inspired me to be a better person.”

The weight of this interaction didn’t sink in until we parted ways, and I continued hiking. I realized if a total stranger could think I was awesome, there was absolutely no reason for me to continue doubting myself — no reason to shrink and downplay my strengths. In a society that encourages and profits from our fear, bravery is an act of rebellion. An empowered woman isn’t fearless; she chooses authenticity and connection in spite of her fear.

~Sarah James

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