An essay about how strangers bring meaning to our lives.

By on December 10, 2020 | 5 comments

A few years ago, I woke up after camping at a trailhead on the Chama River in New Mexico. As I made breakfast and drank coffee, a car pulled in. Two guys got out wearing running packs. “What are you up to?” I asked curiously. I was surprised to see people there, let alone runners. They said they were planning to run from here to their other car that was parked at a trailhead above Cuba, New Mexico, all the way on the other side of the mountains. They hurried off and I slowly pulled on my shoes and got ready, not expecting to see them again.

A little while later, I caught up to them on top of a ridge. When they saw me, they realized that I was a runner too and invited me to join their long run. “Sure,” I said, hoping I had enough snacks in my pack to not bonk on them. I followed as they talked about the area, which was a unique mix of high desert pinion-juniper forests and red-rock walls more reminiscent of southern Utah than northern New Mexico.

We were on a section of the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) through New Mexico’s seldom-talked-about San Pedro Parks Wilderness. We saw a couple of thru-hikers as we ran, one explaining that his water filter that had frozen overnight and another making a hard pitch for the hiking skirt he was wearing—stating it had “excellent airflow.” Dang, I thought. Our run was big, but seemed insignificant in comparison to what they were doing by walking from Mexico to Canada on the CDT–I was inspired.

I recall the high meadows or “parks” which were turned into knee-deep marshes from the melting snowpack and following these strangers on one of the longest runs of my life outside of a race. Eventually we reached our cars, exhausted but content, and we drove in a matter of a couple of hours around what had taken us all day to run.

This summer, randomly on a mountaintop once again, I ran into one of these runners. He said as I passed, not recognizing him, “Hannah Green?!” We reminisced about that run and how fun it was to see each other again in the middle of nowhere. If it weren’t for these two strangers, I definitely wouldn’t have run 35 miles that day and I might not have ever been inspired to thru-hike the CDT a couple years after our adventure.

Not long ago, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb Vishnu Temple in the middle of a backpacking route in the Grand Canyon. This was all thanks to some qualified strangers who were hiking up the same gully as I was and invited me to tag along with them.

These two experiences have me thinking a lot about my happenstance adventures with strangers. I’ve sat around campfires with people I don’t know, and climbed mountains with people I’ve just met. I’ve jumped in the cars and boats of strangers to hitchhike on roads or across rivers in the middle of a long outing. Even the sweater I wear this holiday season was gifted to me by a stranger for the final, snowy miles of the Hayduke Trail.

The more I think about the idea of strangers and how they’ve helped me achieve my goals, the more I realize that’s how the human world is able to function. There are so many small-yet-important interactions, like holding the door open for someone when their arms are full or complimenting the lady at the coffee shop on the interesting shirt she is wearing. Probably the most significant component of our daily interactions with strangers is the level of kindness and compassion we show for those we don’t know. If humans were inherently mean, we wouldn’t survive the crosswalk on a busy street.

While I can be a bit of a bah-humbug spirit when it comes to celebrating the holidays, I try to look at it at as a time of reflection and gratitude. This year, I am not just thankful for friends and family and the wild places I get to roam, but also for the people whose names I don’t know who put a smile on my face when I least expect it and often when I need it most.

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Atop Vishnu Temple in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo: Hannah Green

Hannah Green
wanders long distances by foot and takes photos along the way. When not outside, you can likely find her at the nearby coffee shop. Find more on Instagram and at Hannah Green Art.