Talking to strangers…

Do you do it?

When?

To ask for directions? To order at a restaurant? To the grocery store clerk? To buy or sell something?

image of author taken by stranger at brew fest
A lovely stranger took this picture.

I admit, I don’t usually strike up conversations with strangers, I’m still a little shy about it and… yeah scared. The times I have spontaneously erupted in conversation with a stranger has had surprising results.

Sometimes we are thinking the same thing about a certain situation happening around us, like waiting in line at a brew fest. Sometimes we are both feeling the same thing, like nervous about the turbulence during a plane ride (ever wonder why people erupt into conversation as an airplane descends, after being silent for the entire flight?). I have had 5 hour conversations with strangers, learning that we both work in the same industry or have something interesting to discuss (I once convinced a person from a right leaning state that the worry about climate change is the rate of change – that some species – perhaps most – will not be able to adapt to this change fast enough to survive. It was great to see this person have an “aha” moment.)

These conversations are like one night stands – never to talk with the person again, despite exchanging business cards or email addresses. But what is left could be a lesson, a feeling of interconnectedness with a greater thing called humanity, or it could be a reminder that there are many people out there that are afraid of interacting with other humans.

st_helens_castle_lake
Mt. St. Helens with Castle Lake, a lake created by the landslide post eruption.

My most recent encounter was yesterday as I was visiting Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. I was reading about those that survived and those that did not survive the eruption. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day, at least that is the known number. As I finished reading one placard, about a family who was camping about 13 miles from the volcano and escaped harm because their campsite was behind a hill (they still had to hike out, through hot ash and over fallen trees) and was moving to the next, I caught the gaze of a gentleman who was behind me and gave him a simple smile, acknowledging the emotion that we were sharing. He said to me that the family I just read about survived because the campsite they originally wanted to go to was already taken. “Oh really?” I replied,

“Do you know the family?” I asked.

“No” he said. “My daughter was one of the campers in the other campsite and she did not survive.”

“Wow.” I said. Not knowing how best to respond, my heart sinking at thinking about the tragedy the day the volcano erupted 32 years ago.

He continued to share that she was camping with 6 other people, two died, two were severely injured and two walked out. She died when a tree fell on the tent she and her boyfriend were in, she was only 21 years old.

imagining the destruction
A simple visualization of how much of the mountain was blown off the day Mt. St. Helen erupted.

His story accentuated the feelings of awe and wonder I was already dealing with. I told him thank you for sharing his story, placing my hand on his shoulder, a gesture of love and acknowledgment of our shared humanity. I asked him what her name was “Karen Varner.” he replied. “There is a memorial for all that were killed, on the other side of the hill.” he said, pointing in the opposite direction I was headed.

I didn’t make it to the memorial, but the entire area is a memorial to the amazing forces the Earth has within her and to the humanity that loves her, fears her and idolizes her.

Talking to strangers can be a transformative experience, a scary journey, with unknown treasures at the end.

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