Trusting Strangers

“I just remember staring down at some papers on my desk one day and little red droplets started appearing on them. I was so stressed out at my job that it gave me anxiety and I got the first nosebleed of my life. That’s the story of how I got to what I’m doing now. Not very many people know that.”

Hunter is an absolute southern sweetheart, with one of those Tennessee Honey accents and a propensity for saying things like, “I understand” and “Oh, for sure!” He sent me a note from one of the car forums that I’ve been posting trip updates on, telling me to shoot him a text if I passed through Chattanooga. And after booking an AirBnb at 1 AM and texting him at 8 the following morning, I found myself sharing tacos and a scenic tour of the city with him. We talked about our philosophical common ground (a fun-driving convertible with a happy dog and loving woman by your side beats the crap out of a theoretically faster or fancier car any day) and our respective experiences with long distance, long duration road trips, and we talked about the much deeper things that such common grounds always seem to hint at.

He works with his dad at a business they started together after he expressed a recent desire to grow closer to and spend more time with his father. He prefers things that he enjoys to things that others tell him are better or more desirable. He likes to fish for trout. I find all of this very relatable.

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A few nights prior, I found myself at a bar in Atlanta later than I’ve been at a bar in Atlanta (or probably anywhere else), drinking a beer and catching up with a longtime best friend and former bandmate who I hadn’t seen in five years. We were discussing the simple, earnest pleasure of watching people simply, earnestly enjoy themselves in convivial community. And much deeper things, like how there was a time that I was so near the brink of self-destruction that I looked upon such people and places with biting, self-aware disdain. Then, the unequivocal life of the party approached our table.

“I just wanted to say, you have the most fabulous hair and beard. I have a HUGE thing for redheads. I’m sure you’re, like, straight as fuuuuuuck or whatever, but I had to let you know.”

“Hey, a compliment like that is a compliment no matter what!” I then complimented the elaborate lotus-flower design shaved into the side of his head.

I introduced myself and he told me that his name was Cartier. A born Texan who’d spent time in Portland and upstate New York before settling on Atlanta. We had some brief small talk about the Lone Star State and how people in Georgia don’t even know what they’re missing (Whataburger and Tex Mex and Beyonce) and I told him a bit about my road trip.

“Man, that’s so cool!” Cartier beamed. “Welcome to Atlanta!” Then he looked over at the waitress and ordered another cocktail while toasting me with a glass that remained two thirds full. The DJ continued spinning 90s and 2000s throwback jams while Cartier confided, “He knows that Beyonce gets me every time. It’s like subliminal! I can’t even control it!”

Then he grew a bit more pensive. “Man, I miss Texas a lot. I bet you don’t believe it, but my first love was country music. People think a black man don’t like country music. But the Dixie Chicks! Ohmygawd. That was my shit in middle school!”

I found that I had more in common with Cartier by the second.

“I love Texas, we had a great community, my family is there. I’m going back in November for my great grandmother’s 70th birthday. We’re gonna get real drunk and play bingo!”

Somewhere in the background, Kanye West’s ‘Good Life’ was blasting while every patron at the very large bar took a shot in unison. A raucous round of hoots and hollers commenced and Cartier and I filled in that one iconic Kanye line simultaneously:

She said I never seen snakes on a plane!!

“The thing about Houston is, especially the black community there, it wasn’t very welcoming to a gay man. That’s what started me moving around. Texas is the best, but I think Atlanta is home now.”

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* * *

Many of us remember being told as children to never trust strangers, or at least to never accept candy from them or get into their cars. I’ve long since broken all of those rules, which have led to many of the greatest memories and stories and friendships of my life. I find it exceptionally easy to trust strangers, and they seem to do the same. Threads of commonality and coincidence stitch together vastly different stories and provide opportunities for fast friendship and automatic trust.

A few days ago, while strolling the grounds of the Biltmore Farm in Asheville, my sister and I had a young boy no older than three come running up to us and ask for a handshake. He told us his name and wanted me to lift him to look at the horses while his grandmother lagged a bit behind. She laughed and apologized and I thanked her profusely. The joy and trust of a child who hasn’t been corrupted by bad news is a beautiful thing. He was so happy to see us and had no reservations about introductions or hoisting.

* * *

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Last week, I received an email from a reader who’d found some of my writing somewhere along the way. He mentioned that he lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia, somewhere between where I was and where I was headed. He offered a place to stay and assured me that there were plenty of trout in the vicinity. I thanked him and mentioned that the spacing and timing were likely off, but I’d holler if that changed. And, at about 10 PM on Wednesday night, I realized his location made perfect sense for my trip, if he were free the following evening. I sent an email, and by 7 AM on Thursday he sent me an email that began, “John: Come on!” and contained an address, directions, and an offer for cold beer and hot dinner.

In two short context-less emails, we’d made plans and I plotted a fun course from Tryon, North Carolina down to their cabin. The final approach included a steep and spiraling gravel road that seemed to lead to nowhere before it opened up to a strip of gorgeous mountain houses perched atop one of the countless peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dave and Lin and their two riotous dogs (Dexter the shaggy white mutt and Reggie the Rhodesian Ridgeback) were eagerly awaiting my arrival, and I was welcomed with loud barks, a friendly wave, and a helping hand bringing my bags inside. Within moments we were sitting in their house enjoying the sunset, the cool night, the warm fireplace, and great local beers and conversation. This spilled over into a long, delicious dinner and dessert of homemade chocolate ice cream and more conversation. We headed off for bed before they casually mentioned, “We usually get up around six.”

I slept harder and almost as long as I had any night on the trip, and woke up to hot coffee, a crackling fire, and two dogs that wanted to snuggle while we watched hummingbirds visit the feeders on their back porch in the pre-dawn light.

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It was the most comfortable and at-ease I’d been since stopping through for a night at my parents’ house on my way out of Texas. Dave said he’d shown Lin one of my stories the same morning he replied to my email saying “Come on!” and the rest was history. We spoke of fears and failures, memorable moments and favorite fishing holes, the poesy of Porsches and the universal beauty of a good dog. Mostly, it’s a miracle that we spoke at all. It’s far easier to shut ourselves off from the world and stick to what we know, but by trusting strangers with good stories, we create a few more good stories to share with friends new and old.

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