Kindness of strangers warms hearts outdoors

Autumn in the Mountains Series

If you think Lee Vining to Tuolumne Meadows makes for a slow and windy drive, try it in winter on cross-country skis sometime. The 17-mile trek over Yosemite’s Tioga Pass climbs more than 5,000 feet, taking my brother and me ten hours on a cold December day. Completely spent, we arrived at Tuolumne Ski Hut at dusk, finding two other visitors already there.

“Welcome. Want a beer?” asked one new hut mate as the other tended a warm and comforting fire. We gladly accepted, and a cold brew never tasted better.

Those who frequent the outdoors can tell you that such kindness occurs more often than you might expect. I encounter it frequently, and in honor of Thanksgiving, I compiled this list to express my gratitude.

I’m grateful for the strangers who gave my buddies and me more free beers at Mount Whitney, Camp 4 and Ostrander Ski Hut.

Lots of friendly motorists have given me lifts back to my car after hikes, sometimes for more than 100 miles. I’ve even hitched rides from a park ranger and sheriff’s deputy.

When my climbing partner dropped an expensive piece of gear from a popular Yosemite route, a fellow climber returned it instead of keeping it like he easily could have. In fact, I’ve never met a climber who failed to help out someone in need on the rock. 

On multiple occasions when campgrounds were full, campers invited companions and me to share their sites; it doesn’t hurt to bring a six-pack when you ask. Once when a friend and I were camping near a fishing cabin, its owners arrived, invited us to stay inside, fed us and even lent us fishing gear! 

Outdoor pursuits promote kindness and friendships – image courtesy of Matt Johanson

After I helped a hiker ascend Yosemite’s Vogelsang Peak, she bought me a delicious and pricey dinner at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp. Other hikers have invited companions and me to dinner in Inyo National Forest, Grand Canyon National Park, and Devils Postpile National Monument. 

When I lost my GPS device deep in the backcountry, another backpacker picked it up, found my “home” waymark, determined my address from it, and mailed it back, refusing my offer to compensate him for his trouble.

The Pacific Crest Trail may lead the world in generosity per mile. Thanks to the backpackers who gave my companion and I water when we were hot, thirsty, and dry. Others shared somewhat stronger drinks, food, gear, and companionship.

Snow Heart – a winter wanderer expressed good will with this snowy heart – image: courtesy of Matt Johanson

Trail angels break the scale when it comes to selfless acts of kindness. Some make nearly a full-time job of delivering truckloads of water to dry and remote locations. Hundreds of others mobilize each year to make trekking the 2,650-mile PCT possible and far more enjoyable, providing hikers with food, transportation, shelter and encouragement. When you’re low on food, hungry, and far from the next town, there’s nothing like unexpectedly stumbling across a trail angel who camped out just to make you pancakes or a grilled cheese sandwich. 

Tales of more organized do-gooders could and should fill a whole other column. Search and rescue groups assist hundreds of lost and injured people each year in California alone. Climbers and others step up to pick up tons of trash at annual events like Yosemite Facelift. Countless more give their time to staff group events like road races and bike events.  

All this goodwill rubs off and inspires one to reciprocate. I give food and water to hikers, pick up garbage, give directions to those who need them, pick up hitchhikers whenever I can, and let campers share my site when others are full. I’ve taught kids how to camp, backpack, fish and climb. Still, I’ve got a long way to go to give back enough to even the scales. I’m working on it!

No one can promise that every outdoor encounter will be a good one, of course, but experiences I’ve enjoyed bolster faith in human nature, providing yet another reason to get out there. 

Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.

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