Like most couples, my husband Bruce and I have somewhat differing agendas when we travel. On the plus side, we both love road trips – extended times of travel where your car is your home base. We like to see interesting sights and explore out-of-the-way places. One of us likes to engage random strangers in conversation. I’ll leave you to guess which one of us that might be.
Now and then I am persuaded to enter a conversation Bruce is having with a stranger. Like the time at Sunset Crater National Monument, north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Bruce was deep in a discussion with a couple of old guys (they turned out to be brothers) who looked like they were auditioning for a spot in a ZZ Top look-a-like band. These two guys had the same wind generator we have – don’t even ask me how Bruce found that out, but such is the nature of conversations that drag on. My intervention was to the point – a brief smile and a look that said – let’s pick up the pace, here, OK?
There was a time when I tried to emulate Bruce’s ease in talking to strangers. We had been in Bismarck, North Dakota where we had a great tour of the State Legislature building – The Skyscraper of the Prairies, it’s called. We wanted to go out on the upper balcony for the view but the security guard said it wasn’t permitted. Too many people had threatened to jump. This was the fall of 2009 – might have been hard times in the Dakotas. Next to the legislature building they had a great free museum that was featuring an interactive exhibit on the cold war. When visitors had seen the entire display, they were invited to write their own memories of the cold war era on post-it notes and display them on a large white board.
But, I digress. Over the complimentary breakfast at a motel the next morning, I tried to engage a woman in a bit of conversation as opposed to my standard smile and brief, “Good morning.” I asked her where she was heading. She narrowed her eyes and looked at me with a cold stare before shaking her head and saying, “Sister, you just don’t want to know.” Later when I was crossing the parking lot to the car I saw her standing by a sheriff’s van beside a younger man in handcuffs. OK, then. Sorry I asked. There are a million stories to be told over the complimentary breakfast at a motel and not all of them are pleasant.
Bruce seems to have better luck picking random strangers for breakfast conversation. There was the time in Ennis, Montana, near Yellowstone Park. Bruce struck up a friendly chat with an older man from Cody, Wyoming. I decided to join in. Now, lest you get the wrong idea about me, my entrance into conversations isn’t always to wrap things up. While Bruce went to get more coffee, I mentioned that the wind had sure blown up the day before. The man launched into a story about how he and his wife had come to Ennis for a family reunion. Right in the middle of the outdoor picnic dinner the wind hit. First it was just the ladies clutching at their dresses to keep them in place. Soon it was paper plates of food flying out of people’s hands. Next, the umbrellas for the tables took off. Eventually the whole buffet table was picked up and dumped over on the lawn. He ended his story by saying, “But that was nothing. You should have seen the square dancing. Now that was a real mess.” One can only imagine!
Then of course there was the mystery man from Australia we met in Pasadena on our most recent trip. He had flown in from the east coast for the Santa Anita Breeder’s Cup, just ahead of Hurricane Sandy. A friendly and interesting character to be sure. We were all staying at the Saga Motor Inn – a great retro 60’s type place. Our first encounter was when he stopped by our poolside table and began to talk. Over the next three days we had several long chats. I picked his brain about horse racing, because you never know when little bits of information like that might come in handy. We never quite figured out what it was he did – something to do with politics and finance and maybe human resources negotiations of some type. It was all deliberately vague, but he was an extraordinarily good name dropper. At one point he bemoaned the fact that he had missed a business lunch in New York (he had made the decision to fly out a day early – good choice for sure, considering what was about to hit.) He told us how he and the man he was to meet would have gone to De Niro’s little place. He smiled at me and said, “You know it, right?” Ya, sure, like I would – but I nodded anyway. Connie would probably have dropped by – Condoleezza Rice that is. I know, I know. But it happened. I wouldn’t lie to you. I couldn’t make stuff like this up – believe me, as a writer, I try.
As Randall Munroe, the American web-comic author and former NASA roboticist and programmer, says, “Take wrong turns. Talk to strangers. Open unmarked doors. And if you see a group of people in a field, go find out what they are doing. Do things without always knowing how they’ll turn out . . .” Considering the diversity of this man’s accomplishments, I’d say he might be onto something.