It’s the People You Meet Along the Way

Craig reminds us that it's not the destination, but the journey in this essay and memoir about his life on the road. He cycled across the country and through South America during which he met the kind of friends who restore your faith in humanity.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Guidebook Author
October 10, 2017
by Craig Romano, Mountaineers Guidebook Author

I’ve hiked in some of the world’s most beautiful and awe-inspiring places. I’ve logged miles in the Andes, Alps, Apennines, and the Appalachians. The Rockies, Sierras, Peninsula Ranges, and escarpments of the upper Midwest, too. I’ve trekked in the Pyrenees, England’s Lakes District, the Scottish Highlands, and Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains. I’ve snowshoed and skied in Japan’s Ishikari range, the Austrian Alps, and Bolivia’s Cordillera Real. I’ve hiked deserts in the American West and in Northern Chile. Explored Patagonia, the Peruvian Amazon, and Ybycui National Park in Paraguay. I’ve hiked national parks in the Yukon Territory, Quebec and a whole lot in between. And I have logged thousands of miles in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve seen amazing landscapes and amassed incredible backcountry experiences. But my fondest, most vivid, and most heartwarming memories involve the people I have encountered along the way.

While I usually shun crowded trails, I don’t shun human contact in the backcountry. And I always welcome friendly fellow travelers. I mostly hike alone, but find as I have gotten older I’m spending more time on the trail with hiking partners. I usually don’t hike in groups, preferring instead to be with one or two close friends or family members. I always greet fellow hikers and try to keep my demeanor warm and welcoming. Many times a hello or wave has turned into a friendly conversation — sometimes developing into a friendship — fleeting or lasting, but always memorable. And always part of my bigger path; my path in life.

Many of my solo journeys didn’t end solo. And I don’t believe in happenstance; people coming into my life at certain points are all part of the plan. I’ve often met kindred souls on day hikes, backpacking trips, and multi-day cycling trips where a simple salutation turned into a bond and new hiking or cycling partner. Long distance travelers know this best as the small fraternity of through hikers, globe-trotters, and long distance cyclists instantly understand each other regardless of reasons why we’re out there. 

At 19 years-old I planned my second great cross-country bike trip. It was a sequel to the one I did just months before with my best friend, which had us peddling just shy of 13,000 miles on an around-the-country bike tour. My second trip was to Alaska via Arkansas — touching upon the states I missed on my first trip. A friend of mine was supposed to accompany me but he ended up getting cold feet a month before we were to depart. Evidently, the idea of the trip was more alluring to him than the trip itself, which involved incredible discipline, determination, and energy. His defection left me with a choice — bag it, or continue on a challenging, grueling, and long trip alone. With some anxiety and lots of soul searching, I left the comforts of my parent’s home in a small town New Hampshire and hit the road, solo. 

Traveling alone can be tough. Things you take for granted with a partner, like watching your gear as you use a bathroom, are absent. You need to rely on yourself for almost everything. But I instantly found that being alone makes it easier to meet people. And I experienced random acts of kindness and encountered travel angels on nearly a daily basis. In western Virginia, I met a kindred soul and we biked together for three days, parting ways in Kentucky. I was once again alone until I reached little Dexter, Missouri three weeks into my trip. It was there on a hot day I decided to take an ice cream break. It was that fateful ice cream break where I met Joe, a free spirit from the mountains of western North Carolina who was also taking an ice cream break on his cross-country bike trip. 

We rode together that afternoon and drank some beer and shared tales that evening. It was the beginning of two months of traveling together — and some incredible memories and life experiences — from our ride across a 12,183-foot pass in Rocky Mountain National Park to b among the first cyclists to ride over Chilkoot pass from Alaska to the Yukon. And while my second cross-country bike trip is one of my life’s greatest achievements rife with memories of incredible places seen, it was the comradery with Joe that stands out the strongest — a person I met along the way — that amplified my journey and made the entire experience all the better.

One of my most cherished memories of people met along the way is from a two-month backpacking trip in South America. It was on this trip back in 1988 that one particular incident continues to stand out in my mind. It was in Chile (under the dictatorship of Pinochet) that my wife (at the time) and I were wrapping up a couple days of hiking and camping in beautiful Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, home of the Osorno Volcano, which looks like it came straight out of the Pacific Northwest.

It was here, before computers and smart phones which have made travel so much easier, that we were denied entry on a bus to leave the park. A bus ride that we had paid for a day earlier but was now full and we couldn’t argue our way onto it despite having the tickets in our hands. There wouldn’t be another bus for a couple days and we were out of food to stay longer. Our only hope would be to hitchhike back to Puerto Montt — 50 miles away. We started walking down the long and lonely access road. A few cars puttered by but none were inclined to pull over to pick up two scruffy hitchhikers with enormous backpacks.

We walked for hours in the heat on the dusty road until finally, a very small older model car pulled up aside us. It was a family of four on their way home from their one-week annual vacation. In my elementary Spanish, I explained to them our predicament and they immediately wanted to help us out. Their car was small. Where would we and our packs fit? We tied the packs to the top of the car and then the two of us piled into the cramped back seat, each taking one of their young children on our laps. It was an obvious inconvenience to our family of travel angels, but they didn’t mind at all and insisted that they would take us to Puerto Montt.

We chatted about Chile, the United States, music, food, travel, and life. When we finally got to Puerto Montt I was intent on thanking our saviors with a gracious amount of Chilean pesos, about $20 US worth in 1988 dollars. To us, that money would have gotten us through two more days of travel, but it wouldn’t be missed. For our Chilean family who was of very modest means, it would have been the equivalent of a week’s worth of wages. They refused it. They were just satisfied to have helped us and knew through God’s eyes it was the right thing to do. They wanted us to have a great trip and not to have any bad feelings about Chile or its people. They would not take the money — they were rewarded enough through their act of kindness. 

Thirty years later, this experience still moves me. The pure simplicity and the selflessness behind it continue to instill in me hope, optimism, and trust in the human spirit. It rings stronger in my consciousness and collective memory than any majestic glacier-covered volcano I have hiked to or upon.

Craig now lives in Mount Vernon, Washington with his wife and son. He is an avid hiker, runner, paddler, and cyclist - and shares those passions through his award-winning books. Craig has written or co-written 18 guidebooks. His latest release, Urban Trails Bellingham (Mountaineers Books) highlights the best trails for walking, running and hiking in Bellingham, the Chuckanut Mountains, and the Skagit Valley. Some of his other titles include; 100 Classic Hikes Washington, Backpacking Washington, and Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula (2nd edition).


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2017 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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