Its 9:30 in the morning in Jackson Hole. I drank enough whiskey last night so I couldn’t feel that it was 45 degrees in my camper, I call that a liquor blanket. Like most hungover mornings on the road trip, I try my best to quickly slip out of my rig and into my car without making eye contact, then beeline it to the nearest coffee shop. In those somewhat shameful few steps, I notice a vintage camper, much like mine, out of the corner of my eye. I don’t stop, cause I have the same clothes on from last night, haven’t brushed my teeth, and the thought of small talk before morning coffee terrifies me. I manage to close my door when out of the corner of my eye again, I see a lady mouth something towards me. Expecting a quick token exchange, I hop out to greet this woman. What comes next some might call serendipity, fate, weird universe shit….something. The ripples I’ve still yet to process, but I’ll try and start here.
Her name is Ann. She’s short-ish, slightly unkept which befits life on the road, but a nice Eddie Bauer vest and green shorts ties it all together. Her fixed up vintage camper is hitched to a sleek black VW station wagon. It mirrors the juxtaposition of my Lexus SUV and vintage camper combo, and is the first of many similarities. We exchange make and models of our campers, where we’re going and where we’re from….the typical road tripper stuff. Surprisingly, we find out that we’re from the same area. Maybe 15 miles apart in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington DC. I still haven’t fallen in love with Ann yet, that’s coming. After a peek inside each others rigs, she invites me to breakfast. My hangover says no, but my heart says yes.
With little knowledge of Jackson we walk into the center of town, all the while dropping bits of background information about ourselves. Helpless, I “yelp” a breakfast spot, though Yelp and I have a love/hate relationship. At this point we’re happy with any place, as long as there’s coffee and food. The coffee point can’t be made strong enough, this is where I start to fall for Ann. We have a seat and the first thing she tells the waitress is “coffee”. She orders it for me, and proceeds to remind our waitress, and a nearby waiter that we need coffee. It’s direct, brash, but she doesn’t care, it’s an immediate need. Maybe it’s the DC personality, we’re conditioned to get things quickly. No one's got time for bullshit, there’s too much traffic, an opportunity to be had, or meeting we’re late for. Either way, I recognized it in me, but also sense that it runs deeper for her, this isn’t just about where we’re from, or coffee.
Some conversations you just can’t retell. Words rush by like branches on top of a running river. You don’t remember the branches, you remember the river. The energy, the power, the depth. More than stories, and words, we exchange beliefs and thoughts on the world. We touch on the soul of towns, and the delicate balance it takes to maintain them. Jackson has lost its. We discuss the magic found in less worn paths, and the beauty outside of guide book staples. We agree travel has taught us that life is not a bucket list, it’s an ever-changing experience that ought to be felt, individually and respectively. Free of judgement this singular experience can be shared, but takes a bit of selfishness to be maintained. Not your typical definition of selfish, but something closer to honoring your own direction and purpose, and remaining steadfast in it.
Ann stands as a living example for Americans and women, that the world, and the US, is not a dark and scary place. Her solo travels as a middle aged woman living with cancer is a bright flash of lighting across a dark purple sky. It’s a reminder, a call, for everyone to get out into the world. To expose yourself to the elements, find your path, your magic. Listen to people tell you you're crazy, and do it anyway. She probably won’t see it like this, most folks from the Washington DC area share a pragmatic liberalism, but I’ll hold out hope she does.
Before my last bite, she get the check, and shortly after we get up to pay. It’s her treat. As romanticized as I’ve made our encounter, it’s a tidy affair. We didn’t talk for hours over an endless cup of coffee. DC people keep it moving, and for her today, the road awaits. On a short walk back to the car we share more stories. She tells me she hates travel journalist Rick Steves, I’m now head over heals in love with Ann. Back at her camper we flip through some maps, and go over plans. She insists on giving me an extra blanket of hers, it reminds me of my mothers insistence. It’s a family blanket circa the 1980’s, it’s beautifully ugly, and I now, very happily accept it.
I think we hugged 3 or 4 different times before saying goodbye. I followed her out of town on my way to the store. On the back of her little camper pop out window, barely visible, read “Lil’ Squirt”. It fit her perfect. We honked our last goodbye, each rolling onwards, along our own path. Through the fog of my hangover I tried to process the last hour, and I began to have some regret. I wish we had spoken longer….I wish I had shared my mother's story of cancer and how I was honoring her….I wish I had told her to stay the day. I had her information, but didn’t call. Sometimes things in life are meant to be finite, and brief. Chance encounters aren’t meant to be held on to. In letting go, you allow them to fill up inside you. And so it has.