Back in December, long distant enough now that it feels like a lifetime ago to me, we spent Christmas at the Guadeloupe Canyon hot springs.
The girls, as they always do at a new destination, immediately scampered all over the place, exploring the palm stands and bouldering the rocks and inspecting all the other sites in the canyon, and were delighted to discover one morning that the site next to us was occupied by two dogs, Patrick and Jerry.
The girls loved the dogs, immediately renamed them Fireball and Fluffball, and every morning thereafter woke, wolfed down breakfast, and raced over the fifteen foot stack of granite that separated our site from that of the two dogs.
The dogs had owners, of course, and so Val and I, operating out of some concern that perhaps the people vacationing in this secluded a spot might not actually be hoping for daily visits from our girls, dropped by to properly introduce ourselves.
And so we met Jim and Julie, a lovely couple from just outside Flagstaff, Julie a teacher and Jim a professor at Northern Arizona State. They were a warm, kind and happy pair and Val and I found ourselves looking forward to sharing drinks and sunsets with them, chatting well into the evenings, while the girls assumed responsibility for the dogs.
When we left the oasis, we traded contact information and Jim and Julie very graciously insisted that should we ever find ourselves in the environs of Flagstaff, we should absolutely plan to visit with them.
Almost five months later, Val and I found ourselves working our way north from Sedona to Flagstaff through the thick ponderosa pine stands of the Coconino National Forest that blanket the Mogollon Rim and wondering where we might spend several nights ahead of the Overland Expo at Mormon Lake.
Recalling the now bygone invitation we had been given, we discussed whether we should call them, and what kind of imposition this might well represent.
Now, for the entirety of trip, we have found ourselves constantly benefitting from the knowledge and company of fellow travelers, and as Blanche Dubois observed in a Streetcar Named Desire, we have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Candidly, we did feel a small twinge of nervousness at actually taking Jim and Julie up on their generous offer, but made the call anyway, fully preparing for any number of very likely outcomes that included them not being home, them being busy, or quite understandably, them not being prepared to spontaneously host the twin tornadoes of Leonie and Sylvie.
And their response, immediately, was to give us explicit directions to their home just outside Flagstaff and insist that we show up as soon as possible to stay in their guest casita. As Jim noted in an email to us, “Unplanned travels are dancing lessons from God”.
We arrived to find the house unoccupied, but shortly a plume of dust drifted up from the long gravel road to the property, trailing a forty year old yellow Volkswagen Beetle piloted by Jim, who was racing home in the middle of his work day (he runs a charter school for Navajo kids nearby as well as teaching at the University) to let us in.
And we then spent three extraordinary and very restorative days at their home, enjoying breakfast with them in the mornings before seeing them off to work, our days romping about the property with the dogs, and our evenings talking away over dinner and drinks before retiring to the cozy warmth of the casita (or not – the girls camped out on their sofa in the main house one night, falling asleep while watching a movie).
The girls collected scraps to feed the chickens, and were rewarded with a fresh brown egg one morning that they decided was the best egg they had ever eaten.
Like any parents, we spend a lot of time, consciously and unconsciously, concerned about the girls and their education.
The girls are not in school, obviously, and to have them in the company of two accomplished career educators for that period of time turned out to be a source of great comfort.
Jim and Julie have invested lifetimes thinking about this very same problem, both professionally and practically, and their observations to us, that the girls were bright and engaged and articulate and absorbing all aspects of this adventure in a profoundly useful and useable way, reinforced our basic conviction that what we are doing with them, daily, is working.
Jim is also at the point in his career where he is considering his options, which include retirement, and so we were able to talk at length about that, too. Obviously, I beat him to the retirement punch, but only temporarily as I will have to return to work in some way to replenish our finances at some point.
But Jim’s thoughtful perspective on his own career, on the value of work and how to balance work with all of the aspects of a life well lived that compete for our time and attention, were especially valuable to me.
When we did pack up to leave, Val and I were both suffused with the mix of happiness and regret that accompanies any genuine farewell. In opening their home and their hearts to us, we have once again been treated to a series of kindnesses that we would not have otherwise known or enjoyed had we not taken this trip in the first place.
We were glad for the girls to see it also – to know the pleasure of unexpected and easy friendship, that there are more people out there than you might imagine capable of extending simple consideration and generosity, and while it’s not always possible to rely on it, it’s out there if you go looking.
No map, whether used for travel or for navigating life itself, will clearly indicate where new friends can be found.
But knowing that they are out there, and in places and numbers greater than you might expect, is a terrific lesson that Val and I can’t teach them, but people like Jim and Julie can and have.