Mississippi River south of St. Cloud, MN – September 22, 2012
Perhaps a broken disposal has hung out on the to-do list for too long or that bar stool next to you is empty and doesn’t understand you without saying a word. Maybe you need to fight someone, anyone, wrestle them in your back yard because for those few moments they represent everything you’re angry at in the world. Or it could just be you have a few boxes of books you need help moving to a new house.
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Bob explained. “Going and asking people ‘What do you need? How can I help you?'”
The wind rushed across the Mississippi and over the broken piece of asphalt where we sat, but the sun kept the air just warm enough. Bob’s Harley sat behind us, 9,000 miles older than it was a few months ago. He’d ridden across the country and back, stopping to reconnect with people from his life, old friends that he hadn’t seen in years, military buddies, hikers who were there with him on pieces of the Triple Crown. I’m part of the last group. I met Bob on the Pacific Crest Trail and missed him by half-a-day on the Continental Divide. Then I missed him again two months ago when I was on Isle Royale and he crossed the Mississippi heading west.
Over the last few months, Bob sent texts from different places. I’d wake up in the morning and see Pie Town, New Mexico, or Casa de Luna flash across my phone. Most people wouldn’t be able to find them on a map, but they’re seared into the minds of long-distance hikers, special places that we all know. He sent names too, names I knew like Sweep and Bounty Hunter, the kind of names you get on long-trails where people call me Out of Order and him Wilderness Bob. Every time I read a text, I hoped he’d pick a northern route home when he turned East.
“I’m 200 miles away from you,” he texted me last night. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
That’s how I ended up in a forgotten corner of a park along the river near Saint Cloud listening to Bob tell me about his trip and how he’s been traveling all over helping people.
“That’s just what I decided to do this time,” he said. “Go ask ‘how can I help you?'”
“It sounds great,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I’m asking you, you, what do you need? Can I help you?”
I looked at Bob and knew he would have ridden a hundred miles just to pick up a water bottle for me if I needed it or strapped the boat to the Harley somehow and dragged it across the state if I asked him to, but the boat was fine, I had food and water, nothing was broken.
I didn’t know what to say. I only knew that the sound of his Harley rumbling through the park made the world feel bright again. I only knew that as soon as he gave me a bear hug and said “some backyard you have here” I looked out at the Mississippi with new eyes. I only knew that the world felt beautiful again for the first time in days.
“I don’t need anything,” I said.
But it was a lie.
He’d already brought what I needed, an old friend’s familiar smile.