When my traveling companion canceled out of a long planned trip to Alaska, I decided to go by myself. The plan had included hiking in Denali National Park, one of the most remote wilderness areas in the United States.
Hiking alone has always scared me. I’ve traveled alone, eaten in restaurants alone, gone out for evenings alone in unfamiliar cities without worry. But there’s something about hiking solo in isolated wooded areas that evokes a primal fear of unseen dangers lurking behind looming trees and dense shrubbery.
Despite my fear I wanted to explore the park’s hiking trails and determined to do so, even if I had to restrict myself to less remote trails where I would likely encounter other hikers. Knowing other people were around would help fend off creepy feelings.
On my last morning in the park, I set out on a popular trail near the entrance. A light rain was falling as it had steadily done throughout the three days I spent in Denali. Perhaps that was why the trail was disappointingly empty.
At first, I tried brushing aside my fear. I trudged along the narrow dirt path humming and stomping my feet to extinguish the eerie silence, figuring that any nearby wildlife would rather be alerted to my presence than startled by it. But as the trail continued deeper into the woods, the rain soaked dirt turned into mud, engulfing my boots and muffling my footsteps. Soon my thoughts became consumed with bear encounters.
Bears might perceive the unexpected presence of a defenseless hiker as a threat and decide to attack, I reasoned. Dejected, I abandoned the hike and turned tail back to the visitor’s center. As I approached, I saw a group of four heading towards the adjacent trail, which led to a nearby lake. Great, I thought, why couldn’t they have been here earlier? Had they been hiking on the same trail as I, I could have controlled my fear.
As if reading my thoughts, a white-haired, bearded gentleman with bright eyes greeted me with a friendly smile.
"Don’t tell me you’ve already finished doing the trail!" he exclaimed, pausing to chat while his party went on ahead to begin their hike.
I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t even hiked halfway. I explained that I was traveling alone and that I was afraid to hike on an empty trail by myself.
"Then come along with us!" he said enthusiastically.
His name was Bob Swihart, and he was vacationing with his brother, his grandson and his grandson’s friend. While the others hurried ahead, Bob walked leisurely beside me, chatting the entire time, telling me about his life in Michigan and his wife who did not make the trip. He spoke proudly of their German ancestry.
When Bob told me that he was almost eighty, I was surprised and impressed. This was a relatively easy hike in comparison to the undeveloped back country exploration favored by more adventurous visitors, but it was no mere walk in the park. The trail was steep in some places as well as muddy, and slippery. But this octogenarian grandfather and friend to strangers didn’t appear to have much trouble.
When we reached the lake, the rain granted us a reprieve, and the sun nearly broke the omnipresent cloud cover. Bob insisted on taking a picture with me, calling me Sacajawea, after the famous guide who led Lewis and Clark’s Northwest expedition. So my new friend and I posed for two pictures, one taken with his camera, and one with mine.
The round-trip hike and our time together lasted maybe two hours. I had to be on my way, so we said our goodbyes, and chances are we will never meet again.
Later that morning, driving southward to Anchorage, I kept thinking that people like Bob Swihart deserve recognition. It's not that he did anything earth-shattering, but he did make my day simply by extending camaraderie when it was needed.
I doubt that Bob himself would see anything noteworthy in his behavior. For me, however, his outgoing friendliness touched a positive chord because I do worry about a growing trend in our society to avoid, even fear strangers, to look the other way, and let others fend for themselves. In that sense, people like Bob Swihart are exceptional.
He struck me as the kind of man who chats with the person behind him in a supermarket check-out line, shows pictures of his grandchildren to everyone he meets, knows the names of all his neighbors and who has never met a "stranger."
A sense of mission gradually enveloped me as I drove. By the time I stopped for lunch, the rain had finally ceased, and the gray clouds had transformed to blue sky. I decided then that I should and would write about meeting Bob Swihart. I could only hope that the story would be published and that he would get to read it sometime.
Also, it occurred to me that others, besides myself, might appreciate a gentle reminder that kind, caring people like Bob still exist everywhere – even in the most remote wilderness regions of this world.
>> From Cher Richer: What a beautiful story. I often find myself alone in a strange and potentially dangerous place. In future, I hope I have the good fortune of happening across someone like Bob. Bless you both!