Crossing paths with travelers

Posted April 16, 2009, at 9:09 p.m.

At a roadside stop just before Haast Pass, nearing the end of my New Zealand hiking adventure, I started cleaning out the camper van of unwanted and unnecessary possessions. It was time to pare down my gear.

Across the parking lot, I saw the unmistakable forms of four fellow hikers sitting at a cafe. Clad in plaid flannels and worn boots, they had large backpacks propped at their feet. The woman wore a skirt — undoubtedly saved just for being in town — over her long johns. They were admiring their food with an ardor that can only come from many days of two-minute noodles and instant oatmeal.

After a moment’s consideration, I gathered up a few of my things and marched over to their table. “Hey there,” I said. “Do you guys want a coffee pot?”

You see, when one traveler recognizes another, such interactions are not so strange. After weeks of living from campsite to campsite, I have come to recognize the kindred of fellow bohemians.

The four travelers introduced themselves. Two were American, and two were Czech. They had just completed a hike and also were driving over the pass that day. Being tea drinkers, they didn’t need the coffeepot, thank you. “But the hostel here is a nice place — someone there will surely want it, if I leave it. It would be in good hands.”

The world over, travelers stumble upon other travelers and form small groups. Some are united by language, either one they are learning or their native tongue. Others are united by activity: hiking, cycling, museum visiting. Ultimately, many are brought together by the common wonder and confusion of being a foreigner as they cluster around train schedules, hostel entrances and tricky Internet kiosks.

And on the South Island of New Zealand, with only a few main roads, it’s easy to keep running into the same people. We met up again with the Czech-American group on the other side of Haast Pass. They invited us to share their campsite. “We have permission from the farmer who owns this land to spend the night here,” they said. “Come join us!” An impromptu communal clothesline was strung and a campfire built in the fading late-afternoon light.

While heating up food on propane stoves, we compared dinners and traded knowledge about what’s cheap, tasty and light. Jars of spices were passed around and shared. They were delighted to discover that we carried a full-size Scrabble board, and we played a hilarious game by the light of our headlamps, each person forming words in their na-tive language.

“Where are you from in the United States?” the two Americans asked.

“I’m from Maine,” I said.

“No kidding!” the woman brightened up. “I went to the University of Maine at Farmington!” We talked about my home state, excited to have a common stomping ground on the opposite side of the world.

Last week I was privy to a particularly touching display of the friendships formed between fellow travelers. High up in an alpine pass, in a backcountry hut, four young Israelis celebrated the Jewish Sabbath together. They had not known one another back in Israel; if they had not all been foreigners hiking in New Zealand, they might not have met. But meet they did, and together they held Shabbat.

“We do not walk on Saturdays,” they said. Instead they cooked a festive meal together on the wood stove, sharing their food in four common bowls. When they were done with their meal, they joined hands and sang. They brought their cultural and religious traditions to a backcountry hut in New Zealand, creating a four-person congregation in a most unexpected place.

Listening to them sing, although I could not understand their words, I understood the joy of forming community far from home. Candlelight flickered on their faces, and after the last notes faded they all laughed and clapped. Soon they would go their separate ways, but on that Saturday, they were family.

All who are far from home have an inherent bond.

Some time after parting ways with the group of Czech-American hikers, I got an e-mail from the woman who had attended the University of Maine-Farmington. In a hiker’s hut near Cascade Saddle, they had encountered a German girl reading a book that they themselves had passed on to me; I, in turn, had lent it after reading it. “What goes around comes around,” she wrote. “I thought about reclaiming it, but no, it’s on its own journey now.”

We are all on our own journeys — and some of the best stops are when we cross paths.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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