Sit on the Bumper and Raise Your Glass

By Kirby Walke

After a hilly run into the Cabinet Mountains, in western Montana, I was sitting in a roadside bar over a plate of pancakes and corned beef hash. Still in a daze and still in my running shorts, I was clearly not a regular.

Eager to see why I was there, the gentleman to my left and the bar tender asked what I had planned for the day. After a quick discussion, hand gesturing, and a cleverly-laid-out salt shaker and coffee stirrer map, I told them I had already tagged a peak that morning and was making my way back home.

A pause ensued. Then, just as it usually goes, we shared a breakfast of tales and our love affair with the surrounding landscape.

While finishing my coffee, I realized that our stories were the same. The “regulars” and I may have differed in that they were chasing elk and I was chasing time, but our experiences in the mountains were nearly identical. We all commented on the morning light, the high meadows, and the streams that provide the best solution to bringing far too little water.

This was not a new experience, and I was happy that, once again, a conversation allowed us to be more than strangers.

I have seen this play out numerous times. Whether it is sitting on the bumper at a trailhead or asking for directions while buying food at the local gas station, barriers break down when we engage each other about our passion to play outside.

Too often we define ourselves by the exact pursuit rather than the underlying desire. Maybe the mode of travel is different or the end goal varied, but the desire to escape into a singular focus in the mountains is the same.

What does that mean? Well, take me for example. I use a lot of different modes to explore. But often I find it hard to love all those activities at the same time. Thus, I start to define and shrink myself into my current desire, when in actuality my identity and my reason for exploring are much larger than that.

Expand this from inside one’s head to the outdoor community at large, and we start to have a problem. As we become more and more specialized, are we losing what bands us together? Are we losing the ability to relate to others who enjoy the mountains?

While reading Kelly Cordes’ book “The Tower,” I came across a conversation between an American writer/climber and an Italian alpinist. They were discussing the ethos of a recent alpine pursuit. Through their translator they note: “‘This is a demonstration that although you live in different countries with different history, education, everything, and you also might disagree about several things…there is also something so near, that makes you absolutely people who understand each other.” Then they raise their glasses for a toast.

This is not the most poetic line I have read. It did, however, clearly state what I was thinking and feeling. Perhaps the problem is not becoming more specialized in our pursuits but that we spend less time with our other mountain friends. Bouncing ideas off each other in person and friendly waves between strangers along the dirt roads are becoming lore.

There may be a simple solution, and it lies in the one place we are all forced to spend a little time: trailheads. These dirt pull-offs give us the opportunity to connect and to see how our fellow outdoor enthusiasts express their love for the mountains. Here, it’s possible that a conversation will turn a stranger to a friend.

I’ll admit it; I am that person who asks how your day was in the parking lot even though you are clearly avoiding eye contact and packing quickly.

Maybe it is my southern upbringing or just my curiosity. And it is not entirely selfless.

I want to be inspired by more than just my adventures; I want to be inspired by yours, too. This breaks down my bubble of being a sport climber today, cross-country skier tomorrow, or ultra-runner come spring. These conversations ease the awkwardness and create the community that we already have but that sometimes needs stoking. 

So just like the Italian and American raised their glasses, I ask you to do the same. Sit on your bumper a few extra minutes. Ask not only the other Subaru drivers in the parking lot what they are up to, but the beat up trucks and mini vans, too.

Kirby Walke strives to move through the mountains at all speeds: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, and most enjoyably with his wife and two daughters. You can find him curled up at many a trailhead after leaving it all out in the mountains. This is Kirby’s first article in Out There.

Read more personal essays in the Last Page column archives.

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