In this extended holiday essay, explorer / spelunker / observer John Watts delivers an everyman’s take on Chesterton’s oft-noted adage: Places don’t become loved because they are great; they become great because they are loved. Does your town invite “word-of-mouth walking?”
I am always profoundly moved and impacted by those special strangers I’ve had the privilege to meet in the course of my travels who go out of their way to not only answer basic informational or directional questions with great kindness, but then take that extra step and leap of faith to evangelize and bring to life their town or city. They are promoters and boosters extraordinaire that combine warm interpersonal skills with a great contagious affection and pride for their local digs.
So please indulge me as I devote some brief paragraphs ahead to acknowledge some very notable examples of such civic paragons of philanthropy from the past several years. These people stand out to me like lighthouses even if the names are missing. Therefore, this is decidedly not a travel log or a restaurant or B&B review—this is a prosaic tribute to some amazing people who dazzled me on far from home and remain in my memory long after the specific questions I asked have been forgotten.
The first that comes to mind was in Chicago, Illinois, where my wife and I had spent 3 or 4 days on Spring Break after taking an Amtrak from Washington DC. We happened to be dining in a highly recommended Italian restaurant emphatically suggested by the desk clerks of our downtown hotel located a block away from the ESPN zone. Sadly, the name of the restaurant escapes me but not the impact of the person. In fact she happened to be our waitress that night. While ordering appetizers we started off by asking her a few generic questions on sightseeing tips around Chicago. Before long she was lingering longer and longer at our table, despite the heavily packed tables of other customers. By dessert, this same waitress/good will ambassador had pulled up a chair at our table and decided to diagram directions to some of her favorite “can’t miss” landmark sites in the windy city, complete with street by street turns. Her enthusiasm was positively riveting as she reached crescendos that hailed the unique qualities of her city as well as the distinctive character of being a Chicagoan. The most amazing thing, and not advisable normally for a waitress, was that she left me her cell phone number on the back of our bill in case we needed to contact her for further help during our trip. Wow! This was no mere slick marketing scheme that benefitted her financially. This lady loved Chicago and it showed in spades! She left us a lot more tips than we could ever repay in any monetary tip on the table.
Next up on the Good Samaritan hit parade are the exemplary librarians at the public library in downtown Spokane, Washington, right by the powerfully churning Spokane River. I had been dropped off by my hotel shuttle and had an evening to walk around before calling the hotel back to be picked up. With no appointments or “must see” obligations and loaded with lots of curiosity, I jogged up the prodigious steps to this aforementioned library seeking refuge and perhaps some added insights as to where to go. I also came armed with a few questions based on earlier suggestions that I heard from the hotel shuttle driver.
The kindly ladies at the information desk applied themselves with great diligence to my situation and never once went through the motions or dispensed of me quickly as most would with such nebulous non-library book questions. Truth be told, I have regrettably run afoul of some librarians in the past as my voice was too undisciplined at times in maintaining an even modulation; that and the fact that I have been caught in the act of being a “page sniffer,” whose nose can actually tell the age and edition of each book within 5 years based on the scent. But these librarians were very different from rank and file “punch the clock” employees and took their job very seriously as community resources. Their love for the downtown Spokane area was evident in their attention to details. This was a wide open reference desk that seemed to contain the whole world in terms of providing any and all answers for people sincerely thirsting for knowledge.
I ended up on a quest to find a recommended place called David’s Pizza on Boone Street but, after finding the abandoned building and its “sorry for the inconvenience” sign, found that it had moved locations. The walk itself was very long but paid huge dividends in terms of eye candy as I was not only able to walk parallel with a beautiful river, I also got to enjoy the cultural attractions along the river’s edge. So I diverted myself instead to Pete’s Pizza and ordered the Hawaiian Calzone that the clerk recommended. I was in the heart of Gonzaga University, which was an encouraging thing for a food quest, as college campuses historically specialize in great sloppy finger foods and sandwiches. So I sat back and enjoyed the spoils of my scavenger hunt, drinking an ice cold Kokanee beer to better wash down my order and watching students and professors with Bulldog related shirts and hats walk in, requesting their usuals.
Talking with nice people, I find, always makes me do things like that. All it takes is a few raves from a kindly local and before I know it, I am on a Holy Grail crusade to find the place, whether I have much evidence to go on or not as to its actual quality. In this case, I ended up going with a Plan B, again ping-ponging back and forth with nothing more than a word of mouth suggestion. It all started with the diligent research of the librarians and metamorphosed from a pizza into a Hawaiian calzone. I love people that go out on a limb when asked what their favorite is and don’t offer the safe pat answer of, “oh everything on the menu is very good,” like they were afraid of a law suit. Word-of-mouth-walking is unpredictable and subject to change, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The plot can thicken one minute to the next; as you may start off seeking pizza, then find yourself directed towards ice cream, to finally gambling on something spicy that ends up giving you heartburn. But I wouldn’t change a thing. Although it sounds like a contradictory oxymoron, sometimes I think I would go to the ends of the earth just to follow someone’s tip for a great local taste treat!
In the course of this same trip, in bad need of a promising exit for which to find scenic diversion from the rigors of the mountain highways, I stumbled upon an idyllic western city with the perfect downtown and welcoming Main Street, called Baker City, Oregon. It billed itself as being “on the historic Oregon trail” and proved quickly to be a rich treat for the senses as I had been driving through the mountain passes in my rental car and needed relief. I strode into a classic wooden tavern called the Main Event. Soon after bellying up to the bar and ordering my sandwich, I was noticed by a patron next to me for making some remark about being new in town and curious as to where to go. Soon I was regaled by an amazingly engaging man who took me conversationally from menu chit chat to providing me a cliff notes autobiography of his life and career—he was retired after 25 years of law enforcement.
His big theme was his abiding love affair with Baker City, to which he had relocated. He told me of its ranking in some publication as the number one most livable town per capita of its kind in the entire country. He told me of Baker City’s benevolent benefactor, Leo Adler, who died in 1990 and left 20 million dollars to the city and scholarships for any local kids that graduate from high school.
Not only did he give great tips and specific names of places to visit, not only did he call other town folks over to him to better answer certain questions like the availability of a room for the night, but he also followed me out into the street and insisted on guiding me on foot to where his recommended B&B was located. I was flabbergasted when I turned on the cross walk to hear him calling out for me to wait up.
This spontaneous tavern meeting was instrumental in my staying the night in Baker City and poking around long enough to taste her many charms. How else would I have found out about Rodeo Night? How else could I have known to walk to the delightful American smells and cuisine of the summer festival going on by the gazebo in the town square that reminded me of scenery from “The Music Man.” In fact, everywhere I went seemed to be a fascinating blend of Charles M. Russell’s rugged west paintings and Norman Rockwell’s traditional Americana wholesomeness.
I walked amongst the craft and food venders listening to live music as I sampled such tasty treats as a “pronto pup” and strawberry shortcake. After being drawn to a distinctively humongous LEMON hut with a lady inside selling lemonade (a good tie in), I was urged to drink an inch off my plastic cup so that she could dump more in, as they had a surplus of lemonade because her spouse “always made too much.” Baker City was truly a city with a town’s heart that had a surplus of hospitality.
Once again, one strand of advice led to another and was all in walking distance. In order to attend that evening’s rodeo show I was told to go to the Elks Club to buy the ticket. And there is absolutely no way if I hadn’t had my initial tavern encounter that I would have stuck around long enough or had the confidence to explore around the back streets of Baker City until discovering the drum and bugle bagpipe band inside the historic back room of the Elks Club. I was allowed to slip through the inner sanctum and glimpse a bar area that looked like it was still rooted solidly in the mid-20th century with every tradition passed on. After getting my rodeo ticket purchased at the venerable old bar, I was told to look into yet another secret big meeting room to sample the live music, even though I was only a passing tourist and not a club member. Soon thunderous drums and bass sounds were reverberating strongly on my eardrums as I was in a standing room only audience listening to a drum and bugle concert. It would have taken some major layering of sound proofing to mute the strains as I was front and center to hear the not so subtle sounds of a row of bagpipes droning. But despite this powerful decibel assault, I felt very cozy to be massed with the town folk club members inside.
My rodeo night was of course another great night of diary worthy commentary, as I got to see a number of short, squat collegiate bulls who all seemed to be named Cody. I got my hand stamped in order to buy a beer and then wandered around the bleachers soaking up the cultural sights and sounds (and especially the heavy duty smells).
A freak lightning storm blew in halfway through the rodeo causing me to exit and then cower under a maple tree with two ladies and a married couple. They assured me that our chances of getting zapped by lightning were much less than the patrons who decided to stand under a metal roof awning 20 yards away. All of these memories, and many more, including the very spacious upstairs suite I stayed in for the night at a dirt cheap rate, were sprung from my chance visit with the one man chamber of commerce in the tavern.
Skipping ahead now into the past, (as this is not in chronological order) to finish out my string of stars, there was the incredible, un-duplicable owner at “The Littlest Shop in the Village” gift shop on a short east coast swing with my wife from Virginia to New Jersey. This is where my memory gets lamentably faulty and disqualifies me from being a true journalist. I mean who wants to publish a travel article when the writer can’t rightly remember the name of the owner of some B&B and is too lazy to jot down all the various dishes he ate and how old the building is?
Be that as it may, I couldn’t manage to remember this dear lady’s name once the visual clue of her name tag was out of my sight, but she was the most dedicated store owner I have ever seen when it came to accommodating visitors asking for directions. My wife and I had stopped when we noticed this startlingly bright pink building down a drive way with a sign on it that said “OPEN.” And boy was she open when it came to courtesy and kindness. It was not the typical kind of frame of reference for me as far as a retail store, as it had very delicate designer collectables catered mostly for women. But both of us felt very encouraged to relax and shop and talk. It was during the height of summer vacation and we were looking for lodging close to the Jersey shore–not an easy feat without making an earlier reservation.
But not even the brutal collusion and entrapment of supply and demand brought to bear on the peak of summertime could dissuade this lady. She advocated urgently for us until we had nailed down a contact that could offer us a reservation, as she called on her social network of family and other store owners to shed light on where we could go. Had her house been closer to the ocean, she would probably have offered us an available room for free such was the unbridled interest that she took in our fate.
This store owner proceeded to exhaust every available resource she could think of in securing a vacant lodging for us along New Jersey’s southern coast. Like the librarians in Spokane, she was tireless in her perseverance to continue exploring options and leads that might result in a matching vacancy for a place to sleep in overnight by the ocean. We ended up remaining there for at least two hours as she called friends, went online, and placed phone calls long distance. It seemed rude to bow out too early and not be receptive to the hospitality we were receiving so we remained indefinitely. Of course we had to buy a few gift items, not only because of their quality but as a token of our appreciation for the lavish time and commitment she had invested in us.
She was also very spiritual, often reciting very comforting lines of wisdom and encouragement. Before the visit was even half over, we felt like we were her number one customers ever even if it was just for the first and last time. We watched her answer customer’s phones calls also as if each were the very first one—making sure at some point to use such phrases as “many blessings to you” and sounding sincere each time. At one point she even left her gift shop and invited us to the historic farmhouse that stood in the front of the property adjacent to The Littlest Shop. Before long our jaws were dropping as she gave us a tour of some of the historic rooms and the period piece décor along with the stories behind it. By the end I can’t remember if we hugged, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. We felt as if we had run into some long lost family member who had revitalized us and made completely sure we were in good shape before departing on the road again. A strong humanitarian spirit flowed throughout our time under the roof of “The Littlest Shop in the Village” which I have no doubt has ensured many happy endings for customers being treated like guests in this story book like cottage. Our stated desire to achieve our trivial travel goal was viewed by the proprietor with the same degree of urgency and commitment as if we had been stranded motorists who needed AAA or an ambulance called.
Kindred Souls of the Road
There are so many other special, beyond the call of duty helpers of varying degrees who have all made a strong imprint on trips both short and far flung for all of us. But while it is fresh in my mind, I am glad to showcase these people and places before my memory fades them all into one big, unified mass of happy memories in my mind—which I don’t view as that tragic anyway as that would probably be the most fitting compliment; as the specific details all congeal and become one happy communion pointing to why we were all brought together on this earth in the first place. The knowledge and affection shown for a given place shown by the previous wonderful people was not done in a vacuum or with any trace of arrogance or haughtiness like some distant native towards an alien—it was displayed hand in hand with great hospitality as if I was the VP they were waiting for and sensed that I needed to slow down and rest until I felt at home. Nor were they mere statistic regurgitators or slick salesmen for buying some product. I have a strong hunch that these same people could have been transplanted in a different part of the country and would still have been just as accommodating and effervescent. They would have been proud promoters of Chicago or the tiniest town off the interstate. Their passion and enthusiasm would have found something noteworthy that was Number One in their town even if it was not listed in the national registry. Finally each carried the secret to happy living as they were avid appreciators who reflected it back to others. They understand the sanctity of what travel holds as a never ending process and their role as missionaries in a mission field that badly needs them—behind every cash register or waiting at some restaurant table.
Travel not only breaks down barriers, it radically alters how we perceive the public around us. Seemingly minor and perfunctory transactions can be infused with deep meaning and heartfelt connections. The biggest tribute I can think of regarding these special people cited in this essay, is that years later, long after unpacking my bags, they are still as vital a part of my trip as the landmarks and photos taken. Their enthusiasm in taking an interest in my trip made me inwardly want to report back and get closure by telling them how wonderfully their tips paid off. The beauty of these transcendental moments is they remain unspoiled and forever in the here and now of travel. Human politics and rankings of friendship hierarchies do not enter in.
Eventually it all fades into one big happy sunset memory of travel and being well received by kind hearted people radiating love and offering help when you need it most. And while I may be frequently amiss or remiss in my life if I judge myself solely on whether I made a perfect speech or prayer that cites and remembers every specific person with an all-encompassing summary and not a single “thank you” overlooked, when it comes to the big picture of travel, I can never go wrong. I’m not expected to anyway. The specifics are always honored in the general attitude of gratitude that each new interaction spawns. It is a passed along, spiritual process that merely proceeds to the next person. The immeasurable benefits between each positive interaction of giver and receiver are its own reward. When we thank one person we thank them all. We retain and transmit many more blessings than we will ever know in the overriding scheme of God’s plans for us.
In my final years, when physical limitations rush in to alter my self-image, even if I can’t accurately pull out each fact and statistic, I hope to at least walk around, or wheel myself around, most assuredly, with a big broad grin as I forever feel the warm afterglow of each trip as a cumulative triumph. Each and every smile and gracious remark, laced with good humor and heartfelt sincerity, has done wonders to put me at ease and make any residual weariness or homesickness ebb away. All of these greetings and timely exchanges served not only to tangibly recalibrate me towards some specific location; they also restored my perspective and reset my spiritual compass. But then again, like Dorothy’s comment to the Tin Man after meeting on the yellow brick road, I can say to all these strategically placed people after meeting them, “Well I guess we’re not strangers anymore,” as I have carried them all with me. May we all be the same kind of lighthouse and good will ambassador for other travelers, enthusiastically extolling that not only is our glass full, but actually topped off and spilling over regarding favorite local and regional places that we can’t wait to gush about and share with others.
John Watts was born in Denver, Colorado, but has lived most of his adult life in northern Virginia. A teacher for many years, he revels in the writing of essays and short stories, weaving mischief and streaks of whimsy through what he lightly refers to as “heartfelt transcendental observations of daily life.”