The Kindness of Strangers

May 2, 2013

Photo by wegoslow

This isn't a story of kindness while bicycling, but it is a story that takes place in the midst of travel and my actions were based on recollections of how bicycle travelers have been treated by strangers.

I was headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) board meeting. My flight arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota with no delays and just enough time for me to scoot across the airport to make my connection to Milwaukee.

I boarded without incident, got myself settled, and soon we were taxiing toward the runway. And taxiing and taxiing. The pilot made an announcement that our runway was closed but we'd make it out just a few minutes late on our new one. No problem.

Before long we are hurtling down the runway, gaining speed, and then suddenly, we are not. The plane was about to ascend into the air when the engines shifted down and we remained glued to the ground. We hear from our pilot again, "Well folks, we've got a light on the dashboard so we can't continue this takeoff. We won't have to return to the gate though, maintenence will come out here and fix us up so we can be back on our way shortly."

Ok, that's fine. However, two hours and several announcements from the pilot later, we are back at the gate deplaning. This being Friday, midday, most of the travelers I see are business people trying to get home in time to enjoy the weekend.

I soon find out that all flights to Milwaukee the entire day are oversold. There is not one seat available on a single airline. I connect with my colleagues in Milwaukee. They suggest I get rebooked onto a flight to O'Hare. Chicago is only about 75 miles from Milwaukee and there's a bus between the two airports. I was game and the gate agent was happy to have a passenger not mad at her.

I made my way to my new gate assignment and checked in to see if I would be the lucky standby passenger  or if I'd have to wait for the later flight. To pass the time, as often happens, I started chatting with passengers around me. One woman was a cardiac surgeon on her way to a conference. Another man was a veteran business traveler trying to get home to a weekend with his family before his next six day trip. His name was Jim.

When Jim found out I was going to take the bus to Milwaukee, he kind of scrunched up his face and said, "I've taken that bus. I'm going to be renting a car and you're welcome to join me if you'd like." He went on to assure me that he knew that sounded weird and I didn't have to answer him, I could say no, etc. and so on. I hesitated and said maybe.

We both made it onto the next flight. Relieved to be moving forward again, I settled into my seat and observed Jim across the miles. He was nice to the flight attendent, he only drank a soda, and he didn't talk off the ear of his seatmate. As we gathered our gate-checked bags, Jim walks towards me, "I'm going to get the car. Did you want a ride?" Before I could have a conscious thought, I said "Yes, thanks."

Now obviously the story turned out just fine, I'm here typing this today. I had a pleasant conversation with Jim between airports exchanging work stories. We shook hands as he dropped me off at my hotel. When I offered to pay for the gas, he said, "Naw, that's ok. Just the next time you have the chance to help a fellow traveler, do. That's payment enough."

And finally, the tie-in to bicycle travel: If I didn't do the work I do, and have the opportunity to be a witness to  the kindness of strangers again and again, I might have given in to the fear I see everywhere else and passed up that ride. I want to see this gift continue to be offered and accepted.

In support of that wish, next week I am starting a series of blog posts on Bicycle Travel Etiquette aimed at both cyclists and potential hosts. I intend to explore how to be a good guest as well as how to manage travelers' assumptions and requests. I'd love to hear your stories illustrating how this works — and sometimes doesn't — for you.

Photo from wegoslow's Flickr photostream

GEOPOINTS BULLETIN is written by Jennifer 'Jenn' Milyko, an Adventure Cycling cartographer, and appears weekly, highlighting curious facts, figures, and persons from the Adventure Cycling Route Network with tips and hints for personal route creation thrown in for good measure. She also wants to remind you that map corrections and comments are always welcome via the online Map Correction Form.

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