Never get between a hungry hiker and their food, especially after a long day on tough trail and a massive calorie deficiency. Give a hungry hiker some food in the same conditions, and like a naturally obedient dog, they will be your best friend and go through hell or high water for you.
Until we met at the Shell gas station on the far Northern end of Key Largo, Ryan and I were total strangers. We were thousands of miles away from each other and lived entirely separate lives. The odds of our crossing paths were practically non-existent. But through the thoughtfulness of a friend named Jake whom I sat next to in one of my classes in high school, we were able to exchange phone numbers and discuss how, with my hiking pace and his work schedule, we could arrange a time to grab a bite to eat. So while I waited, a few mornings later, at the Shell station, I played softly on my guitar to kill time, and as if on cue, a filthy, drunken sounding homeless dude on a bike pulled up and slurred some questions about my instrument right as Ryan pulled into the lot. I thanked the homeless dude for what I thought I heard as a compliment about the “nice mandolin”, and walked around him to shake Ryan’s hand. We chatted briefly about how we each know Jake while I threw my backpack into his trunk and we drove off towards the local’s diner. I gave him the basic rundown of where I’m hiking this year, and made sure to mention to him that the homeless guy had walked up right before he had arrived. I mentioned how I used to struggle with distinguishing myself from guys like that, until I realized that the key difference between us is that I choose to be out here, and can quit and go home if it doesn’t work out; that the hard days for him likely spawn from hard years, where my hard days are fleeting because I have the means- the money, the gear, the research, and most importantly the motivation- to change my situation for the better.
We pulled into a diner I had seen while walking the previous day- the one with the slogan “a local’s place” painted onto a worn-out sign above the entrance. Though the place wasn’t crowded, they were fairly busy, and yet we were seated with coffee and water in front of us almost instantly. As we perused the extensive menu, I told Ryan that whatever he ordered was on me and that I appreciated him picking me up and taking the time to talk to a smelly stranger like me. He would have none of it. He adamantly insisted that my meal was on his check and said he wouldn’t have it any other way, especially with the long adventure I have ahead of me. Grateful, and humbled by the kindness of strangers as always, I gave up. Naturally, when we got onto the topic of my first long coast to coast hike from 2012-2013, this, my restored faith in humanity, was the first thing I brought up. I told him the stories of how people from all different backgrounds and from all different places would show me the same generosity, regardless of their financial standing. Those with money to spare would take me out to a nice dinner and let me soak in their jet-bubble bath tubs. Those without would cook pancakes for dinner and give me homemade handicrafts to send back to my loved ones. Most people though, regardless of what material things they did or did not have, gave me their time and their support. They would drive me around to see the local sites and share with me, if only in a brief glimpse, what it was like to live their lives, and that was, and still is, far more valuable to me than any material gift.
Our conversation flowed organically, and Ryan’s interest in my story was mirrored by my interest in his. He met our mutual friend while they attended culinary school, so I had to ask what it’s like to be a cook for a beach resort, and I was a bit shocked by his response. He told me that he caters private parties at the most prestigious resort in the keys, where the head honchos of billion dollar companies dock their yachts and get down in high class. To give you an idea of how exorbitantly wealthy the people he works for really are, he told me that it costs $500,000 just to get access to the resort, but many of the amenities can only be accessed by people who own property there, which costs even more, and is probably a higher number than I would like to know. At a recent raffle dinner, they sold a private dinner with Emeril Legasse for you and 28 guests for nearly $3,000,000. Now that money did go to charity, but just imagine if you had enough capital to spend that much on one dinner! And the funny thing is that Ryan was the one actually cooking the food, he just had the recipes explained to him by Emeril ahead of time so that Emeril could spend the night singing with the band and slapping the guests on their backs for their generous donation. On one other occasion, Ryan told me, he saw the owner of a huge international insurance company invite his guests to come to the pool, where he literally started throwing piles of money in so they could swim around and snatch it up. At that story, Ryan laughs. How comical it is, he says, to meet a guy like me who lives with everything he needs to survive in a backpack.
Ryan, from what I could gauge, falls somewhere in between myself and the type of people he works for, though probably still pretty far from their level of luxury. He is getting married this summer to a girl he’s loved since high school, a baker, and before we even touched the topic of his work-life, we discussed the stresses of planning a wedding and how he never had any clue of how expensive weddings could be and how many unexpected costs there are. They both decided to come to Key West after Ryan quit his job and found this one. Essentially, the head chef at Ryan’s old job just left one day, and after shifting around positions in the crew, he lost the opportunity for a promotion to someone who had only been working there for a few months. Later, the old head chef told him that if it were his choice, he would’ve chosen Ryan and that he thinks he’s ready to do more. After searching around a bit, Ryan found this job and has been in the Keys since September. To my amazement, when I asked Ryan how old he was, he told me 21. I was stunned when he said this. How could someone not more than a year older than me have their life so in order?! He then said something like, “You know, I really like my job, but my dream is to be a sous chef one day, and I’m pretty motivated, so I know I can do it” The answer to how a kid like him can be so successful at such a young age, is motivation. The dude has got tattoos of an artichoke, a romanesco, and a watermelon radish on his arm- if that’s not a sign of passion for his work I don’t know what is. His confidence inspired me greatly and after the final sip of my coffee went down the hatch, I sat there, speechless for a moment, letting his words, and his story sink in.
Ryan payed for the meal and we drove back to the gas station so I could start walking again. With a full stomach, I was feeling ready for a long day so I could utilize all those calories I just took in. More than ever before, I felt ready to tackle this long adventure head-on, not just because I had a full stomach, or because a kind stranger had helped me fill it, but because that stranger, and now a friend, had reminded me that the path to success lies in relentless motivation, passion, and confidence. Perhaps that’s how the people he works for became so wealthy. Granted, some of them probably had a distinct advantage over almost everyone else, but I am certain that at least a handful of the members at that resort once dreamt of making a ton of money and worked themselves inch by inch to the top. Ryan had also reminded me of one other very important lesson- that being kind and compassionate to people, strangers included, will earn you more than motivation and confidence ever can- it will earn you friendship, and that is more valuable than anything in the material world.
Day 6: 23 miles
Day 7: 25 miles
Day 8: 5 miles (in town at the library most of the day)