Sometimes you get stuck in a grind, a life that sucks you into a day-to-day routine that leads to being unfit and unhealthy. Sometimes, if you make travel important, travel can be your lifesaver, leading you to a fresh start or exposing you to a mind-opening experience that affects you deeply and changes your life forever.
Several years ago, I met a man on a recreational path in Denver who was about to turn in his entire life as he knew it for a new one in search of health and happiness. It was a poignant albeit short exchange, but one that has haunted me. Could I do what he was about to do?
On returning from a two-hour+ summer run along the South Platte River Trail in Denver, where I was traveling, I stopped in the shade to stretch before I set out to maneuver the last mile on city streets to my hotel. I paused at the side of the trail to take a sip of water and enjoy the satisfaction of what I’d done and savor the feeling of fitness.
A few feet away, a ruddy-faced man with an orange vest typical of construction, street and city workers was sitting on a low rock wall on the side of the path breathing heavily, shoulders sagging. He may have been 40 or younger, but because of his girth, round face, and blotchy skin, he looked older, much older. And he looked weary. At the curb was a city government truck and some tools were lying on the ground nearby. He had obviously been doing some work on the path after the thunderstorms a couple of days earlier had left mud and debris on some sections.
He turned his head slowly to look at me. His face was drawn, and his stare blank. It wasn’t a scary, you-better-run-now blank but a lifeless, inquisitive look. His eyes seemed filled with sadness.
“How do you find the time to run?” he asked, matter-of-factly, cocking his head a bit and furrowing his brow.
I get that question all the time, as I’m sure many of us who run or work out regularly do, but this was not your typical tone. There was an underlying longing, nearly a plea in his voice; he seemed to be begging for the information. Often, I take on a coach’s tone and offer all of the typical advice, but I could tell he needed more than a quick answer.
“Well,” I answered slowly, “it helps to do it in the morning before you are too tired – or you find too many excuses.”
He listened carefully, pondered my words intently, and then replied quite slowly, “I’ve been a welder for 15 years. I’ve been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.”
For most people, I suppose, this would have been some kind of excuse. From him, this was a statement of simple fact. Not a reason for not working out or to boast. It was a matter-of-fact summary about his life … shaded with a tinge of regret in his voice. I just listened.
“But, this afternoon,” he said, pausing and turning his head to look out over the creek’s flowing water, “I’m getting a physical at 2….
“Then I’m quitting.”
He paused again and turned to look back at me, not flinching, not seemingly even wanting a response. I realized he just needed somebody with whom to share his life-changing decision – perhaps somebody who would understand and support it. I stood quietly and nodded.
“I have a job on an organic farm in Santa Rosa, California. I hope I can get healthy again.”
He finished, still looking at me without much expression on his face.
“That sounds like it was a big decision,” I said. “You know, you just have to start slowly. I’m from California. I’m just visiting here.
“And you’ll do great there. Santa Rosa and that whole area north of San Francisco is very health oriented. You’ll get lots of support and have lots of opportunities.”
A faint smile flitted across his face. “I like to get abalone too,” he said.
“Oh, you’re really close to the coast there. You’ll be able to do that.”
“You look so fit…like you should be wearing a number,” he said.
“I do that sometimes too. It’s fun. But everybody has to start slowly, even just 5 or 10 minutes at a time. I did too.”
“Really?” he asked.
“You’ll do great,” I said.
He turned to look back at the creek, only a few hours from the moment everything he now knew he would know no more. This was obviously a huge, life-changing decision for him – and he chose to share it with a perfect stranger on the path.
“Good luck,” I said, still not moving away.
Another faint smile crossed his face as he stared off, watching the water flow in the creek. He was lost in his own thoughts.
I turned to head back to my hotel, flicked on my chronograph and jogged back onto the street away from him. I glanced briefly over my shoulder after I crossed the street, and he was still sitting and staring at the water. How grateful I was in that moment for the health and joy my lifestyle allowed. Still, I was haunted by the sad face of a man longing for change, needing to make travel important to find a new life, new friends, new support and new habits.
I hope he found the health and happiness he was seeking — in time to enjoy it. I started wishing I knew the name of the farm in Santa Rosa so I could see where he was headed and find out how his life had changed.
Of course, I’ll never know if he succeeded at turning around his life. But, if I were a gambling woman, I’d put down a bet he does. Travel does that to people.