Global Gals founder and CEO, Brenda McGuire is very fond of the saying, “It’s a small world.” In fact, it’s a sort of mantra with Global Gals, which is why what happened to me as I was zipping home from grocery shopping felt so right.
As I slowed for the intersection that would start me on my ten mile drive from town to my country home, I noticed a horse-drawn caravan style wagon stopped on the side of the highway with a man squatting beside one of the huge draft horses, checking its hoof. I wondered if he needed help but feared stopping behind him might spook the horses. Also, there were cars behind me so I moved forward when it was my turn at the four-way stop, all the while looking back in my review mirror, riveted by the sight of the horse-drawn rig.
My ancestors on my father’s side were gypsies and though our Eastern European cousins had not survived the persecutions of WWII, what our family labels the ‘gypsy strain’ seems evident in every generation. We are travelers, artists, dancers and people who literally or metaphorically are always ready to start the music, hands clapping and dancing joyfully in the celebration of life.
My shy, well-mannered Midwestern self debated with my inner gypsy as I progressed down the highway at a speed that was just within the lowest limits of the law. What if the man needed a vet for one of his horses? Even in rural Iowa, vets close at five and there was no way the man could reach a vet’s office on foot before closing time. What if he needed somewhere to pasture his horses for the night and a hot meal? What kind of a gypsy traveler was I if I just drove on down the road without offering help to a fellow traveler? How would I reach the man and his horses when I’d be on the opposite side of the highway if I turned around and went back? And what if he thought I was a creeper for bothering him?
By this point I had turned off the road onto a country road, done a u-turn and was facing back towards the way I had come. Still, I probably would not have been able to reach a decision except for one fact. Besides being a Midwesterner with gypsy roots, I’m a Global Gal—Global Gal Editor and Advisor in fact, and another one of the mantras around Global Gals, besides our goal of helping women make their travel dreams come true, is the mantra of always reaching out to help your fellow travelers just like you hope they would help you if you were in need.
Back onto the highway I zoomed, suddenly sure of my mission and what was the right thing to do. I had probably only gone two miles but my hometown is in one of the few hilly areas of Iowa and I was going back up the very vertical hill I had just come down as I ruminated how I might find a way to offer help to the traveler.
When I crested the hill, I saw that despite my hesitation, I was not too late. Still parked on the side of the road, the man and his wagon were a picture from the past that couldn’t be ignored. I parked on the opposite side from him, waited for the few cars on the road to go by, and then ran across. Still working on the hoof of one of his three large horses with his back to me and the wind was roaring around us, he didn’t seem to at first hear my timid, “Excuse me sir!” When he did hear me his head jerked around and I took an involuntary step back at the look of strong irritation on his face. He wore saggy, beat-up jeans and a yellow-green hoodie with reflective strips on it like a road worker might wear. I felt distinctly foolish in my wool skirt, well polished boots and long, black dress coat. I didn’t think he was going to view me as a kindred spirit at first glance. Still, I had driven back and crossed the road so I persevered.
“Is everything alright with your horse? Do you need a vet?”
“No,” he responded flatly. “Just adjusting the boots.” I looked down and saw that each horse was equipped with a sort of rubber bootie that fastened above the hoof.
“Are you heading south? If you need a place tonight—”
“Going west,” he cut me off, still not showing a flicker of friendliness, as he moved to the draft animals’ massive heads and began adjusting their harness.
“Okay, then,” I said, starting my retreat. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. My ancestors were gypsies and—”
The man’s head jerked up and he looked at me with the first sign of friendliness. “That right?” He asked. “Whereabouts?”
“They started in France, traveled to Transylvania. Eventually some traveled to America. The rest died in World War II. Hitler,” I finished knowing anyone with a gypsy background would know what I meant.
“My family too,” he said, offering me a beefy hand.
“Your wagon and team are really beautiful.” I allowed myself the big grin that had been in me ever since I saw the well-tended team and amazing wagon. “May I ask where you’re headed?” I asked carefully giving him my hand, fearing a hand-crusher handshake, but he was careful and released my hand quickly, rocking back on his heels and relaxing back into the posture of travelers down through ages, ready to share their story.
“My wife and I are headed back home to Alaska,” he offered.
“Alaska!” I exclaimed in amazement. “That’s where I grew up. What part of Alaska?” I asked.
I was flabbergasted. I’d never even met someone outside of a fellow military brat who had even heard of Big Delta, let alone someone from Big Delta. “That’s where we used to go once a month to get our groceries!” It felt like old home week there in the biting wind on the shoulder of the highway.
“Where you from in Alaska?” the man asked.
“Tok Junction, back when it was a military base,” I replied happily dating myself as pretty old.
“Oh, yeah. Tok,” the traveler grinned rocking complacently back and forth on his beat up boot heels. “I know Tok. Plenty cold.”
“Yup,” I replied rocking back on my own boot heels even if mine were shiny black city-girl boot heels. We laughed like old friends, which is what happens when two Alaskans meet and talk about the cold. It’s kind of a ‘Club Cold.’ Being an Alaskan makes you an automatic member and gives you the authoritative voice on defining what’s cold.
“You said, ‘Going back’” I queried. “Did you come all the way here from Alaska with the team?” I felt a little foolish asking because it didn’t seem possible.
“We traveled from Alaska to the east coast and now we’re headed back. It’s a good two years each way.”
I was stunned. My mind flashed to the pioneers crossing the country in Conestoga wagons. I had never grasped how slow their progress was. “Wow!” was my inane response to his astonishing statement. Thinking of all the hardships that must have been endured I asked, “What inspired you to make such a journey?”
“Well,” he said, drawing out the word as he scanned the western horizon and I could tell he was a private man deciding how much to tell a stranger, former Alaskan or not. “I was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable leukemia. My family came from gypsies and making a long journey like this had always been my dream. My wife said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s do your dream before it’s too late.’ So that’s what we did and by the time we reached the east coast, the leukemia was gone.”
“ I have terminal cancer,” I said.
“No kidding?” he exclaimed. “Well, dang. How ya’ doing?”
“No complaints,” I smiled. “I was diagnosed and given two years to live ten years ago.”
We both grinned and I like to think our grins were carefree gypsy grins.
“That’s real good,” my new friend smiled. “Real good. Wife’s sleeping in the wagon or I’d call her to meet you.”
“You guys need anything?” I asked looking at the bales of hay strapped on the sides of the tall wagon; the crooked chimney jutting out a roof heavy-laden with crates of supplies. I thought I knew what he would say.
“Nope, but thanks for asking,” he said, again eyeing the western sky, probably anxious to be on down the road.
“Well, thanks for visiting,” I said. “You made my day.”
“Well, you made mine,” he said with a big grin. “Us Alaskan gypsies with cancer have to stick together.”
I was still chuckling as I pulled into my driveway ten miles on down the road. The whole experience was astonishing. I couldn’t help but think again of the Global Gal idea that, “’It’s a small world,’ coincidences happen to travelers all the time.” As I got out of my car, smiling, I added to that idea, “Especially when you step out of your comfort zone and talk to your fellow travelers!”
Story by LaVonne Hammans