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Cascade Observations: Strangers among us

When Little Red Riding Hood set off to her grandmother’s house, her mother reminded her to beware of strangers lurking in the woods, strangers, she believed, set on harming her child.

Did Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s moms warn them of the same on that tragic night? Did Trayvon fear that a wolf pursued him in the darkness? Did George Zimmerman think he saw a wolf, when really all he saw was a teenage boy holding a bag of candy? We’ll never know. What we do know is that whatever happened that horrible night was caused by an intense fear of strangers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “stranger danger” lately. One need only open the newspaper and read about monsters like Ariel Castro, the man who held three innocent young women captive for a decade, to become paranoid of strangers. Everyone from the grocery clerk to the mail carrier may be a menace intent on harming us. Suspicion trumps trust.

But sometimes necessity trumps suspicion, and trusting strangers becomes essential.

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The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is a magnificent paved bike path that extends 73 miles from Plummer, Idaho, to Mullan, Idaho. Cyclists and hikers travel along Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Coeur d’Alene River on a path that’s mostly flat and beautifully maintained. At both ends the trail is wooded and a bit steeper, but never daunting. That is, unless you get a flat tire.

This summer, such a fate befell a member of our biking party, but we were unfazed, pulling out our pump, bike patch kit and tools. The task became daunting when our pump and the tire’s stem refused to cooperate. Miles from our rented home and miles from any roads or bike repair shops, things began to look grim.

We needed a different plan. Leaving our friends behind, my husband and I set off on our tandem, hoping to find someone who would let us borrow a tire pump. That’s when we came upon Steve, a bear of a man riding solo up the trail. We asked him if he had a tire pump. He rather gruffly answered affirmatively. He rode on to where our stranded friends waited, got off his bike, and immediately set to work helping us.

As we worked, we chatted. Steve the gruff stranger soon became Steve our best friend. He told us of his recent hip replacement. We marveled at his ability to cycle so soon after such serious surgery. We shared stories about our occupations and exchanged business cards.

With the tire fixed, we thanked him profusely as he headed west and we headed east.

Our base camp along the trail was a lovely home outside of Harrison, Idaho. Herewith, lesson No. 2 in trusting strangers. VRBO, an acronym for Vacation Rentals by Owner, is an Internet-based service in which people advertise their homes for rent, and renters seek places to stay while vacationing.

The whole enterprise is based on trust. Does the house really look like the photographs? When I hand my credit card number over via phone or computer, can I be assured I’m being charged accurately? Will there even be a house when I get there? From the owner’s point of view, will the renters be deadbeats intent on destroying their home? Will they abide by all the rules the owner sets? To our great good fortune, all of our VRBO experiences have been happy ones.

When we returned home from vacation, our next Netflix selection was waiting with our accumulated mail. Serendipitously, the theme of the documentary “Craigslist Joe” is trusting strangers. Here’s how it is described in Netflix’s catalog:

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“Setting out to explore whether America still has a sense of community where people help each other through hard times, 29-year-old Joseph Garner spends a month depending on the goodness of Craigslist posters for his survival.”

Garner traveled around the country with a laptop computer, a cellphone and a backpack. No money, no hotel reservations, no transportation. He relied completely on the kindness and generosity of strangers. Some of those strangers were indeed strange, but none were out to harm him. It’s a quirky, thought-provoking look at what it really means to surrender everything to trust.

Joni Doke Spade was relying on the kindness and generosity of strangers when liver disease left her in dire need of a new liver. Sadly, she died at age 52 before she received that life-saving gift from a stranger.

At her memorial in Hood River, Joni’s mom urged us all to sign up to be organ donors; had there been more donor volunteers, Joni would have been visiting with her friends and family rather than being memorialized by them.

Joni was a teacher with an effervescent, caring demeanor. She found her calling working with needy kids. On the first day of school we teachers are strangers to our students. By the second day, we enter into an intimate bond with them. We learn about their academic strengths and weaknesses, their passions, and if they let us, we learn about the challenges faced by their families.

For many of my students’ families, those challenges are directly linked to immigration policies. These families are not strangers to me, and their yearning to live legally in the United States is not criminal, but commendable. The Statue of Liberty has this poem printed on her base. The words should remind us that we are a nation made up of strangers from countries throughout the world. May we learn to see each other as friends ready to help our nation, rather than wolves ready to harm it.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she


With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.


Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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