I fondly remember encounters with authentic people who cross my path and without them knowing they change me in some way and remain in my memory forever.
Today I had one of those encounters.
This morning my friend’s 14-year-old daughter, Lily, and I struck out early for a hike through Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs. Her joining me was a somewhat last minute decision and I was delighted for her company. Getting into nature is so good for the soul and the views and brilliant fire red colors in this park set against the big blue Colorado skies are simply spectacular.
Given our early arrival there were few cars in the parking lot. I knew within several hours there would be no spots available and the place would be crowded so I wanted to arrive super early and enjoy the serenity and sense of the place.
Lily and I started our hike on a popular trail admiring the way the early morning sun was hitting the rock formations and illuminating them. About ten minutes into our walk we were at a fork in the road and while looking both ways and reviewing the trail map we were approached by an older gentleman. He offered some advice on where the trails led in each direction and then suggested that he guide us because he walks eight miles through the Garden of the Gods every day.
“Scotty”, we find out, is a veteran of the Vietnam war where he served proudly with the US Army. He is quite a story teller and over the course of the miles we walk we chat comfortably, we laugh and even cry a little bit as well. He has had a tough life and yet he’s clear that there isn’t an ounce of bitterness.
A cap full of pins and patches adorn his head. He’s sporting a simple navy T with a police insignia and denim shorts. The right side of his body is banded together with an arm brace that’s supporting a recent bicep surgery. He proudly shows us the scar. Down the right side of his leg is a prosthetic looking device that extends from the top of his leg to a hinge at the knee and then fully encases his right foot. Scotty tells us he has a tumor growing in his right foot. Once it was removed but the persistent tumor is back. He suggests a connection to agent orange. Given his physical challenges, his gait is slower than ours yet he is hustling along and keeping pace like a man twenty years his junior.
Quickly I sense that Scotty enjoys our company.
He shares his life openly and is vulnerable with us. I like him instantly for that reason. It’s remarkable really that we are bonding as we are an unlikely trio with our age and gender gaps and somewhat randomness in how our circumstances collided for the hike. Yet we connect because of his story telling and transparency and our reciprocity and openness.
He shares that he proposed to his bride in 1976 in the park and he proudly takes us to the exact spot. There used to be a building on the location and it has since been torn down, he says, while pointing to the placard. Tragically, his wife had surgery at a hospital in the Springs and she didn’t make it. She was only 20 years old and they had a then two-year-old son (who is now 44).
Scotty wells up with tears and his voice quivers while he’s telling this story. Though it’s been 42 years since he lost his wife he is choked up when retelling it. Both Lily and I are moved and sharing our condolences with him. He recounts vividly the doctor was cold and rigid in his declaration his wife “well she didn’t make it” and mimics the doc throwing his arms up.
Lily, throughout this encounter, impresses me with her maturity and compassion. Despite her youth, she is thoughtful in her questions and comments and is kind in her exchanges with Scotty. She, like Scotty, leave an indelible impression on me this day.
As we continued walking and taking in the spectacular scenery, Scotty shared that his mother had taken him to an orphanage upon his birth. He was in his twenties before an aunt contacted him and shared that his mother was alive and a reunion was possible. They all went to Vegas for a week to meet each other and his mother asked him for one thing: forgiveness. His response? He shared he had forgiven her a long time ago and instead he had loved her. He didn’t see the benefit of being bitter.
Scotty suggested he take a picture of Lily and me and this is the one photo he took. Rarely do I have regrets in life and yet one I have is that I didn’t turn the camera around and take his picture. I’ll return to the park soon. I’ll never experience it the same way and every time I go back I will be looking for Scotty and I’ll be determined to get that picture.