These days my mind seems to wander always to my dissertation. There isn’t a moment when I’m not mulling over the challenges of isolation that astronauts will face on long duration space flights. I am working on a solution to demonstrate how a new AI (Artificial Intelligence) can be effective to improve their connectedness with their close family and friends. It is a problem of significant importance to the lives of the astronauts. It is a bold proposition with many challenges. Since my research began two years ago, I have recently learned that I too have become something of a challenge. Apparently, my obsession with space has become understandably irritating to my friends and family. Last week, my husband, Jim, asked me if I could possibly take five minutes and NOT discuss my dissertation. Jim suggested a change in scenery would help us both. I chose to go to our cabin in the mountains near Lake Tahoe; it’s a place where I have always found solace and inspiration and I was hoping this trip would not disappoint.
When we arrived at our mountain retreat, Jim immediately packed his fishing gear and headed to the lake, while I set up my ‘office’ at the kitchen table. I opened my laptop and stared at the screen, braced with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I once again thought of the problems I needed to overcome in order to defend my proposal to my academic committee. Trying to solve intractable problems is not easy and certainly not exciting to Bravo, our 5-month-old Labradoodle who watched patiently at my boring indoor activity. After a couple of hours of hearing him sigh, it was clear Bravo needed to get outside and walk under a beautiful late summer sky, and so did I. I closed up the computer, grabbed his leash and off we went to enjoy the mountains rising above the north shore of Lake Tahoe.
The air was fresh, and the trail opened to the two of us: Bravo energized by smells left by wildlife and I by the mountain ridges of grey granite topped by tenacious alpine timber. The day was warm but not oppressive; there was a light breeze and it was invigorating. We had walked up those dusty trails together a dozen times before, but for Bravo every tree, every rock, every creature’s scent was new and curious. As we meandered, we said ‘hello’ to a pair of hikers who ambled by us. It’s a somewhat untraveled trail, so I find it always a nice surprise to see another person and exchange a pleasantry.
As we entered the main road, we came across two men with an old red pickup truck; the hood was up, but they didn’t seem too concerned. One man was sitting in the shade of the flat bed and the other gentleman was wiping his oil-covered hands with an oil-soaked cloth.
“Hello,” I said, “engine problems?” The older man was probably around 70, but his weathered skin added years to his appearance. His overalls were covered in dirt but the name ‘Hank’ embroidered on the corner of his overalls was still visible.
“Yeah,” he replied, “something with the radiator.” Bravo approached him and when Hank started to reach down to pet him my mouth opened, panicked to think of the oil on his fur. “Well, better not!” said Hank, taking a look at both sides of his hands. “Let’s just say it’s nice to meet you.” I breathed again.
“Have you been stuck long?” I asked.
“A bit,” he said, “we have a job just a-ways down the road, so we’re not too far from where we need to be.”
“Can you fix it?” I asked, but was thinking they were probably waiting for a tow.
He responded still looking Bravo, “I’m sure I can.” I looked back at him perhaps a bit surprised that if he could fix it; it didn’t seem like he was doing anything productive. He grinned a bit, “Just look at this day. Aside from the radiator, it’s perfect in every other way.” I nodded and took a deep breath. He continued, “Some mountain, eh? I grew up on it. You grow up here too?”
I looked at him—someone truly contented even though next to a no-run engine. “No. No, I didn’t grow up here, but found out long ago, when I was small and just a visitor here with my parents, that this place had its hold on me. Now I’m up here a lot more. Sometimes to think about problems that have me stalled too.”
“If you stick with problems long enough, you figure ‘em out. I’ve been with this truck a long time.” He stood up and walked over to the engine, “and I got the tools to fix it; it’s all up here,” and Hank gestured to his head, grinning.
His contentment for life was comforting. “Yeah,” I said, “I’ve been working on a problem too, but I haven’t figured out exactly what it needs to fix it–yet.” Bravo sat down at this point, waiting.
Hank turned around and leaned back on his truck and the sun was hitting his face. “It’ll come to you. My mom used to tell me to take it one step at a time. Just take it apart, one step at a time. I kept that advice all my life and you know what; it works every time.” He gestured to me, pointing at my head, and said, “It’s up there waiting for you. You’ll figure it out. Meanwhile, you got a perfect day to mull it over.”
I looked at him and the sky. Bravo popped up with his tail wagging.
I wished him well and walked on and thought about how few people live as fully in the moment as Hank did and how few people take to heart sage advice given to them by complete strangers. I was very aware of the serendipity of my encounter. To me, it was a divine moment, to hear from a stranger those words of wisdom that would serve me for years to come; words that would have gone unheard had I not stopped along my journey by that broken down truck. The mountains do that— they make you stop and reflect; they prove ageless wisdom in unexpected places and provide hope for those who will take the time to stop and listen.
Bravo pulled ahead on his leash and I picked up the pace. I thought: everything I need is within me and know it will come. I just needed a good reminder. In the meanwhile, I decided to give Bravo some extra leash, so he could discover more of this precious natural world. After all, it was a particularly beautiful day.