Two years ago I was trying to fly from Bozeman, Montana to Newark, New Jersey. I had recently purchased a small ranch in Big Timber and Bozeman was now my local airport. I was traveling back to Princeton, where I still had a house to put on the market. The weather as I left Big Timber was sunny and cold but as I made my way through the Bozeman pass (a notorious artery through the Gallatin Mountains) where weather is known to change on a dime, the cloud ceiling was suddenly low but the roads were clear so I kept driving to the airport with no expectation that the weather that day would change my life.
I didn’t like what I saw - or didn’t see - as I approached the airport. I could hardly see it at all. The fog was as thick as pea soup but even as I turned in my rental car and everyone assured me that the fog would lift, I had that feeling in my gut that I wasn’t going to be going anywhere. Yet, the flight monitors said everything was on time. A call to United Airlines confirmed that the flight I would be taking was just about to depart the gate in Denver. The fog would lift, I was told. And inside, I now told myself the same thing. So I checked in and watched as our departure time came and went. That flight from Denver was in the air and soon to land in Bozeman. Except that it didn’t. It turned out that the cloud ceiling was too low for a safe landing so the plane returned to Denver.
Now I have been stranded in some unusual places over the years (Kiev, Mogadishu just to name a few) and I know that scrambling fast offers the best chance of getting out of someplace. So I made a beeline back to the rental counter, begged for the car I had just dropped off, ended up paying twice as much to drive across the state to Billings. The laws of supply and demand were going to win the day. Few cars, lots of people, a snowstorm and you can figure out the rest. I got the car, raised my hand in the anxious crowd and hollered, “I am heading to Billings airport. Anyone who wants to split the cost with me, I’m leaving now.” A man stepped forward dressed as a park rancher, offered to split the costs and off we went. It turns out he is in charge of the Grizzly bear population in Yellowstone Park and he was a fascinating conversationalist I know, I know…this all sounds quite risky to head out on a road trip with a stranger, but believe me, in situations like this it is pretty easy to read people. He paid me $200.00 and off we went. Of course, we missed any flights out of Billings so we checked into the Boot Hill hotel (honest, you can’t make up names like this), we bid each other farewell, and I made sure I was booked out on the first flight East the next morning.
I awakened to weather that looked like it was stalking me, but again I headed to the airport, monitors said everything was on time, a call to United confirmed that my flight would leave….and then Groundhog Day set in. The flight was delayed and delayed but promised to leave within a six-hour hiatus. As I was on the phone rebooking on another flight (I have learned never to wait in line at the counter) I noticed a middle aged man sitting quietly amongst the chaos This gentleman was dignified and quiet. He was wearing clean jeans and boots, a pressed shirt, a Western belt buckle, and a white cowboy hat. Everyone around him was pushing up against counters and gate agents but he sat there quietly, ticket in hand.
I approached him and asked if he needed any help rebooking. He replied something about waiting for our delayed flight. I told him that I thought our original flight would cancel and that he should rebook on a later flight that had a better chance of making it out. At that moment, he just looked like he needed some navigational help. So I asked his name and if I could make a call for him. He agreed, I called the airline, got him on the same flight that I was on going through Denver, a flight that had every reason to depart. We had a long day of waiting ahead of us and leaving the airport did not seem like a good thing to do so I suggested that we grab two seats at a small table right away or soon there wouldn’t be any place to sit. I grabbed two coffees and settled in for a day with a stranger, both of us just hoping we would make it home. Two strangers, sharing coffee, just thrown together by accident.
I think we had already tried to size each other up. First impressions are supposed to mean a lot and ours were not far off. He was a cattle rancher in Wisconsin. I assumed he was conservative but he seemed so appreciative of my help that I knew he was worth getting to know. He was a Midwestern rancher right out of central casting. He looked like a proud man, a man who had made his way, didn’t expect handouts and probably voted on the right side of the political spectrum. I told him I was a surgeon, had lived in San Francisco and now resided in Princeton NJ. He did not recognize me from television and that was a relief. I think it is fair to say he thought he had me summed up in a tidy bow too. Funny to think of it now but I’m not sure I ever asked him his first impressions.
So here we were. Two strangers with six hours to spend together. Either one of us could have walked but that would have meant perhaps never having a seat for the rest of the day. Practicality matters. But staying meant that we had to say something! So, almost like being on a blind date I asked about ranching and the inherent cruelty that I saw in the industry. He countered by telling me that he believed it was noble to be able to put food on American plates. He then told me about the advances in sustainable agriculture in the beef industry and how his sons had followed him in the business and raved about his granddaughters. Things like that don’t happen by accident so I figured he had to be a man of substance.
Then it was my turn. “I don’t get this Me Too Movement,” he said. It was my time to do the explaining. I explained to him some of the things that had happened to me in the workplace when I was a young doctor in training. By now I knew that he had raised three sons but that all his grandchildren were girls. So I posed the question about what he would feel, think, or do if one of his granddaughters was molested or raped by a boss or powerful man. He had been thinking of the movement through the eyes of his sons. But when the social issues were reframed as to how they could affect his granddaughters he said, “I never thought of it that way. But why wait 20-30 years to come forward?” It was a valid question. I explained how women harbor fear, shame, retaliation, and whether anyone will believe them. The issue I believed was that more men needed to see the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power through the eyes of a woman.
By the time we were ready to board our afternoon flight we had talked politics - red and blue - social movements, raising cattle, children, parenting, what it means to be an American and peoples’ misperceptions of each other. We laughed about how much we have in common and how we would never have assumed that a mere six hours earlier. He brought up that the fact that If people only sat down and talked, really talked, how different the political climate in the United States could be. It was a lovely chance encounter with a stranger and it could have ended there. But it didn’t.
My friend made it back to his family in Wisconsin and I made it back to the East. I had given him my card in case he ever got stuck in Montana again he would have a place to stay. He has become an invaluable friend, helping me to name my ranch, negotiate cattle prices, dicker for my John Deere, advise me on water rights, and help me improve the soil of my land. The list goes on.
He has now been out to visit me in Montana, and he and his sons invited me to Denver for their ranch’s annual bull sale at the stock show. We send each other emails, texts, and even articles out of our local papers. We keep talking and challenging each other’s views and learning from each other. Through our wonderful and deep friendship, we have learned what most of us should already know by now - the recognition that we as Americans have more in common than we give ourselves credit for. So next time you find yourself in an accidental encounter, trust yourself. There may be a new friendship just waiting for you.… the kind that will make you challenge yourself and make you a better person in the long run.