The Role of a Stranger

By Laura Fitzgerald

Sonder: the realization that every passerby has a story as complex and interesting as your own, and you may only play a small part in it as a stranger passing by.

***

The little burger joint bustled with tired families and fresh-faced college students carrying overstuffed backpacks. A myriad of languages and accents swirled around us while the sheer rock faces of Half Dome and El Capitan soared above us.

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park | Photo by Daniel Gillaspia via Creative Commons
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park | Photo by Daniel Gillaspia via Creative Commons

My parents and I were staying in Yosemite overnight, part of a longer vacation in California. We had just completed a long hike, and it was nearing dusk. The packed park shuttle rumbled through the trees. Trail dust coated our legs. I wanted to get back to our campsite so I could read a book on the river, but I was hungry. I saw a burger joint from the park shuttle and made a snap decision.

“We’re getting off.”

I was deciding what to eat in line when my mother stepped outside the plastic rope to look closer at the menu.

“We’re about to order. Get back in line, Ellen,” my father said, his voice half tired, half joking.  

“But I’m still looking at the menu.”

“Just get back here.”

“Yeah, get back in line, Ellen,” the man behind us said jokingly. He wore a nondescript white t-shirt stretched over a spreading belly, his hair receding.

My parents and I laughed. My dad, ever the friendly Midwesterner, leaned in.

“I’m Dennis,” my father said. “So where are you from?”

“Hi, I’m Bob. Oh, I don’t have a permanent address. Right now I live and work in the park, but I move around a lot.”

We all shot each other quizzical looks at this, but then it was our turn to order. When we got our cheeseburgers and found a reasonably clean table, Dad waved to Bob.

“Hey, do you wanna eat with us?”

He grinned sheepishly as he sat down and began peeling back the foil on his greasy burger.

“So Bob, what do you do?” my father asked.

Bob quickly informed us that he worked in the gift shop at Yosemite, but it was only so he could go back to Antarctica.

“Go back to Antarctica?” we said.

“Yeah, I lived and worked on a US research station down there for six months,” he said. “I want the retail experience so I can work in one of the general stores down there.”

Bob had lived and worked in the kitchen on the research base. While he admitted it could get a little isolating sometimes, he had a blast and couldn’t wait to go back down there.

His eyes lit up as he described his time in the South Pole. He talked with his hands, waving them around between bites of fries. A smile split his wrinkled face.

He saw penguins but no polar bears — polar bears only live in the North Pole, not the South. And I learned more about the continent: the U.S. flies all of its trash from Antarctica back to the country rather than leave waste there.

Bob also sailed around the world three times and been to just about every country you could think of. He has been to countries that no longer exist, or have different boundaries and names on the map now than when he visited them.

As he talked about his adventures across the world, the feeling of sonder began to creep into my bones. How many people had I passed, how many hundreds of stories could I have learned? What other tales had I missed, pieces of their lives lost in transit like dandelion seeds scattered to the wind? It was a melancholy feeling, to know that I will never know all of the stories of the strangers passing me by.

There was one adventure Bob balked at, though. He declined an invitation to Botswana with the Peace Corps because he didn’t want to eat cockroaches.

He had no kids, no wife. He only had a P.O. Box his sister checked every once in a while. That could get lonely, my father remarked after we had parted ways. I wonder if Bob just wanted someone to talk to.

When the last fry had been eaten, we balled up the foil and began piling the trash into the paper bag. But I wanted to ask one more question before we left.

“Do you have any advice?”

He set his cheeseburger down and paused for a minute, staring off toward the towering face of Half Dome. “Don’t settle for normal,” he said with a wink.

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