Coming Face-to-Face With a Familiar Stranger

Jim Farina
Sep 6 · 5 min read
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

We were both in a state of temporary paralysis. My first instinct was to open my arms and hug her. The moment escaped me, so I awkwardly extended my hand, still in disbelief of this unlikely encounter.

It was the craziest thing! It happens to all of us from time-to-time. Somebody comes to mind for no apparent reason and suddenly you run into them at a store, restaurant or maybe when on vacation hundreds of miles from home.

On Labor Day I ran into Gail Boenning on a hiking trail on the rugged shores of Lake Michigan. I know Gail initially from an online writing course that we took together earlier this year.

The course was offered for a time through fellow Medium writer, Niklas Goeke and included enrollment of about 80 students from all points on the globe.

In short time I became a fan of both Gail and Nik, among some other writers on Medium. I have followed their respective journeys because I enjoy their writing, and I know I can learn something and improve on my own writing by reading their work.

My wife, daughter and I were on our way to a rental house on Lake Michigan, about 250 miles north of our Illinois home. It would be a four day getaway for us.

We typically choose this week to vacation because kids are back in school, there are fewer people on the roads and prices drop as Labor Day marks the “unofficial” end of the summer season.

I first heard about a hiking area called Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve from Gail’s daily newsletter, Born Free. I discovered later that Gail had not been there herself, but found out about it from another writer’s Instagram photo of his recent trip to the preserve.

After Googling the area and seeing some photos that others posted, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity to stop and stretch our legs after about a hundred miles of sitting in the car.

It was breathtaking scenery, but being that it was the holiday it was also packed with cars and people coming and going. As we were returning on the road to the parking lot, I made some wisecrack about all the meandering throngs reminding me of a scene from The Walking Dead television series.

I quipped how beautiful this place would be if it wasn’t for all these damn people. It’s just another statement that I regularly regurgitate. My family knows they’re coming. They just roll their eyes.

My daughter, Wendy, commented excitedly, “Puppy!”.

I glanced up at the stream of oncoming walkers and noticed the black Lab puppy bouncing along with her escorts. Maybe it crossed my mind that Gail had been writing about her new puppy Henrietta for the past several weeks.

We have gone through the new puppy journey again this year ourselves. We picked up a new Corgi pup, Emmett, in February. We have another Corgi, Mochi — He just turned two. I’m able to relate to much of Gail’s experience.

I know Henrietta took a fall off of a retaining wall and Gail felt horrible. I know she had an encounter with a chipmunk (ground squirrel?).

I know that Henrietta is still in the feet-biting stage. That was the worst, but Wendy seemed to be the primary target and took the brunt of those unprovoked assaults.

The couple passed us as they urged the puppy along, “C’mon Henri”, She coaxed…

I glanced up to get a better look at the woman.

Henri?? Wait… I know this face from a small digital profile image. Was it possible? No way! It has to be…

It was like one of those montages that filmmakers use when a character has a sudden revelation. A flash-series of connections were made — pow pow pow.

“Is this Henrietta?”, I said as I bent over to pet the puppy. “I know all about Henrietta!” And then I thought, that probably sounds weird.

“Are you Gail?”

She looked at me, befuddled. And so did the guy who was with her, who I presumed to be her husband.

We already established some exchanges during Nik’s online course through the Slack platform.

We’ve commented on each other’s stories through Medium. I know that she lives in a smallish town on lake Michigan. Her drive was about 50 miles south to Lion’s Den.

From the time I was about seven years old, we camped at a State Forest near her home town. Gail once commented that we’ve probably crossed paths at Point Beach at some point over the years.

I know about the loss of her pet, Mara. I know she enjoys nature and wild life, with the exception of chipmunks. I know she keeps her bird feeders full and buys grape jelly for the orioles.

I know that we share the experience of sending off a child to college for the first time and all of the emotions it stirs up. I even know that her son’s tetanus shots are up-to-date.

I know about the connections that she’s made with neighbors who have moved on and some of the traditions that she’s maintained to keep their memories alive.

All this I know from Gail’s writing.

“I’m Jim Farina…from Medium”

I could tell the montage and connections were beginning to pow pow pow through her head too.

Processing the unexpected experience of that unlikely, chance encounter caught us both off guard. There was little to say in that brief passing, though there was much that could’ve been said.

Sure, a hug would’ve been nice and even appropriate, given our past correspondence. Gail had the same instinct to hug, as I’ve come to find out in our post-encounter communications.

How fortunate we are writers, we can process and express all of these thoughts after the fact in honest and meaningful ways.

As far as I’m concerned, Gail and I have had our hug long before we ever met on that trail…

Jim Farina

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Musings from a Midwestern Mind. Impressions of life, death and everything in between.

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