“I was a stranger…”
It’s Saturday when we leave Schladming, Austria, a town with which I’m familiar through twenty years of visits for teaching. Our adventure is to begin with a train trip to Sillian, the end of the line for Austrian trains, where we’ll spend the night before busing across the border the next morning for Sesto, Italy, where we’ll begin our journey.
The trains are late and so our mid-afternoon arrival in Sillian becomes 8:15pm, just as the sun is setting. There are no signs from the train station to the hotel. We talk to someone who points away from town when we tell him the name of the establishment, frowning as he says, “it’s a long walk.” I ask about cabs, and he says, “not at this late hour” (of 8:30pm), so we begin walking, as dusk segues to darkness. We see no signs and I begin to think about what I should do to protect my wife and daughter, for the night, when we meet an older couple heading our direction on the walking trail with their two dogs and grown son. I ask about the Alpine Hotel and he begins talking rapidly in German, his wife interjecting with hand motions. Kristi, my daughter, speaks German, so soon the three of the are conversing and we turn back for a short minute or two, cross a bridge, head down another path on the other side of the river, and then they tell us, through our daughter’s translation, that they know a shortcut, as they lead us into the forest, in the dark, in this place of which we know nothing. They’re laughing, talking with Kristi, and soon we hear the sounds of line dancing unfolding on what we’ll soon discover is the hotel front plaza, and we’ve arrived.
There are times in life when we’re thrust into the unknown, and it’s those times when our trust grows most dramatically. During our trek, I’m profoundly aware of how easily my anxiety level grows when I’m in the midst of the unfamiliar, which, during these days, is pretty much all the time.
Yesterday we were the recipients of vast kindness yet again. Having read that it would be enough to call ahead the night before at each hut in order to reserve space for the next night, we were disappointed to receive “all full” messages from two upcoming huts, leaving us in need of a plan B. We hiked out of the high country with the intent of finding lodging in the more populated valley, and though the story has more detail than here, were told at least seven times by different establishments that “everything is full.”
Two encounters along the way, though, stand out as memorable:
In the town of Wellsberg, we visited a Gasthas (home with private rooms, cheaper than hotels) that came recommended by a young woman. When this woman, perhaps in her late sixties, opened the door, she embraced each of us, her hands greetings ours, with a countenance overflowing with joy and peace. Though she could offer no lodging, there was something overwhelmingly Christlike in her presence, and I’m convinced that the trip to Wellsberg in search of lodging, fruitless with respect to that goal, will bless me the rest of my life because of this woman’s faith, whose joy and peace transcended language. We left the brief encounter refreshed.
At the end of the day, we’d finally found the last lodging in the valley, but also learned that it was halfway back up the valley – 4 miles and 1000′ of elevation gain after an already full day. Cabs don’t run there. Buses are done for the night. Options are done. We’re tired and hungry, and not in a frame for an evening hike.
Donna sees a couple just pulling away from closed tourist information center and simply knocks the window, asking if they speak English. They do, and she tells them of our plight, and asks for a ride up the valley. They, also in their late sixties, look at each other and then he says, “we are hikers too – we know your plight. Let us take you there.”
Soon were in the back seat, chatting with a couple from somewhere between Hanover and Berlin, for the 10 minute ride back up into the hills. And just like that, we’re at our place of lodging for the night.
We thought hiking would be the hardest part of the trip, but it isn’t. So far, it’s finding a place to rest our heads at night because Italy, it appears, is “full.” Today (Wednesday) we’ll re-calibrate somehow, change our plans. But the lessons learned in these moments have been priceless:
The news while we’ve been gone is mind numbing – Israel/Hamas, Iraq, Ebola. I’ve been thinking, while walking, about how evil is boiling over across the globe. Also, though, across the globe, every day, there are acts of generosity and kindness, shown to strangers who will never repay, that look a lot like Jesus – an extra 20 minutes out of their way on their dog walk, to show Americans the way to the hotel, hidden in the forest; a ride up a river valley at sunset offered to strangers, just because they look tired, and are; a warm embrace and smile that makes one feel loved. Wow! I’m rich beyond words today for these things.
I fall asleep thinking of Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” and I know that, come what may, I will look at opportunities to extend simple human kindness as a privilege, in the name of Jesus, for the rest of my days.