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Sebastian Junger: Welcome Stranger
First impressions are often wrong—and other hard-won lessons from the road. 
Text by Sebastian Junger   Photograph by Setboun/Corbis 

Continue reading on page 1  |  2 |  3  Previous >>

The lessons were piling up. You had to be wary when you traveled, I realized, but you also had to be open. You had to protect yourself, but you couldn't be so suspicious that you'd lie to avoid giving food to a stranger. These were lessons from the harsher parts of the world, but I started to think that maybe they were applicable anywhere. It seemed as though there must be a way of traveling that made you ready for anything. The starting point was respect; if you didn't lead with that, even with street-corner thugs, nothing was going to turn out well. So you start with respect and see where it goes; if it doesn't work, you switch to something else. On a highway on-ramp in Wyoming, everyone is equal, more or less. No one has a past, no one has a future, and things pretty much come down to how you treat one another. There's a certain liberty in that; there's a certain justice.

Obviously, the more money you spend when you're traveling, the less likely you are to find yourself in those situations. And yet. I once said "sir" to a doorman at a fancy hotel, and a friend asked me why I'd done that. I can't remember my answer exactly, but I suspect that it related to that guy out on the highway. He's always with me, in a way, reminding me not to make assumptions about people, reminding me to keep my heart open. Everyone has a role in the world, and who is to say which role is more worthy or admirable than any other.

That became a cornerstone of my journalism. Since every person I've interviewed has lead a life unique to them, they have something to say about the world that I couldn't get from anyone else. That gives them a value that transcends any job or social rank they might have. I began to see that you could divide up the world in many different ways, and some of those ways actually put a homeless man from Wyoming at the top. He might not have known it, but I do, and the point of much of my work has been to communicate that.

I kept traveling, and I kept learning. Once, I caught a bus up into a wild and remote part of western Spain called the Sierra de Gredos because I'd heard there were still wolves up there. It was a hasty plan conceived the night before in a barroom in Salamanca, and as soon as I stepped off the bus, I realized that I was in over my head: It was snowing hard and the mountain town where I found myself seemed completely deserted. There wasn't even a hotel. In the quickly gathering dusk I started walking back down the road looking for a place to spend the night. The only plan I could devise was to build a fire and try to keep myself awake until dawn, but after five or ten minutes of walking I saw a lone pair of headlights coming down the mountainside. The car made its way slowly along the switchbacks, and when it approached me, the driver stopped and rolled down the window. "Get in," he said. "No one walks in these mountains at night. You'll die." 

An hour later I was back in that bar in Salamanca. What sense of responsibility, I wondered, had compelled that man to stop? He had no idea whether or not I was dangerous, and yet he took a risk to ensure that a complete stranger would be OK. It seemed as though he understood there to be some sort of general citizenship in the world, and that if a fellow citizen were threatened, it was his duty—everyone's duty—to intervene.

As I got older I traveled less for its own sake and more for journalism assignments. I found myself covering wars in West Africa and Afghanistan and the Balkans—situations that were far more dangerous than the aimless trips of my youth. However, those early trips undoubtedly affected me more than I'd realized at the time. They may not have taught me the specific skills of my new trade, but it was in places like Spain and Mexico where I first learned how to comport myself in the world.

Many years later I confronted the daunting task of walking into a fishermen's bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and asking the bartender—a woman named Ethel Shatford—about the death of her son. A local boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down in a massive storm in 1991, and the book I wrote about her was eventually published as The Perfect Storm. The Crow's Nest was the sort of bar where everyone turns to look at a stranger as soon as he walks in. I ignored the stares, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a beer from Ethel.

I had no idea how to begin, but I had help. They were all still with me, I realized—the man in Wyoming, the insulted Mexican vaqueros and the rest—they were still there, guiding and informing me, whispering their lessons in my ear. And in one way or another they all had something to tell me about how I should approach Ethel Shatford.

Just tell her, I finally thought. Tell her she knows something about the world that a lot of other people might need to hear.

Continue reading on page 1  |  2 |  3  Previous >>

Photo: May 2006 Cover

Pick up  the May 2006 issue for 38 amazing family escapes, wild beaches, and cool festivals; Sebastian Junger's lessons from the road; and the best bikes for summer.

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