NEW MILFORD, CONN. - June 3 -- 'Are you SURE it's this way?' I yelled at Denny as we searched for the park. 'She said a left at the pub and then it's not too far down the road,' he replied. We were both out of breath from jogging down the middle of the street with all our belongings strapped to our backs. The sky reminded me of Halloween - black in most places, a frightening shade of orange in others. Not only were we concerned all our electronic gear was about to get soaked in the storm, it looked as if the world just might come to an end the evening we spent in Sheffield, Massachusetts.
We reached the park but saw no signs of a shelter we could pitch our tent under like the man in the diner had promised. We shouted a few obscenities but knew we couldn't afford to waste much time complaining. This was the first time foul weather was a serious opponent on our trip, and it appeared we were about to lose very badly.
You're not going to believe me when you read this, but the Sheffield Pub five blocks away was the only place at this time of day in this tiny town with open doors. It was our only choice. The rain began to fall. I had the pack with the laptop, camera and other electronic equipment that day, so Denny told me to run on ahead of him. When I turned back just a minute later, I saw no sign of him. A car pulled next to me and a woman I had never seen before shouted my name. I saw Denny and our other pack in the backseat. 'Want a lift?' she asked with a wide grin. I jumped in her car without replying. 'Where to?' she asked. 'I'm heading north.'
Unfortunately we had just walked 15 miles from the north, so her generous offer wouldn't do us much good. She drove us four blocks before we hopped out and ran into the bar, but those four blocks just might have saved us from more trouble than we care to dwell on.
Everyone stared, and I mean everyone, at the pair of twenty-something, out-of-breath, out-of-towners, wet from a combination of perspiration and precipitation. We tried to act like everything was cool and that our intentions to come to the pub were to eat, drink and socialize. As we slammed our bulky bags onto the booth, the string of questions regarding our presence began.
'You boys hiking in this stuff?' a lady asked as we saw the rain through the window turn to marble-sized hail.
It wasn't more than ten minutes later that everyone in the place knew we were traveling cross-country. Somehow we were part of five separate, simultaneous conversations. The couple in the booth behind Denny asked how far we had walked. The couple seated in the booth behind me asked where we planned to sleep that night. The couple at the bar asked about our website. The owner told us to pick anything on the menu and that it was on the house. The guy who just won a $5,000 lottery handed every patron, including Denny and I, a pair of chips good for free beers. Whether we liked it or not, we found ourselves in the spotlight on this very dark day.
My mind was at ease as I inhaled the best meatball sandwich I've ever eaten and washed it down with the best kind of beer - free beer. But once Joan, the owner, took our empty plates away, I grew concerned. Where the hell were we going to sleep? We hadn't seen any hotels in Sheffield, and our tiny tent wouldn't stand a chance against Mother Nature this night.
The man who had inquired about this issue approached our table. 'Yeah, so I just called Lone Oak, it's a really nice campground in Connecticut, the Cadillac of camping grounds. And they say you're in for no charge tonight, so we'll take you there after this beer.' I felt like a cat that just jumped out of a ninth-story window and landed on its feet.
'After this beer' turned into after the next. Denny and I didn't care. We were no longer in a hurry to figure anything out since Bob had come to our rescue. We said goodbye to the big happy family at the pub and thanked them for everything. As we threw our bags into Bob's trunk, he opened a cooler. 'So this town exactly one beer away,' he said as he handed everyone a can. He had taken charge of our fate, so we were playing by his rules.
He explained the area in hilarious detail as his wife Pam made sure we had everything we needed. 'That town is where the men are men and so are the women,' said Bob, who never laughed at his own jokes.
We arrived at the campsite. He wasn't kidding. This place had anything you could imagine from a pair of Olympic-sized swimming pools to an outdoor movie projector. The place was lined with $200,000 RVs. We found site 629 and put up our $99 summer home in under two minutes. It took up approximately one-fiftieth of the designated plot of land.
'How do both of you fit inside there?' Chelsea, the 9-year-old camping with her family on site 630, asked us as she pointed to our tent. That was the start of our two-day friendship.
'Florida,' she yelled from her camper as I unfolded my sleeping bag. 'Tallahassee,' I shouted back. Her class was studying state capitals, but since she already knew them all, she was quizzing me. 'Pierre,' she shouted. 'South Dakota,' I replied. I overheard her mother, Jean, tell Chelsea that I probably wanted to go to bed now. 'It's okay, I said as I took a seat next to their campfire. 'Keep 'em coming.' Chelsea smiles as her big dimples showed. I knew she was the type of kid who wouldn't stop until we'd done all fifty.
'South Carolina,' she said confidently. 'Columbus,' I said. 'WRONG,' she screamed. 'It's ColumBIA.' I win. Her mother shook her head and laughed. 'Smart girl,' I said. On my command, Chelsea woke Denny from the tent and told him to come hang out. Jean's husband T.J. and Uncle Dick joined us. Chelsea got most of the words in and cooked us s'mores that hit the spot.
We planned to head south of town the following morning. After a good-night's sleep, a shower, a load of laundry, and the often tedious task of updating the website, we found it was already 1 p.m. During the three hours we worked cropping photos, editing videos and writing blogs in the laundry room, Chelsea came in to check on us every ten minutes. She would end up regretting this since everyone at her campsite began calling me her boyfriend. 'No he's not!' she blushed. She disappeared inside for a while to let the waters calm, then once she figured everyone forgot, she asked if I wanted to play baseball.
Jean and T.J. had a proposition. 'You guys are welcome to put up your tent on our site tonight and then T.J. can drive you to Kent tomorrow morning when he goes to work at 6.' I was still donning knee and ankle braces and knew it would be smart to let my injuries heal. Plus, I was having fun hanging out with my new girlfriend and her family. We decided to take them up on the offer.
'We're gonna teach you boys how to play horseshoes,' said T.J. as Uncle Dick nodded his head. I wouldn't have been surprised if he was born in his cowboy hat it looked so perfect on him.
After five games of horseshoes, Denny and I decided that had been enough time to learn the game, and the fact we continued to miss the pole only meant one thing: We sucked. Our respective teammates didn't give up on us, teaching us a new tip after each miss. The competition between the two pros made for quite a match. I counted the fact that Denny's sailing horseshoes hadn't smashed my bare toes as a personal victory.
When we returned to our site, Jean had a feast prepared. Denny and I were ready to cook rice and beans, but when Jean caught word of this she yelled, 'Get your butts over here right now. I hate leftovers, so you better eat up.' People continued to look out for us like we were their own.
After dinner, Chelsea the Energizer fourth-grader was ready for some soccer and then a bit of baseball and finally Frisbee. We called it an early night, knowing we had to rise with the sun. But Denny and I couldn't fall asleep as we continued to laugh at nonsense. I think we were so relaxed since we were in such good company, not to mention in a legal camping spot for once. The morning came quickly.
T.J. drove us 29 miles to Kent - the town he worked in. All he would accept in return for his family's generosity was the promise to send him a T-shirt when we complete the journey. We shook hands goodbye to yet another previous stranger we could now call a friend.
Denny and I entered the coffee shop on Kent's main street before 7 a.m. We were getting a good start to this day and were ready to get bold with our mission. We chatted it up with the employees and word spread like wildfire throughout the small-town hangout about how we were spending our summer.
I approached a woman who had her arm in a sling and told her we would like to help her out in some way, shape or form. She said she had nothing for us and took a seat at our table. I focused in on her accent and guessed correctly that she was originally from England. We chatted for another 15 minutes before parting ways. 'Are you sure there's nothing we can do to brighten your day,' I asked. 'You already have,' she said. 'It was lovely talking with you.'
'I'm your new friend Jim,' said a tall man as he approached our table. He had learned of No Stranger Land from the woman at the counter. He explained it to his wife. 'Yeah these guys are going around the country meeting people. They call it New Friend Land or something.' I liked Jim from the start.
'Please tell us if there are any projects you've been meaning to get done. We'd love to help you out. We're not asking anything in return,' I said.
'Well, we do have a little yard work if you're serious,' he said. Denny and I literally jumped at the opportunity. Jim and Carolyn drove us to their home, which was located on Kent School's property. Jim was a math teacher and coached a handful of sports including football, tennis and chess at the prestigious boarding school. He invited us inside as his wife drove off to her own teaching job. I could tell he was feeling a bit guilty about telling us what work we could do. 'You like chess? I have the best chess board in the world. I made it myself. Go ahead, play a game while I get some tools.'
Denny and I hadn't taken a piece from one another before Jim appeared in the front yard with everything from his shed. He explained what needed to be done, being careful not to be too commanding. 'Now are you sure?' he asked. And 'If you're serious about this,' he prefaced the tasks.
I told Jim he could lock us out as he headed to a meeting. 'This house hasn't been locked in 25 years,' he said. I found this fact extremely comforting. 'I'll be back in a couple hours,' he said.
Denny and I immediately designated projects. He would do the hedge trimming and clean up the front yard while I would tackle getting the weed-covered deck into shape. We agreed to do as much work possible before Jim came home so we could leave in time to avoid him attempting to compensate us.
We got in a zone, hardly speaking to each other for two-straight hours. Beads of sweat dripped from my forehead and my freshly-washed jeans were covered in mud. After we finished our initial tasks, we found more. Denny sprayed off the lawn chairs we did our best to fix the stone staircase. Just as we were finishing the final step, Jim appeared. 'Wow, looks great guys. you really got a lot done,' he said, not even observing the extent of our efforts. 'Let's go get some lunch.'
We agreed to eat since we were extremely hungry by now, but as we drove downtown, I knew we couldn't let Jim pay or else that would neutralize our good deed. He chose a modest burger joint and we filled our bellies. I pretended to get some more napkins at the counter but was really there to slip our waitress the money for the bill. When it came time to pay, Jim reached for his wallet. 'It's already taken care of,' I explained. He wasn't really sure how to react.
As we grabbed our bags from his trunk, he looked for some items that may be of some use to us. 'Here's a speedometer. Need that for any reason?' he asked. I knew he was partly joking, but I also think he would have happily let us take it. 'No, that will just depress us when we see how slow we're walking,' I joked.
He was trying his best to do something in return. We shook his hands and began walking south toward New Milford, leaving Jim confused as to why these two strangers had come into his life.
'I hope you agreed it was a good idea to pay for his lunch,' I said to Denny, feeling bad I hadn't been able to run the idea by him first.
'We can't do it all the time,' he said.
'I know, but it was pretty cool to see the look on his face.'
Denny went silent for a few seconds and then smiled.
'Yeah, he was pretty confused. It was pretty awesome.'