A helping hand

THE morning was brilliant with sunshine and bird song. An early breeze wafted the heady scent of lilac and honeysuckle in my bedroom window, seeming to promise a day full of beauty and adventure. Instead, it was one of those inglorious days when nothing goes as it should. It was a left-shoe-on-right-foot day, when you feel slightly out of synchronization with the laws of the universe and can't seem to get anything done correctly. I was becoming morose and irritable before I decided to salvage the promise of the day with an ever-effective remedy, heading for the hills.

I took a dirt road that climbed along an ebullient mountain stream through a canyon fragrant with pine and fir. When I reached the head of a trail I'd been wanting to explore, I discovered a car on the narrow verge where I'd intended to park.

I was so busy glaring at the car in my spot, I forgot to watch the road. My car plunged abruptly into deep, puddled ruts and stopped dead.

I started laughing. The day was offering an adventure after all.

The car was tilted at a daunting angle, up to its hubcaps in water. There was no way I could get out of the ruts without help. The other driver was sitting in his car, presumably enjoying the view until I appeared in the foreground. I went over to ask if he'd push while I steered, or vice versa. Instead he offered to tow me out with his car.

I realized why he preferred that option when he pulled out a wheelchair, swung himself into it, and rolled over to my abused vehicle.

Quickly he began to improvise a towing device out of winter tire chains and wire. I prefer to avoid the helpless female routine, but in this case my resources and ideas were limited. All my car hatch had to offer was a flashlight, a screwdriver, and an old newspaper, none of any use for moving mired cars.

My helper apparently enjoyed the chance to rescue a damsel in distress, so I fell into the role with good humor. I squatted on my heels at his feet, enjoying the contrast of the crisp mountain air in my lungs and the heat of the afternoon sun on my head.

My sense of aggravation from a morning of unproductive pursuits fell away as I began to absorb the peace and sensory richness of the setting. The clearing was full of activity, but the rhythms were more purposeful than any I'd been part of that day. Bumblebees wobbled and droned among the wildflowers. A hawk circled deliberately overhead, alert for the movements of small creatures.

My friend in need worked with unhurried grace, deftly binding our cars together. My one contribution was to sink up to my elbows in the murky water of the ruts to wedge pine boughs behind my car's tires.

We were both muddy and disheveled by the time our cars were chained to each other. It hadn't occurred to me before that using a manual wheelchair on a muddy road meant one would end up with mud-coated arms. One item my car had to offer was a rag, so I mopped apologetically at his arms and chair tires until he grinned and said he could survive a little grime.

We climbed into our cars, and he pulled me out so smoothly my car was free before I knew it. I gave him back his chains and thanked him profusely. I was amused to notice he didn't start off down the road until I was safely parked away from the ruts.

Thanks to a stranger who offered me two helping hands, I was freed from my mental rut as well as the physical ones and was able to appreciate the beauty of the day at last.

I hiked through a lush meadow vivid with magenta shooting stars, alpine forget-me-nots, mountain bluebells, and yellow bells dancing in the light breeze. I walked on through a light-dappled forest of spear-straight lodgepole pines. I was so absorbed in the loveliness of the afternoon and the pleasure of my interlude at trailhead that I effortlessly climbed a steep series of switchbacks and arrived suddenly at the top of a ridge I hadn't even expected to reach.

While I sat on a log and gazed at the vast, encircling panorama of mountains pleating the wilderness between me and the horizon, I thought about my amiable Samaritan.

On the most frivolous level, I hoped he was going to have as much fun telling people about our encounter as I knew I would. On a deeper level, I wondered if I could have done anything for him as an expression of thanks. I would have been delighted to share the alpine views with him, but since the trail was narrower than his wheelchair and frequently blocked by fallen trees, we wouldn't have gotten far.

Actually, the experience felt complete, just right the way it happened. If I had made an issue of returning the favor, I would have been emphasizing his handicapped status. It made no difference in his ability to help me; it just changed the style. Had he not been in a wheelchair, it would never have crossed my mind to do more than thank him.

There are times when handicapped people need a helping hand; but that is true for all of us, as I proved when I mired my car! It seemed to me the best way to express my appreciation was to treat him no differently than I would another good Samaritan. Neighborliness knows no handicaps but those of the heart.

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