The pentathlete who went out of his way

A brisk breeze moved in the hemlocks and firs that dotted the trail. I listened to the sounds of the woods as my husband and I hiked - the creek below us tumbling its way to the Columbia River, a steller jay scolding high in an oak, leaves crunching under our feet.

"You've got to pick up your pace." My husband Ray's voice interrupted my reverie. "Here, have some trail mix. We want to get out before dark."

He was right. Especially when I thought about the stretches of trail where we'd hung onto cable and scrambled along ledges of volcanic rock with perilous drop-offs. But I'd used up my energy hiking the six miles to Tunnel Falls, approaching its cascading waters with caution because of the icy, slick rocks.

The falls had been spectacular - we walked through a noisy, dripping tunnel, blasted into the basalt cliff directly behind the thundering waters, and breathed deeply of their power. Now, two miles along on the hike out, I longed to just amble and savor the experience.

Not an option. I took a gulp from the water bottle at my hip, sent a message to my weary feet, and moved out a bit faster. The trail opened into bright sunlight and I reached for my sunglasses.

"My sunglasses," I cried, stopping in dismay. "I must have left them by Tunnel Falls when we sat on the rocks to eat."

"Are you sure?" Ray asked. "Maybe you put them in your fanny pack."

I looked, but knew the effort was futile. I always kept them on a beaded cord around my neck, a beloved band that Ray had bought me in Lake Tahoe on our first trip together. The cord was gone, too.

"I have to go back for them," I said.

"Sorry, hon. We can't do it and be out before dark. Besides, you're exhausted now."

Impeccable logic. Still, I had to go back. Years before I'd paid more than a hundred dollars for polarized lenses in light, comfortable frames. On my tight budget they'd been a luxury, but had cured what I called my "sun headaches." The price for similar glasses must have doubled; now I would have to settle for the $15 Wal-Mart variety.

"Come on," Ray said more gently. "Maybe somebody picked them up and will turn them in at the ranger station."

I doubted anyone was behind us this late in the afternoon. Work would prevent my returning for them the next day. I teared up.

Just then a middle-aged, very fit runner loped up the trail toward us.

"How far are you running?" I asked without thinking.

Jogging in place, he looked at his watch. "About another 10 minutes out. Then I'll head back."

Ten minutes wouldn't get him close to Tunnel Falls.

"Why?" he asked, his feet still beating a perfect rhythm. "Is there a problem?"

"I left my sunglasses on a rock near Tunnel Falls. They were really good ones on a beaded band. If you'd been going there...." I closed my mouth, horrified at my ridiculous words.

"I'll get them for you," he said. "What do they look like?"

Part of me, the thoroughly embarrassed part, tried to say, "Never mind. It's not that important." The words that came out were, "Black frames. The cord has some turquoise beads. They must be on one of the flat rocks on the uphill side, maybe 50 feet from the tunnel."

"I'll catch you on the way down," he said and bounded up the trail.

"I can't believe you did that," Ray said as we watched till the runner was out of sight. "I'd have told him to forget it myself, but I was speechless. I bet he's running a half-marathon now."

I couldn't believe it either. I try hard not to impose on others. Still, I was thrilled. What a stroke of good fortune to meet someone so generous.

Ray and I hiked another hour and a half, my steps infused with the energy hope gives. But as we neared the trailhead with no sign of the runner, my shoulders slumped. We'd wait for him in the parking lot, of course, and thank him whether he'd found the glasses or not. My face would burn with shame at my audacity.

Then twigs snapped behind me and the runner was at my side. Jogging in place, he handed me my sunglasses. "It took me a while to find them," he said.

"How do I thank you?" I asked, fingering the precious beaded band.

"I should thank you. Your glasses added a quest to my run." He told me how 29 years before, on that very weekend, he'd visited Tunnel Falls as a competitor in a pentathlon. He'd ridden his bike from Jantzen Beach to Lolo Pass, then hiked over to Eagle Creek.

By the time he arrived in the canyon that night, he said, conditions were perilous. It was well after dark and starting to snow. He'd run by the same spot where he found my glasses and heard the roar of the cascading waters, but could only imagine what the falls actually looked like. Since that race, he'd thought of returning to see where he'd been that night, but never could justify taking the time.

Until today. "I want to thank you again," he said. "I'm pleased for both of us." And he was off.

"He thanked me," I said aloud in wonder. "How could he do that?"

How could he? That extraordinary man gave me not just my glasses, but an important life lesson. Sometimes, when we ask for something we need or value, selfish though it may seem, we create possibilities for the person helping us to gain as well. Without planning it or even knowing it, we make a gift exchange.

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