What shocks me the most as I stare through the dirty car window is how far away from home I feel. We’ve left the familiar pine forests of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and entered a part of the country where the sky goes on forever with only distant mountains sharply jutting upward interrupting the vast expanse of blue. But geography isn’t the part of the transformation that fascinates me. The people here live differently, more simply. My family and I are traveling through the seemingly endless ranches of Montana, headed for Glacier National Park where towns are even rarer than digital gas pumps, if that’s possible. Having grown up fairly well-off, it’s hard to imagine working as hard as these ranchers do for so little in return. But their lifestyle captures my imagination. They make me think about how much I take for granted and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, all the joys of a simpler lifestyle that I’ve been missing.
â–º Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
This lesson was never clearer to me than when we stopped at a small motel in the tourist town of East Glacier Park, Montana. My dad was sick so we went to get dinner without him. The downtown had the classic touristy feel to it and the buildings looked like movie props in a cheap western film. We finally stopped at Serrano’s, a small Mexican restaurant with a cozy interior decorated with sombreros and ponchos. Eager to get to know some of the locals, I started talking to the waiter, Dan. He was probably forty, with square, black, thick-rimmed glasses and an almost artsy, bohemian feel to his personality. He was one of those waiters that are obviously a natural. When we requested an extra meal for my dad, Dan offered to bring it out later so it would be hot and even gave us a whole bag of nachos to go with it. He teased us for our countless questions about the menu but in a way that left us all laughing. As we were leaving, Dan thanked us in German for coming. Of course, he didn’t know that my entire family spoke German and it immediately started a conversation, all in German, about how he’d learned it. Much to my surprise, he told us that he’d picked it up while he was an exchange student in Holland studying art. I’d been considering an exchange program myself and I was curious about how he’d ended up in this small town waiting tables when it seemed like he’d had such high hopes for life when he was younger.
On the way back to the motel, I couldn’t stop wondering what choices he’d made to take such a different path than most people, and if he was happy with where he’d ended up. When we got back, my mom discovered that she’d tipped him half of what she meant to. He’d been so helpful that we had to give him the extra money somehow, so we looked up the address and mailed the extra money to Serrano’s and “the waiter with the square black glasses” and hoped it would find its way to the right person.
Upon our return home several weeks later, we had a postcard waiting for us from Dan, written in German. “Vielen Dank für das Trinkgeld und die Zuvorkommenheit!”, it read – many thanks for the tip and the consideration. The postcard still hangs on my door along with my other favorite pictures. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of Dan and I’m inspired to choose, as he did, the path less traveled.
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