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Sam Cook column: Chance encounters often worth a bit of risk

Sam Cook

Almost every day, I travel with a fellow I know. His name is Daniel Alvarez, a long-distance hiker and paddler whom I've written about previously. He passed through Duluth a few years ago when he was kayaking from northern Minnesota to Key West, Fla.

Now he's hiking across Europe, north to south — Norway to Spain. It's a long poke. He's about 5,000 miles into it. He posts to his blog (predictablylost.com) nearly every day, whether he has walked 15 miles or 30.

His updates are typically about people and life and interesting moments along the trail.

In a recent post, he explored the whole idea of chance encounters. He's in Spain now, on the famous Camino de Santiago, a Middle Ages pilgrimage route. He is traveling with a group of newfound friends from the trail — a couple of German women and two others from France.

Now fast friends, they were talking at dinner recently about how they had met each other a few weeks ago.

"It's hard to look around​ the table and remember it was all chance," Alvarez wrote. "It feels so certain, so obvious."

A day either way, back then, and the five may never have formed the bond they now enjoy.

"Is it really all just chance?" Alvarez writes. "Some would argue for fate, destiny or divine intervention, but I'll leave it with chance. Just chance. There is enough beauty in chance for me. There is more even, because chance requires something fate and omnipotent deities do not. It requires you to say 'hello' to the man you thought would steal your things, to talk with a stranger at a pass or on a train, to help someone knocking on an unlocked door. Chance does not operate alone. It is all the more beautiful because it needs you to take its hand and leap with it."

That's a pretty powerful awareness: "It needs you to take its hand and leap with it."

I can think of a few such times in my own life, like the time in Guatemala when we hired a kid named Darwin to take us to "The Rock" on the shores of Lake Atitlan. He couldn't have been more than 12. I wondered, as he led us through leafy passageways and into the woods, whether he was just the set-up guy for his older brothers who were waiting to fleece us. Nope. He was the real thing.

We asked him, sitting at "The Rock," what he wanted to do in life.

"Go to America," he said.

And there was Jack, the guy from Churchill, Manitoba, who we hired to pick up six of us and our three canoes from the mouth of the Seal River on Hudson Bay. It was 43 miles to Churchill in Jack's 23-foot open skiff on 8-foot swells. Jack seemed nervous for most of the ride, but we got there.

We had similar experiences with young bush pilots in the Mackenzie River country of the Northwest Territories, dodging mountains in patchy clouds. We made those trips safely, too.

In all of those cases, we entrusted our lives to folks whose skills and experience we had almost no way to evaluate.

I'm still with Alvarez: "Chance does not operate alone."

Now and then, you have to take its hand and leap.

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