I see the couple up ahead on the trail. It's early morning in one of Duluth's trail-rich parks.
I know who they are. It's Jan and Larry. Birders. They're moving slowly, looking up, binoculars slung around their necks.
I stop on my morning trail run to visit with them. We may talk birds. But we're just as likely to talk dogs, or weather or deer hunting or any other aspect of life that comes up. I always look forward to seeing them on the trail. I know I'm going to come away with some nugget of knowledge or awareness that I didn't have before.
It's the same with so many others I meet on Duluth's wooded paths. If it's early morning, and there's a Springer up ahead, I know I'm going to run into Bill. He's a regular, always out at the break of day. Friendly. Engaging. Wise.
But it could be Paul and his golden retriever or Bonnie and that her big collie or Sheila and her black Lab. We have all learned that we have something in common other than our appreciation for the trails.
In many cases, our dogs have introduced us. Dogs - and the narrow trails. Narrow trails force each party to slow down or someone to step aside. Once paused, the dogs go about greeting each other, and it just seems natural that we humans ought to do the same. The conversation might be dog-centered in the beginning, but over time - years, in many cases - we humans have formed trail friendships. We might rarely see each other anywhere else in town, but on the trail, we're buddies.
It's surprising, once these woodsy friendships are formed, how deep we can go. Trail encounters have led to conversations on grown kids, young kids, travel, careers, aging parents, wilderness, health and much more. With only the trees listening, we're pretty open to reveal some serious thoughts.
Some days, though, the conversation just skims along the surface. We might talk mainly about the weather or headlamps or winter clothing or blueberry picking or running shoes.
But more often than not, we can get to a deeper level. I have learned a lot about life from conversations along the trail, little nuggets of wisdom that I find myself reflecting on later.
These encounters have confirmed for me what I've learned in deer camps and fishing boats and sitting around campfires with lots of other folks. Namely, that despite some differences, we have far more in common than we tend to acknowledge. It is so easy to focus on the differences. We are all more than we appear to be on the surface.
Maybe it's the woods. Maybe it's the timeless setting that inspires these conversations. That, and the fact that we're unhurried on our walks and even our runs or bike rides. Out there, we have time - or choose to take time - to engage with each other.
All I know is that when I come away from one of those conversations, I often feel a bit wiser or richer or happier.
Just one more thing to thank my yellow dog for, I guess.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.