Former Duluth resident Willie Portilla told me the story over lunch at Sir Benedict’s Tavern the other day. Portilla, 67, now lives in Fort Collins, Colo. We were catching up not long after Portilla had made the trip from Fort Collins to Duluth — 1,040 miles — by bicycle. His wife, Margie, chose to drive.
Portilla wanted to tell me about some of the things that happened during his ride — like the night he spent in tiny (pop. 1,325) Wood River, Neb.
As was his custom on the ride, he would throw out his sleeping bag at city parks in small towns for the night. He had been tucked in his sleeping bag for a couple of hours on this July evening when he heard the voices.
“It was dark,” Portilla recalled. “I could hear three teenagers, maybe 15, 16 years old. One had a flashlight. I overheard one of them say, ‘I see his bike over there, but I don’t see him.’”
Portilla, unsure about what might be about to happen, sat up.
“I’m over here,” he called out. “That’s my bike.”
The three boys walked over to Portilla. One of them handed him a bag.
“We came by here a while ago,” one said. “We went home and got you some food.”
They handed Portilla a bag containing bottled water, a sandwich, some chips and apples.
“And we scrounged up five bucks for you,” one of the boys said, handing Portilla a wrinkled $5 bill.
That’s why Portilla had wanted to tell me about his trip, he said, because his encounter with the boys in Wood River was typical of what he discovered throughout his 14-day ride to Duluth.
“The goodness that I found along the way — it was a daily thing,” he said. “There were multiple examples of people being nice, people offering their assistance.”
He declined the boys’ money that night in Wood River but graciously accepted the food they offered.
In another small town, fellow diners at a cafe pulled Portilla aside to warn him about road construction along his intended route and suggested an alternative.
In Oakland, Neb., Portilla borrowed golf clubs and played nine holes at the local golf course. Having a beer at the clubhouse afterward, he met a local man who asked where he was staying. When Portilla told him he planned to sleep at the city park, the man said, “No, you’re coming to my house.” And Portilla spent the night there, had dinner and breakfast, listened to music. The man was a barber, and gave Portilla a free trim before he hit the road again.
“We live in a time with a lot of negativity,” Portilla said, “but there was not a single episode of negativity or ill will that I saw on my trip.”
Many other travelers have told me similar stories about the kindness of people on the road. Ely polar explorer Will Steger has discovered it in far northern villages on his various rambles across North America. Duluth’s Jared Munch found the same kind of benevolence on his solo trip around Lake Superior by stand-up paddleboard.
Traveling solo enhances the prospects for interaction with strangers, Portilla believes.
“I think that’s a huge advantage,” he said. “When you travel with a group, you tend to interact with the group. People are less likely to approach you. When you’re a solo traveler and you go sit at a bar, you’re much more likely to strike up a conversation. It’s when you put yourself out there that you’ll have your richest experiences.”
And here’s something else that I think is true: When you reach out to someone on the long trail, you in some small way become a part of that journey. You know in your heart you are doing a good thing. Your gesture of kindness gets carried along with someone like Portilla, and you sense that you have made the world a better place.