"Did you notice a Starbucks ahead on the trail?"
An elderly gentleman pointed towards us with his walking sticks. I was out on Donlon-Calavares Ridge Trail near our house with my wife and kids on a Saturday morning.
From his Starbucks icebreaker, I recalled meeting this gentleman a couple of weeks ago on the same trail. That day, he started with, "Hey, the Starbucks at the top is closed". I had smiled and nodded in response but had kept going.
I wondered if he had recognized me. Probably not, I thought to myself, considering his advanced age.
But today this gentleman, noticing that he had caught my and my son's attention, quickly began. "Do you know the hills we are walking on used to be at the bottom of an old sea?"
I observed that my 10-year-old son, Agam, was already in rapt attention.
So, I decided to indulge the story - "Really?"
He started getting animated. Pointing at the surroundings with both of his sticks, "Yea, if you look closely at the rocks, you can see fossils of sea animals everywhere on these rocks".
I felt a mild disbelief at this man's claim. I frequent these hills but have yet to notice any fossils myself. But the premise sounded interesting.
Agam, who had stationed himself a few paces from us, started moving closer. It seemed like he wanted to listen more.
The gentleman obliged.
He was from Hawaii and 79 years old. He was born and raised in Oahu and started hiking in the island's mountains when he was six.
Drawing on the ground with his sticks, he explained how the landmass comprising the islands of Hawaii started pushing underneath the California coastline about 23.5 million years ago, how the surface that lay at the bottom of the sea back then rose into the topography of rolling hills surrounding the San Francisco bay.
"That's why we get so many earthquakes", Agam decided to join the conversation. Later on, he would tell me that he had read about this in his 4th-grade Social Studies.
"Yep, and it is still pushing". The old gentleman ended his story.
At that point, I asked, "Do you remember me? I think I met you on the trail a couple of weeks ago."
"Yes", he nodded. Pointing towards Agam, he said, "I only stopped to share this story because I want 10-year-olds like him to get curious about reality, about their surroundings."
I felt foolish about judging this gentleman's awareness.
To atone for my poor judgment, I mentioned growing up in Northern India and visiting the Himalayas. And how the Himalayas grew through the collision of two landmasses. He listened and nodded intently.
When I finished, he exclaimed, "Isn't this reality we live in just amazing?" Not only was he an extremely aware 79-year-old, but he was also curious, kind, and generous.
Agam and I thanked him for the conversation and parted ways.
On the way back, Agam peppered me with questions about life, god, reality, and what we can and should believe in. That resulted in a thoroughly engaging conversation. We both learned from it.
While taking off my shoes after reaching home, I wondered to myself:
The gentleman we met wasn't just a random person trying to make small talk. It was a gracious invitation from reality to engage with it.
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