My husband and I were driving home from cross-country skiing on western Colorado's Grand Mesa when the SUV in front of us slid off the road and sank into bumper-high snow. We pulled over and stopped, but quickly realized that there was nothing we could do to help. No amount of pushing was going to get the woman's SUV out of that deep snow, and our little Honda was too small to tow it out.
Just as we were about to drive down the road in search of cell phone reception so we could call for a tow truck, another SUV came up the road. The driver quickly hit his brakes and pulled a U-turn. The man who emerged from the vehicle in a parka and work clothes was maybe 60 years old, with a face whose lines suggested age, but also good humor and kindness.
"That's some real trouble that you've got there," he told the driver, a middle-aged woman whose preteen son sat restlessly at shotgun. We exchanged fewer than a dozen words when the man pulled out a tow rope and hitched it to the woman's bumper. Then he got in his SUV and backed it closer so he could connect the rope to his hitch and yank her out.
That's when I saw his bumper stickers. "100% ANTI-OBAMA," read one. Another sticker displayed the name "Barack Obama" with one of those little-boy cartoon characters pissing on the letters. I felt myself growing hot with anger.
The man got back in his vehicle and slowly pulled forward. His tow rope began to stretch, but the stuck SUV wasn't moving. My husband and I gave him a look—this was hopeless. But the man kept moving his vehicle forward, the tension in the rope growing visibly tighter until one of the loops snapped. That's it, I thought, she's not going anywhere. But just then the man hit the gas and the woman's SUV barreled forward onto the road, free at last. We all thanked each other, smiling.
Our country is needlessly fractured, and during this encounter it hit me that I'm part of the problem. If I'd encountered this guy on the road, I would have thought, "What a jerk." The mere sight of his bumper stickers would have given me license to turn this generous man into a nameless, faceless "other." But during our brief encounter, he was nothing but altruistic and generous. Up close, I felt his humanity, and in that moment of shared purpose, our commonalities felt bigger than our differences. And so I made a choice—to put aside ideology and allow myself to experience the kindness of this fellow human being.
My interaction with this stranger was utterly unremarkable. Across America, and especially in the rural West, ordinary people with differing views manage to work together for common goals every day. It's a shame that we allow political pundits and fear mongers to divvy us up into us versus them.
I will probably never agree with this man's politics, but I found much to admire about him as an individual. I still think his bumper stickers were crude and disrespectful, and it pains me to see such vitriol aimed at a president I support and admire. But I also know for a few minutes on that cold winter afternoon, an anonymous right-winger and this bleeding-heart liberal put differences aside to help a stranger.
Christy Aschwanden is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer in Cedaredge, Colorado.