I was a seasonal employee in Glacier National Park when I met Kelly Tufo. Kelly was a tourist who’d come seeking peace for his broken heart. I needed to leave to heal my own wounds, but I had neither the will nor the money. I’d quit my job as a cook, but the property manager was a friend, so she allowed me to stay on in my cabin. Kelly was tenting indefinitely in the campground next door. We were both in limbo.
For three years after college, I’d relied on the same group of friends. We worked summers in Montana and winters in Colorado. In spring and fall, we traveled to Mexico, Europe, Alaska. We’d spend every penny, then return to employee housing and service industry jobs. I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to stop obsessing over my ex-boyfriend, whose bed I could see from my own. But my bank account was empty, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye.
Kelly was openhearted and gregarious. He listened as much as he spoke and observed his surroundings even as he moved quickly through them. When most tourists asked for hiking suggestions, we directed them to Iceberg Lake or Ptarmigan Tunnel, trails that while beautiful were sure to be packed with others who’d gotten the same advice. When Kelly asked, we took him with us, rock scrambling on ancient goat trails with no other humans in sight. We shared our best secrets with Kelly. Despite his heartbreak, I’d never met anyone so alive.
One afternoon, we sat in a patch of wildflowers, feet dangling in a waterfall pool. My friend Andrea and I fantasized about having $2,000 — a grand sum at the time. “I could live like a queen for a year in Mexico,” Andrea said. That night, Kelly took me aside. He thanked me for reminding him how lucky he was. “I have $2,000 in the bank, and then some. I have a business that allows me to earn more and to retreat into wilderness when I need it. I have everything,” he said.
The following day, park rangers noticed that Kelly had overstayed his 14-day limit in the campground, and I returned from a hike to find a new employee in my bunk. “I’m not ready to leave yet either,” Kelly said. He rented a room in the motel and left me a note with an extra key. “I got two beds,” it read. “Make yourself at home.”
The motel cushioned my imminent departure. It allowed me to say goodbye on my own terms, not just to the people I loved but to the community we’d built over the years, to a lifestyle, to the wilderness that had become home. At first, I was apprehensive. I worried briefly that Kelly might expect something, might crawl into bed with me after nursing his sorrows at the bar. But I rarely saw him in those days, save a passing hello or a note of encouragement and a granola bar left on my nightstand. Kelly was out saying his own goodbyes.
One morning, he handed me an envelope. “It’s time for us both to go,” he said. He made me promise not to open it until I’d crossed state lines. Then he scrawled his address on a scrap of paper and tucked it into my pocket. Kelly had given me the gift of time and now he was giving me another gift — a push out the door. The last time I saw him, he was standing at a bank of pay phones at the edge of the road, a receiver in one hand and the other waving goodbye.
That night, I read Kelly’s letter. He’d given me another gift: $300 to get home. “Pay me back when you’re a famous writer — or pay it forward. It’s up to you,” he’d written. When I reached into my pocket for his address, it was gone.
For years, I searched. I scoured California telephone books. I asked people if they knew him. Eventually, I Googled and Facebooked. Finally, in 2007, I found him. Kelly Tufo died in a rock climbing accident in the San Jacinto Mountains at 41 years old.
Although I’d known him only briefly, I mourned. Kelly had given selflessly to a stranger. Now I’d never be able to tell him that I got over my ex, went to graduate school and published my writing. I’d never be able to pay him back. So I took Kelly up on his alternative.
When I adjusted for inflation, the debt grew to $500. I wanted to give someone the full amount, but I was paralyzed by choice. Besides, I couldn’t afford to give that much at once. Instead, I bought groceries when the mom in front of me in line fell short, and I paid for the elderly man behind me at the coffee shop. When the gas station cashier complimented me on my necklace, I gave it to her. Each time I paid it forward, I deducted from my debt and said a silent thank you to Kelly.
Kelly used to say that he always found what he needed in the wilderness. When I do have larger sums of money, I’ll sponsor wilderness trips for urban youth in Kelly’s name. I’ve stopped keeping track of my debt, but I still pay it forward. And I still thank Kelly Tufo, who didn’t just help me up when I was down but made me a more observant, more generous person in the process.