“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile.
Stef, my good friend and travel companion, and I had arrived in the USA only the evening before, landing in Chicago to be met first by a wall of humidity and then by Adam, who took us for our first American beer in a cozy, simple neighbourhood pub, which confused my sleep-deprived brain very much by reminding me strongly of an English pub – something about the dark wooden beams, the vinegar and brown sauce on each table, the variety of local beer on tap and the TV in the corner showing a sports game made the realisation that we’d just travelled across the Atlantic and been on the move for eighteen hours very hard. The food was different, however: instead of fish’n’chips there were burgers in every variety. Although the beer was good and the company fun, we were glad to fall onto the couch at an early hour and sleep, since the following morning already held the next adventure: a flight for the three of us to Denver.
As I sat next to the window and watched the flat landscape below us pass by in colours of brown and gold and dust and sunshine, occassionally dotted with specks of cloud, I could feel the excitement and the anticipation rising. The excitement of the approaching adventure, of having time unroll before me in which everything is open, no plans laid out, no decisions made, not even any knowledge as to options, not even any ideas – just living in the now and deciding from moment to moment where the next step would lead us. The anticipation of seeing the Rocky Mountains, a name that contains a physical location as well as a whole range of emotions and mysteries as it is tied to my family by stories that have been polished and romantizised in the re-telling – of how my parents, the newly-wed couple, went camping there, of the bear they met, of the good people with whom they forged connections, and the photos that have been hanging on the walls of my childhood home telling their own stories. And then there is the anticipation of meeting two people – the woman whose music blog I have been reading for years and who I have admired for practically as long. And the musician she invited for a concert this night, whose music I have listened to almost daily for more than a year.
With the pilot announcing the approach to Denver and the ‘fasten-your-seatbelt’ sign blinking into life overhead, I leaned close to the window, camera in hand, trying to catch a glimpse of the mountains, with John Denver singing about coming home to a place he’d never been before into my ears. ‘Calm down’, I told myself, but my heart beat fast and my stomach had its own ideas as well. I told myself that I would never forgive it if I went overboard and made myself look like an idiot. It’s hard to contain something as forceful as the joy of being in a new place or the excitement of meeting new people. Maybe because they shouldn’t be contained. I know myself, however, so I put on the reigns. Nobody likes someone who makes herself the center of attention, however inadvertently.
At the gate we were met by Andrew, Adam’s friend. He had already told us that we would find him to be exceptionally kind and friendly and one of the best people he knew and a few minutes after meeting him, I knew that he’d spoken nothing but the truth: Andrew is this handsome, big-smiled guy with an aura of quiet capability who he made us feel welcome from the first moment. And while waiting for our luggage, the fifth person to join us on the ride to Colorado Springs appeared, a “sleeply-looking dude with a guitar” (original quote by Andrew) – Tyler, the musician I’d been looking forward to meet so much. I managed to appear almost normal and hellos and how-are-yous and names were exchanged back and forth and after a few minutes I was able to breath again: even though he is capable of writing some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve come across, and can compose wonderful songs that touch my heart, he was also just a normal guy – friendly, good-looking, open, tired and hungry.
We finally got our bags and descended to the parking lot and climbed into the plush interior of the very American car that Andrew borrowed to transport us all. There are wide, cream-coloured leather seats, lots of leg room for everyone and enough space to stow two large backpacks and a guitar. The air that streamed through the open windows as we pulled away from the aiport was very warm, almost hot, but mercifully dry – no chance for humidity in this golden-brown land. Driving past the Demon Horse, its eyes lit up evilly in glittering red and I was awestruck by the accompanying story of how this huge statue of an angry, rearing blue horse, close to its completion, fell and crushed its creator underneath it. “What else can you expect from a demon horse?” I asked and marvelled at yet another manifestation of life being stranger than fiction.
Andrew has lived in Denver all his life and has a passion for it and for Colorado that is as touching as it is infectious. The next hours or so we spent being driven around the town, learning snippets of its history from this expert, being shown landmarks, getting insider tips of where to go for a good meal and hearing the local gossip. It’s hot, but we have the windows down all the same and an atmosphere of relaxed anticipation permeates the car. We’re on holiday together, we share a road trip, we feel good to be here and to be with each other. After a short stop at Andrew’s house, which reminded both Steff and me of the alternative community houses of the university towns where we studied and which we immediately loved for that reason, we drove to a place a couple of minutes away to buy road trip food. It’s a tiny corner restaurant with a few bar stools to sit on and the food is being prepared behind the counter. The man in charge of it looks comfortable in his surroundings. He doesn’t rush and he doesn’t pander to anyone. One dish at a time, prepared with diligence and attention – then he takes the order for the next one. It took a while, but when we were back in the car and digging in, we knew that it had been well worth the wait – the food is delicious: spicy, tangy and utterly satisfying.
Andrew navigated us south on this Saturday afternoon, our bellies filled, comfortable with each other, Andrew and Adam chatting quietly about mutual friends and music in the front, Tyler, half-asleep, reclining in the back, Steff and me in the middle row, each silent with our thoughts as we watched the landscape roll by. The mountains stretched out on our right, clouds clinging to the tops now, which only emphasized their height and the way in which they rise so abruptly from the gentle hills we’re driving through. The intense longing to be up there, to soar over the peaks, to glide across all this space overtook me. It was so fierce that it took my breath away and I gasped a little and turned my head to Stef, whose eyes were fixed on the mountains as well. “I’m almost crying,” I told her in a quiet voice and she looked at me and nodded. “I can see that,” she said. I tried to explain but couldn’t find the words. Andrew had heard us talk after our long silence.
“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile. “I love travelling,” I tell them. “I’ve always travelled. I love being on the move, seeing new things. But for two years I’ve done nothing – nothing. Just sat at my desk and pretended to be busy. And now I’m here and there is all this space and so much room and I feel like something inside me is cracking open and suddenly I can breathe again and I feel like my soul is too big to be contained in my body, like it’s two meters wide.” I run out of breath. I can’t explain the intensity of this moment any better, neither the happiness of it nor the physical pain in my chest, nor the sheer overwhelmingness of it all. When I look up from trying to wipe my eyes with my sleeve, four people are looking at me with smiles on their faces and in their eyes. They nod. They understood every word I said and all the words I didn’t say. I heave a relieved sigh and lean back in my seat, my eyes on the mountains again, smiling. I hope they also understand that their company is – that they are – a huge part of my happiness.
They and Colorado.
This is part 1 of a series recounting my travel experiences to the USA. You can find the following parts here.