“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.
I’m back. Four weeks of travelling are behind me. So much has happened that I have a hard time believing that it hasn’t been four months. The facts are against that theory though, the calendar insists that it’s really only been four weeks.
Four weeks full of friendship – old ones renewed and new ones made. Four weeks full of beauty and taking photos and fun and kindness and laughter and space and breathing and writing and exploring.So much of it that I have a hard time knowing how to share it, where to start, what to choose – there are myriads of aspects, experiences, thoughts I could share. And I have a great desire to share them. I feel the pressure, the need to write it all down while it’s fresh, not only in my travel diary, but form my personal rambles into something more coherent, something meaningful, to reflect the meaning this trip has had for me.
I think I’ll concentrate on the physical places and use them as the gravitational center to collect my thoughts around, to make it unfold for you like it unfolded for me. Will you stay with me while I attempt this? I promise you photos. I promise to give my best to make you chuckle. For that, you’ll have to bear with me while I turn this blog into a collection of travel essays for a short time.
I think I’ll tempt you with a photo right now…
This is pretty much representative of my state of mind at the moment. Add a few whooping noises, some folksy sing-along-clap-your-hands music and a couple of wild dance moves and you’ve got it.
I hear you scratching your heads and whispering to each other. “Wasn’t she kinda maudlin lately? Whining about living at home and complaining about being lost-lost-lost and all that stuff?” Yes, you’re right! But then the end of the month arrived and I suddenly realized how very, very little time there is until I take off on my trip the the USA and now I’m all sparkling and giddy and full of last-minute things to do!
Organize presents is a big one. I’m staying with a couple of friends at different times throughout the trip, some of which I’ve met face-to-face, others that I haven’t yet met in person, some of which have travelled a lot, others that have never been to Germany or even Europe. So of course I need presents. Representative of Germany, but not laden with clichés. Personal, but not too specific so that I run the risk of them not liking it. I think I’m doing a good job so far, I’ve got most of them sorted. Yes, photo-books are included, as is one of my favourite German movies, a cooking book, some literature and quite a bit of music. Now I only need a handful of very small favour-like presents that I can give to new friends and spontaneous hosts on the road and then I’m good.
I love giving presents. You might have gathered that already.
Then there’s the packing list. I’m travelling with a very good friend for most of the trip and we’ve both decided to take as few things as humanely possible. Or maybe that should be as womanly possible. (Why do women always, always pack so much more than men?!?) Anyway, we want to buy clothes and stuff over there, so I sent my friend the list of things I propose to pack into my backpack and asked her to take everything down that she thinks I don’t need. She hasn’t got back to me yet, so maybe you guys could cast your eyes over this and give me some feedback:
clothes: underclothing (3x), socks (3x), hiking boots, normal shoes (1x), jeans (1x), shorts (1x), shirts (2x), jumper/hoodie (1)
bathroom stuff: comb, hairclips, etc., medium-sized towel (1x), toothbrush, 1 miniature version of: toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo
technical stuff: camera, second battery for camera, charger, external drive (with all my photos and music, for sharing), phone, phone charger, mp3-player, USB cable for the player, adapter (because we all really need different electricity systems… makes so much sense!) …. MAYBE: camcorder
arbitrary and/or important things: passport, credit card, travel diary, pen, sunglasses, train ticket, plane ticket, host presents, wedding present, pen knife, aspirin, my sunshine-yellow sarong, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – most of which goes into a large across-the-shoulders-bag
So, anything important missing? Anything I can leave safely behind? I think I’m pretty good with this list. 🙂
Also, when did we get to a point where the technical equipment that we deem necessary far outweighs all the rest in volume and complexity?
Other things I need/want to do include cleaning the house before I leave (or at least my room, my office and so on), finishing the wedding present, comparing some prices on tablet computers so I can maybe see about getting one over there for cheaper, finding out about a good and affordable pre-paid phone number for one month, contacting a number of people to confirm dates, meet up with a number of people to say goodbye to (like my pregnant friend, who will have her baby just a few days after I return, which means I’m leaving her alone for the last stretch of her pregnancy, which I feel slightly guilty about, but to my defense, I didn’t know she was pregnant when I organized this trip!).
And I’m not going to look at anything to do with my job (or non-job) situation, I’m not going to make any decisions and I’m not going to think up any new plans or ideas. Time enough for that when I get back. And the best bit about that is that when someone on the road asks me what I do, I won’t say “Talk to you.” or “Breathing.” in a half-annoyed, half-patronizing way as I usually do, but I’ll just be able to say: “Live.” At this point, I’m so free that I can go in any direction whatsoever. I’m totally flexible, open for any suggestions. Let’s see what the world has to offer.
It is said that in everyone’s life comes a point when instead of your parents looking after you, you start looking after your parents.
It hasn’t come quite so far yet, but I’m experiencing a good dose of role reversal at the moment nonetheless. I think I mentioned before that my parents are going off travelling around the world. Well, they are leaving today. After the last weeks being one hectic whirl of preparations and visa applications and flight research and last-minute-medical procedures and all those things, everything has now calmed down. Actually, everything has come to a stop. They are ready to go. The backpacks are packed. Everything from passports to tickets to money to electrical equipment has been double- and triple-checked. They are wearing the clothes they are going to wear on the first journey (with the train to Frankfurt Airport and then a flight to Dubai). It’s ten thirty in the morning, everything is ready, and we’re waiting.
I was much more nervous yesterday, but I’m still not calm today. Nor is my sister. We’re fluttering around them. The dog, although he doesn’t usually like the sight of backpacks, seems to be relaxed – he’s lying stretched out in the warm autumn sun streaming in through the windows and from time to time he heaves a heavy sigh. My parents are calm.
My Mum is doing some last-minute phone calls, saying goodbye to friends. My Dad is walking through the house, tidying up. He’s about to go outside with my sister to change the tires on the car from summer to winter ones. It seems pretty normal under the surface, but on a normal day I would just be sitting here at the desk, probably listening to music while I tried to write or do some research into one of my projects or any other normal thing. I wouldn’t be getting up every two minutes to go outside to check on both of them. My stomach wouldn’t be behaving like it is. I wouldn’t shoot random questions at them in a panicked voice:
“Are you SURE that you have your passport?” – “You WILL remember to buy some water after the security checks on the airport, won’t you? Flying for so long is terribly de-hydrating. And do you remember the exercises I showed you for your feet, so that your blood can circulate?” – “Do you have the reservation number somewhere ready for the rental car?” – “Are you certain that you have the phone number safe that you’ll have to call to report your bank card stolen?” – “Remember to also take photos of the two of you together, alright? You do remember how the photo camera works, right?” – “Remember what we told you about the importance of sitting still and enjoying and about ‘going with the flow’ and everything, don’t you?”
I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be the one to travel. They should be the ones to worry. The world does not make sense at the moment. Is it okay to be jealous and envious of my parents, while at the same time being totally proud of them and afraid for them? Is this part of growing up? Is this NORMAL?!?
Role reversal. I’m turning into my Mum. Someone help me. Even better: someone give me a pill, please. I need to calm down.
Pill, that reminds me! Sorry, have to go, have to make sure they packed the aspirin in the hand luggage…
My parents are planning a backpacking trip of seven months to Asia and Australia/New Zealand. I’m planning one week of long-distance walking/hiking on the east coast of England. That’s called perspective.
Or maybe payback.
After all, they are retired, have worked all their lives, are still supporting most of their five children, have always been there for us, have always encouraged us and, damn it, they deserve it. They deserve to have a wonderful, adventure-filled, fun-filled trip of a lifetime!
And I am unemployed and can’t get up the drive or passion to put any of my dozens of scintillating, amazing, new, interesting ideas into action. So it’s only fair.
But I’m filled with envy. It’s irrational, it’s definitely beneath me and I feel ashamed about it, but it’s the truth. I wish I could go. I wish I could just pack my trusty old red backpack, throw in the essentials and go.
I did travel to Southeast Asia and Australia and New Zealand. Years ago. Straight after school. I was nineteen. I loved it, I met interesting people, I ran out of money and ate nothing but cheap pasta for weeks, I had an accident both with a kangaroo and a cow (no, I wasn’t driving!), I swam in huge waves coming straight from the Antarctic a day before Christmas and it was all great. Except that I was nineteen and morbidly afraid of doing anything touristy for the fear of being thought a tourist. Or a lemming, following the crowd.
Yes, I’m aware that’s a stupid thought. It ruled the whole seven months of my trip, however. Why am I telling you this? I just wanted to make a case for me going on a similar trip again. I’m eleven years older and wiser, I know more about the world, I’m not afraid anymore of being thought of as pushing myself in or intruding when I talk to strangers. I’m much better equipped for a trip like that than I was.
I won’t be going though. Instead my parents are researching flights, car rentals, train connections, things to see and do, are arranging people to meet on the road, friends to visit in Australia and sending off visa applications to the embassy of India (and applying for electronic visa for several other countries).
Yes, I’m envious as hell. Yes, I will definitely do a trip like that again as soon as I can.
But you know something else? I’m also IMMENSELY proud of my parents. It takes patience and guts and perseverance and healthy doses of both wanderlust and an avid interest in the world and in other people to plan and then do a trip like this and they are doing it. The planning is stressing them. A lot. But they keep on and they spend the whole day every day for a week now reading and arranging and planning and researching, right through their high stress and adrenaline levels. So I’m proud of them. And that cancels out the envy.
I’ll be off now to pack hiking boots and rain jackets for England…
P.S. Any tips for travelling in Dubai, India, Nepal, Hongkong, (maybe Singapur somewhere in there as well), Australia and New Zealand?
P.P.S. Anyone done the Peddars Way/Norfolk Coast Path in autumn before?