One of my major life goals I set for myself early on was to travel. In high school, I knew I wanted to take a big trip to/around Europe after I graduated college, and so I spent all four years of school living as cheaply as I could and saving every penny for my trip. I spent months planning, doing research, and daydreaming about what my trip would be like.
I had a boyfriend for three of the four years I was in college, and while we were together I always thought we’d take the trip to Europe together. We broke up at the beginning of my senior year, and so I had to face the prospect of traveling solo. While I was excited to embark on such a journey by myself, I was also a little daunted, and thought it might be fun to try to meet up with other solo travelers along the way. During my research I came upon a website with a message board solely devoted to backpacking in Europe, and one of the sections of the board enabled people to post their travel itineraries for anyone who might be interested in meeting up for a drink or to travel together for a day or two.
Quite a few people responded to my post when I wrote about where I’d be and when and the sort of places I wanted to see, and I exchanged emails and photos with a few. I knew I’d be in Paris first, then Barcelona, then Nice, then Rome, and decided after that I’d play it by ear, so I arranged to meet up with David in Paris, with Chris in Nice, and with Clay in Rome. I saw the Louvre with David and we had dinner together one evening while I was there. I met a girl in Barcelona at my hostel and we did some stuff together, and helped one another weather the second worst train ride ever from Barcelona to Nice. I’d been in touch with Chris to let him know when I’d be in Nice, since he was taking a much longer trip and had already spent several days on the French riviera, and I knew when I got off the overnight train ride from hell that he’d meet me at the hostel where we were both going to spend the next couple of nights.
I got to the hostel, sleep deprived and sunburned from my first few days in Europe when I’d forgotten to bring sunscreen, totally cracked out, and Chris suggested I get a shower and we’d go play on the beach. I thought this an excellent plan, and after we got down to the water we’d already had conversations about everything from vegetarianism to abortion rights to gun control. Somehow this stranger, someone I’d expected to spend a few hours with, turned out to be a kindred spirit, despite our incredible differences in experience, religion, politics, all the big stuff. We just gelled. We spent the next couple of days exploring Nice and Monaco and then I got an email from Clay saying he’d had to cancel his trip so he wouldn’t be coming to Rome. So Chris went to Rome with me. And Florence. And Interlaken, Switzerland. I can’t really say why we hit it off so well, because we were so incredibly different – him a three-years-older Christian republican cowboy country singer who loved to play guitars and had switched from bullriding to broncriding after a motorcycle accident nearly killed him (somehow, the near-death experience on the bike made him less interested in courting death on the back of a very large bull). He was from Michigan and had a midwest accent, teased me about being from California, my hippie (to him) ways and how I said “like” a lot. Everywhere we went, we discussed things mundane and profound. He made sure I ate. He took care of me, which college boyfriend had basically never done, and I liked it.
In Salzburg, I knew that we had to split up. He was planning to spend time in Germany, and I was interested in seeing Prague and Krakow, and my trip was 6 weeks while his was three months. We said teary goodbyes at the Salzburg train station and I cried for hours on the way to Poland, wondering how it was possible that I had gotten so close to someone from so far away in such a short period of time. My memories of my few days in Poland are colored by the fog of sadness that was caused by having to leave my new friend, who had somehow become so much more despite our differences, that to this day I cannot think of a single positive thing about it, though I’m sure it was far more beautiful than I give it credit for. Let me just say, though, that I advise never going to Auchwitz by yourself if you’re already really sad, because that was just about the most miserable experience I ever had.
I sat in an internet cafe and wrote him an email. I missed him. He wrote me back the next day; he missed me. I went to Prague and wandered around for two days and watched a guy vomit on his own feet and then I wrote him and said, “I want to come meet up with you again.”
Right now I can’t remember where it was I ended up going. Someplace in Germany, where he was, planning a bus trip up the Romantic Road. We saw Neuschwanstein castle in Fussen, stayed overnight in someone’s house in Augsberg, walked around the wall and ate the local specialty of fried dough balls in Rotenburg, drank wine in Wurtzberg, went to Heidelburg, then headed back to Munich and had a great time at the Deutches Museum and wandering the streets, calling one another Platz (Plaza, in German, a suffix on signs everywhere, and fun to say). One night we ate at the Hofbrauhaus, learning that drunken Japanese tourists singing “Country Roads” performed by an oompah band wearing lederhosen is one of the experiences not to be missed when one is in Munich, and he bet me that I couldn’t drink an entire stein of beer. The loser of the bet had to pay for our lodging for the night. Now, I hate beer. I hated beer then. But I wasn’t going to let a little (okay, a lot, those steins were huge!) disgusting soapy beverage stand between me and winning a bet. I drank almost an entire stein and then had to pee. (You would too! I’m not kidding about the size of those things). While I was in the bathroom, the server took my stein. I came back, and Chris said that I hadn’t had the whole beer, so I lost. I ordered another and drank half of it before he admitted I had won. We had a misadventure trying to get to the Black Forest, which is a whole post in itself, but involved cherry liquor, Stuttgart, and snails.
I was getting close to the end of my trip, so I had to head back to Paris and then over to London before going home. Somehow it wasn’t as hard to leave, and yet it was even harder, because of the jokes and the experiences we’d shared in that additional week. During the last several days of my trip, I wandered around Paris by myself and London by myself, thinking over the adventure I’d had and my new friend Chris, wondering what it all meant. When he got back to Michigan from his trip, a month after I’d already been home, I flew to visit for a week. He came to visit me at Thanksgiving. We had already mutually decided that a relationship between us would never work: we were from different parts of the country and had different values and goals. He wanted to get married and have a family, being the last in his circle to do so at the ripe old age of 24. I was 21, fresh out of college, wanting to have more experiences and not at all interested in settling down. While personality-wise, we meshed incredibly well, we couldn’t get past all the other things that were different. So we moved on as friends.
Chris and I were very close for years. He called me whenever he had women problems. I told him about Dan when we met and started dating. I saw him through two failed relationships and tried to make suggestions as I could. He was probably the person who I felt closest to, who I knew would tell it to me straight, who I wanted to stand up with me at my wedding were I ever to have one.
And then he met Kelli.
I heard about Kelli, how she was 20 and a widow with a toddler. How he didn’t trust her not to cheat on him during a trip to Hawaii. How he didn’t know what she was going to do with her life. But she was young, already had a kid, needed his help and protection. They worked through their relationship that first year and then one day, shortly after I moved to Denver, he called me up to tell me they were engaged. “Congratulations!” I said, having expected it for months. “We’re getting married in September,” he said. “And we’re buying a house in August, and we want to come visit you in Colorado in May.”
“Sweet!” I said. I bought a futon so they’d have someplace to sleep.
Chris and Kelli came to visit me in May of 2003. Dan came down from Greeley for the first weekend they were here, and we all hung out. Dan’s and Chris’s personalities were very similar, so they enjoyed joking around together, and Chris and I told stories from our trip that we’d taken. Kelli was jealous. How could she not be? She was much younger, had had no similar experiences, and, in her opinion, I knew her fiance better than she did. I think she was intimidated by me, though it was obvious I had no designs on her man, I had known him far longer than she had and I wasn’t married. He was close to me, and trusted me, and I don’t think she liked that.
“We’re going to go explore Colorado,” Chris told me on Monday morning. “We’re taking a road trip, but we’ll be back by Friday.” “Have a great time!” I said.
I never heard from him again. I called his mom that Saturday to let her know he hadn’t come back; she said they were in the mountains with no reception but they said they’d be back in Denver the day before. “I’m sure they’re fine,” she told me.
Nothing. No call. No email. I tried his cell phone, but had no luck. Their plane took off, I’m sure with them on it, that Sunday in May of 2003, but Chris had made his choice. He chose his fiance over me, even though it didn’t need to come to that. She didn’t want him to be friends with me, so he cut off all contact after being close friends with me for three years, after all the adventures we’d had. I’m sure they got married that September, though we never got an invitation. I’m sure they’ve since had more children, since Chris had wanted a lot of kids. He found someone who was the same religion, who needed him, who came with a built-in family, and he was from Western Michigan where guys weren’t friends with girls they weren’t related to by blood or marriage. His solo trip to Europe and his years of being friends with that free-spirited California girl were the only ways he’d let himself be different from everyone else in his small town.
Every once in a while, I’ll see something that reminds me of the time I was in Europe, hanging out with the bronc rider. A joke, the smell of a kebab, hearing certain country songs. I miss him and hope he is happy, hope his family is well. Recently Facebook has been suggesting I add him as a friend, and every time his name pops up there I get a little sad. Part of me wants to extend that olive branch, to catch up, to reminice about old times, to call him a platz again. But part of me thinks that the past is better left where it lies.