We met by chance, late one night in October. It was thanksgiving, too much alcohol, food, and a table full of strangers. I was never meant to be there, he was never meant to be there, but there we were. Strangers, friends.
Hostels are strange and wonderful places. The usual laws of social interactions don’t seem to apply anymore. A chance encounter has the opportunity to turn into a lifelong friendship, no distance insurmountable.
Over 8 long months we struggled, barely managing to keep things together. Petty disagreements turning in to chasms across an ocean. But here I was, 8 months later. Sitting in Chicago, anxious, nervous. A last minute disagreement on when he had agreed to come and pick me up pushed to breaking point. Barely saved from turning to nothing.
But here he was, still as cute as ever, a little shy, blue eyed, short curls, with a wit that can’t be outdone by anyone, and the sweetest American accent. He told me all about Wisconsin, introduced me to his life, his bizarre love of KwikTrip, cheese curds, terrible country music, rapping to old Kendrick Lamar while I sat speechless, unable to match him. I often wonder how he can claim to have social anxiety, always seeming cool and together, always having something to say. I’m forever amazed by how much he knows, he can by far out nerd me without seeming pompous or irritating.
He makes me laugh trying to navigate traffic. I can’t decide if his road rage is almost as bad as my brother’s notorious outbursts, or if it’s all just a joke. The lead pipe in the back seat. Not crazy at all.
We drove up to Devil’s Lake near Baraboo, reaching the park a few hours before sunset. The place was rammed with campers and hikers enjoying the holiday weekend. The sounds of families making the most of the last few hours of sunlight was inescapable even as we made our way up the trail. I could see he was getting anxious but hoped as we got higher up and left the sounds behind us, things would settle down.
Taking a detour, we scrambled up the rock face joining the trail higher up. The route reminds me of my favourite part of the West Highland Way in Scotland, the route from Rowardennan to Inverarnan. The path eventually broke through the trees, showing how far we’d climbed, with views across the lake and back towards the city. As the sun began to set, we picked our way across the rocky outposts. Standing on the top of this small part of the world.
I never truly understand the thoughts I have at these moments, a stream of memories, emotions, fragments of thoughts barely formed. I can see he’s worrying about me, climbing as high as I can, standing on the edge of the rocks, I should probably get down. It’s never spoken, but I imagine he wanted to watch the sunset from up here, frustrated we’ve had to share the path with so many others. But I’m being ‘sensible’, the path back isn’t marked, and we have no torch to see where we are going.
The rocks shine a bright red in the fading light. He tells me how the land differs from anywhere else in America, how this area was never touched by the glaciers which have shaped so much of this country. As the light fades we make our way back down the path, and I get my first sight of fire-flies blinking in the darkness. A romantic attachment to old fairy-tales makes this more special than my childish self could put in to words. We sit for a while, foolishly trying to capture their sparks using my camera.
Tired, we make our way back to Green Bay, taking a detour to show me where he grew up and where his parents live. Exhausted by this point I don’t want to disappoint him, but the thought of meeting anyone and trying to hold a conversation is the last thing I want to do. I realise too late we’re not stopping yet and instead driving in to the city. After one drink, he kindly concedes and we drive back to his parents. I’m being selfish. I don’t want to have to share his company just yet, and after the previous night I’m not keen on spending the night on a sofa struggling to sleep.
We spend the next day driving, endlessly driving. First to Door County, barely making it in time before the farmers markets close. We eat cherries, cheese curds, the best slushy, listen to music, talk about nothing, share too much, maybe share too little. The day goes far too quickly before we need to drive back to Chicago. A brief goodbye before he turns to make the 4 hour drive home.
I should be sad, perhaps. I can feel his sadness, memories of the past colouring his emotions. But I’m left feeling happy, happy that we managed to meet again after all this time. All the arguments and disagreements meaningless now. Replaced by the memories of a weekend. Maybe it will all have been worth it.