After the second-straight meal at Waffle House, I let out a loud burp, stared at my car for a few seconds, took a deep breath, and hopped back in. The 38-hour, 2,500-mile drive from New York City to the Grand Canyon is not for the impatient. And to do it in two-and-a-half days is not the best thing for the body. My back began hurting around Little Rock. My right knee began throbbing around Amarillo. But at least I had a new friend to keep me company. So what if we speak different languages?
Somewhere in New Mexico, I blared Kenny Chesney on the stereo, singing along about the sun going down, sun-tanned toes tickling the sand, and other things about the sun. I didn't notice right away that Lothar had pulled out his camera and began videotaping me from the passenger seat. After catching me in my natural habitat, he turned the camera back on himself and swirled his finger in a circular motion, pointing out that the stranger he decided to drive across the country with might in fact be crazy.
"This is the stuff my friends back in Germany will love," he said, in perfect English, but with no hope of hiding his accent.
With nearly 40 hours of nothing but open road and a few CDs that performed several encores, my German was coming along well. Every two hours or so we would do another lesson. I know the basics -- thanks, see you later, one beer please, but I'm now able to have first-grade level conversations with my German friend. Luckily, he has studied English for nine years, so the language barrier has hardly been a problem. Sometimes he might mention that he has quarters in his bag, so I ask for one because I'm very thirsty. He will stare at me until I figure out he didn't say waters.
For only knowing him in person for five minutes prior to picking him up at the train station in Lynbrook, New York, we are now good "buddies" as he likes to say. I suppose a long road trip will speed up the progress in a relationship, for better or for worse. In our case it's the former. We've talked about how people might think it is odd for two strangers to hop in a car together. But we decided we like to assume people are genuine until proven otherwise. We are in similar situations in our lives. We both feel we need to do some exploring. Now, we are exploring together.
"I think curious people are like magnets," he said.
I told him all I knew about the towns we drove through -- Nashville, Memphis, Oklahoma City. We watched the weather channel each night from our Motel 6 rooms, laughing at our luck as we continued to barely avoid the terrible storms sweeping the nation.
I asked him what he knew about America. Surprisingly, it was a lot. He had heard of most of the bigger cities we saw. He sang along to Jack Johnson. He knew more than me about the meteor crater we saw in Arizona. I felt ignorant that I knew so little about the rest of the world.
We talked about girls, told our favorite drunk stories, and compared similarities and differences between our countries and cultures. When I treated him to a fine meal at Taco Bell, I did not believe him at first when he asked me what root beer was.
"You're joking," I said.
"Is it like regular beer?" he asked.
Holy shit. He's 21 years old and he honestly does not know what root beer is. I have so much to learn, I thought.
We also talked about the fate that paired us together on a journey to the west. When my friend Spencer and I missed the 9:30 a.m. bus from Washington D.C. to New York last week, it forced us to drink Sangria and wait for the 1 o'clock departure. I picked a random seat in front of a nice-looking couple about my age, and 10 minutes into the trip began chatting with them.
"So where are you from?" was my first question.
"Germany," said Lothar (pronounced Low-tar) and his girlfriend Annette simultaneously. Lothar told me Annette had to head back to Germany in a few days, but that he still had a few weeks in the states before it was time to go home to continue his studies as a product engineer. He said he wanted so badly to see the west. Until that day he had only seen the bustle of Boston, Manhattan, and D.C.
He told me how it had always been a dream of his to see the Grand Canyon. I explained how I was traveling with no plans, and that I had a car, and a trip west might be good for me.
So we exchanged e-mail addresses, promising to get in touch in a few days as I ironed out a few things, like when I would say goodbye to Tommy and Christina in New York and what direction I wanted to circle the globe.
I spent a few days thinking about the situation. As open-minded as I like to consider myself, I'll admit, at first, like many people might react, I was skeptical. It wasn't that Lothar didn't seem nice or that he didn't have good intentions. It wasn't like it didn't make sense to split the cost of the trip. It wasn't like it wouldn't be an amazing cultural experience, and a great story for that matter, to be a tour guide for a kid from Germany across the entire stretch of my country.
Really, I had no excuse not to. What did I have to be skeptical about? That he was going to kill me? That really wouldn't help out his dream of reaching the Grand Canyon, would it? I decided I had no reason to throw away an opportunity created only by a missed bus and a randomly chosen seat. Two days after meeting Lothar, I called him, and agreed to pick him up at the train station at 8:40 on a Tuesday morning.
We drove 1,200 miles the first day. New York to Memphis. And by "we" I mean me since Lothar cannot legally drive in the U.S. The second day, after 1,000 miles, we reached Albuquerque. On day three, a dream came true for my new friend. As he stared down into the Grand Canyon, not knowing exactly where to focus his eyes, he was silent.
"Das ist schoen," I said. Lothar had taught me earlier to tell a girl she was beautiful. I switched it up a bit to describe what we were seeing. Typically he would commend my efforts, but he said nothing at this moment. He then said something in German.
"You have some word like this in English," he said. "I think it's, breathtaking."
"Yes," I said. "Breathtaking."
Then, he said something I will never forget. "It's so beautiful it hurts."
As I write this, I'm sitting on a patio on a clear day in Springdale, Utah. Lothar is sitting quietly in a wooden rocking chair, looking out at another breathtaking view. I keep apologizing for taking so long. He said he does not mind.
"I am considering giving up everything for this place," he said. It makes me look up for a few minutes, not wanting to leave either.
I have seen the southwest before. Though, seeing it this time was different. I am seeing it through someone else's eyes. Someone from a place where they have nothing like this. Someone who has seen the Louvre in Paris, saying prior to the trip that he would trade that and all other experiences for a chance to see this incredible landscape. Someone who has invited to show me his world and all the beauty it has to offer if I make it to Germany.
Someone who has taught me a lot in three days. Someone I introduced root beer to.