The front door clanged open, and I in my Nature’s Paradise-clad self, greeted our new customer with a big smile and a, “welcome! Is there anything I can help you with?”
The recipient of my inquries was an older gentleman--mid-70s--with a pair of shocking blue eyes. The kind of blue you might see in those infomercials of old, the cameras zooming around Carribbean lakes of turqouise and seafoam.
His eyes were nestled underneath a heathered-grey tweed hat, and they squeezed themselves gaily as a good-natured laugh uncurled itself from his lips.
“A detour, perhaps!” he chuckled.
Emporia is a small, relatively easy joint to get around. And there was no construction sites to my knowledge to avoid. Confused, I asked:
“Well, where are you trying to go?”
“I’m headed back to Cincinnati. But I don’t want to go through Kansas City or….what’s the other one….what’s the other--St. Louis! I don’t want to get bustled around that mess--” he paused to make a face, “--No thank you. Trying to avoid big cities. Don’t like ‘em.”
He spoke with a distinct upper-midwest accent, curling ‘r’s after ‘a’s like in warter and farscinating.
I tell him about Highway 75 stretching north towards Omaha alongside rolling Kansan hills.
“How soon do you need to get back to Ohio?”
“It doesn’t matter so much. Just heading that way.”
“How long have you been traveling?” I asked.
“Oh, ‘bout 3 months at this point. With Kukla. I told her, before she died--I said--she was going to see the ocean. And heck, she’s older than I am!” he laughed again.
I raised my eyebrows: three months?!
“We drove to Oregon and she got to run. Just run up and down the beach like dogs should run up and down places. She loved it, she was a puppy again.”
Kukla is a dog, got it.
He began to tell stories of his journey, spending a month in a cabin tucked against the mountains of Ouray, Colorado. Meeting people. Writing about his journey with his companion dog.
Here I interjected:
“Have you ever read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck?”
He laughed his eye-crinkled authentic laugh again.
“You know, you are the third person to ask me that!”
He is John Steinbeck. I’ve met reincarnated Steinbeck.
“I’ve got a blog that I’ve been writing, called “Travels with Kukla”, so I suppose I’m rippin’ off the old man. When I get back I am going to write about my travels. Maybe I am Steinbeck,” he said.
I asked him what he was planning on doing next.
“Oh, maybe I’ll go over to Europe. Pop around there for a while.”
I told him about the fabulous budget-flight finder Skyscanner, where one might be able to type in “from: here; to: anywhere; on: the cheapest day of the cheapest month”, intended for spontaneous travelers like my new friend Steinbeck.
That then launched into me explaining living in Austria last year. To which he immediately changes language settings to Deutsch and we have a short lively conversation in German!
Maybe I’m meeting my future self, I thought to myself with high-beamed admiration.
I told him about finidng a 30-euro roundtrip ticket from Frankfurt to Fes and spending a month in Morocco jaunting all over the country. He laughs again and tells me about a time when he hitchhiked from England down to Marrakech in the 70’s with a girl of his.
Who is this man?! In EMPORIA of all places?!
His eyes turn inwards as he describes spending three weeks in Marrakech, with the crowded smells of mint tea wafting around the city square filled with snake charmers and orange-juice vendors. Nostalgia floods over me.
We talk for a length of time about traveling. I tell him about Inverness living with the Newfs (to which he bursts out a laugh at the ridiculously lovely amount of gigantic dogs). We talk alot about hitchhiking; I tell him about Romania, he tells me about the greatest meal he has ever had:
“I was hitchhiking through France with a girlfriend, and we had gotten picked up by a big semi-truck. It was a Turkish man driving, and we--my girlfriend and I--clambered into the front seat alongside him.
I was in the middle, saying nothing, focusing on the countryside.
Suddenly, the man leans over and yells, ‘shuddup!’, elbowing me in the ribs. I was confused; I had not been saying anything. So I gave him a small smile, and exchanged looks with my girlfriend.
Well, he went on to do this a couple more times. With no warning, leaning over and digging his elbows into my ribs yelling, ‘shuddup!’ into my silent face.
My girlfriend and I had decided that we should probably bail on this guy at the next chance we get. Obviously he had some sort of screw loose.
We pull into a gas station and the driver ducks into a little shop across the street. My girlfriend and I decide that we should at least say goodbye to the soul who got us thus far before just leaving, so we stuck around.
He comes out of the shop a few minutes later, laden with shopping bags. When he gets to us, he puts down his bag, reaches in, and pulls out a wine bottle:
‘Shuddup!’ he yells excitedly, gesturing at the label.
Turns out the Turkish word for wine is “şarap”, which sounds very much like ‘shut-up’. The man proceeds to cook us--on his tiny truck propane stove--the greatest, most vividly tasting 6-course meal. All chased down with some şarap.”
As modern-day John Steinbeck recounted his story, eyes flickering, I couldn’t breathe.
This was the kind of conversation I got to have when traveling around, especially solo. In Inverness, we spent our nights cuddled around a bonfire, warding off the Scottish frosty night, telling stories of great people we have met and fallen in love with.
In the Salzburg hostels, snuggled into bunk beds around 6-other young travelers, we would tell each other stories of travel and voyage and fearlessness.
In Bosnia, we would spend hours crafting Argentinian empanadas, telling stories of studying sourdough fermentation in Vermont and meeting the travelers who graced the hostel.
But this wasn’t Europe: this was Emporia. City of 25,000.
It’s crazy how you meet people like this. People who share the same frequency of soul, the same longing for adventure, the same disinterest in immobility. It seems to be that no matter where you go you meet people operating on the same wave length as you.
‘Twas an honor, good sir. Fare thee well back to Ohio: I wish you beautiful prairie sunsets, smooth roads, and absolutely zero big cities.