Hasta la vista, Axel

Isn’t it funny how people just drop into your lives sometimes?  When we were camping at the Grand Tetons earlier this summer, a young guy from Austria named Axel came by our campsite and asked if we had change for a twenty so he could pay for his camp-site.  We didn’t, but we got to talking, and learned that he was riding his bike across America.  He’d started in New York City and was making his way to Seattle.  Wow.

We invited him to dinner, and he stayed late into the evening, eating huge piles of spaghetti and s’mores with us under a star packed sky, and telling us stories of his journey.  He came back the next morning for a pancake breakfast, then we said our goodbyes and told him to give us a call at the end of July when he got to Seattle.

On July 17th, as we were winding up our day of play-dates, swimming, and karate, Todd got a call from our Austrian friend.  He was heading north on the Burke-Gilman Trail  in Kenmore and wanted to know how to get to Seattle.  Todd told him that he’d gone too far and to turn around, and that he’d meet him at Fred Meyer with his truck and bring him back to our house.  We were all very excited to see him and to celebrate his amazing accomplishment.  He’d biked solo clear across the country in 58 days.

Axel photo booth

Axel and friends in a photo booth at the Modern Design Block Party

We were actually pretty surprised to hear from him so soon – he was a couple of weeks earlier than planned.  But it was a great surprise, so we cracked open a bottle of champagne, had dinner on the deck, and caught up.  I think he was pretty excited to get off his bike for a while, so we put it in the shed and got him set up to stay in the TV room for a couple of nights.  His plan was to leave in two days (the same day we were going to Alabama for our annual beach trip), and to hitch hike down the Pacific coast to San Francisco and back. We’d see him again when we got back, and then he’d head back to Austria, and start college in the fall.

We all left the house on Saturday to go on our respective trips.  We were taking the red-eye (ugh!) and the kids were beyond excited.  But when we got to the airport it turned out I’d goofed majorly, and our tickets were actually for the next night.  It was a huge disappointment, but we headed back home, and promised the kids that we’d make tomorrow an extra special stay-cation day, before heading to the airport again in the evening.

The next morning, as I was watering the plants, through the window I saw Axel in the living room talking to Todd.  What the?  So I went inside and he told me that he’d made it as far as Olympia.  He said that hitch-hiking took a lot longer than he’d imagined, and he worried he wouldn’t make it to San Francisco and back in time to make his flight home.  So we told him he could stay at our house while we were gone, and talked about some short trips he might take from Seattle.

Axel is 20 and we don’t hang out much with 20-year-olds.  But I have a feeling Axel isn’t your typical 20-year-old.  He’d ridden thousands of miles by himself, made it through some crazy situations, befriended strangers of all ages, had such great confidence, my kids adored him, and we were really fond of him too.  We knew he probably wouldn’t throw any raging parties in our house while we were gone, and that he would probably like to just chill out a bit, use the computer, Facebook friends back home, and explore the Pacific Northwest at a leisurely pace.

We got home late last Sunday night (Monday morning actually) and the house was nice and clean, my garden was is good shape (2 huge zucchini!), and the cat’s bowl was full.  In the morning Axel told us that he’d gone whale watching, spent a few days in Vancouver, and visited the EMP.  (He loves Jimi Hendrix.)  He also told us that the cat killed the fish, and felt really badly that he hadn’t closed the doors and kept the cat out.  Oh well.

Todd took Axel to the airport this morning.  He had his bike in a cardboard box, his other belongings in a thoroughly taped up garbage bag, and was wearing his big poofy hippie pants and Jimi Hendrix t-shirt.  He’s flying into Munich, taking a train to the Austrian border, and then biking to his friends house to raise a glass before biking home.  He looked so happy when we said good-bye.  I keep thinking about his mom and how happy she is going to be to have him home safe and sound.

Last night we had dinner on the deck again, and hung out for a bit.  I asked Axel what were some of the biggest challenges on the trip, and he told me about the trouble he had with his tire wearing out and the the inner tube exploding.  He got stuck in the middle of nowhere, and was furious with himself for not taking better care of his bike.  Fortunately some guy in a small car with two other friends drove by and saw him.  They made a U-turn, figured out how to get him and and his bike into the crowded car, and then took two hours out of their way to find him a bike shop.  Axel said that if that hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have gotten to the Grand Tetons when he did and met us.  And if he hadn’t met us, he wouldn’t have had a nice place to stay in Seattle.  He said he thought about that stuff a lot – all of the synchronicities that made his trip turn out the way it did – and that is what kept him going, especially through the toughest situations.  I thought that was pretty cool, and told him I think that way a lot about my own life.  And then we talked about the German movie Run Lola Run, which is like three movies in one – the same story retold three times with vastly different outcomes because of the seemingly trivial changes in the sequence of events.

Axel dropped into our lives because we happened to camp at the same campsite and he needed change for a twenty.  We got to know each other pretty well over the time we spent together, and today we said good-bye.  But it’s not like he’s dropping back out of our lives; he’s just going back home.  And I’m pretty sure we’ll keep in touch and get to hear about his upcoming adventures.  There are bound to be many.

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