I came into the dining car to eat my half cold, half microwaved turkey and swiss hoagie. I had my Holga and A Return to Modesty to keep me company. The Holga I had chosen as my photographic companion, film fueled and full of flaws. The book is by a female philosophy graduate who felt compelled to encourage women to forfeit their unbridled sexuality. I bit into my sandwich, regretting the action immediately, and looked out the wide windows of the viewing room.
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The train had just departed from the Portland station and I was awaiting the mountain passages that lay ahead. I had boarded the Empire Builder in Spokane, following a family visit. My parents and brother were returning home as well, but they had chosen to take to the air. I opted for a lone passage along the coast. I had never ridden a train before and I felt nineteen was a good age to try it out. It was only seven solitary hours to the station in Portland and from there, twenty-eight to my destination in Oxnard, California.
I rode the Coast Starlight along with countless others. My people-watching was in full swing as I finished the last bite of sandwich and reached for my wrapped oatmeal cookie. At the table across from me a coed pair were conversing. Actually, the guy was engaged in a continuous monologue as the girl nodded politely. I chuckled at the awkward arrogance he used to cover his nerves. This one-sided conversation consisted of photography talk, so it did not surprise me when the guy commented on my Holga. He brought out his medium format and delved into an informative speech as his previous discussion partner thankfully slipped away.
I was hesitant to get stuck with him for too long, but as the conversation progressed that thought regressed. I was very intrigued by everything he said, partially because of his accent. He was from Boston and I simply adored the way he said “car” and “northern”. Our topic moved from cameras on to philosophy, then religion, and the nature of free spirits. It all flowed easily, so easily that I never realized I was probing and exposing the deepest parts of my mind to this full stranger.
There was something slightly recognizable about him. It had nothing to do with his looks. I had never encountered someone that had so embodied the concept of “nerd” before. He was relatively tall and slight lanky. He wore flip flops, tan cargo shorts, and a batman t-shirt. His hair was cut to his ears in a childish sort of flop and parted down the middle. His face held glasses, the frameless kind, and facial hair shaped into a goatee-stache. He admitted to watching back-to-back Lord of the Rings all night while he cleaned his camera. He also informed me of his recent attendance to Comic-con. He followed it with a chuckle and a short comment about how he couldn’t believe he had just shared that with a girl. I failed to think of anything to respond so I just laughed as reassurance.
Our meeting continued as the train plunged through the night. Strangely, he seemed like an old friend to me. Even more strange, he seemed like a male version of me, it was uncanny. Our similarities seemed endless. We shared the same odd love for food. We discussed the proper peanut butter for a pb & j and how the sandwich is not a sandwich without strawberry jelly. We also contemplated the strange disappearance of the Orange Slice brand soda. He then pulled out an entire grocery bag full of fruit and we shared a crispy green apple. He too loved Johnny Cash and additional folk music. He too carried around mini notebooks for wayward thoughts. He too was interested in philosophy and the art of photography. He loved to travel like me, and was accomplishing it quite well, unlike me. He loved Zooey Deschanel as I do, although him in a slightly more passionate way. He also thought Elizabethtown was the best movie ever.
By six a.m. we had crossed over into Northern California, his stop. We had finally tuckered out last night and returned to our own seats for sleep. Before we parted he had left me with the advice to get a moleskin journal, they make your thoughts feel better, he had said. He wrote down his phone number in case I ever found any Orange Slice. I felt the train stop and I cracked my eyes next to the open window as the passengers unloaded. I spotted him among them and smiled at the serendipity. His Star Wars backpack was braced against his back as he walked off into San Francisco.
I slipped from my bag a banana, breakfast to start the day. Traveling overnight like this was new to me, but I found it necessary. It was preparation for my life plan of seeing the world. This was only the kick off.
The sites of the Northwest remained on the other side of the glass, but the people were tangible. There seemed to be no barriers inside this train. People somehow rendered their personal walls non-portable and had left them at home. They did bring along their altruism though. The previous night, the lady in the seat next to me had lent me an extra jean dress she had packed. Its denim weight worked as perfect substitute for a blanket in the chilled car.
I made my way through the shaky accordion passage back to the sight-seeing car. I settled down, facing outward, and opened my book. A few paragraphs in, a middle-aged woman with short coarse hair and dense face sat next to me. Using my book as a starting point, she launched into a conversation with me. She was eager to tell me that this would be her first time in California. She was Jewish and had lived in Israel for many years. She was a recipient of miracles. According to her, God had given her three.
Our seating area soon became a magnet for ethnicities. An Italian sat down with us. This man was young, pointedly tan, and had a unexpectedly thick accent. He was an atheist. It was his first time in America and all he had was a backpack and a bike. He was taking trains and sleeping in hostels, much to my jealousy. A Polish woman talked with me about school and wrote the name of a journalist from her country down for me. A French man appeared to be a photographer, gadget in hand. I tried to inquire on this, but a conversation in English proved impossible. Instead, he confirmed his friendliness with smiles.
The imminence of the coast brought a wave of locals. There was Michael and Robby. They were a long blonde haired pair with a questionable relationship. I guessed father and son based on age, but they acted more as brothers. I overheard Michael, the older one, refer to all the women he has dated as over-sensitive dead weight. He told Robby stories, with gross arrogance, of these pitiful females that kept crawling back to him. Their dialogue turned to a more respectful topic when they added me to the conversation. I offered Robby some grapes I was eating and they said I looked familiar. Michael insisted that I had probably been to the San Jose area before. I know I hadn’t, but I agreed to the possibility out of politeness.
I chatted with an old man for an extended time. He was full-blooded American with a long gray beard and a forward facing baseball cap. He was very charming and he carried a wise presence. He told me of his wife back home, about being in the army, fishing, and making his own wine. He even named all of the plants that grew along the hills as they swished past the windowpanes. His tone was soothing, like a storyteller, like a grandfather.
The Starlight rounded a bend and finally reached its Coast. All the passengers, never seeing the California coast before, gazed at the beauty of the ocean. It was wide with foam polka-dotted skin, stretched and ready to receive the sinking sun. I saw it entirely new. Their awe was contagious. The time flowed fast, and soon I was pointing out my favorite surfing spot. We passed Ventura and arrived in Oxnard, my stop. And just like that, I picked up my bag and said farewell, leaving the group of new-found friends.
I was satisfied. This, this was traveling. I may have been confined within the walls of a train, but I somehow still managed to see the miracles of Jerusalem, be introduced to Italy, witness Poland, hear from France, and identify with Boston.
That train was alive. When I boarded at the Spokane station I was born. As I stepped off in Oxnard, I ceased. I no longer headed south.
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