On January 6th, 1990, I boarded a train in Boston with all my possessions packed into a couple boxes and balanced on my skateboard.
On January 9th, 1990, I arrived in Portland Oregon, where I found my friend and her parents waiting to pick me up.
In between those two events was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
Even now, looking back, those three days on the train feel like some strange dream I had. The colors were all muted, yet raw. Figures, people, floated in and out of my existence, but never seemed to really be present, or real. It was like I was passing through some sort of transitional dimension, and I would come out the other side changed.
Perhaps that’s exactly what it was, because I did change. The person who boarded in Boston was not the same one that arrived in Portland. The trip changed me, in subtle yet profound ways. Yet still, after all these years, I can’t quite put my finger on how I was different. I just knew, and still know, that I just felt different. And not different like if you dye your hair a different colour and look in the mirror. Not different as if you took a different path to work and saw some new stuff. Different, as if you just had a small animal die in your arms. Different as if you just witnessed your math teacher have a complete nervous breakdown, and you don’t know how to react.
So here’s what happened. It will probably sound quite mundane and boring. But something about it wasn’t. Perhaps this exercise will help me figure it out.
I spent a month saving every penny to buy this train ticket. My mother, who was dead set against the whole idea, refused to lift a finger to help, even though the passage from Dostoevsky I used to explain my reasons seemed perfectly clear. But fine, I hadn’t gone home for her help, I went home to say goodbye. I had enough money for a taxi to the bus station in Manchester, for the bus from Manchester to Boston, and my train ticket was already purchased. I didn’t have money for food on the trip, but I figured I’d raid the pantry on my way out. Fortunately, the night before I was planning to leave, my mom relented and offered to drive me to Boston. Yay for food money.
Although this was after CD’s were entering mainstream use, I didn’t have the money to buy very many. Most of my music was still on cassette tape. The two tapes I had with me were a mix tape that my friend Sean made, and REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction.
Awkward goodbyes at the train station. I boarded the train, stowed my stuff, and settled in. I was nervous. Not so much at the prospect of moving across the country with nothing, basically. For that, I felt a lot of fear. But the nervousness, that was for 3 days, alone. I wasn’t very good at talking to strangers back then. I was 19.
The trip from Boston to Chicago went pretty quickly. I remember passing through Syracuse and being in a foul mood just being in close proximity to that place. I so hated that town, and that school. It was years before I could even stand blue and orange together. Heh.
The first night comes. I slept. Sleeping in a train seat is not much better than sleeping in an airplane seat. Somehow, it’s worse, although less pressurized.
Change of trains in Chicago, and then the long trip from there to Portland.
They hand out cards to everyone when you board, with a list of interesting sights to look for along the way. I remember that I couldn’t wait to see the Rockies. I imagined how majestic, glorious and soul-lifting they would be. I had worked myself up to quite a fever pitch about them, in fact. But they were a day away still, at least. So the next interesting thing on the list was a beautiful statue of a wolf, in Wolf Point, Montana. The statue commemorates the town’s beginnings as a wolf trapper’s camp. I waited hours to see that wolf statue.
Hours of nothing. Nothing but seas of wheat, and rolling hills, and emptiness. No towns. No houses. No people. No nothing.
And then…a house, in the middle of nowhere.
And then…more hours upon hours of nothing.
That’s the kind of thing that makes you think. Which is what I did. I thought. I wrote stories about G-d. Parables. I silently panicked at what I was doing. I thought about death, and family, and faith, and something deep inside me shifted, shifted away from the angry, disillusioned girl desperate for meaning. Shifted in subtle ways, finding flashes of calm, tiny moments of introspection and peace in between the fear and uncertainty.
And I listened to that REM tape. Fables of the Reconstruction. Driver 8.
The walls were built up stone by stone,
Fields divided one by one
And the train conductor says
Take a break driver 8, driver 8, take a break,
we’ve been on this trip too long
That song will always transport me back to those three days.
We pulled into Wolf Point, and I saw the statue. It was about the size of a medium dog, in a bank parking lot.
We entered the Rocky Mountains around 11pm. It was pitch dark outside. I saw nothing.
I met people, who were nice to me. I found them confusing, threatening, and comforting all at once. Confusing because they used strange words, like ‘pop’ for soda and ‘sack’ for paper bag. Threatening, because I knew I was different somehow, and they were (or seemed) normal, and I was afraid they’d see I was different and hate me for it. Comforting, because they didn’t.
I arrived in Portland the afternoon of the next day. Changed. A bit more accepting of life. A bit more introspective, and forgiving, and perhaps a touch less judgmental.
I wrote about the larger story of my move here a while back. If you’re interested, check it out. It’s in two parts.