Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 


When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

14 Responses to Travel as Distraction

  1. I love to travel, for many of the same reasons that you do. Great pictures. I took that very same trip on the Empire builder to Seattle back in May of this year with my sis and mother. We had a fabulous time. I love train travel.

  2. pattisj says:

    You got some beautiful pictures on your journey. What a lovely route. We rode Amtrak Richmond, VA to Orlando, FL a few years ago. I love the train. You have been getting around a LOT. I thought you were still in KY. May I suggest “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren, if you haven’t read it?

    • Hi Patti! I love riding Amtrak! I’ve also ridden the DC to Boston route. It’s beautiful the way it follows the coast. I haven’t read “The Purpose Driven Life”. I’ll have to take a look at it. I moved because of a physical/health emergency.

  3. Xenia Nova says:

    Thanks for making my day – I’ve missed Chicago!

  4. Very “On the Road” my friend.

  5. You hit my favorites- Chicago, where I am currently roosting, and Seattle where I hope to land sometime soon. I also feel unrooted. May you find what you seek.

  6. That’s kind of a life mantra: stay on or get off. No matter what your natural inclinations are, you have that choice, to embrace who you are and what life brings or to take that huge step off a moving train.

    My natural inclination is to stay, in a job, in a home, in a rut. I’ve lived in the same house for 15+ years and looking for a house to buy now is totally stressful in more ways than one. I know it’s the right time, but I look out my front door and it makes me sad to think of what I’m going to lose. But it’s time to get off, so I have to keep focus on what there is to gain.

    It’s hard for me to put myself in your shoes, because I’m not built that way. I wonder can we change those things about ourselves. Can you be happy without moving?

    • Can I be happy without moving? I don’t know. In ways moving has become a coping mechanism that replaced a lot of the things I used to do before I wrecked my body. It’s the best I can do to approximate the truly active life I once lived. People sometimes tell you that all you need to do is adopt new hobbies and change your lifestyle and expectations to fit new circumstances, but it really isn’t as simple as that because your personality and temperament exercise enormous power over the things you’re driven to do and the decisions you make. And it’s pretty well settled that your core personality coalesces almost irrevocably when you’re still just a little kid.

      How are you feeling about the house now?

      • I think you’re right about the fundamentals of who we are. We can force ourselves, or be forced, to change, but I think there would be a longing inside. We could learn to live without something or with something, but it would be like a phantom limb.

        For me, that might be moving away from my family, something drastic (for me, it would be) like that. Still, changing some of my lifelong habits is like stepping off that train. I don’t have to move across the country, just moving across town is enough – it’s forcing myself to not keep riding along just because that’s the easiest way, the path of least resistance.

        Anyway, that move it’s on hold. The offer I put in was outbid, but I’m okay with that. One of my habits I’m working on is financial, so this has been a real learning experience for me, a great eye-opener. Maybe the first big change needs to be in that area. Not maybe, definitely. The other thing is simple appreciation for what I have.

        If you are happy with your life as it is, then there is no necessity for getting off that train – it’s the right one. If something isn’t working for you, maybe small change is needed. It’s that move across town. For me, I realized this year how much I desired to have quicker access to my family. I am missing things that I am no longer content to miss. That requires give on my part – giving up the country and the view from my front door, giving up the privacy and quiet, the security I feel here. I am trading one happiness for another, but I decided that the one has more weight.

        Anyway, I’m doing this on my phone, so these thoughts may be scattered, I’m sorry. I just worry for your happiness. Of course, not being you, I don’t know whether you are or not. I would not be happy moving so much and being far from family, so I make assumptions based on that. But that movement sounds like something you need. If there are other things you need more, I hope you will listen to that need. It’s tough to change trains, or get off completely. But I think the long term will prove it to be the right decision.

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