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. 

Chicago

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

Advertisements

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Trains nowadays are so quiet that you can barely hear the famous clickety-clack of the wheels gliding on the tracks.  You hear only the conductor’s whistle, the squeak of the joints between cars, the squeal of brakes. The train rocks you; you’re in its care and it babies you, soothes you, makes you feel safe.

P1040425_NEW

The beauty of the train is that where it doesn’t skirt a major highway, there are no gas stations or novelty shops or McDonald’s to obstruct your view of open farmland and grassland. Of course you’ll see cattle, fences here and there, farm houses and grain silos spaced miles apart, but these accouterments of humanity don’t clutter the landscape. They’ve been here for a long time and so seem as natural on the North Dakota prairies as the immense skies that hang over them.

The land opens up like a book and the railroad runs down its crease. From here you can read the text of the country inscribed in curly-q creeks, parenthetical folding hills, ruler-drawn wheat rows and farm houses that dot the landscape like periods. Moving westward through Montana, distant mountains thrust upward to punctuate a geological narrative written across thousands of miles.

The wind here deafens, though it’s only a gentle breeze. The creeks thunder, though they’re mere trickles. Here everything quiet becomes loud. Sounds blossom out of the silence and thereby reveal their full shape and texture.

I like North Dakota because here nobody screams at you. With whom can you be angry when you’re all alone? What is there to hate when you’re surrounded by grassland and bald hills? Hating this place would be like hating a shoebox: childish and useless. The landscape is what it is, but then people are who they are, too, and we hate them even so.

I like North Dakota because here people speak softly, especially when they speak out of conviction. A North Dakotan named Larry raised the possibility of busing homeless people to abandoned military bases where they could make a life. He felt strongly about this idea, however impractical it may be, but he voiced it with such a calm and mild manner that I never dreamed of entering into a heated debate over it.

Elsewhere in the country, on cable news, in magazines, on blogs, Americans are shouting and spitting at one another, whereas here the people whisper to each other across the prairie, knowing that voices carry far in this quiet land, and there’s no need to yell.

This is a hasty impression based on a few conversations and grounded in naive romanticism. I know that, but allow me my fantasies!