There is something magical about the combination of adventure and strangers. We let people in we normally wouldn’t, bond over details which would normally be meaningless, and in my case, are forced to unplug by the stunning lack of service in the Western US.
On my way to Oregon, I did a lot of traveling. Instead of taking a flight out like a normal person, I wanted to see the US. So I took the train. For 68 hours. Which left me a lot of time to get to know a diverse set of new friends.
I met Allen, who plundered Whole Foods with me on our brief stop in Denver. He’s a former Navy man who spent most of the ride hammered, but still managed to talk down his friend the conspiracy theorist (who ended up sounding more sane as he was sober).
Then there’s the conspiracy man himself, who gave his name as Strawberry Santa and spun tales of Burning Man and USO’s (unidentified submersible objects). Whoever he is, he was a great storyteller and entertained me for hours during my second day of the journey.
Next is a nameless woman who calmed drunk and sad Allen and who reminded me of my mother, sweet and kind and genuine. She told me about her son, a freshman in college and I attempted to give advice and reassure her he’d be fine (she’s a worrier like my mom). In turn, she told me of the plight of immigrants in the US (her parents came legally from Mexico before it was so damn hard) and how to calm a worrying mother (you can’t).
I mistook Tom as the son of a friend from Kentucky (she hooked me up with snacks – the second person to do so). He sat quietly with headphones till he was pulled over by Allen to discuss conspiracy theories and weird physics with Strawberry Santa. Once you got Tom going he was a hoot, a New Zealander who loves sailing and is planning to do fancy robotics in Switzerland but decided to travel around the US for a bit and help with a summer camp.
Tom is like my other 4 friends in that they all come from abroad to help at summer camps in the US (and watched a bunch of rich kids for a summer). The 4 girls were from England, New Zealand, and Australia. We stayed up late talking of weird phrases and restaurants that are different (McDonald’s is apparently Mackers). Along the way I learned that Aussies don’t say anything fully – they can’t even do Converses – they call em Connie’s.
My 4 friends were bothered a bit on the way out by the man I call Sweater. He’s always got 3 or 4 sweaters on and talks to himself. He makes me uncomfortable, but he mostly just nods at nothing and stares. He took a liking to the girls though, and got very chatty with them. I’m keeping an eye on him. Some folks you just don’t trust and sometimes it’s best to trust the gut.
Jamaican man has treated us all to great songs along the ride – mixed in with randomly yelling what I took to be another language (it’s just very Jamaican English) into his phone. He’s going to see a “shorty” in Cali and stated pretty frankly his intentions there.
Random woman #2 stole my seat. My friend Allen tried to hold down the fort, but RW2 just plopped down in my beautiful window seat. After a little digging I found out she hunted deer and elk and other large animals. I let her have the window seat. Her grandson plays for Notre Dame hockey and won player of the year, so that’s cool, too.
Then there’s Vincent, who is the kindredest soul I’ve met in a long time. I’m trying to convince him he’s not lazy. I had the same mentality maybe a month or two ago until I worked myself to death and realized my problem wasn’t that I was lazy, it was that I did too much useless work. Anyhow, Vincent is a philosophy and politics major at a small school in Oregon. He and I shared a trip to Sacremento and spoke with an interesting Russian homeless dude at the train station, as well as our friend Sarah, who went to Oberlin but took a year off to travel.
There were some experiences along the way that heightened the sense of togetherness inherent in traveling. The Rockies brought everyone together. Something about the views, the awe, connected us. Stories about moose and elk were exchanged. Hometowns were discovered and described. It was magical.
The non-magical thing is the way I describe my study “abroad” trip. I still haven’t found a good way to do it. Well I have but it’s less than ideal. My family calls the program a cult, since you don’t go home and don’t get your cell phone most of the week.
It’s out in the woods and I’ve found that comparing it to Thoreau works for Americans, but not for international folks – they had no idea who that was. But I tend to ramble about questions of life and figuring it out and thinking and reading in the woods. People find the cult more compelling for some reason. It’s funny how people would rather something fake but weird and interesting than something deeply meaningful and thought out.
A quick update: I made it and I am loving it. I will write more about it, but there is a sense of peace and home here. I’m not sure if it’s the people or the landscape, or both.