I am turning 30 this year and I knew that I wanted to take a solo trip to a place I’d never been to mark the occasion. This led me to the Pacific Northwest, a region of the country I hadn’t explored much. My birthday is not until November, but I decided to take the trip in the spring and it was right on time. I decided to take a flight from Atlanta to Seattle and spend a couple of days going to the top of the Space Needle, shopping at Pike Place Market, and I even took a ferry to beautiful Bainbridge Island. Then I caught a train from Seattle to Portland and went hiking at the Hoyt Arboretum and strolling through the Rose Garden. I also had the weirdest doughnut from Voodoo Doughnuts. After Portland, I rode the train from Portland to Los Angeles, a 30 hour journey down the Pacific coast.
Part of what inspired the train trip is the Amtrak Writers Residency. I’ve always wanted to do this program and I’ve heard many stories about writers get on trains to work and now I understand why. There is truly something unbeatable about the silence and confinement of riding the train. No idea can be left un-turned when you have 20+ hours with just you, God, recycled air, and the landscape. It invokes a certain discipline that’s hard to have on the ground because there is no chance of escape.
In a train car rolling over the side of a cliff above the Pacific Ocean I learned to trust in the intentionality of everything. I didn’t fall and if I had I would have seen beauty too magnificent for humans to imagine. The sunset over the ocean reminded me that infinity lives in me and beyond me. Below is a list of my top takeaways from my trip.
Presence even when things seem shaky. Love is presence when things seem shaky. Faith is presence when things seem shaky. Hope is presence when things seem shaky. I had not anticipated how hard it would be for me to sleep knowing that I was riding through the Cascade Mountains on a rocky train with a blaring horn as my ambient noise. There is no Wifi and it is so dark you can’t see out the windows, so all that is left is presence. Trust is presence even when things seems shaky.
“America the Beautiful” is the most accurate song ever written. This country’s landscape is enchanting even on the cloudiest of days. I just wish more people went out to see it. We place so much value on work and debt in our society, but not enough on exploration, connecting with nature, and spending time in other cultures.
Don’t close the laptop. Staring out the window at the towering coniferous trees of the Pacific Northwest and the endless ocean on the California coast I kept my fingers on the keyboard. Eventually, I always turned back to the screen and typed something. No writer can bear the thought of a blank page so if you sit long enough, you’ll fill it.
Close the laptop. When was the last time that you sat down, looked out a window, and did absolutely nothing? The constant phone notifications, streams of emails, feeds on social media, and the availability of immediate gratification make total presence hard to achieve. I can say for myself that I spend so much of my time in the past and in the future, but being on the train without cell signal or wireless internet forced me to sit with my thoughts and emotions. I spent a week not really checking email, social media, not much texting, and I only took one phone call. No one but no one makes it alone, but we do come here and leave here that way and so solitude cannot be devalued.
The transcontinental railroad is the most incredible piece of civic engineering ever. If Asians don’t contribute anything else to this country they’ve done enough. To think that after a devastating Civil War somebody was like, “You know what we should do? Go to the middle of nowhere, blast some rock, chop down some trees, and run a train several thousand miles?” Innovation is and has always been America’s greatest export.
The universe is abundant. Scarcity is an illusion. There is more than enough. There is so much unaccustomed earth in this nation and it can be made vital. It’s not people in the cities versus people in rural areas. It is us for each other.
A flower can grow anywhere. I saw flowers grow on bridges, electric lines, fences, sides of buildings. Delicate to the touch but relentless at the roots. That is what we should all aim to be.