We applied for Passport Express from a McDonalds parking lot in Utah somewhere. I couldn’t get the email to send from the car so I stood out front with my laptop and forehead pressed against the glass. I didn’t want to go inside and get noticed syphoning the free wifi without buying anything. We do this a lot.
It had been an emotional month on the road and being reunited with a few friends on the other side of the US sounded like a nice break from all the heavy shit we had been sifting through. Oh, and we both love trains. Jill left her high school graduation ceremony early, heading straight to the train station with her backpack to spend a few months across the country. Every time she talks about it I go glass eyed with jealousy. This was going to be our chance to cross together. It was going to be miles away from the dirty boxcar we often fantasized about while looking out the window onto plains but it was as close as we’d get this year.
The trip started off, well, weird. There was a shooting at the station before we could get there and the whole place was on lockdown. The excitement I held about meeting all these new people, most I’d heard about through friends, turned into a pit in my stomach. I’m superstitious and I read everything as signals and signs so naturally this threw me off.
The dust had settled and the conflict resolved. Everyone lived. My stomach started to settle and I reassured myself that some things just happen, not everything was some cosmic sign. Garrett was the first person I saw when we were allowed in. Every time I see Garrett all I want to do is press my forehead into his chest and hold him tight. He’s one of the best people we’ve met in our travels and even though he was rolling towards me on a fucking hoverboard there was no one I would have rather seen in that moment. We exchanged insults, he’s too handsome so I can never be that nice to the guy or it will go to his head. He calls us tramps and the three of us hug tight.
Garrett helped with introductions, I love meeting people but seeing 36 new faces all at once was too much for even me. Every time I learned a new name, I lost one. There was too much going on and I was having trouble retaining anything. I vaguely remember a girl across from me saying something about Christmas. I was nervous this was going to be too many people to get to know. I’d rather get to know one person really well than half heartedly connect with five. I clung to the people I already knew, found myself hanging off their arms nervously. We were herded towards the train.
I’d only ever travelled on commuter trains before, this was more of Jill’s arena but we were both floored by what we saw. We had our own private cars, it was a moving dorm and naturally Jill and I were bunked together. I was instantly sad we didn’t think to pack our tin can phone to string between bunks. Ruthie did what she does best and made this semi-sterile space a home. We had plants and prints on the wall, lights strung along the length of the car. Everything was perfect and beautiful and we hadn’t even left the depths of the station.
Everything moved in fast forward once the train started. I was given a notebook to write everything down in but spent no time looking at it, my eyes were up and open. I listened more than I have in my entire life. I talk too much when I’m nervous and this was quelled somehow. Everyone had something to say that I needed to hear. Michael George made me cry and reflect on the direction our work had gone recently that we were unhappy about. It hurt to be faced with it but it was important to be forced to confront it. Jill and I silently squeezed pinkies below the table, knowing we were thinking about the exact same thing. Jeffrey’s talk had me instinctively holding my hand to my heart in gratitude for what he has helped build for the community. The speakers in that observation car the first day set the tone for the trip. It’s ok to be vulnerable and honest, we’re all in this together.
Chicago was a blur. I’m pulling from memory, I sat with this all too long and now I am writing it down months later. I never wrote anything in that notebook. In Chicago I remember the first sunset from the Willis Tower. I hate being awake in the morning while it’s still dark but we had a purpose; we had to race the sun to the top. We were all really hushed, a habit the group outgrew quickly in the next few days. We had the place to ourselves; I think everyone was equally overwhelmed by the situation. It was the only time I’d ever cared for some VIP type experience and I was savoring it. We capped the day watching the sunset from a different tower and fell into a pile on the floor together. Champagne buzzing.
A lot of days bled together. I remember a lot of buffets and stealing cheese at least twice. I remember the library in Minneapolis that left my neck sore for two days I had craned it so hard in awe. I remember watching Ruthie light up the eyes of everyone she spoke to. I remember wishing I knew as much as Phil did about the rail system. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Jed’s voice or Fran’s laugh. It’s the little details in between the people that got a little lost for me.
I know Montana was where I felt we hit our stride as a group. A pack had formed and no one was excluded, we were a roving unit travelling everywhere together. On the first day in Whitefish we were again up before the sun to drive a road I’d read about and dreamed of seeing for years; Going-to-the-Sun Road. It weaved its way through Glacier National Park, narrow and at the mercy of the curves of the Rocky Mountains. Nothing sounded better than that drive and there was no group I’d rather see it with.
It was still dark when the bus started moving; I played Rocky Votolato on my phone and pressed repeat when “Montana” came on. It became my soundtrack for the day and I’ll never hear it without thinking of all those people, and that road. I watched all the phases of twilight play through and then the sun made her appearance over the mountains on a lake where we stopped. We all dispersed on the shore with blankets wrapped around our shoulders.
It was a quiet day for our group, maybe everyone found themselves a little inside their own heads or maybe not everyone fully woke up that morning but I was ok with it. I just wanted to keep my eyes open and absorb as much of what I was seeing as I could. We snaked up the mountain, stopping at all the regular pullouts that national parks furnish for you. There were lots of them, and fair enough, each view was better than the last. I had never seen a road like this before; it was everything I could have wanted. We reached the highest point on the road, Logan’s Pass where it kind of flattened out and a freezing wind swept the parking lot. You could tell your altitude by the shift in temperature. We all got out and stood around at the top but all I wanted to do was head back down. I had no sense of arrival; there was no finality or climax felt there. I remembered reading once that it’s better to travel than arrive and I understood that fully then. I just wanted to keep going, even if it was the same journey just backwards. Luckily, what goes up must come down.
Glacier National Park can’t be seen in a day but I did feel like we got a pretty good crash course in what she has to offer. I loved that road and I know we will go back so we can drive it ourselves one day, maybe a few times for good measure.
Leaving Montana, I knew we had left a lot unseen. It’s the kind of place I want to spend weeks, maybe months in, not days. Jill felt the same way so we were both a bit heavyhearted heading to the station. At least we had Oregon to look forward to, a place we’ve visited before but never with so many friends in tow. We were lucky to ease ourselves back into reality, before Portland we spent some time near Mount Hood. We had a day to just decompress at the lodge. I sat across from Christian and tried to work, instead I just stared at his hands. I have hands, but not like his hands. This group had me in constant awe of what we could all do with the same moving parts. Ruthie’s hands could arrange the contents of a junk drawer into a perfectly balanced composition of colors and textures, like a bouquet. Christian’s hands could draw clean lines and clear ideas, pouring from his pen to paper with little error. It’s incredible.
We watched the sunset at Trillium Lake together that night. Some people swam, most of us skipped rocks and hung in hammocks strung between trees. We felt like kids on the last day of camp, we were heading to Portland next and this was the last of our time out of the city. I didn’t want to share this group with anyone else; I wanted to keep them right here, lakeside, all to myself. I didn't know it was possible to fall in love with so many people at once. I could feel the moment slip away from me as the sun set.
Portland was total chaos from the second we arrived. We headed to our own hotel rooms, no longer sharing cabins or our train car. I missed the forced proximity. We were in the middle of town and left to our own devices so we all dispersed. We regrouped that night at rooftop a party in our honor, one I’d never get an invite to in my real life. We were learning Passport Express was nothing like real life. There was an open bar; the drinks had laser etched ice cubes. Who let me in here? Jill and I knew we had to get off the train early in Portland so this was it for us. We all drank, a lot. We ended up at another bar. I had my first kiss with Jeffrey in a photo booth. Jed taught me about whiskey slaps, see below.
Step one: Drink whiskey.
Step two: Get slapped.
Step three (optional): Get told to leave the bar and head to the nearest strip club.
That’s where the night fuzzes out, everyone got wild and we paid for it the next day. Everything hurt. We met the group at the station and watched everyone board, we bawled our eyes out. The combination of the hangover and the intense emotional rush of having to part ways floored us. We broke down; we knew this couldn’t last forever but the day had finally come. We shared two weeks together but I knew I’d spend so much longer than that missing everyone. I’m still processing what that trip meant, what it taught me, how it will guide our future and our work. If I learned anything it’s that when you make space in your heart for that many people; even the void left in their absence helps the heart keep its shape.