A few words on traveling and returning home
I avoid telling people that I write about “travel.”
Because, inevitably, the next question is: Where have you traveled?
And then, inevitably, I start listing places.
And it becomes a merry-go-round, this tallying up of experiences without nuance or any indication of what a city is actually like. I'll show you my map if you'll show my yours. Perhaps I’ll list restaurants I visited, and they’ll list museums they toured, and we’ll list and list and list until we run out of things to list.
Eventually, after this conversation is repeated so many times, your memory of the place is watered down like cheap beer. Years later, when you try to remember details, you’ll only recall talking points repeated to people, and that becomes the whole of your story.
That’s why what you share with people upon returning home is so important. Your immediate memories will become the memories you recall three months or even 30 years from now, if you’re lucky. If your memory holds. Which it might not.
Some people are better than others at telling stories about their trips. They return home with travelogues of their experiences, ready to dispense advice of where to go, eat, buy all the things that make a place so special.
And then I come home and can only say, “It was great!” and lapse into silence. It’s too easy to generalize what makes Portland Portland and too hard to explain what makes a teeny town in the foothills outside Sacramento so charming, and too strange to describe what it actually feels like to sleep in a haunted hotel.
Because maybe what gives a clear picture of Portland is the way the barista at Courier Coffee greets each customer with a “Hey, what’s up?” and asks where she’s going — “To or from work?” — and actually seems to care about her response, and these little interactions make each person walk out of the place smiling.
And maybe what sums up a 22-hour train ride is the quirky people you meet, like the sixty-something couple who seemed, from the outset, like retired folks on vacation. But that after talking to them you realize she used to teach children in Kenya, and he’s South African and was on a committee appointed by Nelson Mandela to bring sports to his country (seriously — he was even portrayed in the film Invictus), but that they didn’t meet in either of those countries. They met decades later, after they each had two kids, on a night where neither of them wanted to go out — in fact, their friends had to drag them out — but they did go out and met at a bar in Southern California and have been together for four years, and he actually proposed to her a few days ago, in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. She gets vertigo — the bridge sways, she says — and he got down on one knee. Her response? “Really? Here? Now?” And then, “Yes.”
So their train ride up to Seattle was something of a celebration, even though it had been planned long before the proposal. And I only learned this tiny bit of their story because Amtrak seats passengers together during meals, and because we talked long after all the other tables’ occupants left, as the wild greenery of Southwest Oregon passed out our windows, and this chat — and many others — eased all my regret for sleeping through Mount Shasta (we apparently passed the mountain at dawn) because this sort of thing was what I came for, anyway. Not for someone else’s snapshot or story, but the one that resonated only with me.
And so when someone asks, “How was your train trip/weekend getaway/year abroad,” the answer’s tricky. Because if that someone rode the same train, they won’t have the same ride. They might wake up in time to see the mountain and not get to look at someone else’s photos of it on an iPad over breakfast the next morning. They might not start a conversation with a stranger or even like eating train food or get mad that the WiFi flickers.
I can only communicate the essence of my trip, in however many stumbling words, and hope that if my small story does convince someone else that the journey’s worthwhile, that she will discover her own value and beauty in the soft rocking of her sleeper car or long aimless hours of disconnection or whatever image is memorable enough to imprint in her own mind, ready to be called up at a moment’s notice the next time someone asks, “So where have you been lately?” And I hope she has a story to tell.