You Can't Get Here by Walking: Traveling between Coasts

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The prompt for this piece was an exercise that I did at the Indiana University Writer’s Conference this year with our poetry teacher, Gabrielle Calvocoressi. A fan of 3 or 4 pronged projects, she challenged us to write a letter that was also a map leading to (at the retreat) a cemetery to someone we’d not seen in a while. I figured it was the perfect way to write about my cross-country tour from New Mexico to Indiana, then Detroit, Toronto, and Chicago before getting back on a 2-day train trip to Seattle. Check it out!

You don’t get here by walking. You start out on a relay race of buses, trains, and airplanes with squalling babies all aboard. By the time you arrive, you’ve stripped off all the expectations of this place – you aren’t that kind of person whose researched and planned every moment of their travel, though there are moments you wished you were. Having so recently left the cramped dark city, the red rock cliffs astound you. The open spaces flecked with turkeys and mousing cats make you tingle with delight. Today, your friend helped guide a horse off a busy two-lane highway before you went on your way. There is laughter when you and your friend slather yourselves in mud and parade from hot spring to hot spring, feeling cleansed and sleepy on the way home. Home. This is the first state you’ve felt like you could live right when you stepped foot in it; you’ve fallen in love with the sprawling western-style houses and everything coated in chili.

When are you getting here? You’ve just missed the shuttle. The airport is humid. You spend your time re-folding clothes in your bag on a cushioned bench. When are you getting here? You come upon the tiny town in less time than you thought and wander where there are no stoplights, looking for all the greasy food you can handle. When the classes start the next morning, it finally feels as if you’ve arrived – a solid 6-8 hours a day drawing doodles and weaving images into plain notebook paper. Who cares if they’re good? At least they’ve gotten there. When social interaction is too overwhelming, you disappear to watch Midwestern roller derby, but remember too late that small town buses don’t run at night. Then you find yourself walking two miles down a dark road in a town you’re unfamiliar with – a story you tell only after you’ve survived it.

Take a detour and read my piece about wandering the city of Detroit.

Landing in a new city across the border, your first instinct is to go to the cemetery. To the old jail-turned-health-center and the small farm across the way. You find ponds that inexplicably frighten you; places where you think they could easily dump a body. Something about the city tires you. You meet new friends and eat bad Indian food and try to stay out of the rain. Meet me at the Necropolis, you’d like to say.

This is the last stop. It’s taken you an overwhelming amount of time to get here – night trains and day trains all conveniently delayed. By the time you’ve reached your host, you’ve started to flash back to New York. This is a scene familiar to you: big buildings clustered downtown, tourists flocking to the park. You get stopped by Christian college folk conducting surveys. You and your host pull out books and discuss them one by one. The night before you leave, you take in a play about Muslim women and post-9/11 Islamophobia that brings tears to your eyes. Then it’s yet another rain storm and yet another train.

The world is flat until Montana. You catch a glimpse outside your window when you’re not sleeping or nose-deep in a book. No internet here, sometimes no cell signal either. Spending two days on a train makes your teeth go soft; you clench your fists at some of the conversations of your fellow passengers. But every once in a while they surprise you. The conservatively dressed Amish people who depart in a cluster midway through. The older Idaho farm consultant, burned red in the sun, who talks politics with you into the night. For someone used to speed, this is not the way to go. But though the mountains slow you down, they also whisper “welcome.”