The next big adventure is a simple train ride home. The spirit journey is over, and the rest of my time abroad will be concerning an utterly more concrete and practical goal: get my and my stuff home.
The whole process will take seven days. The first three were spent in San Diego, where I stayed with a husband and wife who were friends of a relative. They both had a background in journalism and academia, and I couldn’t have felt more comfortable. Their house was a corner lot in the midst of a gentrified yuppie neighborhood, next door to a well-stocked grocery store and bike shop, two blocks away from an Internet-equipped coffeehouse and gastropub. Couldn’t be more perfect.
Every morning I would head to a neighbor’s house for a shower, then sit around to drink coffee and chit-chat with the family. Every day would be spent taking care of one hour-long odd job (checking baggage, patching tubes, mailing off paperwork,) then I would explore the rest of the day away on bicycle, discovering some of the best Mexican food in the country and checking items off of the world’s shortest to-do list. A vacation at the end of my vacation.
Due to obvious physical limitations, Amtrak doesn’t run a train directly across the country. I had to hop from one connection to another, doing a bit of a zig-zag maneuver in the beginning to Los Angeles. I spent my ten-hour LA layover eating Asian food and bicycling past countless showbiz landmarks. Even Hollywood isn’t out of my reach.
The next train ride was to New Orleans, and it took two days. I lived in the lounge car, reading, writing and studying.
The Sunset Limited somewhat mirrors the Southern Tier. I felt a painful sting of guilt as I rode past familiar landmarks. On a train, you still feel the miles pass away underneath your feet. You still notice the scenery gradually change from one environmental theme to the next, and you still feel the outside temperatures rise and fall and the sun revolves around Earth. You still have to test your patience and energy against hours of doldrums and repetition, and you still get to see the epic wastes, lush forests, and massive fields that comprise most of North America.
But it felt wrong. It was so effortless, so easy and smooth and ultimately unsatisfying. The train zoomed past El Paso and Marfa– past those cities’ colorful and intricate interiors and compelling characters, past an entire cast of new friends and loved ones without making even a second of a stop. I was so close to that crazy musician in Marathon who builds papercrete igloos for fun, I was within walking distance from the Army wife in El Paso whose trusty old dog was my temporary best friend for two days. I once again laid eyes on the Chinati museum in Marfa and the Plaine coffeehouse in Alpine, with clerks inside who probably still remember my face and story. However, the prospect of me stopping by to say “hi” was a painful and scathing impossibility.
I’m typing this out of a smoky apartment in the French Quarter, the second time I’ve been two New Orleans in two months. It’s an overnight layover, but I learned long ago that it’s wiser to just party all night in this city. My definition of “partying” will be telling stories to half-interested bar flies before reading books under lamplight at Cafe du Monde.
If there’s any time for sleep, it will be during the train ride home to Atlanta. I’d rather not see more countryside scenery automatically scroll past, me disengaged from the journey in my air-conditioned box. If I’m going to cheat my way back to Atlanta, I want to at least get some sleep while I’m at it. But while I’m on foot and on the ground, I want to be living, to be immersed in the myriad emotions of waking life, wafting in this city’s sad, wonderful stench. I can go home when I’m done.