Recently, my friend Rachel shared the following story with myself and a few of her other friends and I jumped at the chance to have her share it with all of you, too. Not only was I touched by her experience but it spoke to so many of my thoughts on alternative transportation (which you can read about in this post). I believe Americans, who have long shut ourselves off by hopping into cars each day, stand to learn so much by sitting next to and around people who don’t look like us. Our deeply ingrained “car culture” doesn’t allow for the type of amazing interpersonal interactions like the one detailed below. The type of beautiful, sometimes painful, interactions which broaden our perspective and give us pause. Keep reading…
A note: I feel the need to preface this story with a statement about myself. I’m a white, middle class, cis gendered, heterosexual woman. In some ways, the story below is about meeting someone fascinating. It is also a story about being confronted with my own privilege by way of a meaningful interpersonal interaction. I say all this to acknowledge the fact that sharing this story broadly gives me pause. It puts me in the position of, potentially, being one of those well meaning white folk who uses the experiences of others to garner some sort of attention or approval for themselves. My intention in this writing, is to honor the power of talking to strangers and striving for empathy in a world that could use a measure more of that. My intention is to encourage others to be open to interpersonal interactions that may broaden or challenge their worldviews. I welcome correction if my intentions are not reflected in the action of sharing this story.
In mid-November I was on a 17 hour Amtrak trip back from Portland, OR to my home in Northern California. I’d been in Portland for a professional conference which had been super inspiring and successful. I was taking the train because 1) I put off buying my plane tickets because I am a procrastinator at heart and by the time of my purchase the train was half as cheap as flying, 2) train travel is way better for the environment, duh, and 3) because public transportation always lights this small fire in my introverted heart; it’s as though I am suddenly in a space where it’s okay to be whatever form of myself I feel like being that day.
The train ride up had been beautiful. I left at 11:30 pm and I awoke to views like this.
The ride back was different. We left at 2:20 pm, so most of the ride would be in the dark, and I had a seat mate until Klamath Falls, around 10:30 that night.
The man working our car was a hoot. He was loud, talked to all of us like we were 11-year-olds (not in an unkind way, but in the way you do when you have dealt with tons of adults who can’t be trusted to think things through), and had a gelled back hair-do that was 100% too perfect for this world. My seatmate was a young dude who worked for Intel as a coder and was headed to Klamath falls to buy his very first car. We chatted for a bit. He was an interesting kid, we had a lot in common, and each time the fellow working our car gave someone an extra helping of sass, my seatmate, myself, and the woman sitting alone in the pair of seats across the aisle from us would laugh. Because it was awesome. Because this guy clearly gave zero fucks, or so it seemed. The fella told me afterward that he likes to seat people near others he thinks they will get along with, which, mind you, he is basing completely off of a 10 second look at you and your bags. So, this guy is dishing out sass, it’s great, and my seatmate, myself, and this woman start to chat.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, likely because it was dark and our conversation lasted for hours and the long monotony of the train ride made everything seem blurred around the edges. So I can’t tell you how or why this woman started talking, but I can tell you the things she said and how they made me feel.
She was a Native American woman from the far north of Washington State. She’s from a whaling people on the coast, but she hadn’t seen the ocean until she was a young adult. She was raised by a foster family, described it as basically growing up Amish.
She had a photo album tucked into the top of her backpack. It had pictures of herself as a teen in a long dress in front of a small house. She showed me pictures of the wide open grasslands that occur at high elevations, on land that so few people want, where impoverished populations are often pushed. Her husband had died two years previously. She showed me pictures of her 7 year old son.
She was 25-years-old.
She showed me a picture of herself and her late husband standing beside a 600 pound black bear, which she had shot. He was supposed to stay and help her process the meat, the hide, the internal organs, but the next day he and his father were called away for a week to work as well diggers for an oil company. He told her she would just have to figure it out. She described the process as “horror movie gory,” which I totally believe, but she told me how they utilize every part of the animal. How she froze the meat and used it for more than a year, distributed rendered bear fat throughout her community, gave meat to the old women living down the street who had no one, and how she still had all the bear’s claws. The internal organs were kept in a bucket in a warm place, I was never clear for what purpose, and, for a year, when friends came over to drink beers around a fire, they would pull out buckets for everyone to sit on, and the out of town friend always found themselves, unknowingly, perched atop a bucket full of bear innards that heated and stank until, suddenly, they realized what was happening.
After her husband died (a drowning, though he hated the water and she still doesn’t know why he went down to the river), she took her 5-year-old son on a two year long road trip across the country. They camped and bartered and traveled down through Texas and the southeast, up the east coast, and on into New York City. She worked in hospitality in some fancy hotel there, and a manager told her she was good at it, could move up if she went back to school. She’s starting an MBA in the fall. She wants to build a set of tiny houses on her high elevation property in Oregon. Maybe people will use them as hunting cabins? She has a generous smile, and I would probably pay to stay in her backyard.
Life is often more intricate than we could ever anticipate. After a 15 minute stop at a station where passengers exited and boarded the train and those continuing on took a smoke break, she asked me if I wanted to see some “badass jewelry.” Obviously, yes, I did.
It’s a type of bead work called peyote stitch, which I googled afterward. She had one piece with a bead that had the letters LL and a little star laser cut into it. She told me it was her maternal grandmother’s symbol and name, Little Light. Somewhere down south, maybe New Mexico, someone had seen the little laser cut symbol in some of her beadwork, recognized it, and asked after her grandmother–whom this woman on my train only knew of and had never met. This random person, who she met thousands of miles away from her home, asked for her phone number. Two weeks later, a call came from an old man who asked her mother’s maiden name, then told her he was her grandfather. In the last two months, she had met all three of her sisters and her birth mother.
Some time in the last several months she had also gotten engaged to a man she met while traveling. He gave her several thousand dollars and told her he wanted to be with her, that she could come and be with him in southern Oregon, but really all he wanted her to do with the money was get herself and her son out of the drug riddled community where she had grown up. She’s been gone for over 6 months.
There are so many other details, so many happenings in this one woman’s life, which she shared with me. She described in visceral detail the feeling of walking across what I suspect was a quaking bog in Maine. She told me about her fiance’s family in upstate New York.
Her first marriage was arranged and happened when she was 18, and she felt so lucky that she had loved him. When he died, she knew she had no idea how to be a mother, but she knew how to be a fucking fantastic friend, so she went with that. She used to drag her son out of bed and into the yard in the dark, chasing him, tickling him. Maybe it used to scare him, but now he whispers into her ear “Pull me off to the dark Mom, scare me.”
She told me she could hardly imagine a world where you could be 28, have no children, and have only just gotten married.
She told me she thought every person was like a puzzle piece. There are things in your life that happen, and maybe they carved parts of you out, hollowed you in a way. But if you look for people, maybe some of them might just click right into those empty spaces.
So, what’s the point? Other than the fact that the tapestry of the human experience is vast, varied, and chest tighteningly beautiful? I’m not sure there is one. For me, people consistently question my willingness to take the Greyhound or an extra long train ride, and I’m going to keep telling them it’s because people are more relaxed when traveling connected to the Earth. To me, people feel distant on planes, they are just going from place to place. And maybe that’s part of the privilege of being born with the means to move through places while holding yourself separate from them. Sometimes I want that, and I’m lucky that I have access to it.
But, sometimes, the chance to see what things have touched other people’s lives is a difficult gift. You see a picture of a 21-year-old woman standing before a dead, 600 pound bear, having no idea that, tomorrow, she will be left to deal with that on her own.
When people share themselves, I think the only appropriate response is a deliberate, active softening of my heart to those who experience life as a less friendly thing. I feel touched by the knowledge that even difficult paths are so full of beauty. I try to be grateful when people are kind and generous and offer up their experiences to me whole cloth.
It’s certainly no one else’s job to teach me about the world, but it’s surely my job to learn.
This woman told me, “Your first interactions with someone are so pure and unedited. Why wouldn’t they be? I’m never going to see you again.” I told her we might see each other again; after all, stranger things have happened.
To read more of Rachel’s work, including the full account of the conference she attended in the midst of all the train travel detailed above, check out her blog Sweet Tea, Science. Rachel is currently working on a PhD in Ecology and lives in California with her husband, pup, and ragdoll cat (sidenote: her cat and my cat are brothers!). She is a kickass scientist and storyteller and I love reading the nitty-gritty details of her fieldwork, her honest accounts of academia, and all the ways she’s making the world a better place. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Rachel!