How we connect: hello Montana

Whitefish Lake, Montana from Amtrak train.

It all began when the woman asked me to watch her luggage so she could dash, unencumbered by belongings, into the Union Station bathroom. (The PA system had announced the Empire Builder train was running at least an hour late.) When she returned she asked me about the book I was reading (she had never heard of Joyce Carol Oates!), and told me where she was from (Colombia) and where she was going (Spokane). When she mentioned she had forgotten to bring a book, I was momentarily distracted, thinking: how could one take a train trip without reading material? (I try to have a book on hand just in case my spouse needs to run from the car into the grocery store. On long drives I hold one in my lap as he drives, slyly awaiting the time when he might be too deep in thoughts or music to notice me crack it open.) 

When the train approached an hour later, passengers shuffled to a newly formed line. I offered to hold a bag for a woman – overladen with suitcase and packages – as our line slowly inched forward. She sparkled with joy, and, I know now, a newly found wisdom. Given an opening – me asking her where she was headed – she was eager to share how she had just completed six months of rehab in Portland. Her sparkle reflected, in part, her joy at returning to her Montana home where she would greet in person, for the first time, her granddaughter: a birth she was able to watch on FaceTime. While we waited to board our train, we strangers five minutes prior, chatted about addiction, treatment, spiritual journeys, losses and recovery. I felt honored to meet her and silently thanked Dad for helping me better understand addiction, and the wondrous joys that can come to us through recovery – no matter when in life it comes.  As she left me to climb the steps into her car, I sent her silent messages of appreciation, hope and strength. 

It was only when the train lurched away from Union Station, the clock tower fading in the background, was I reminded that the final chapter of Beyond the Ripples begins in Portland’s Union Station. And although the chapter concludes as Sarah’s train pulls into Seattle’s King Street Station, and my train would veer east overnight to Whitefish Montana, both trains cross the Columbia. As my train slowly moved out of the Pearl district and neared its river crossings, I opened the copy of Beyond on my iPad to reread what I had written:

“A short time later, Sarah looked up from her phone to see the train crossing the Willamette River, past unfamiliar territory. She didn’t recognize this part of Portland, and yet they had pulled out of the station only minutes ago. She looked out the window to see its industrial northwest followed by the greenness of Portland’s Sauvie Island. Soon after, they crossed the Columbia River too—not far from the bottle’s final landing spot. That bottle, the start of so many good things for Sarah, had once flowed under this trestle, although she would never know which channel carried it.”

Beyond the Ripples, Ch. 21: Full Circle

Muddled between my own efforts to get sleep later that night, I sought out a bathroom. As I slowly staggered in the aisle of this moving train, I passed fellow travelers, bodies contorted to fit into the allotted spaces. Many, traveling solo, lucky enough to secure empty paired seats, cram elbows, butts and feet into odd shapes to squish into the now woefully small space. One well prepared traveler, outfitted with pillow and blanket, somehow skillfully crafted their lanky body into the slot, almost like one would sleep in a hammock. Other pairs, whether lovers, or parents with a child, slumped against another, blankets or clothing tucked tightly to guard from the cool AC. And finally, the majority, making the best of the fully reclined seat, foot stool up, willing bodies to imagine a bed rather than recliner contorting back and neck. And yet we slept. Fitfully for certain, in bits and bursts, seeking dreams of where we are going or from where we’ve come.

I too slept, minutes here and there. Early the next morning I awakened to a sunrise, Montana style: the Stillwater River rippling outside my window. As I returned to my seat after a bit holding a steaming but not gourmet cup of coffee from the snack bar, fellow passenger Elizabeth asked me if I was a writer. She had overheard me speaking in the station about books with my new Colombian acquaintance. Elizabeth, now with a gleam in her eye, told me that she too writes, currently at work on a memoir. And so, it was as it is when two people share a mutual passion, interest, experience or challenge; we talked, no shortage of available minutes on this train.

Another connection awaited me (as they do each day in life) even after my Whitefish arrival. It was the next day I dashed into Echo Lake Cafe on a quick trip to town for supplies. While camping, I did in fact need a place to juice up my device, not needed to access CNN or NPR, but rather, power to finish this blog. I learned the cafe had one available outlet at the end of the counter, next to the espresso machine. How would I know that the spot I chose to power my device was occupied by the young man who owned the loaded touring bike I had eyed outside? When I asked, my soon-to-be friend Ismar replied he was happy to move over a seat so I could access the outlet, although he apologized for leaving a sweaty seat behind. I quickly dismissed his concern, advising him I was a fellow biker. `

Sharing stories with Ismar, Echo Lake Cafe, Bigfork, Montana.

Between sips of my smoothie (for, after all, one can’t simply steal power), and bites of his breakfast, we shared our tales: his cycle trip through the U.S. as he heads to Portland, mine decades ago through his English home and much of Europe. Why we both left on our epic trips. I could relate to his life stage, through both my own experience and that of our daughters. And, as it must happen, he too is a writer – someday I look forward to reading his memoir. (Do writers wear invisible stickers on our foreheads, compelling us to instinctively interact with others who share our passion?) Ismar asked me to describe Beyond the Ripples. I gave him the simple version, “ It’s about connections. Like this.” He got it and together we acknowledged how much they add to the richness of life, whether for five minutes or a lifetime. He tried to discourage me from paying for his breakfast, as I unplugged my charger. The cost of his breakfast is a bargain for what I got in exchange. I could ask for no more.

And now I write. Life is full of meaningful connections that fill us. Conversations breed interest and understanding: potential solutions to some of today’s biggest challenges. We just have to stop, give it full attention, and make it happen. 

Contemplating: what next?

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