Three alumnae take to the tracks
For many of us, there’s something about the train. A slow-chugging, hard-grinding, metal web of living nostalgia, a train ride across America has the capacity to connect us to the deep and haunted contradictions of our history. The train travels through the blanket of time, weaving together the lore of immigrants, pioneers, native people, refugees, opportunity, prosperity, and tragedy. It is a reminder of a landscape changed by industrialism. It remains a stubborn statement on the imperfect American dream, rolling through our staggering landscapes that are often impoverished by disaster, corruption, and false narratives.
There’s been a lot of talk about meeting in the middle, of a nation in need of reconciliation. There’s a desperate hope that disparate people will somehow learn to engage in meaningful dialogue. Sounds like a good time to hop on the train and talk to strangers, right?
So that’s exactly what we did. Over the course of two weeks, Siri Undlin ’13 (aka Humbird, our troubadour), Kendall Rock ’15 (our documentarian), and Amanda Flores ’13 (our scribe) embarked on what we called the Rail Tale Train Tour, riding the rails from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, stopping in 10 American cities. In lieu of searching for the answers, we focused on finding the questions and creating interdisciplinary work to be shared along the way.
‘Love Is the Bridge’
By Amanda Flores ’13
This morning as I uncurled myself from my egg-like sleeping shape the train conductor mistook me for another passenger and began speaking to me in Spanish. When I answered in Spanish he started and realized I was a different person. “Damn, you’re like a chameleon,” he exclaimed.
This apt comparison got me thinking about how I feel between spaces and places on the train. I’m like a chameleon standing in two worlds at once. In one world I am an observer, wandering from place to place, with my notebook and backpack, traveling through landscapes but not quite a part of them. In another world I am rooted in community, listening to the struggles and triumphs of loved ones in their individual lives and within the larger systems of the American life we all navigate. I hold stories of loved ones at home in Denver like precious cargo, a part of my map as I roll through the American landscape, a way for me to understand the intersecting stories of this nation. In both scenarios I am one ember with the ability to build a fire from scratch with the help of those around me and through interstitial moments of connection and truth telling. A fire around which to tell old stories and imagine futures.
In the face of labyrinthine systems of government, policy, and politicians we’ve never met in a country as vast as America, I feel small. It’s like being a human body of flesh and bones boarding a massive metal train that flies down the railroad tracks and hoping the conductor will deliver you safely to your destination.
Meanwhile, you are taking in the landscape, staring out a window. Along the way of the Rail Tale Tour I ask myself the question: What does America need from me to heal?
On the 22-hour train ride from Minnesota to Montana, I fell into a cloud of memories, drawn back to the parting words of poet Diane Seuss at our senior poetry reading, more than five years ago: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, love is the bridge between them. Love and poetry.”
In America, the land of the dead is old stories of empires, self-interest, and capital gain. The land of the living is the land of the gift and generosity. And this reminds me that our purpose is to be bridge builders between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Our purpose is to rewrite the story, revising again and again until America is a place where we remember that this moment of crisis is not a wasteland, but the beginning of a new story.
Each one of us is writing the story of America — with our own abilities and inborn embers of creativity, regardless of form. When we orient ourselves toward what is creative in ourselves, we write the world. Our stories become a technology to dismantle the master’s house.
Our stories are a fire we build to warm our bones through the night.
A Web of Connection
By Siri Undlin ’13
All throughout this journey, spiders followed us.
A symbol of death, rebirth, fierce femininity, mystery, power, possibility, and growth, they have been welcome guests along our way. Their thick webs stretch over bushes, tree limbs, and doorways in every place we stop — constant reminders and witnesses of the season and the cities and towns where the train has taken us.
It is the first of October. This morning, Kendall and I wove through a damp, evergreen trail after a visit at Poulsbo Middle School. We stumbled upon a dome web spider, its woven home arcing between the shrubs like an opaque tent, covered in dried-out pine needles. Amanda has flown back to Denver already, we’ve disembarked from our last train of the trip, and there is a tiredness resting on our bones as we slow our pace and walk through the Washington rain.
I can feel the last 15 days most acutely in the hollow of my throat. My vocal chords are exhausted and lack of sleep hasn’t allowed for much recovery as we traversed over 3,000 miles of train tracks. The hoarseness of my voice is also evidence of what we’ve been able to do: we took eight trains, two ferries, three buses, a Chevy Astro van, and a horse. There were 10 performances, five classroom visits, more than 100 students, four live sessions, around 200 postcards, plus a very memorable hike through a haunted trainyard with a local storyteller.
We’ve been joking about how each day of this trip feels like a universe, where time doesn’t totally exist but still the sun and moon rise and fall in their turn. It is strange to stand on the tail end of this adventure, damp with sea breeze from the Pacific Ocean, to have seen time pass, and to exist in the world a little differently than before.
So much of this journey has been a confirmation of what I already knew to be true. The conviction of that truth just strikes me as more urgent and vibrant than before. America is beautiful, America is complicated, America is huge. It is broken. It is struggling to heal. America is a radical idea in the history of humanity. America is real and imagined. America is a possibility.
As I gaze over an Amtrak map of the USA, I am struck by the ways the lines of tracks resemble threads or veins, connecting the north, south, east, and west. At the same time, the invisible strands of the internet fling information across valleys, deserts, and oceans. It is a web of connection and possibility surrounding this small, hospitable planet as it moves through the vastness of space. There are so many ways in which we are all woven together, but what does it mean to truly connect to where we are and who we want to become?
Whoa. This is where it’s helpful to come back to spiders again. They’re out there — patiently, diligently weaving webs from one branch to another. These last 15 days have felt cosmic, strange, vast, mysterious, and overwhelming, but perhaps that’s what this trip comes down to in the end: another small but intentional act of connection, of weaving a world we know is possible.
You can’t always see the silken spider rope as it touches the landscape, here and there, but sometimes, when it rains and the light catches it just right, it takes your breath away.