A cross-country train trip with 40 young artists, for Amtrak and Passion Passport
Before the Passport Express, I didn’t know you could ride a train across the United States. Train travel was a magic trick for Europe. I knew nothing of roomettes, observation windows, or dining cars. Any thought I had of Amtrak was as a commuter rail, shuttling between the hives of New England.
The Passport Express was the brain child of Passion Passport and created an opportunity for an international community of 40 young artists to come together and inspire one another on a two-week journey across the northern United States. I was invited as a leader and mentor, tasked with helping the passengers find their voice as they documented the journey.
On the morning of September 11 th, 2015, we walked onto a train platform in DC’s Union Station, only vaguely recognizing one another from social media, and began to swap interesting facts: “I used to be a massage therapist,” “I have a famous Christmas Tumblr,” “my dog was the largest member of my family.” If any of the other passengers were listening in on these get-to-know-you sound bites, they probably thought we were a traveling circus.
Some people can feel moments before they arrive. The week before Christmas feels like the week before Christmas. Before a big storm they say, “I feel it in my bones.” But I’ve never been one of those people. I feel things only in the moment they happen, and hold them long after. Even after packing to travel, it isn’t until the plane jostles or I taste an unfamiliar flavor that it hits me. For this trip, that moment was when I walked into our train’s observation car. There were windows stretching up to the ceiling, tiny light bulbs arcing down the car, and various succulents strewn about. I marveled at these homey touches added by Ruthie, a Nashville-based stylist, who came aboard with us for the journey.
I could hear the squeals of the then-strangers running up and down the narrow hallways as they found their rooms with their names posted outside, discovered their roommates, and found each bed had a welcome bag and blanket. My childhood fantasy of heading to Hogwarts felt like it was finally coming true. In order to pass by someone else, you had to turn sideways and laugh as you inevitably brushed up into one another’s personal space, fostering an immediate intimacy. After dropping our luggage everyone shuffled into the observation car as dusk arrived.
What does it feel like to have the evening sun cascade down a train car in shifting ribbons of gilded light? It is the closest I have come to living inside the sunset. The orange glow strobes as the passing trees syncopate the shadows. Eventually, your body gets used to the subtle rocking of the car as it speeds down the rail–hundreds of passengers in a traveling bassinet.
During our first group discussion, someone emphasized that on this trip you should “ask real questions and give real answers.” Small talk was a thing of the past. I sat down at a table with Mat, a fellow New Yorker, and he told me “I’ve been struggling to find a consistent friend group in the city.” He paused for a bit, and then said with a touch of resolve, “but I guess that is part of growing up.”
The Passport Express was a return to high school, summer camp, and a youthful sense of friends-turned-family. Without responsibilities, we focused on discovery. We fell asleep talking about big ideas, woke to tired faces, and learned about everything from the psychology of travel to the struggles of freelance life. On only our second day, we arrived in Chicago, with a mostly free schedule and stuck to one another like elementary students on a field trip. Rather than running off in various directions, nearly everyone decided to head for Wicker Park.
We wandered the city in that rare moment when you can discover the cobblestone streets without stifling heat or toe-numbing cold. It was that pleasant in-between where the weather disappears. We walked through back alleys, into a spy shop, and by a surprising number of competing artisanal doughnut shops. Once the horizon absorbed the sun, we went to bed in preparation for a 4:45am wake up call.
There are few things on Earth that are universally loved: Elmo, cookies, sunsets. Sunrises are like sunsets, but they exist in an entirely separate part of my brain. Unless work requires it, a sunrise is an uncommon thing. Seeing it requires a plan, usually with someone I love. A groggy fight against “never mind, let me go back to sleep.” On this morning we woke up to watch sunrise above Chicago. The sun played hide-and-seek for a while, eventually casting an orange glow on our faces as we stood in a mostly empty Skydeck. My memory of that morning is foggy but beautiful. I think that is why sunrise is always worth it, through the sleepy haze it feels like a waking dream.
There is no doubt we were traveling in a privileged bubble. Tourism boards and Amtrak were coddling us in a way I had never experienced as a traveler. Friend’s couches and quick bites were replaced with hotels and roasted chicken. The surreality of this supported journey was a place to foster inspiration, but there were moments where I was reminded of the serious issues I yearn to explore in my own work. Many of the Passport Express passengers were popular on Instagram. As a mentor I encouraged them to take their own photos, not someone else’s. "We are forgetting that photography is a visual language, and you have to watch what you say."
My worries peaked in Glacier National Park where the land is at war with itself. You can stand on a rock on the edge of a lake as cold water crashes into you and wind breaks the trees. There is a natural drama here, and humans have added their own layer of conflict to the landscape. When we left our hotel our group was split between two drivers who were members of the Blackfoot Indian tribe. The plan was to drive through the park, stopping at various vistas throughout the day. All of this land is technically on loan to the U.S. Government, but the history of that partnership is marred by lawsuits. Our drivers informed us the government is often found to be underpaying the Blackfoot people for the usage of the park’s 1.5 million acres. As we explored one area with wind-whipped debris, one of our passengers climbed a tree branch and made a photograph holding a small handmade flag. It was an innocent moment, but I cringed seeing our group from outside our fishbowl. What does it mean for a group of young, mostly white Americans to be spending our day making images that hark back to imperialism while being chauffeured around by Native Americans?
Waiting for a train shouldn’t be beautiful. That evening, after we arrived at the Whitefish station nearly two hours early, we were informed our train was running slightly behind schedule. In my everyday life, waiting means frustration and wasted time. For this group, waiting brings opportunity. One of our riders led a small ballet class using the banisters of the platform ramp. Another, in a park across the way, taught lessons on his one-wheel electric skateboard. There was a group sitting on a bench discussing their needs in a relationship, while our videographer sat against the station, earphones in, editing together a video of the day. I don’t know where else you can take a group of 40 exhausted adults, add a pinch of sunset and a dash of pressing conversation, and end up with a salon of visual and experiential art.
Before our evening at the train station we awoke in Whitefish, Montana, to a cold cloudy day. Some of the Passport Express family spent their morning at a laundromat-turned-bowling-alley-turned-café-turned-bar. Some of the family boarded a school bus heading up to the Whitefish Mountain Resort, and others broke off for some quiet time, sitting for a coffee at the Red Caboose or wandering the streets of small town, USA.
I went with the group to the Resort and, while descending the mountain, I took photographs of the tourists and locals on the opposite side as they ascended the lift. There was one couple in particular who caught my eye: a young man in a sensational thrift-store deer sweater with a blonde girl wrapped in a red blanket. After the descent, I drove into town and met up with our compatriots at the Red Caboose café. We ate scones and critiqued each other’s work over coffee.
The next time the front door opened I recognized the two patrons. It was the young man with the sweater and the girl with the blanket. I walked up to them with my camera and zoomed in on the photograph to show them. They laughed. I learned his name was Colin. I took his email and promised to send over the photo. Before we parted I asked where he bought the sweater and he told me, “A thrift shop.”
“One-of-a-kind,” I replied with a tone of both jealousy and admiration. Twenty minutes later I unexpectedly felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Colin, holding the sweater.
“My friends and I sometimes do this and, well, I wanted to give you this.” He handed me the sweater and asked only that I have my adventures in it. My shoulders got chills and my face got hot. I both love and hate that feeling where you’re so unsure of your emotions that all you do is feel. I was surprised, elated, and undeserving of this Hallmark moment in a town whose value system I was so unsure of. I spent another hour in the café soaking up the evening light in a new old sweater that felt like a perpetual warm hug.
From there we left for our impending three hours at the station. Waiting for a train shouldn’t be beautiful. I shouldn’t be wearing this sweater. And as I look at the tired eyes of those that surround me, I know they should all be in bed. But that is the exceptional thing about travel – we experience life not as it should be, but through a paradigm of our own creation.
As I bathed in the beauty of our waiting game, someone in a pickup truck rolled down their window and yelled, “Faggots!” as they drove by. When the train arrived I was ready to leave Montana, with its always beautiful landscape and occasionally ugly people, far behind. This was to be our longest stretch on the train—a full 36 hours. Boarding felt like going home, as the warm glow of the observation car lit up the recently dark sky. Train travel makes the breadth of the United States feel smaller and more unified than it is. In 2010 I rode my bike across the country and felt every rise and fall. The train leads to a feeling that the country is a smooth plane of glass.
When you’re living with forty people for two weeks a lot of life happens, 13,440 hours of life, to be exact. One of our passengers lost her dog, another lost a friend. By the time we landed in Oregon we were all operating on the same emotional wavelength. There was something heavy in the air. A fellow passenger told me the day before she “went into a separate room and, surprising even myself, cried.” Not for any specific reason, but to release the cavalcade of heightened feelings we had been experiencing on a daily basis. Up to this point, no one had spent time alone in ten days. The only way to find a release was through raw emotion. The skies were a typical northwestern grey as we shuttled silently between Multnomah Falls and the Vista House overlook. We read books, wrote in journals, and caught up on sleep. At this point exhaustion had become part of our natural rhythm. During our second stop I bought everyone a variety of candied nuts and passed them down the bus, thinking to myself that a sweet treat never adds to melancholia. That night, we settled into our cabins after our bus got lost in the forest.
In the morning we ate breakfast as a special visitor, Amy Stroup played an acoustic guitar performance. To round it off she asked everyone to join her in singing ‘Lean on Me.’ As I sang, with my voice cracking awake, “You just call on me brother, when you need a hand” I had to swallow a pea-sized lump in my throat. Looking around, I realized we had passed the point where we were closer to the end of the trip than the beginning.
We spent the evening dancing on Mount Hood and creeping inch-by-inch into the freezing waters of Trillium Lake. As a group we were out of the doldrums and back to a place of adolescent energy. We went to a strip club, someone did Whiskey slaps, and I got kicked out of a bar for the first time in my life. In Portland I spent a hefty portion of my savings in a photo booth and spliced together a Dad-style home video of our day at the lake.
Sliding from Portland to San Francisco, we started the morning in silence. We replaced conversations with hot coffee, warm blankets, and the west coast sun streaming into the observation car. Passengers were writing, reading, watching. My heart felt full as I wandered downstairs to find a few poking their heads out the window. To slow the time, I zeroed in on small details. The smell of fresh air and the reflections on the windows. The bouncing train car with its ever-present hum.
The end of our trip was quick. We packed up and had to leave the train in a hurry because it wasn’t going to be stopped in the station very long. We waved as our train cars moved on without us for the first time. I like to imagine they’re still out there, lit by soft bulbs instead of fluorescents, welcoming weary passengers with comfort and charm. hum.
It wasn’t long before daily frustrations and bureaucracy carried us back into our pre-train lives. Issues with baggage storage, transportation, and a general lack of guidance had me spiraling down. One-by-one, as passengers departed, our Facebook group thread lit up. This family didn’t feel temporary. Every message, backed by a damaged adult heart, gave the feeling something life changing had occurred.
Every passenger of the Passport Express had something rare to offer. There was the man on the autism spectrum, documenting and giving voices to other individuals through Autism Speaks. There were the two girls living out of their trailer and sharing stories from around the country. There was the illustrator who could draw a detailed nature scene in only a few minutes. There was a woodworker and a dancer who learned about foreign cultures through traditional dance. There were photographers and writers and everyone was a dreamer, full of a unique level of gratitude. This was a community of people who understood the blessing of living a life that you command. Who feel the same insatiable desire to leave the places they live, no matter how wonderful they are, to discover something or someone new. Everyone I met on this trip was a gift. All I can think of to do is pass them along to you.