Three simple steps to use Facebook more effectively for social change

I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone reading this that there is an extreme abundance of bad news in the world.  An awful lot of this news makes it into our Facebook feeds, and those of our friends.  It would probably be possible to find an outrageous and/or demoralizing article to post every five minutes, for the rest of your life. 

But is that the best way to make change? 

I have friends who have quit Facebook because they could not handle the constant barrage of depressing news in their feeds.  Even for those of us who stay, these kinds of posts can take a toll on our mental health.  And when we get more depressed, we get less politically active, which makes us collectively less effective at bringing about the positive changes we all so desperately need.

I have three ways that I personally make an effort to combat this, and I want to share them so that others can take part as well, and collectively we can be as effective as possible.

1) When you see positive/victorious stories, please be sure to share them too!  People are taking action and making a difference in the world, in a wide variety of issue areas. If you need places to find such stories, you can check out The Optimist Daily, Yes! Magazine, DailyGood, or similar sites.  Or just keep an eye out in your own feed for the uplifting things your friends post.  Sharing links to these kinds of articles gives your friends and followers reminders that people do have power to effect positive change in the world.  The more we see that it can be done, the more we feel empowered to take action ourselves.

2) But, of course, it would be irresponsible to simply bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the distressing news that is all around us.  We share these things on Facebook partly to mourn, or to feel outraged, together with our like-minded friends.  But there is a more empowering way to do that than simply hitting “share” on an upsetting article and then hitting “post”:  Include a call to action.  Do a little research before you make the post.  Has someone already organized an online petition about the item in question?  If so, you can sign the petition and then post the link asking friends to sign (and share) as well.  If there is no petition yet, you can research to find out who the decision makers are for any particular issue, and either begin your own petition (change.org is one good site I have used, but there are many others) or send an email to those decision makers, and then share that to your post.  (“I am outraged about the situation in the article below.  I just sent the following email to my member of Congress; please feel free to copy/paste and/or adapt it, and send one to your representative as well.  Let’s change this!”)  Post a copy of the email you sent, and if possible, also post a link to make it easy for people to get the phone numbers and email addresses for their particular decision makers. (For members of Congress, here is a good one: www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative)

3) If you happen to be sharing a friend’s campaign, action, or project, again, don’t just hit “share” and “post”, because without personal context, most of your friends are likely to just skim past it. Instead, write something like the following:

“My amazing friend So-and-so [tag So-and-so if they are also on Facebook] is working on this great campaign.  I’ve already [signed the petition, contacted my representatives, donated to the campaign] and I hope you’ll consider doing so as well.”

Then include links or contact information for your friends and followers to do so, so that when they are scrolling through their feed it will be as easy and quick as possible to take that action.  Very few people will take the initiative to do so themselves, but with some simple tools, many more will take action.

We need all hands on deck right now, to fight all the injustices we learn about daily.  Remembering that we do have power to make change, and then taking the extra time to make it easy for others to do so, will result in more positive change.

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Sensitivity as a superpower

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by Matt Burns, who is touring the USA and interviewing (at least) 366 people in 366 days for his Unlikely Stories project. I sat down with him here in Portland to talk about a topic that has been on my mind lately: The value of human sensitivity within culture, and how those of us who identify as sensitive can nurture this strength, while protecting ourselves from some of the pain that can accompany sensitivity. If this topic resonates with you, I invite you to take a look:

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Raleigh, and the return to Portland

Cool painted tree at the botanical garden

It’s been a couple of weeks!  Re-entry into Portland took some adjusting for me, so this final blog post of the trip has taken me a bit longer than I had anticipated.

The final leg of my train travels went nicely, although I was definitely disappointed to discover that the Silver Star train did not include a dining car, nor a panoramic lounge car.  Amtrak is in the process of eliminating dining cars on their long-distance lines. I find this deeply saddening; it heralds the end of an era that I never wanted to see end.  (I am now considering taking one more long-distance train trip this winter—my yearly sojourn to sunny San Diego, where I had planned to fly to maximize my time—to enjoy the dining car on the Coast Starlight, since my understanding is that they will retain that car for perhaps the longest of any of the lines.  I hope they will have it at least until December or January.)

Sunset from the train, somewhere between Washington and Raleigh

My uncle in North Carolina explained that the lack of the panoramic lounge cars on the eastern long-distance routes may be due to shorter/tighter tunnels in the eastern part of the country.  The tunnels cannot accommodate the double-decker Superliner trains, so the Cardinal and Silver Star—among other lines—use Viewliner cars instead for their sleeping accommodations.  These trains have “regular” lounge cars, attached to their bistro cars, like those on the regional lines such as my Northwest standby, the Cascades, which runs from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, Oregon.  It’s nice to have snacks and light meals available, as well as some chairs and tables to socialize and/or look out the windows on both sides, which is harder to do from a coach or business seat or a sleeper car… but these bistro/lounges in no way compare to the dining cars and Sightseer lounge cars.  So, the trip from Washington, DC to Raleigh was relaxing and scenic—I got to see one last sunset from the train—but I was a bit disappointed to miss out on those two amenities.

My time in the Raleigh area was lovely, split between my aunt and uncle and a close friend/sweetie whom I see whenever we manage to find ourselves in the same place at the same time.

Giant trees in William B Umstead State Park

I experienced a quaint rural area known as “Jugtown,” where a revival of generations-old family pottery making has sprung up in the last couple of decades.  It is not a formal town, but rather a loose affiliation of perhaps a dozen neighboring homesteads, where families make and sell beautiful pottery.

Some of the more elegant wares for sale in Jugtown

I also got to tour the Raulston Arboretum and botanical garden.  (They even had a small Japanese garden there, which I had not expected!)

Part of the Japanese garden
Apparently prickly pears can grow in North Carolina!

We visited Apex’s first all-vegan restaurant, which happened to also be the first Turkish restaurant I had visited.  The food was delicious, and I wished I had at least another week in the area so that I could have tried many more items on their extensive menu.

Look at this menu!
My aunt’s Iskender kebab
Vegan baklava!

And, I got to experience a lovely twilight nature hike in William B. Umstead State Park. I am always struck by how trees and vegetation always look at least slightly different in different regions.

Twilight trees in William B
Umstead State Park

Lastly, I even got to go swimming, in the hotel’s pool.  I hardly ever swim, and with autumn fast encroaching back in Portland, I was more than happy to enjoy a dip on a sunny upper-80s day.

Great to enjoy the last real
heat of my summer

My time in this area brought a truly amazing trip to a wonderful close.  The flights back were kind of rough (last row, middle seat, crying baby to my left, late in the day and battling the exhaustion of a month with inadequate sleep, all of which painfully reminded me why I prefer trains to planes) and it was cool and drizzly in Portland as we touched down.  My travel date was the autumnal equinox, so the end of the trip marked the change of the season, and quite dramatically so: the heat wave continued in the east, while here in Portland we have experienced temperatures dipping down into the 40s at night, and drizzly skies, since I have been back.  I love my adopted hometown, but I have definitely been working through some post-trip adjustments since my return!

This trip was the longest vacation I have ever taken.  It was also the most logistically complex.  And, remarkably, everything that needed to go right did go right.  I am so pleased with the year’s worth of visioning and concrete planning I put into this journey, as well as indescribably grateful to everyone who helped or participated in any way.  I got to reconnect with so many friends and family members, from so many different places and eras in my life, and I also got to meet many wonderful new people.

I saw breathtaking scenery, from the windows of my trains as well as out on walks and a 45-mile bike ride, down in caverns, in Japanese and botanical gardens across the continent, and the beautiful property on which I grew as a child.

I will never forget this trip, nor the people who helped to make it so magical for me.

Portland’s October trees and sky

I’m already cooking up a few more journeys, for the next few years…!  Meanwhile, I’m settling back into my life in Portland, enjoying the spectacular colors and skies of October. Thank you to everyone who has followed along on this journey with me! (And, if you’re interested in dreaming up an epic journey of your own, and would like some co-brainstorming and/or logistical help, I would love to schedule a phone session to help you to turn it into a reality, so feel free to drop me a line!)

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Waterford: nostalgia and bittersweetness

One of the fields, facing the neighbors’ woods

As I write this post, I am sitting in the sun porch of the house in which I spent most of my first 18 years.  My parents bought the house—a huge old stone farmhouse, built in the 1700s and expanded in the 1800s, in extremely dilapidated condition—in May of 1972.  I was born that November.  The enclosed porch in which I now type did not exist at that time; it was a ramshackle outdoor porch.  The only plumbing for the first year was one cold water faucet, in a large white rusted enamel sink, which emptied out into the yard.  We didn’t get a toilet, tub, shower, or bathroom sink for another year.  There was an outhouse, and my father, who commuted to the DC area in a suit and tie each day, bathed in the garden hose, my mother holding the bar of soap.  (The nearest neighbors, an eccentric quartet of elderly sisters, were half a mile away.)

The homestead, dwarfed by clouds

The house is surrounded by about 30 beautiful acres, whose appearance has changed quite a bit over the years, even in the relatively short span of my own memory.  Small trees have grown large and large trees have been lost. (This trip was the first time I saw the place without its iconic, towering elm, which was recently lost to Dutch elm disease, fulfilling my parents’ warnings to me throughout childhood that it would not last forever.) Fields have waxed and waned over the years with various fence configurations and differing amounts of attention to mowing.  The surrounding hills have slowly filled with McMansions, giving the area a different feel, but this property has remained—at least during the leafy summer months—an oasis, and a throwback to an earlier time.  I find it a welcome retreat from the rapid pace and mostly urban surroundings of both my habitual life and this rail journey.

The remainder of the elm

Yesterday I ate a paw paw fruit, straight from the tree on the property that my parents discovered only a few years ago.  (Interestingly enough, I had enjoyed a homegrown paw paw the other day in Charlottesville, too—my friend and her husband grow them on their property as well.)  I also did my customary walk of the grounds, surveying the property and connecting to my roots.

Fresh paw paw!

In the past few years, I have felt a mixture of feelings in this house and on this land.  It brings back feelings of nostalgia for my childhood, and appreciation for a more rural lifestyle which, while not my adult preference, holds values I can lose sight of in my Portland life.  At the same time, over the years I have become aware of the various aspects of tragic and unjust history in the place.  It was only within the last few years that I learned that the house had been built, at least partially, by slave labor.  Although it really shouldn’t have surprised me to learn this, given the vintage and the location of Virginia, it did.  It gave me pause to think of enslaved people being forced to build a house in which they would never be allowed to live, and yet I–by mere accident of birth–was allowed to enjoy that privilege.

The barn, from behind a locust tree

Thinking back a few generations before, of course there were indigenous people living and hunting on this land.  In the first few years here, while working ceaselessly to bring the house back into a more habitable and comfortable condition, my parents dug through many large trash heaps on the property, as well as just in the soil around the house in the course of construction, and they found, among old coins and marbles and such, arrowheads.  As a child this fascinated me, but only within the past few years have I begun to grapple with the obvious implications of this: there were people living here generations ago who were forced off their land so that people like me could live here. 

The homestead behind a crepe myrtle

Our nation’s history (and, indeed, human history in general) is violent, oppressive, sobering to face.

And of course it is not only history; these injustices continue, in a variety of forms, into the present day. In Charlottesville the other day, my host showed me the various places on the university campus and in the downtown area where, just two years ago, white supremacists invaded the town, marching angrily with tiki torches, killing one counterdemonstrator and injuring many more by driving a car into a crowd.  Of course I had read about it with horror in the national news at the time.  Seeing it in person felt surreal; the place looked so calm and peaceful to me.  But in Portland, now, we also have regular invasions of out-of-town white supremacists coming in to march in the streets and physically attack certain groups of people, such as visibly queer or trans folks.

We are living in a tumultuous time, in which fighting for justice, and against oppression in any form, is as important as ever.  The work continues, always.

Meanwhile, I am ever aware that this idyllic family house and grounds will not be with us forever.  My parents, aware of their advancing years (they are nearing 80) have been slowly, over the past decade or so, clearing out nearly a half-century’s worth of accumulated extraneous items, and continually improving and repairing the house, so that they might sell it at some point when it becomes too much for them to keep up.  (My sister and I, both in the Northwest, prefer our urban environs.)  So, I am doing my best to enjoy reconnecting with them and with the space.  Yesterday I began interviewing my father about his childhood memories, which I did with my mother the last time I visited, two years ago.  They both have led such interesting lives, and both are storehouses of a lifetime of memories, which I would like to record in some way.  Connecting with some other folks from their generation on this trip has reminded me of the importance of learning from our elders, as a society.  I like the idea of living history projects, where younger people interview elders—related or not—to ask about their personal past experiences, their observations and recollections of societal changes, and the life lessons they have learned.  I would encourage anyone reading this to “interview”—whether formally or informally—someone older, preferably with a video or audio recording so that it can be shared with others, so that we may all benefit from this collective wisdom.

One of the first rooms I remember
Beatrix Potter favorites from days of yore

I think I may take another walk outside now, while we still have some glorious daylight.  Tomorrow, it’s back to Washington’s Union Station, to proceed to the last leg of my trip in the Raleigh, NC area.

The clouds above the fields were spectacular
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The Washington and Old Dominion Trail

The beginning: trailhead in Shirlington

The bike ride on the W & OD Trail was everything I had hoped it would be.  The trail stretches 45 miles, from Arlington, Virginia out to Purcellville, where I attended middle and high school.

The end!

I took a Lyft in the morning rush hour from Fairfax to the trailhead, with my friend’s folding bike in the trunk.  At the trailhead, I met up with the cousin of my first-grade best friend, Lisa, who put my suitcase into his trunk and ferried it to Tyson’s Corner during his morning commute to work, then handed it off to Lisa’s husband, who also works in Tyson’s and who lives in Purcellville.  I was so grateful to the three of them for helping me in this creative way to bike without a trailer, and without generating any additional vehicle miles to do so!

Trees, sky, and kudzu in Paeonian Springs

The trail was as beautiful as I had hoped.  After a couple of hours, I stopped for a rest in a lovely park in Vienna, Virginia, and then had lunch at the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant.  Afterward I pressed on for about five more hours, under warm but rarely too hot sunshine.  The trail took me across a number of creeks and bridges.  It also took me across an overpass of Route 7, my most familiar childhood highway.  I cannot count the number of times I crossed that overpass, drove under it, or exited the freeway directly before it, over the years, but always in a car. Never had I experienced that place on a bike, until two days ago.  It felt amazing to do so.

Nottoway Park, Vienna
Kale and burdock with tofu and chickpeas
Route 7 overpass

On the way I also discovered a new-to-me snake (almost hit it!), a diminutive and all-green grass snake, who was sunning itself on the pavement of the trail.  I doubled back to try to photograph it, but it had, predictably, already squiggled off the path after its near-death experience.

Shortly thereafter, I rode past a strangely abandoned pair of velvety rose-colored couches and frilly pillows, in a gravel pull-out lot with shattered glass in front of them.  I decided they were bizarre enough to require a glamour-shot selfie, so I turned back to take one.

Toward the end of the trail, I found a low-tech safety mirror at a blind curve, and took a surreal selfie there as well.

Surreal safety mirror at a blind curve near an underpass in Leesburg

Later, after passing my high school and running late to meet my parents, a man in a red, white, and green spandex cycling jersey with the word “Italia” emblazoned upon it—whom I had seen earlier on the trail, traveling the other direction—passed by me, and called out, “Your parents are waiting for you at the end of the trail!”  I was quite surprised—how did he know it was me?—but cheerfully called back, “thank you!” as he receded into the distance.  Sure enough, a few minutes later I hit the end of my journey, and found my parents reading a placard that described the history of the trail.

Made it!!

We went out for a delicious Thai dinner at a local place I found on HappyCow, and then went back to the homestead, where I soon collapsed into bed.

I’m so glad I finally experienced that trail.

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Charlottesville and Washington

The journey continues! 

West Virginia countryside

The Cardinal train was an interesting experience.  I definitely enjoyed the scenery, but I found that the physical trains themselves (I took two: one from Chicago to Charlottesville, and the other from Charlottesville to Washington, DC) were a bit unusual.  The dining car was “modified,” meaning no vegan lunch option, no reserved seating, no announcements for meals at all.  There were two “lounges,” but one seemed to have a snack bar that was perpetually closed, and both were much smaller than the panoramic lounge cars on the Superliner trains.  I had thought the Cardinal was a traditional Superliner, but apparently it’s a bit different.

The other thing that surprised me a lot in my sleeper car was that the toilet and sink were right next to the seat/bed!  There were no shared bathrooms in the sleeping-car section, and no shower that I could find, so that was all different.  In some ways I found it more convenient to have the toilet and sink right there, but it also did feel a bit odd to use the toilet directly next to where I was sitting or sleeping.  (And many people travel with two people per roomette, so there could be a privacy issue there!)  In addition, I found that the water pressure from the sink was so high that there was almost no way I could wash my hands or brush my teeth without spraying water all over my seat or bed and belongings, which was less than ideal.

Overall, I prefer the west-of-Chicago Superliner trains I have experienced.  But, I’m glad I finally got to experience the Cardinal.  I did eat dinner the first night, and had a nice conversation with someone from Cincinnati.  On the Charlottesville-to-DC leg of the trip, I took Business Class since it was only a three-hour trip, and had a lovely conversation with my seatmate from Lowell, Massachusetts.  She and I talked about staying in touch.

In Charlottesville, I had a wonderful time, staying with a friend of a friend who has spent her entire career working on clean-water issues, for the nation via the Clean Water Act (all the way back to when Nixon signed it into law in the 1970s) as well as more recently in her surrounding area.  She drove me all around the Charlottesville area, and I was reminded of why people say Virginia is one of the most beautiful states in the union.  After the incredible beauty of the arid western states on the train, the rolling hills of West Virginia (on the Cardinal train) and the areas around Charlottesville were a completely different kind of natural wonder.  The trees were just starting to turn, and it felt like I had arrived during a magical moment in time.

Light parting the clouds in Albemarle County outside Charlottesville

The other big highlight of my Charlottesville stay was on Saturday, when I reconnected with a friend I knew from 20 years ago in Portland. We were both native Virginians, but found ourselves living in the same apartment building in SE Portland… and later discovered we were born only two days apart, in the same year!  She and her husband and 12-year-old son, neither of whom I had yet met, drove several hours from their home southwest of Charlottesville, to pick me up there, and then we drove about another hour and a half to see Luray Caverns.  I had visited that place at age six, with my grandmother and my two-year-old sister, and found it captivating.  When I realized the train would be going near there on this trip, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to relive some childhood magic.

Reflective lake inside the cavern

The caverns did not disappoint; they were just as breathtaking as I had remembered from 40 years ago.  I’m so glad I got to go!  I also enjoyed the time I spent with my friend and her family, as well as dinner with their extended family on the way back home. 

The wishing well!
The Stalacpipe Organ!

Then, yesterday, I boarded the train in the afternoon, and disembarked at Washington’s Union Station in the evening.  I made my way to my friend’s home in Fairfax, Virginia, which took nearly two hours via the Metro subway.  But she picked me up at the station to drive me the last segment of the journey.  I got to meet her two chihuahuas, which continued the theme of adorable pets across the country.  (A snuggly cat in San Francisco, an energetic beagle in Denver, two huge fluffy cats in Chicago, and a snuggly poodle and enthusiastic miniature schnauzer in Charlottesville.)

Union Station, Washington, DC

After dinner at the nearby vegan-friendly Silver Diner, we called it a night.  This morning, after she left for work, I headed back into DC.  First I went to the always incredible NuVegan Café (if you ever find yourself in Washington, do not miss it!!) where I ran into a friend who lives just a few blocks away from NuVegan, but who had returned only yesterday from a two-week trip to Portugal, Spain, and Morocco!  I expected that she would be sleeping all day, but no, there she was in the café.  We got to catch up a bit, before I headed out again, on foot, to the stalwart Sticky Fingers Bakery.  I devoured a mocha cupcake on the spot, and bought a few treats for later, and then caught a bus to the National Cathedral.  Wow!  The architecture, both inside and out, was incredible.  There was a choir of teenagers practicing inside, which made the place even more magical.  I sat in a pew for a while and soaked it all in, then toured the rest of the place.

The National Cathedral
One of many amazing views from inside the cathedral

The light was about to start fading, and I needed to practice assembling and riding the folding bike my host will be graciously lending me tomorrow for my epic ride of the 40-mile W & OD Trail, so I began the long process of returning to Fairfax.  (This trip involved two buses, a train, and a Lyft, and totaled more than two hours.)  In the Metro station in the city, I noticed someone distinctive-looking whom I had glimpsed on a prior vacation in a completely different locale, but had never spoken with.  I introduced myself, and we had a wonderful chat for the next half-hour or so on the train, until his stop. He said he had been having a stressful and unpleasant day at work, so it lifted his spirits to be “found” by a near-stranger.  We took a selfie, and each left the interaction with a smile.

Inside a Metro station

So much magic on this trip.

I’m going to turn in now, so that I can wake up in time to be fresh for my bike ride!

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Regaining the flow in Chicago

Waterfall at Anderson Gardens

Chicago has been wonderful so far!  I am staying with warm and fascinating friends of a friend in a historic building within the beautiful Hyde Park neighborhood.  I spent all of yesterday with a dear friend exploring the Anderson Gardens and the Chicago Botanic Garden (which also contains a beautiful Japanese garden.)  In between, we had another delicious meal at the newly relocated, all vegan Kitchen 17.  (When I saw that they had a cheeseburger pizza, I was reminded of the wonderful offering at Rudy’s Pizza in Portland, so I knew that’s what we had to order!)

Anderson Gardens
Chicago Botanic Garden
Chicago Botanic Garden
Cheeseburger pizza at Kitchen 17

The weather has been predictably humid, but not as hot as I had feared.  Last night we had a rain- and thunderstorm, so I am definitely getting my fill of those!  The moisture in the air has actually been a welcome counterpoint to the aridness of Denver.  The two gardens we visited were large and gave an all-encompassing feel.  We weren’t able to cover the whole botanic garden, but the parts that we saw were absolutely wonderful, and the trees and open areas surrounding each separate garden gave a holistic magical feel to the whole place.

My mood is much improved. I have been able to catch up on some sleep, and I got wonderful news from Johnny: not only did his stressful situation get reversed, but almost exactly on the one-year anniversary of the garden’s first NBC news coverage (their first national coverage) he learned that NBC News will be filming a TV segment about the now-nearly-completed garden on September 27th!

The flow keeps flowing.  I’m looking forward to visiting more parks and restaurants today (hopefully including a third Japanese garden, in nearby Jackson Park) and then making my way back to Union Station to board another new-to-me train, and head into Charlottesville!

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Shifting external and internal landscapes

Denver was a quieter, more relaxing stop, which was just what I needed.

The train trip between the Bay Area and Denver was beyond breathtaking.  I could scarcely believe what I was seeing out the windows.  I understand why people call this the most beautiful line in the system. I’m including a few of the photos in this post; to see more, feel free to follow me on Instagram (@dreamintochange). 

I did my best to stay present with myself and my surroundings on that leg of the journey, but I admit I was somewhat glued to my camera, and even when I put it away, I could feel the “pressure” to enjoy all the scenery in each moment, while I could.  I did have some good conversations with dining and lounge car companions.  (One such fellow told me that he thought the Cardinal line—the one I will board next—is actually the most beautiful line in the system, surpassing even the Zephyr.  Wow!)  But despite my pronounced lack of sleep these past two weeks or so, I didn’t dare to nap for more than a few minutes, for fear of missing more spectacular views.

We even had a thunder, lightning, and heavy rain storm right before our arrival, which actually delayed our arrival by about 15 minutes.

But when I disembarked in Denver, the storm subsided, and I began to enjoy some nice downtime.  I stayed with the relative of a friend, in the northern suburbs, and got to spend time with his adorable beagle, and walking along the beautiful giant-cottonwood-lined trail behind his home.

I got a good night’s sleep in a non-moving bed, and the next day we headed out to Watercourse, possibly Denver’s best-known vegan restaurant.  I had a delicious skillet meal for breakfast.  Then we proceeded to the Denver Botanic Gardens.  It was a huge place, filled with a profusion of flowers and exotic plants, and there wasn’t time to see it all, but we enjoyed the tropical and Japanese gardens in particular.

On our way back to spend more time with the dog, we stopped at Beet Box, an all vegan bakery, where I grabbed a cinnamon roll and chocolate croissant to enjoy later.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in quiet reverie, which gave me time to rest my mind and enjoy the journey so far.

In the evening, we headed back downtown to the train station.  Sadly, a few years ago the station was sold to a swanky hotel, whose designers gutted the original station, keeping the rail aesthetic but replacing most of the practical infrastructure with expensive restaurants and bars, and relegating the Amtrak office to a small, hidden corner.  This was sad, but I had to admit that the building remained majestic, inside and out.

The remainder of this portion of my trip, to Chicago (where I will be disembarking in about an hour) has also been quiet, and slightly less idyllic than the earlier part.

This particular train set, for example, seems to be older than the one from the day before.  It sounds more rattle-y.  I got thrown around in my bunk more last night (probably also because this time I was on the upper level); I actually awoke with some fright more than once during the night, hoping we would be able to stay on the rails.  Fortunately, we did.

But we had another deluge + electrical storm (definitely fun for this Virginia-raised gal who has gone without such storms for almost 30 years in Portland) on this train, and I found that all the couplings between the cars had begun dripping heavily afterward, falling onto passengers as we walked through, and leaving dangerously slick puddles on the floors. 

Further, my roomette was too cold for comfort last night, and the single thin blanket was not enough to keep me warm.  I didn’t want to disturb the attendant at a late hour by asking for another blanket, so I toughed it out, but this did not make for a restful sleep.  I recalled the advice I received on one of my first long-distance train trips, nearly 20 years ago, and stuffed my towel into the overhead vent that was blowing cold air and could not be closed… but that was a minimal help as well, since it could not be completely covered.

Meanwhile, my mind briefly slipped out of “vacation mode” and found things to worry about: payroll at my employer, which I would need to handle remotely; bad news I had just received via email from my partner Johnny about a seemingly crushing setback he has encountered in his work on the prison healing garden; worries about the state of the world, and my place in it…

This is a major journey I am undertaking.  It makes sense that I would experience a variety of physical, mental, and emotional states along the way.  I am perhaps one-third of the way through this trip.  I continue to read “Planetwalker,” by John Francis, and marvel at the geographic and spiritual journey that he describes.  I know that everything I experience on this trip, whether blissful or painful, is a part of my journey, and a part of my human condition.

I await my next chapter with curiosity.

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First leg: Southward to the San Francisco Bay

This trip has been absolutely magical so far.  In southern Oregon, I had a wonderful conversation in the sightseer lounge car, with a woman from Corvallis. We looked out upon rain-soaked late-September trees in the fading golden light, then watched as our surroundings turned into misty dusk, punctuated by lightning strikes, and a crimson sunset behind the trees.  The feeling was breathtaking, and despite my best efforts to capture it on camera, as always, it simply wasn’t possible to convey anywhere near the full sense of in-the-moment majesty.

My new friend and I discussed rail travel, and how much we enjoy it compared to air travel.  However, she told me about her knowledge of the original rail barons of the United States, describing them as “despicable people” for a number of reasons, with obscenely concentrated wealth which, to their partial credit, some of them donated to create Stanford University and the amazing Huntington Library and gardens in Pasadena, the latter of which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting a few years ago.  (Apparently one of these rail magnates married a woman 30 years his junior, and when he later died, she married his son, continuing the concentration of wealth within the family.) 

The next morning, at breakfast in the dining car, I was seated with a couple from Louisville, Kentucky, taking the Coast Starlight for their first time.  Somehow we got onto the topic of environmental destruction and deforestation, and the husband shared some disturbing information I had not known (and I have not verified this yet, but I do plan to look into it).  He said that most of the eastern United States’ old growth forest was “ruthlessly deforested” largely by these people who built up the rail system.  In order to lay all the track to build their new lines, they needed staggering amounts of board feet for rail ties.  Rail ties (which are now sometimes made from concrete rather than wood) must be perfectly square, so they needed to be cut from the center of a tree trunk.  Huge swaths of old-growth forest, from Maine to Florida, were destroyed, my dining companion told me, to build this infrastructure.

He also shared that the owners of these rail companies who were building the tracks grew to hold so much wealth and power that they began to print their own currency, and they would pay rail workers who were building the tracks—in then-remote-locations—with their own currency, so that the workers would have to purchase everything they needed to live from the “company store,” which of course further served to concentrate their employers’ wealth.  Once the workers moved back to their home locations, they could choose to swap out the currency for US dollars, but the exchange rate was abysmal.

It gave me pause to realize, or perhaps I should say to be reminded, that the infrastructure for this form of transportation I love so much came at significant social and environmental costs.  I had already been aware of the exploitation of Chinese laborers to build the railroads in the West, but I hadn’t been aware of these other aspects of the construction, and I am sure there are more of which I am still unaware.  I am now curious to do some research about these particular four rail magnates who were responsible for building most of the initial infrastructure for freight and passenger train travel in the United States.

After I left the train, though, my magical trip continued.  I took a Lyft to the Redwood Regional Park in Oakland, and walked among giants both evergreen and deciduous for about two hours, leaving my sandaled feet thoroughly dusty.

Then I headed up to Berkeley on the BART train to meet my old Portland friend Joanna (who, I remembered, also grew up in northern Virginia, near my old orthodontist’s office).  We shared a delicious lunch at acclaimed vegan restaurant The Butcher’s Son, and then we explored the botanical garden on the UC Berkeley campus.

Afterward, I said goodbye to Joanna and headed west on the BART to San Francisco, where I met up with my childhood friend Kristin.  Her mother had taught me to swim at age 6, and later her mother became my high school guidance counselor.  I had spent childhood summer days at the local shady swimming pool with Kristin and both of our younger sisters.  I hadn’t seen her for nearly 20 years, back when she had also been living in Portland and we surprised each other—in pre-Facebook days—by running into each other out and about.

She had a further surprise for me: another of our childhood neighbors, Jim—whom I had not seen since at least 1990, if not before—now lives a few blocks away from her in the midst of this metropolis. We all met up for a drink, and reminisced about Mrs. Johnson’s folk song instruction and ukulele lessons, among other things.  I ended the evening by looking out from Kristin’s balcony over a beautiful night cityscape.

This morning I made my way via Lyft and BART to the Emeryville Amtrak station, and I am currently in my berth aboard the long-awaited Zephyr!  I hope to catch a few winks on this train, since I haven’t slept properly in weeks… but I also want to make sure to catch the upcoming views.  I’m sure I’ll find a way.

Onward to Denver!

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My epic cross-country train trip

It’s been a while since I have written here.  I judge myself, sometimes, for my lack of discipline in keeping up this blog.  And then, sometimes, I am able to instead empathize with myself—to recognize the obstacles that get in my way, and also celebrate all the other ways I choose to spend my time and energy instead—and just let things be as they are.

But I feel drawn to write now.  I am embarking on a journey I wish to document and share.  Many of you know how much I love train travel.  For the past year and a half, I have been dreaming up the trip that I am just now beginning.  (As I type, on Thursday evening, September 5th, I am sitting in the Sightseer Lounge car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train, with panoramic views of the Willamette Valley countryside.  It is beautiful.  Dry at this point in the season, with the trees just beginning to change color.)

I have crossed the country by train before, more than once, on the Empire Builder. (The colonialism/manifest destiny of that name now makes me wince, whereas initially when I took it to my ten-year high school reunion back in 2000, I was enthralled by the implied power and adventure in it.)  That route stretches from the Pacific Northwest across the top of the nation, through scenery including the breathtaking Glacier National Park, all the way to Chicago.  In Chicago I transferred to the Capitol Limited, which took me through Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Washington, DC.

I wanted to try something different this time.  I had heard the name of the fabled California Zephyr, described by many as the most beautiful route of the 15 in the Amtrak long-distance-train system.  I had taken the Coast Starlight to southern California several times, and absolutely loved the views.  And I wanted to try a new way to get between Chicago and the DC area, so I looked up the Cardinal, which goes through Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. 

I also wanted to see various sights across the country, and visit various friends and family members.  I had seen Luray Caverns, in Virginia, with my grandmother at age 6, and it had mesmerized me.  I wanted to see it again!  I also wanted to bicycle a rails-to-trails project, the Washington & Old Dominion (W & OD) Trail, which opened when I was about 8 or 10.  It ran from Washington, DC, out to Purcellville, the small rural town where I was to attend middle and high school.  At the time, I had never heard of the rails-to-trails concept, but I thought it sounded cool.  My family lived out in the country, without bikes, so it didn’t occur to me as something that I could personally use, but I liked knowing that it existed, and that some adults in the area apparently enjoyed biking and/or walking along it.

When I moved to Portland in 1990 to go to college, it only took a few years before I adopted the city’s bicycling ethos and took up cycling as my main form of transportation.  Every time I would go back home to visit my parents (who still live in the old stone farmhouse they bought in its shambles state the summer before I was born in 1972, and spent decades lovingly restoring) I would think to myself, “Hey, I ought to bike that W & OD Trail one of these days!”

But I never did, because I never had a bike when I was back there.  I decided that this trip would be the perfect time to prioritize it.  (More on the amazing logistical details in a future post!)

I’ve also grown obsessed with Japanese gardens, ever since my remarkable partner Johnny decided, more than five years ago, to build one inside the maximum-security prison where he resides.  In that span of time, as I have watched and supported his efforts to bring the garden to fruition (it’s nearly there now) I have made a point to visit at least a dozen Japanese gardens, around the United States and Canada.  This trip seemed like a perfect opportunity to see several more, and to revisit one that was built by the same world-renowned Japanese garden designer, Hoichi Kurisu, who has partnered with Johnny to build the prison garden.

I also have cultivated a love of botanical gardens over the past few years, and I plan to see several of those as well.

So… this feels like a trip of a lifetime.  My hope is that I will fully enjoy every moment riding the rails—drinking in the scenery, meeting interesting strangers, enjoying the vegan dining-car meals I worked hard to secure—as well as fully enjoy all the cities and towns I visit, and the friends, family, and strangers I connect with along the way.  I also hope that I may be able to inspire someone reading this, whether to take a train trip of your own, or to work toward realizing some other travel or life goal.  (And, as always, I am here to support any such endeavors if you need some co-brainstorming, strategizing, or emotional support of any kind.)

My intention is to post regular updates here, detailing how the trip is progressing.  Thank you for following along with me!

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