Do you remember the day you became a traveler?
Every traveler has a story. Big deal, right?. Every traveler has thousands of stories, a verbal slideshow of every place they’ve ever been. And if you’re not careful, they’ll inflict every damned one of them on you in one sitting.
Those aren’t the stories I’m talking about.
I’m talking about that special story every traveler has, the one they may not share with everybody. It’s the story of the trip that changed their lives forever.
The one that made them travelers.
I was six years old on a cross-country train trip with my mother from New Orleans to Los Angeles aboard the Sunset Limited.
I’d taken a train journey before, from Chicago aboard another famous train of the time, the City of New Orleans. But in my young mind, that one didn’t count since I remembered almost none of it, having slept through virtually all of it.
A mistake I was determined not to make aboard the Sunset Limited.
Which explains why, from the moment our sleek train of passenger cars in their fluted aluminum skins began to glide away from the platform at New Orleans Union Station, my little head was swiveling back and forth like a windshield wiper — 180 degrees, left, right, left, right. Determined to see out of both sides of the train at the same time.
All things are possible when you’re five.
We rocked and rolled west out of the NOLA, over miles of seemingly endless bayou, flanked by tall cypress trees. They stood mute and resolute in a sea of motionless water covered by a layer of bright green algae, thick as icing on a cake. Spanish moss hung from their limbs like a grandmother’s shawl.
Many hours later, somewhere west of Houston the cypress gave way to cactus and bayou swamp to desert sand and rocks. Dry, A hard, harsh land. To the eyes of an unknowing child, a dead place.
Sleep is the implacable enemy of a 5-year-old. It infiltrates under the cover of night, silent, insidious, relentless. All too soon, the eyelids fall without your knowledge or consent.
This time, though, something woke me up in the middle of the night.
It was maybe two in the morning. The passenger car was dark and silent. There was more light outside than within. A ghostly cast from the moon and stars covered the land like a smooth, thin crust of snow. It draped the rocks and the cactus the way the Spanish moss draped the bayou cypress we had left behind.
Somewhere out there was a horizon, but it was hard to tell where it was. Could this be where true desert life was hiding? Were there ghosts behind the rocks, waiting to dance in the moonlight once we had passed?
Without warning, the earth fell away. Not the ground. The planet. All below was perfect, infinite blackness. No shapes, no color, no bottom. Stars above, nothing below. Nothing. The Sunset Limited was racing over empty air.
I knew what gravity was, even if I couldn’t spell it yet. But gravity seemed to mean nothing here. How long could we keep this up before the abyss swallowed us whole?
I look around around the inside the car. Every soul was asleep. I had impending oblivion all to myself. At first, I prayed it would end. Then, overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of it all, I prayed that it wouldn’t.
Decades later, I would learn that we had crossed the Pecos High Bridge, a few miles outside Langtry, TX. Half a mile long and almost 400 feet high. All of which looks like infinity at 2 in the morning.
Especially when you’re five.
What other incredible sights were out there beyond the horizon, beyond the reach of this train, waiting to grab my imagination and run away with it?
I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment I became a traveler. Fifty-nine years, five continents and 30 countries later, I’m still trying to see out of birth sides of the train.
See you on the bridge.
Do you remember the experience that started you on the traveling life? Share it here on IBIT!