by Z.S Allen
A sample from a book I"m working on about wanderlust, craving experience, love, and life.
|Chapter 1: The Dream of the American Night
Well, this was it. The final plunge... A whole year building up to this very moment standing on this very train station platform, awaiting that first leg to Boston and on into the vast unknown of a land I’d dreamt about for far longer than I care to explain right now. My stomach was going mad, on the verge of spewing up all the butterflies, but I tried my best to keep from looking like I had anything on my mind. So I stood eyes forward, placid, calm cheeks and brow, yet if you’d shake my hand you’d feel the clammiest flesh the world over.
I was standing staring up at the arrivals/departures board of the Harrisburg Station as the long rhythmic minutes ticked on by. My brother Rodney was doodling on his iPad, mirroring my calm demeanor. The poor kid had to be thinking I’d gone crazy. “Who does this?” I saw as he glanced up at me with long eyes. He was probably right in questioning my sanity, but by now it was too late regardless.
The train would be arriving on time, there was nothing on the stagnant screen to suggest otherwise, so I sat down on the old oaken bench next to him and pulled my big green rucksack next to my leg. Everything I’d need was in there, or so I was hoping: a sleeping bag perched up top, jacket, shirts, extra shorts and jeans, toiletries, three books that meant something to me, and a good deal more of this and that’s I’d read online might be of some importance to me.
There was a bit of paranoia boiling up as I sat there in silence, absentmindedly poking my phone. It lingered, hiding out in the back of my mind as I reminisced back to last summer’s up-and-go trip on a whim that ended nearly in disaster, and by which I survived with nothing but the luck of a thousand shooting stars and the help of a host of gracious strangers to whom I nearly owe my life. There was no time for such poisonous memories, round two was now just eight minutes from its start---one of those “I’ll remember this for the rest of my life” type things; another chance to run off into the land, hopping from train-to-train and whatever else in between in a big lasso-shaped route across the country.
The idea first came about when something very ancient within my bones, and that may exists in all bones, was triggered; ignited by my plummet into the ranks of the new generation of restless youths where the wild dream was planted, running rampant and driving me headlong towards certain madness. Part of me had become bound by the alluring ropes of old America in all her mysterious, unknown beauty that stretched in one long rolling wave over to the West Coast dream. And the only plan I had was a vague and somewhat ignorant sketch of an idea of the route I’d wanted to take.
The only thing I was undoubtedly sure of was that I craved experience. I wanted to know what was really out there, and yearned to prove to the world that learning through adventure and direct experience is the best of teachers--- a kind of living, breathing, relentless pursuit of knowledge that is never forgotten. It was something I felt that was born in me, hardwired into my genes and now I was ready, armed with an ambitious spirit, and a willingness to not only complete the trip at all costs, but to find what compelled me to pursue such an undertaking. This trip wasn’t a random dash like the doomed Nashville trip; I’d given up a lot for this in hopes of finding closure somewhere out there on the iron rails and road.
The first leg was short, a quick hitch to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, where I’d catch a crossover to another train before I was off on that long winding haul to Boston. It was one of the lost cities I’d never seen but heard so much about. One of the cities that ignited the revolutionary spirit, and the only stop I had planned on the East Coast. I’d seen New York plenty of times and crossed it off when I was mapping out a rough route a few days back. Had I gone to NYC I’d probably never have left, it’s one of those cities, the kind of temptress void who’ll grab your soul and never let go. It was necessary to bypass the big mess there and head on up the familiar rising, falling, green fields and red brick sliver of birthplace America we call the East Coast and get out west as soon as possible.
The day before I left, a Sunday I believe, I’d come to the station to pick up my Amtrak train pass that cost me $580. It gave me a month to go to thirteen different cities, or stops, and opened the world up wide to see wherever my eyes wanted to go. Everything was suddenly a possibility. There was a sense of true freedom welling up within my heart. I knew that when I boarded that first train it would be just the pack on my back, my own thoughts, and America; no friends or family to take my hand when things go rough or bail me out if I raged too hard.
As I stood on that platform and watched the train finally pull into the station, everything came bursting back. It’d been such an incredible journey leading up to that moment. I became overwhelmingly aware that whatever I was doing was right, and that I should waste no more time questioning myself as to whether I’d made the correct choice. I thought back to when I’d first looked out my old apartment window west down the highway and watched the pinkish orange skies of end-of-day dusk beckoning me to come see where the horizon met the edge of land. It was a calling no man could resist.
So when I hugged my brother goodbye and looked through the window with drops of rain sliding down the glass, and saw all the people waving with sad-smiling faces to their loved ones going, I knew there was no looking back, that this really was it. We rolled out of Harrisburg at 3:00 P.M on a rainy Monday and crept slowly along, paralleling the Capitol Beltway and passing graffiti-strewn walls and long forgotten bottles of malt liquor under overpasses. I could almost see the old ragged hobos under there with their thick overcoats and grocery carts leaning against the cement walls getting drunk and falling asleep on cardboard boxes.
Immediately I knew this would be more than just a jubilant roaming adventure across the United States, and kept telling myself until I was convinced, that I wasn’t the only person to ever contract this strange wanderlust disease that pulled me outside my bubble-life of the average and ordinary. I felt it was a more universal thing, something that happens when you begin to melt into the too-big world and become who it was you were meant to be. It was a feeling that words cannot capture; one of those odd things that comes with being human that must be felt to truly understand. In my gut I knew I had one shot to find whatever it was that’d gone missing, and to find that experience that haunted me, and kept my eyes pinned wide at 4 A.M too many nights.
I sat back in my chair as the train rolled through Elizabethtown and on into Lancaster County where the sun finally broke through the anguished clouds for only the third time all month. September had been a miserable, gloomy month of rain and black, tragic clouds; the type of cloudy, dreary days that get you thinking about all the things that dwell in the pits of your mind and only gurgle up when you’re sitting at your window watching the rain pound down to the mournful earth. You can drive around town at noon and see all the people in strange fogged windows thinking about those “I exist” questions all soulful humans think about. All those reasons behind our actions and paths we choose, indifferent of age. Whether you’re twenty-one years young and navigating the hostile seas towards growing up, or eighty-one years into the dream with a tired, worn road behind you littered with the forlorn rags of life. All the countless decisions made or regretted on the long stretch between birth and death that each hold certain consequences or successes that make us who we’re to become, and who we’ll forever be when we take old Death’s hand that glorious day our eyes are forever closed to the sun and stars. Those foolish questions we question until the day we go crashing back into the eternal void from which we came, and which we strive and struggle our entire lives to find answers to from grandfathers and gray-bearded hermits sitting by the roadside with bright blue eyes to whom we beg for grains of wisdom.
Such were my thoughts as we dashed along through the glossy, rain-soaked pumpkin and corn fields of the angelic Lancaster countryside, headed towards Downingtown and soon the skylines of old Philadelphia. From now until October’s blurry end, I was on my own and ready to embrace anything like Thoreau as he took off to meet Walden. I had no idea what would be in store for me from here on out, as I detached myself from all familiar comforts and watched them pleasantly recede into the certainty of the past. My attention was now solely focused on dealing with whatever tests lie ahead...
To be continued.