"Are you headed to Eugene?" Beth piped the question, directed at me, as we fell into step along the boarding station. I slowed pace and replied that my ticket read ALBANY, OR, adding that I wasn't entirely confident I could point to it on a map. Beth said that was a nice area. She, herself, was visiting family during the off-season from her work as a credit-auditor with "the University." For the life of me, I cannot recall which university this angelic woman had dedicated almost two decades of her life to, but it was one on San Juan Island, I think.
Eventually, I let down the beat-up pack I had over filled with trail mix and clean undies and rummaged around. Finally, my fist closed around a familiar lump and pulled out exactly what you'd expect: a rock. Actually, a small jar of rocks rattling around that I thought might find their mark along my journey to western-central Oregon on this fine fall day.
Side note, my boots are now being held together by Shoo Goo and the stringy remains of my biologist dreams. This was way back in September, before I started by shiny new job as a consultant for the Intermountain West Joint Venture and hauled AJ and I to Spokane.
The point is that I boarded this Amtrak train above and had a totally incredible rockological journey to meet up with Bristol Underwood in Corvallis [Figure 1]. No joke, folks, I wasn't even on the train yet and I was already being slapped up side the head with gracious kindness from Beth! People astound me. There I am, squinting into the eastern sunrise, and Beth just up and strikes a convo with me. Anywhoozles, bottom line is that I gave her a pocket rock. Spoiler alert, I know, right? It was a fossil. One from the jar I packed from my storage unit to pass along to Bristol for her window sill collection and the kiddies whose brains she inflated with knowledge and warm studious affections every week. But, the handful of coproplites I passed on to Beth for her grandchillens were not missed. Will never be missed. That's the thing about pocket rocks.
I'm getting away from my story, here.
Ok. Now, that was Beth. This gem of a human is Dixie [Figure 2]. Dixie and I are friends now. Well, I don't anticipate ever seeing her blessed soul again, but for the 6.5 hours we spend hip-to-hip on the second level of our couch Amtrak car, we were the best of buds. Let me break it down for you:
Things I learned While Taking the Train to Corvallis:
1) There is a miraculous metamorphosis that occurs in your 60th year of life on Earth where riding the train becomes exponentially more stimulating.
2) If you are a citizen experiencing homelessness, the train is a splendid way to see the country and safely get your sleeps on for pennies on the dollar!
3) DO NOT FORGET WHICH CAR YOU GOT OFF WHEN TAKING A STROLL AT THE STOPS, THEY WILL CHECK AND YOU WILL CONFUSE THE NICE TRAIN PEOPLE.
4) Always bring snacks as who can afford the ridiculous prices for train food? Not I, said Rock Rat.
5) An open mind and heart will blossom with joy and empathy for those you meet along the way.
I found my seat (a window seat, thank goodness!) and had just tucked my jacket in my lumbar to support my bulging disc during the long hours of sitting to come, when a spry woman plopped into the seat beside me. Without looking at me, she began describing her frustration at having a seat on the second floor of the car, as she has only just undergone knee surgery! "Those steps, I tell you, are brutal! I had no idea you need to specify a seat or floor preference-remember that!" she advised. I nodded soberly and folded the edge of my coat away from her seat. When she was comfortable, or as comfortable as one with recent knee surgery could be on a stuffy train car after climbing a flight of surprise stairs, she looked at me. Hard.
"It's just not something you think about. Having to climb stairs, until you blow out a knee," the woman concluded. A pause hung in the air. I weighed my options at this moment: to politely nod and hope the six hours on this train would not consist of much interaction between us, agree blindly and try to briber her into acquaintanceship with the treats I packed, or do something so painfully in character that it fueled the compassionate sizzles I sometimes feel in my bones for strangers the universe chucks into my path. Obviously, this would be a dull tale if I had chosen anything other than the last option.
Drawing a silent, steady breath I turned as best I could to face my train buddy and stated, "Yea that...that totally sucks."
The woman paused, her brow furrowed and she cautiously looked me square in the eyes. It was then that I saw the fire behind those faded blues. She was feisty.... and I had just made a comment on her exquisite knee pain. Her features softened, though, after striking this contact. I'd like to imagine something in my face conveyed that I was not, in fact, mocking her disgruntlement or pouring more negativity onto her jaded situation. I literally meant, clear as day, that what she was experiencing totally sucked and I regretted that she had to deal with it. I waited, still as a deer on the highway, for a reaction.
She digested something about me and her features never lost their softness. Not for the entire train ride. "Yea....yea, it does suck!" She laughed. I laughed (however nervously) and we exchanged introductions. I shared my sob story about my back injury and we reminisced about our youthful sturdiness lost to time (or ya know...whatever it is for me in that case).
Her name is Dixie. She hailed from lands far south, in "the good part" of California. On her way to see grandchillens and a younger sister in New Mexico. Dixie and I raved about the views, discussed futile efforts to understand our siblings' career paths, and pleasantly munched on our respective snacks. Breaking out my watercolors, Dixie gave me some helpful feedback about filling out the water scene at the base of my lumpy Mt. Rainier. The only sense of an aging mind I could see was that she thought my paintings were "some kind of talent' [Figure 3].
I introduced my train buddy to the magical world of chocolate covered espresso beans, and she listened to my explanation of Rockosophy. As both of these things happened, the journey wound down and we sped by the desertscape of Oregon country. A lull in the conversation (which is hard to achieve with two people shoveling candy espresso into their maws) morphed into a companionable silence and I dove back into my pack.
Out came a ruby red carnelian agate, one partially polished by my having pocketed it for several days leading up to my trip. Actually, only about two days. Bristol and I really slammed that adventure together in a flash. We lead such splendidly rich lives.
So, I hold out the stone to Dixie and explain my Rockosophy segment on pocket rocks. She takes the agate and marvels for just the right amount of time. Then, locking me in place with those fierce features and a look of recognition, Dixie said simply, "So this is mine now."
It wasn't a question. I could've cried and hugged her with an excitement rivaling on violence. Pocket Rocks are totally a thing, and Dixie knew it. Knows it now, anyhow. Where is she now? Where is the stone? Did it fall out of a grandchild's hand to rest along a highway? Is it rolling on the floor of the passenger seat of Dixie's sister's sedan? Who knows! That's just an itty bitty slice of the magic they carry.
BTW: the rest of the trip was amazeballs, too.