One last train ride. Over the last few months, I’ve traveled in cars, planes, trains, ferries, rafts, cabs, tuk tuks, and a helicopter. And it all ends with a Saturday afternoon train ride from San Francisco to Blue Bluff.
I landed in San Francisco International Airport on Friday night. To my surprise, I arrived to find my mom and uncle waiting in the airport to greet me. After a long day of flying from Costa Rica to Houston, then from Houston to Los Angeles, then from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I figured there was a one in five chance that my family was just a hallucination brought on by sleep-deprivation. Once my mom had me in a rib-breaking hug, I realized that it wasn’t an illusion. Even though I wasn’t in Blue Bluff just yet, I felt like I was home.
We all jumped into my uncle’s car, where my family complimented my beard and criticized my BO. My uncle lives in San Francisco, giving me a place to drop off my backpack before we went out for dinner. My mom also insisted that I take a shower before leaving the apartment. If the choice had been up to me, I would have skipped dinner and fallen asleep on my uncle’s couch instead. But I knew my mom wanted to spend some time with me. I was finally back, and she wanted to spend the weekend in San Francisco with her son and her brother.
So I gulped down a couple coffees at dinner and told my family every story I could think of from my travels. I left out the story about the rabid dog in Morocco. If I dropped that one on my mom right away, there’s a good chance I’d never be allowed to leave the country again. I also left out the fact that I got severe food poisoning in Cambodia. I didn’t mention the time my cab driver hit a cow in India either. Come to think of it, there were a lot of stories that I didn’t think my mom was ready for.
My mom woke me up early on Saturday morning because we had to catch our ferry to Alcatraz. I desperately needed sleep and had seen enough tourist attractions to last me a decade, but I didn’t complain. So I, like so many of Alcatraz’s former residents, went to the island against my will. I shuffled through the prison hallways like a zombie, counting the minutes until we could go home.
Once we got back to San Francisco, my mom took mercy on me and said that we could leave that night, instead of Sunday morning. I knew that she had already made plans for Saturday night, and I wanted, at least, for her to have a good time with her brother. In the end, she agreed to stay in San Francisco with my uncle, while I would take the train back to Blue Bluff. She offered to hang onto my backpack and drive it home on Sunday, but I wanted to carry it. It felt right that I would take it home myself.
The idea of returning home had made me too excited to sleep during the train ride. Instead, I distracted myself with a book I had gotten from my hostel in Costa Rica. It discussed famous sailors of the twentieth century. I’ve never been particularly interested in sailing, but it was the hostel library’s only book in the English language. I exchanged it in for some lousy crime novel I had with me, and began reading. Progress on the book had been slow, especially with all of the technical, sailing jargon I had to carve through.
As my train crawled closer and closer to Blue Bluff, I crawled closer and closer to the end of the book. The last section discussed the exploits of the French sailor, Bernard Moitessier. In the 1960’s, he and a few other sailors began a non-stop, solo race around the world. From what I read, Moitessier seemed a little insane. Not only was he unafraid of facing storms and solitude on the open sea, but he welcomed these dangers. Comfort and security were his enemies. Uncertainty and adventure were what gave his life meaning.
Right before my train got to Blue Bluff, a young man sat down across from me. “Excuse me,” he said, resting his hands on the table between us. “Would you mind if I asked you a question?”
“Not at all,” I lied. I was finally coming to the climax of the chapter, and didn’t want to be interrupted. Moitessier, miles ahead of the other racers, was just closing in on the finish line. I dog-eared my page and decided that I’d have to wait a few minutes to hear about the Frenchman’s victory.
“Are you on the way to Eugene?”
“Oregon?” I asked, furrowing my eyebrows in confusion.
“Yeah, I noticed your shirt.” He pointed at my green and yellow shirt.
“No.” I laughed, realizing that I was wearing the same colors as the University of Oregon. “I’m getting off at the next stop.”
“Oh, sorry,” the young man said. “I’m heading up to Oregon and was just wondering how close we were.”
“Should just be a couple more hours.” I noticed that he had said the word “sorry” the same way Alex Trebek did. “Are you Canadian?” I asked.
“Yeah!” he said with an enthusiastic smile. “I’m from Vancouver. Well, a small town near Vancouver. You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I said with a nod.
“I’m visiting some of my friends who went to college in the United States. One of them goes to school in Berkeley and another is in Oregon. Have you been traveling around California?” he asked me.
I’m still not sure why, but I chose that moment to tell every story that I was afraid to tell my mother. That poor Canadian had no idea what he was in for when he asked that simple question. I told him about when I got bit by a rabid dog, about when my Indian cab driver ran over a cow, about when I got so sick in Cambodia that I couldn’t lift my head, about the American soldier I met who carried a penis-shaped keychain with him into battle, about the Australian rugby coach who puked on that plane, about the landslide in Peru, and about me almost dying in Costa Rica in a white-water rafting accident.
“Wow,” the Canadian said after I paused to catch my breath. “Sounds like you got exactly what you wanted.”
“Well, you said you’ve always wanted to travel. And then you get a chance to circle the entire planet. You must be feeling great!”
“I am,” I replied. But I might have been lying again. It’s not like I didn’t want to come home, though. Even though I’d never been the biggest fan of Blue Bluff, I had definitely started to feel homesick towards the end of my travels. It felt right that I was finally returning home, but something nagged in the back of my head. It felt like I had left something behind in an airport or a train station somewhere on the other side of the planet.
“I’m also about to leave North America,” the Canadian said. “A friend and I started an NGO a few months ago, and it’s finally starting to make progress.”
“Yeah. It’s in water purification. This time next month, I’ll be living in Nigeria.”
“That’s amazing,” I said, grinning. “You’re going to have one hell of an experience.”
A moment passed before either of us spoke again. “Did you do any service or charity work while you were abroad?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Nothing like that. Well, unless you count that one kid in Cambodia that I shared a pack of M&Ms with.”
“How’d it feel to do that?”
“Really good,” I said. I could feel myself smiling at the memory. “Partly because my food poisoning was over and I could finally eat again. But that kid was great. She asked what state I was from and, before I could answer, she started guessing. She just started naming state after state, going from east to west. I couldn’t believe a nine year old girl from Cambodia had memorized so many. Every time she named one, I gave her another M&M. Before long, she had gotten the whole bag. I wanted to see if I could trick her, so I told her I was from East Dakota. And, sure enough, she calls me out on my bullshit. I bought her three packs of M&Ms for that.”
After a few seconds of laughter, the Canadian spoke again. “Listen. I know this might sound a little weird, but our NGO is pretty under-staffed. I don’t know if you’re looking for a job, but-”
“Oh,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t think I’m what you’re looking for. I didn’t go to college and study water purification or anything like-”
“Trust me,” the Canadian interrupted, “you’ve got the type of education we’re looking for. I’m not asking you to go to a lab and invent some bacteria-killing chemical or whatever. We need someone who wants to help the world and is willing to live somewhere new, weird, and different.”
“Nigeria, huh?” I asked. “That’s definitely new, weird, and different.” After a moment of consideration, I asked, “Didn’t you say that you’re going to leave really soon?”
“My flight leaves in three weeks.”
“Well, there you go. It’s a cool idea and I’m really flattered that you’d consider letting me play a part in it, but there’s just no way it can happen.”
“I mean,” the Canadian said with a shrug, “it wouldn’t be impossible. Yeah, there’s a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy to go through, but if we got started right now…..”
“We’d need you to come to Vancouver right away to get you sorted out with our NGO, but…. it wouldn’t be impossible.”
I ran my hand through my hair. “That would be an incredible opportunity,” I said, mostly to myself. “But I gotta go home for a bit. I’ve been traveling all around the world for months, and I need to get my feet under me. You know what I mean?”
“I completely understand,” the Canadian said. “I knew the odds were pretty slim that you’d be up for it. I’d probably feel the same way if I were in your shoes.”
I thanked him again for the offer. Then we shook hands, and he went back to his seat. I leaned back in my chair, and the nagging in the back of my head grew louder.
I’d be back in Blue Bluff within five minutes. I continued reading my sailing book to clear my head. I thought that Moitessier’s triumphant arrival at the finish line would be a nice passage to accompany my return to Blue Bluff. I thought wrong.
As it turns out, Moitessier did not win that race. He sailed up to the finish line, miles ahead of every other competitor. Victory was assured. But Moitessier abandoned the race. When he was within sight of the finish line, he spun the wheel, returned to the open ocean, and sailed around the world a second time.
Before setting sail for Tahiti, he launched a message onto a passing ship with a slingshot. The note explained that he had abandoned the race “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” What a weirdo.
At last, the train pulled into Blue Bluff. I stared out the window at my town and couldn’t believe my eyes. It had not changed at all, but everything was different.
Before my dad died, he told me the greatest thing about travel. It isn’t that it teaches you about other parts of the world. It’s that travel allows you to finally understand your home.
I saw Blue Bluff in a different context. I looked at the two-story buildings, the beat-up cars, and the towering redwood trees in the distance. I had once resented these small-town charms. Now, I could feel a lump forming in my throat as I looked at my home. There were about a dozen people walking along the sidewalks of Main street that evening. I recognized all of them. There is literally no other place on Earth where I can look at the busiest street in town and know everyone’s name. Blue Bluff is a special place.
I wanted to run out into the street and talk to anybody who would listen. I wanted to climb the trees like I did when I was a kid. I wanted to walk into Rob’s Tavern and see who was there.
But I did none of these things. I just sat there, admiring my home. I’m not sure how long the train rested in the station. Lost in my trance, I wasn’t sure if fifteen minutes or fifteen seconds had passed. I snapped awake when the automated voice informed us that the train was preparing for departure.
It was time for me to go. But it wasn’t time for me to go home. I am happy at sea, and it’s about time I saved my soul.
I didn’t watch Blue Bluff disappear as the train pulled away. It wasn’t going anywhere. And I’d be back soon. Instead, I made a phone call.
“Hi, Mom,” I said as the train roared northward. “There’s been a slight change of plans.”
The story will continue soon...Stay tuned for new installments!