A little over a year ago, I took a train—the California Zephyr—from San Francisco to Denver. It took 36 hours and most of my remaining sanity.
Let me preface this: I’m not an outdoorsy, campy, free spirit-y adventurer. I like slow walks that are mostly shaded. I like feeling moderately clean. I like wandering, but I also like sleeping in my own bed. My temperament wavers from four-year-old who’s stoked to eat ice cream to 84-year-old who just wants to sit and listen to the Red Sox on the radio. I’m way more Winnie The Pooh than Jack Kerouac.
But, here I was, on a grimy-ass train—chugging along through mountains and desert—cramped between retirees heading back from vacation to Iowa (picture June Squibb from the movie, Nebraska) and homeless west coasters relocating to Denver (picture
Jesse Pinkman Skinny Pete and Badger from Breaking Bad). I had seen The Big Easy Express (10 or 12 or 15 times) and wanted to recreate some of that Mumford-Malloy magic. I brought my camera, tripod, and mic in hopes of capturing what I saw, who I met, and why they were going wherever they were going.
By hour two, I realized I didn’t bring enough charged batteries. By hour four, I realized my mic was, bizarrely, not picking up any sound when I was interviewing people. By hour seven, a service dog dropped some explosive diarrhea a foot from my equipment, spraying my tripod with its hot lava. I went freehand with my camera the rest of the trip. Such is life. (I also talked with lots of people: a guy who’d worked as a Walmart cashier for 25 years in Arkansas, whose life dream was to take a train ‘cross country; a woman from Alaska whose husband had just passed away from brain cancer and was now going around North America by train thanking everyone who helped her and her family; an 80-year-old British man who’d run a marathon on every continent but Antartica).
It was not a fun day and a half. But we need those experiences to refocus our intent and strengthen our adaptive muscles. We learn to evolve. We develop thicker skin. We realize what we can control and what we can’t (spoiler alert: a lot). Dogs might eat our homework or poop on our equipment, and that’s the way it goes. We learn to see experiences (creative or otherwise) as not exclusively good or bad but, simply, as experiences and fuel for growth.
In the spirit of graduation season and commencement speeches (maybe my favorite genre of writing), here’s an excerpt from one of my all-time favorites.
I love that—make good art. Whatever we’re going through, we can always make good art. Good meaning authentic—to our values, to our needs. Good meaning out of necessity. Good meaning making what we’d want to consume, what we need in that tough moment.
The Poopy Train Episode stunk (no pun intended), but it wasn’t really that tough in the grand scheme of things. For *actually* tough stuff, I’ve always sought refuge in that mantra: Make. Good. Art.
That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.– Charlie Chaplin
Security is mostly a superstition. Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. – Helen Keller