I spent all of June in the USA. I started off in Boston and left from Seattle. Oh, and there was a bit of Canada thrown in too. It was quite a trip and no way can I write about ‘highlights’. It was all one big, fat, juicy, wonderful highlight, from start to finish. But when I think about incidents that have stayed with me, it’s some of the things in the gaps, as it were, that keep coming to mind. The things that happened in between the things I was ‘really’ doing, the moments that took me by surprise and left me, someone who loves to plan, in awe at the serendipity of life.
Here’s one of them. I was on the train going from Vancouver to Seattle. Why I was visiting both Vancouver and Seattle were biggies in my trip. I’ll write about them another time. For now it’s the in-between bit I want to talk about.
The train journey between the two cities is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever taken. The track hugs the Pacific coast all the way (it takes 4-hours) and if you’re lucky, the Amtrak guard gives you a running commentary along the lines of “see, folks, there are two bald eagles on the top of the two big boat masts ahead” or “off to the right over the next 16 minutes is some of the prettiest scenery in the entire world. Off to the left, expensive homes. You take your pick” (I wrote that one down). It was early morning and sunny, the ocean was twinkly, a few souls here and there were enjoying walking along the beaches or climbing over the driftwood. The train was pleasant and comfortable. They don’t do crowding on this route. They sell the seats and then that’s it.
About an hour from Seattle, a lady came and joined me in the seat next to mine. She was a little older than me, better dressed than me (the bar was very low that day). Nice make-up. We smiled and acknowledged each other and settled back into our thoughts. At some point the guard came and asked us both something and we noticed that we seemed to share the same accent.
Turned out she was 75 and came from the UK 50 years ago, landed in California, did some secretarial work, got married and hasn’t been back to the UK once. Ever. She asked me what I was doing in the US and I told her about the talks I was giving at Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) and the older athletes I photograph. She said that next time, I should come and give a talk where she lives, which isn’t a CCRC, but a community for over 55s a town just outside Seattle. She’s on the Social Committee there and said she’d set it up for me. She gave me the name of a big CCRC in the same town and urged me to contact them too. She asked me what I’d been doing in Vancouver.
I told her how I’d been visiting the family of Olga Kotelko, legendary masters athlete, who was competing right up till the weekend before she died last year, aged 95. I told her what a great time I’d had and how warmly I’d been welcomed there. How I slept in Olga’s bed… And I asked her what she’d been doing in the town she’d got on, the name of which I forget, but which was on the US side of the border.
And she told me she’d been visiting her son. “Oh! How nice,” I said. There was a pause. “He’s got cancer,” she said. “Pancreatic cancer.” Another pause. “It was very difficult leaving him.”
When we got to Seattle, I left the train and she carried on. She stood up to let me pass and we hugged each other. And it was a real moment. Here we were, two undemonstrative Brits of-a-certain-age, who’d just met on a train in America, giving each other a hug. And that moment, and that connection, has stayed deep with me as I’ve travelled home. And made me think how you never know who you’re going to sit next to on a bus, a plane or a train. How everyone has a story and how you can meet ‘contrapuntally’, as it were: one from a place of joy and the other from a place of pain and how the meeting can still have its own harmony and sweetness, as did hers and mine. How we can reach out to each other, however fleetingly, and enjoy sharing, and recognising, our interconnectivity and love.
More ‘in-between’ stories from my trip still to come.