She was a bluegrass princess with chaotic curls, eating a green pepper the size of a softball in the seat across from me on the overnight train through the Rocky Mountains. I thought it was odd that someone would eat a green pepper like it was an apple, but I didn’t want to say anything for fear of coming across as odd myself. While she was unburdened save for the traveling pack and the guitar stowed in it’s battered case in the luggage train, I was weighted down with laptops, suitcases, boxes bound with packing tape; all the trappings of a life in relocation. I was film-school slick with an ear for dialogue but lacking the stomach to stand in front of the camera, and so I chose to linger behind the scenes, furnishing the pretty people with words that didn’t sound like they were pulled from a hatful of cinematic cliches. I was bound for the Coast to take an empty room in my uncles apartment while I chased after agents or producers or whomever saw potential in my pages. She was headed that way to play a show, record with friends, surf from couch to couch and take a few shifts working with her brother laying ventilation ducts in new buildings because money was tight those days and tighter still for a traveling musician like herself.
We broke the ice with cross-aisle banter when the train shuddered to a halt shortly after leaving the Jasper snack stop. “Do you suppose the train is lost?” I asked, met in return with a wry smile and a chuckle. The back and forth continued on through the afternoon as the train resumed it’s plodding trek through the mountains. Her name was exotic and she had wisdom written in sanskrit across her right wrist, my name was ordinary though my middle name was Scottish thanks to my grandfather, but I had nothing in the way of tattoos because needles always bothered me. She was a tumbleweed from the East, blown about for years with a keyboard strapped to her back, formerly engaged to a fella right out of highschool but That’s All In The Past Now. We decided since the train trip would be long and contact with the outside world limited that a murder would inevitably occur during the night, thrusting us into the spotlight as detectives of exceptional ability who would solve the case before the train arrived in Vancouver. From there on, I was known to her as Sherlock Holmes, and she to me as Miss Marple.
As the afternoon wore on the banter turned to facts and details, old stories crackling like weathered records back and forth as the sun slowly dipped into the mountain valleys. I came from the stark suburbs in Oil County, and had resisted the pull to flock north like many young men I’d known that had joined the Black Gold Rush and sunken neckdeep in easy money and bad habits. In the place of hockey and trucks and country music I’d found theatre and bicycles and dusty vinyl records belonging to my father, and opted for four years in a prairie college learning how to speak and move and which way the camera ought to be pointed. This amused her, as she had never considered the classroom past highschool, having been on the piano bench since the age of three and learning her trade without having an old hand grade her accordingly in exchange for hefty tuition fees; she simply was, and it was enough.
We took dinner together in the meal car; lamb shank with gravy and wild rice and greens, far better than I had expected train fare to be, but then again I was used to the prepackaged plasticky meals found on airplanes, force-fed to captive diners because it’s not like they have much choice in the matter. We stayed long after the other guests had cleared away back to their seats and bunks and we ordered coffee while she recounted her days on the road, sweeping across the United States playing every roadhouse that would have them. I had never undertaken any such journeys, only limited sorties with family to Disneyland and a brief expedition out to Montreal to apply for a school that would not have me. To me, the road was an uncertain place, a limbo I had been brought up to disdain, but she was unafraid to hitchhike across the miles and rely on the kindness of strangers and her own fortitude, and she said there was nothing to fear; the world might be up in arms and petrified of what cannot be mapped by a travel broker, but there was no reason the wilderness should be seen as malignant and foreboding. She said she dreamed of owning a ranch, an unruly piece of land she could reign over with a horse, a dog and a gun, making manifest all the desires that lay heavy in the songs she wrote and sang in pub shows and at festivals and fairs and on the sidewalks of The Coast, where she had lived for many years until it just wore her out and the glass towers had to give way once again to prairie plains.
By this time it was well into the dark hours and the majesty of the passing mountains outside was hidden from our eyes, so we returned to the economy coach and said goodnight, and while she slept in comfort thanks to the foresight she had to bring pillows and blankets I tossed and turned across the aisle, wrestling with the unyielding seat trying to find some way to arrange my gangly form in a position comfortable enough to fall asleep in, bundling spare clothes into an impromptu pillow and covering myself in my heavy peacoat to keep warm. It was nearly impossible, only a few hours of sleep were to be had, and when I thought to text my friends back home in the hopes they might still be awake I found nothing but a “Searching For Signal,” on the screen; for the first time in years, maybe even a decade, I was completely cut off, isolated on all sides, in perfect solitude save for the constant drumming of the train wheels. The outside world was, for that brief moment, hushed, and it was good.
The next morning we took an early breakfast and went up to the observation car, taking in the passing rocky vistas as dawn spilled over the crags and into the wooded valleys the train tracks cut across. The valleys gave way to farmers fields, and farmers fields to suburbs, and soon the sprawl of civilization was upon us, highways swooping overhead, commuter trains surging past, a skyline of crystal towers jutting out like teeth sinking into the flesh of the Pacific, and then we were there.
As we collected ourselves and prepared to depart she tossed me a CD across the aisle, an assembly of raw highway tales and outlaw odysseys wrapped in clarion chords and ivory keys, and I had nothing to give her in return but that was alright, I could make it up to her someday. And then we were off the train hauling our lives on our backs, collecting the scraps from the baggage carousel and out into the world where she stood to savour a long-delayed smoke while I threw everything into the back of my uncles waiting truck.
And there was a smile and an au revoir, an inside joke and a notion to meet up again when things were more settled. And then she was gone, and that was that, wouldn’t see her again for the better part of a couple of years. But if there was one thing she did do for me, it’d be that she set the tone for the adventure that would follow, my first few tentative steps in new shoes in a new city. It was going to be odd, it was going to be unexpected… but when you got to the heart of the matter, there was never anything to fear.