This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.
A train trip across America – just what the doctor ordered.
Millennials get a bad rap. We are a lazy, tech-driven group, some say. We cannot survive without a GPS signal and wifi. Our fingers are constantly dancing to the rhythm of our phones. We are far too consumed in our virtual worlds, than in the real world.
This past week, I completed a transcontinental train journey with 24 other Millennials. We rolled across the country in vintage Pullman train cars – not high speed rail. We found ourselves enchanted by the beauty of America – not our cellphones. We worked seamlessly together – not deferring to politics and cliques. We performed old-school ballads on an antique guitar: songs reminiscent of the 40s, 50s, 60s, not the 90s, when we were all teens. We lived in our jeans and hoodies – not trendy, hipster outfits.
The train was full of paradoxes. The Millennials were enamored by vintage, but were devising plans for the future. We were traveling on America’s historic train tracks, in refurbished cars from the 40s and 50s; but were thinking of “new age” ideas like “travel with purpose” and “human-centered design.” We were seeking solutions, not only for the communities we visited – but also for ourselves. Of all the cities we visited (San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburg), we fell in love with Omaha- a historic old downtown, the mecca for travelers in a bygone era, a crossing point of East and West. It surprised us: still entrenched in its divisive history, but trying to emerge, developing a more progressive, cosmopolitan mindset.
The train – that we often think of as merely a mode of transit – became our home. We slept in rail yards across the country, stationed next to old Union Pacific cars, listening to the humming of these bygone vessels in the wee hours of the night. We sat on train platforms and discussed the beauty of Henry David Thoreau. We mapped the stars in the sky above the prairies of Nebraska. We waited for meteor showers from the vestibules of the train. We ate locally-sourced meals from a cubicle-sized kitchen in the dining car. And we clicked far too many photos of our beautiful nation.
The train was as much a destination as the next stop. We slept at 2 am, woke up at 6 am. Yet, we were alive, eager to explore. We wanted to hear from each other as well as the many entrepreneurs we met along the way. Suspended in time, disconnected from the rest of society, we rattled on, latched onto Amtrak trains. But in our cabins, we lived in a different world. We were talking of sustainable energy, data innovation, sexual health, migrant communities, and income inequalities.
We were cloistered in historic quarters, but passionate about modern problems – the inequalities and injustices that face our generation. We were traveling not merely to see the country, but to reconnect with its communities. We rarely went sightseeing. We went soul-searching in each town, looking for the changemakers – the energy innovators, the social workers, the health activists, the urban artists.
It was, what Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler, called “travel with purpose.” We didn’t carry tour guides; rather, we scribbled notes. We went in with blank minds, painting the city for ourselves – not using someone else’s template to explore.
The trip was defined not by the destinations. Rather, by the communal spaces we shared, the meals we ate together, the conversations we had, the people we discovered. The cities were a backdrop for a generation seeking social change.
The Millennial Trains Project will be doing two more similar journeys next year across America. I’m not sure if it will be able to recreate the serendipity and pioneering spirit of this first group. I hope it does. Because it was an adventure with a grander vision. It was the way travel should be. It was the way we should approach social change – together, in collaboration, suspended in time, in a reflective space, connected to our roots while open to new systems.
It could be the “road trip of our generation.”