As we left the station in El Paso, Texas, the clouds greyed. The collective phones on the train buzzed with an emergency flash flood alert. The train chugged forward into the empty desert, thundering skies filling the void. The passenger cars shook from the forceful electricity in the air. Soon enough, long fingers of lightning jumped down, striking the earth in the distance. I retreated to my cabin for a tumultuous sleep.
Our train is small; an Amtrak engine pulls our two sleeping cars and one lounge car across the country. I was not quite sure how we would hold up in the flood that washed out Texas, but other than arrival delays, our trip has not been affected. We stopped in Austin and then San Antonio, where the ground was wet but not flooded. I only knew of the impact of the flood because of my family, who was reaching out to make sure I was okay, and because of a woman I met in Austin, who said the city had imposed a curfew on Sunday to try to keep people off of the roads. With very little internet connectivity on the train, I’ve not kept up with the news.
My awareness of the storm’s damage changed when we got to Houston. The devastation permeated the landscape. It seemed like every other house was a foot under water. Our train flew by communities where some houses were raised by cinder blocks, and others missing roof shingles or even entire walls. The clusters of houses along the tracks belonged to Houston’s poor, and it was hard to tell whether their ruin was caused by the storm, or merely exacerbated by it. No one was outside to clean up the chaos. I wondered if some had fled. In sitting down to write, I managed enough of an internet connection to Google “Texas flood,” and the first news article to pop up estimated that 30 Houstonians were missing.
We are exactly halfway through our journey, and we’ve been told that our train is meant to serve as an incubator. We are in a moving fishbowl, where the media is invited to look in with wonder and we, in turn, look out to see strangers waving at the cars probably wondering what on earth a “Millennial Train” could be.
I waved back at the old man in a blue collared shirt who limped up from his bench outside of a convenience store somewhere in the Arizona desert.
I waved back at the young Mexican boy who stood behind the thick fence that separated his country from ours. His father was standing next to him with his hand on the young boy’s shoulder. His mother flanked his other side, arms full with a young girl who fidgeted on her hip. Our train represents opportunity. But that opportunity means something different to us, those on the El Paso side of the border, than it does to them.
There was no one to wave to as we passed by Houston.
In these moments where we fly past the world it doesn’t feel like we’re locked away from it to develop the solution to America’s problems. How can we fix something we haven’t taken the time to know? We’d be self-righteous to expect answers from the few hours we spend at each leg of the trip. We just can’t fix the country’s problems in 10 days.
We’re privileged, protected by the walls of the train. I have to make peace with this, the feeling that we’re charged to do something and yet have little knowledge to do anything.
You can look at this trip pessimistically. Being on it, I see the flaws. I know that our whistle-stop tour across the American South is inadequate. In my own project, I can tell that I’m only scratching the surface of the stories waiting to be told in our country’s most in-need communities.
But I’m going to take an optimistic look at it. I’m halfway through the journey. Three cities down, three to go. And the next three are just as jam-packed as the first. I’ll be in a neighborhood hit by Hurricane Katrina. I’ll be in a neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the Gospel. Awaiting me are rich stories, and I’m ready for the baptism by fire.
Although it feels disempowering to be locked away on the train, there is power in observation. To see the purpose of this travel, you have to see it as a beginning. It is a baptism; it is the start of a larger journey. We won’t solve America’s problems in 10 days, but in 10 days we will build the framework for a lifetime of figuring out how to move the country forward.
I guess you can say that’s what Noah did too. And forgive me for comparing a vessel full of Millennials to a man chosen by God to carry forth the human race. You can rest assured that we didn’t bring any selfie sticks on board.