A train sounds like a beautiful mode of transportation. It’s almost romantic, really, the idea of traveling across the country on a train. Try swapping it with another option. A car? You must be moving. A bus? Only if you’re in a band. A plane? How original.

Traveling by train is retro. It appeals to the hipster in you. You start to envision what life is like on the train: long days looking out your window as the countryside passes by, the soothing hum of the engine that guides you to sleep as the train keeps chugging along. The train is efficient: you glide past traffic, reading and working and socializing as the plebeians look on from their cars.

The time comes for you to get on the train. You are excited because you’ve never really traveled by train before but you know it will be glamorous. You’ve thought this through for so long that your musings about what it will be like have become your expectation of reality.

The landscape in Arizona.

And then reality hits you like a fast moving train. Only in reality, trains don’t move that fast. Sometimes they don’t move at all. Hours pass as you look out your window at the same barren landscape begging for the train to move. You close your eyes, praying that if you don’t look at it it will change. You open them again. The tumbleweed stares back at you, mocking you because you are locked inside a motionless beast and it is free to tumble wherever it pleases. Damn you, tumbleweed, you think to yourself. The train has reduced you to conversations with half-plants. Continue reading “Derailed.”

Oh, The Strangers You’ll Meet

I got in a stranger’s car last week. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

It gets worse when I tell you that I had a few thousand dollars of camera equipment on my back and in my hand. And that I had met her just 5 minutes earlier.

I was filming in Atlanta on the sidewalk outside of Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar. The next thing I know, a woman is by my side warning me about the neighborhood we were in.

“I wouldn’t carry that equipment out in the open if I were you,” she said. “What are you filming?”

I told her that I was filming a documentary series on the role of restaurants in revitalizing neighborhoods. She immediately suggested that I capture footage of the King Center (in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.) two blocks away. And the next thing I knew, she was getting into her car waving me in.

“I’ll take you there,” she said. “It’s safer for you this way.” Continue reading “Oh, The Strangers You’ll Meet”

The Ark That Millennials Built

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.

Houston Flood 2015
An empty lot turns into a pond next to a house after severe storms hit Houston.

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. Continue reading “The Ark That Millennials Built”

What I Learned From Crowdfunding

It’s more difficult than you think. And that’s coming from someone who met her goal.

$5,000 may not seem like a lot in the investment world, but for a first time fundraiser, it was daunting. I was one of those kids who shied away from the annual school wrapping paper fundraiser because I didn’t like asking for money. The idea of crowdfunding terrified me, almost to the point where I didn’t pursue my project.

So when I got up the courage to do it, and reached the point where I was happy with my pitch story and video, I studied up on crowdfunding. I read all of the advice columns from people who had successfully met their goals, and tried to follow Indiegogo’s best practice tips for running a solid campaign. Some of the advice worked, others didn’t. Here’s what I learned: Continue reading “What I Learned From Crowdfunding”

The Origin Story

In one year I went from thinking I should be making documentaries to crowdfunding my way on board a train across the country to create a series of them.

April 2014. Chicago. The Purple Pig.

The Purple Pig is one of those places that doesn’t post its menu prices on its website. It’s not a place where you find yourself at 2 p.m. on a weekday with a journalist’s salary unless you were me, someone who was in a quarter-life crisis and didn’t know it.

I was meeting with a former professor of mine, someone who has come to be a mentor to me. I had meant for the conversation to be a chance to catch up. But as are most meetings with your mentors, it turned out to be about life instead.

“Purpose” was our topic of conversation, in particular, what mine would be. This was not a new subject for us, as she had helped me figure out my senior year of college whether I would move with my friends to NYC to pursue acting, or continue down the path of journalism. Ultimately, I picked the latter, and was working as a Capitol Hill reporter in Washington, D.C.

“Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Eventually I’d like to move into documentary work. I want to be telling stories that inspire people to act.”

She looked at me. “Why can’t you do that now?” Continue reading “The Origin Story”