Passover began just outside of Gallup, New Mexico. I didn't know anyone on the train, aside from the fellow who had talked about his personal life until he got off at Kansas City. Friday at sunset marked my second full day on the train called the "Southwest Chief," which would deliver me to Los Angeles sometime the next morning. We were barreling through red dirt desert, past mesas, ranches, and snow-capped mountains—a far cry from any place I'd ever called home.
The tickets had only been booked two weeks before, but I'd dreamed of this trip for nearly a year. Most of my travel has been for family events, visiting my parents or attending weddings, and I needed some time away that was on my terms. I've always liked what trains have to offer: incredible views, a leisurely pace, interesting people, and more legroom in coach than a first-class seat on an airplane. That I was spending my holiday in motion, among strangers, was not lost on me. (My dad sent me an article about remote seders hosted online, a great idea for places with more reliable wireless than the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.) Come Saturday, though, I would be with family.
My cousins in L.A. were letting me couch-crash. I had been nervous asking them if I could stay. We only see each other every few years, and only for a short while at a time, given the aforementioned busy family events. I had no reason to worry: Andy and Jen (and their four-year-old, Grover) couldn't have been more enthusiastic, and I arrived to a warm and generous welcome. After a shower, I was whisked off to Umami Burger, a local institution, where carb-conscious Angelinos offered, conveniently for us, lettuce wraps as substitutes for buns.
As it turned out, staying with Andy and Jen was the best possible decision I could have made. We spent hours in the mornings and evenings talking, catching up, exchanging recipes, and having fun. Grover and I jammed on our ukuleles together. Everyone played with his brand-new Hot Wheels racetrack. Before I left, he told me he would miss me. My family is far-flung: visiting them has taken me from Seattle to Israel, and it always pays off. We only have so many chances to build relationships if we don't go out and build them ourselves. I can't wait to see Grover, Andy, and Jen again.
There's an interesting complementary element to this trip: I spent most of it with friends I'd grown close to online. People are often surprised when I talk about meeting "internet friends." I've never had a bad experience with it. There's a sense, when you finally hang out offline, of being with your people. We have interests, in-jokes, experiences and outlooks in common, and we know that our time together is both limited and special, so we make every bit of it count.
The act of showing or being shown one's home is something extraordinary for both parties. When I host friends in Chicago, I bring them to all my favorite spots in the city, whether they're tourist traps or holes in the wall. In Los Angeles, I marveled at both the rhinestone-embedded street signs of Beverly Hills and Randyland, the massive (and stunning at sunset) sculpture of the Virgin Mary built from colored bottles and wire. Later, in Santa Fe, I climbed a snowy mountain trail, and my friend pointed out the tiny shack in which she'd once sold coffee. At sunset, I watched clouds pass overhead from a mineral hot spring, astounded that I was really there.
Passover ended near Trinidad, Colorado. I was in the dining car, sharing a table with a general manager of an AMC movie theater and a man who was returning to Joplin, Missouri, for the first time since last year's tornados. Meals on Amtrak trains are communal: you're seated with other strangers, which is how I've met anyone from a veteran of Okinawa to a former student of my dad's. Chicago was already on my mind. Tomorrow we'd cross the Mississippi again, and I had work on Monday. But until then, I was a stranger at this table too, and that should always have something to teach me.
Esther Bergdahl came to Chicago for college and hasn't found a reason to leave yet. She is a Senior Program Associate at the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders (www.jewishgenetics.org).