The Learning Curve: Train tracks to e-mails back

I haven’t been in too many train stations in my life, but I think there are few as pretty as Portland’s Union Station.

While I’d had a blast in Oregon, three days in this unique city had not been enough time. Yoga, hiking through waterfalls, exploring the downtown dining, dancing, and making new friends had certainly filled up my days. There was still so much I didn’t get a chance to see or do, but I was very happy with how I had spent the time. Plus I had a feeling this wouldn’t be the last time I came to visit.

I sat on my suitcase admiring the vaulted marble ceilings and ornate wall clocks, watching the minute hand tick by, telling me my train was late. I sighed, resting my chin in the palm of my hand. I guess there were worse places I could be waiting for a ride.

I flashed back to my train ride into Portland where we had screeched to a halt outside of Kelso. There had been an accident ahead we had to wait to clear. It was snowing and the conductors had no idea when we’d be on the move again. I blinked back to the Portland station and immediately felt better. At least here I had cell service. I watched the little boy ahead of me steal his mother’s iPhone to play games. It was times like these I wish I had Angry Birds.

A half-hour later, the train arrived. I filed out to the platform with the hundreds of others.

Courtesy of

When I handed the platform conductor my ticket, he glared at me. “You didn’t check in.” I didn’t understand. I had picked my ticket up from the counter. What more was there to do? Apparently I had broken some sort of train protocol and I was in trouble.

The man huffed and puffed (I was sure to blow shortly) repeating over and over, “You were supposed to check in… All passengers are to check in.” He pulled out a permanent marker and gave me a colored piece of paper with a number on it. “Here. Seat twenty-six. Second floor.” I smiled as angelically as possible and walked away before he could change his mind.

The Coast Starlight was two stories tall and stretched on and on like a large metal centipede.

I found the appropriate car and hauled my heavy suitcase inside. I started up the cramped stairwell and learned quickly that it did not jive well with long skirts and large suitcases. A good deal of pushing, pulling, huffing, and grunting later, I tripped over the top step.

Blowing the hair out of my face, I stood up and dusted myself off. The seated passengers watched me curiously as I got my act together. My cheeks were hot and pink, but I pretended I didn’t notice their stares as I walked by.

I had a window seat next to a young man on his computer. I sat down in a cloud of anxiety and tried to become as inconspicuous as possible. This proved more difficult than I thought because I had this stupid piece of colored paper and no idea what to do with it. I looked at it intently, wondering if there was more to be done or if I could shove it in my bag. I mean, the conductor had made such a fuss about me not having checked in. Was there more? I tried to glance around leisurely to see if anyone else had their colored paper in hand, but the man seated next to me wasn’t fooled. He held out his hand and took the slip from me, placing it on the luggage rack above us. I thanked him quietly, hoping this would be the final act of my train stupidity.

Then came the Footrest Debacle. When I tried to be smooth and push down my footrest with my boot, it wouldn’t budge. After a few minutes of tapping the toe of my shoe against the bar, I leaned forward with a calm expression. I grabbed it with both hands pushed down. It wouldn’t move. I proceeded to shake the damn thing until the person in front of me turned around to see what all the fuss was about. The young man next to me chuckled and pointed to a lever on the side of the seat. I sat back, ashamed of the scene I’d made.

“I’m so sorry,” I prattled, “I don’t normally take trains. I really appreciate you being so nice about it. I promise I’ll get the hang of it… Just gotta establish that learning curve.” He didn’t look at me. “I’m on my way to visit Port Townsend. I’m from Vegas,” I explained. He smiled and shrugged off my idiosyncrasies, telling me not to worry about it. For the remainder of the train ride, I tried not to. I turned my iPod on and focused instead on the hawk that flew alongside the train, wondering what he could possibly think of the travelers riding inside the long centipede.

We reached Tacoma late in the evening. I struggled one last time down the stairs and out of the car. Before leaving the station, I felt compelled to turn and thank my fellow passenger for his kindness. I mentally apologized for my clumsiness and handed him my business card. I strode off before I could trip over my skirt or do something else oh-so-Hilary.

I worked very hard to block that graceful moment out of my head and hadn’t thought another thing of it. Well, that is until I received an e-mail today. It went as follows:


Just wanted to shoot you a quick email thanking you for the pleasant train trip up to Washington last week. I’ve taken the trip up and down between Oregon and Washington many times and it is usually normal, occasionally horrible, but not often is there someone as pleasant as you to sit next to.

I hope your trip to Port Townsend was enjoyable and the rest of your travels are exciting.


P.S. I’m pretty sure I completely failed to introduce myself in the 3 hours or so we traveled together. So yeah, sorry for that…

I sat at my computer dumbfounded.

He was apologizing for not introducing himself? And here I thought I had been a nuisance.

While I had been so concerned about making a fool out of myself, he had found my presence endearing. Huh.

I guess the lesson learned is that we really do create our own reality. And maybe I should stop putting thoughts in other people’s heads. I do have a bad habit of doing that.

Thanks, Isaac, for being such a cool travel buddy. I hope we meet again some day.


50 thoughts on “The Learning Curve: Train tracks to e-mails back

    • Totally! I have this tendency to be incredibly self-centered and think that people are judging me everywhere I go. The reality is, no-one probably notices the girl on her computer in the corner quite NEARLY as much as I think they do.

      Luckily the more I travel, the more I don’t seem to care what people think. =)

      Have you ever been in a situation where you thought people perceived you one way but they actually had a totally different opinion than what you thought?

  1. Pingback: Bad Habit « A Southerner Abroad

  2. hahaha. I hate how when you do one clumsy thing, it gets you all flustered and then you end up with a streak of embarrassing moments. It’s always a nice surprise when things turn out to be better than you’d imagined šŸ™‚

  3. That picture is beautiful! Makes me want to go on a train with one of those old suitcases with the snaps on the top. And, I would take a good book to read on the train taking me wherever I want to go! Thanks for the reason to have wishful thinking šŸ™‚

    And by the way I love train stations. Only one I have visited was in New York, and Washington DC and they were both amazing! I felt so small but yet important.

    • Hi there! Thank you so much for your kind words!

      I often thought about how I need to get myself a proper steam trunk, a good pair of Victorian heels and a Jane Austen novel to read on my next train experience. Sometimes it’s fun to live in the fantasy world.

      And I love your words, “I felt so small, yet important.” That resonates very deeply with how I feel in train stations as well. Do you have other favorite places or means of transport? Is New York your favorite city?

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

      • Hey Hilary

        I love New York! My dad took me and we spent a few days getting lost in the city. It was great! But, I also went to Quito, Ecuador with my family and it was an amazing experience.
        Again my father and I took off walking around the city getting lost (and we really did because neither of us knew spanish very well!). The city was beautiful. All around were beautiful mountains!

        I have flown more often than taking trains. Airports suck all the quaintness out of travel though. They are just too busy, and no one cares about what they look like. I really just want to go fly and wear a cute dress and a nice pair of heels. On my honeymoon I wore dresses in the airports and I felt so good šŸ™‚ I think I was living in a fantasy, but that is ok sometimes right?

        • Oooh Ecuador! That’s on my list, too! Sounds like you have had some amazing adventures!

          And yeah, I totally understand. Some days I want to look cute when I travel, but airports make it hard (I mean, how can you be cute while going through security? šŸ˜‰

          And I am a BIG advocate of living in the fantasy. It’s nice to dream sometimes. Plus, you never know when those dreams may turn into something more concrete =).

  4. There’s a certain romance about trains that just hasn’t spread throughout America like it has in Europe. The grand waiting rooms, the platforms, how everything is so precise and methodological, I wish we could have more of that. Love the story though šŸ™‚

  5. This is precisely why I got some business cards printed. When you have a pleasant conversation with someone, it’s great to keep it going!

    I need to be less stingy with my cards though – sometimes I end up withholding them because apparently I’m too afraid of giving away too many of my 200 cards. šŸ˜›

  6. I loved everything about this. Portland, Train travel, awkward boy moments… šŸ™‚ Great writing, great story.

  7. Thanks for swinging by my neck of the woods Hilary. I’m toying with the idea of law school in a few year or so. I’m not sure rejection letters will be the hindrance, but rather financial standing…Looking forward to reading more!

    • You’re very welcome!

      I thought about law school for a time as well, but it turned out it wasn’t the right fit for me. I wish you best of luck with your venture! Financial aid can be quite tricky but I’m sure if it’s the right thing you will find a way to make it work!

    • Law school is worth every penny! Don’t worry so much about the rejection. As long as you have the ambition, then that’s all you need. There’s a perfect school out there waiting for you…:)

  8. Really enjoyed this, Hilary. I love how well you tell stories. It’s your candor that’s so endearing, your ability to articulate what many have felt but not expressed. I can certainly relate to that “OMG, how come I’m the only one who doesn’t know what to do, why can’t I be smooth and sophisticated like them?” feeling. I too have that perfectionistic inner voice that gives me a hard time but often turns out to be–thankfully–way off. That was so sweet of Isaac to contact you! Maybe there’s going to be another train-ride in your not-too-distant future??? šŸ™‚

    • Oh Roberta, you always know what to say to make me smile.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. And yes, that perfectionist voice sure can get the best of you sometimes. =) Have you ever traveled by train?

      I must say I am grateful to have so many people invested in my love life. He’s a sweet man to be sure. I’m not sure if I’m meant to meet him again but you never know… maybe another train ride will be in order someday. =)

  9. The only time I have ridden a train I was very, very young. We were living in Portland then but I don’t really recall the interior of Union Station. The exterior was immediately recognizable to me in your top photo though.
    The think I remember most about the train trip was a stop in Seattle at a diner that had miniature trains deliver everyone’s food. No idea the name or if it’s still there… just something that has stuck with me for a really, really long time.
    Someday, I’ll take a train again. The town I live near, now has a real station where the train stops, instead of something that looked exactly like a bus stop.
    I have to ask, did you enjoy the train ride?

    • Wait wait wait… did you just say there’s a diner where miniature trains deliver your food?! This sounds like the most exciting place on earth…

      And it’s okay that you don’t remember the interior. Apparently they renovated it just a few years ago, so it wouldn’t be the same. =) But I thoroughly enjoy train travel and this ride was no exception. You have more room, it costs less, takes about the same time, and you get great scenic views the whole way. Plus, there’s less of a hassle to have baggage checked, etc. But I’m a person of whimsy; trains fit better into what I think life should be like.

      • Yes I did say there is a place where mini trains deliver your dinner… no idea if it’s still there or not though as it has been ages since I was there. I do know it had to be withing walking distance of the Seattle Train Station though. And by walking distance I mean for a mom with three kids ranging in age from about 10 down to maybe six months. Who doubtless were all starving.
        The train certainly sounds more relaxed and relaxing than flying.

        • Well I will certainly have to keep an eye out! Sounds like a magical place. =)

          And yes. I find it more enjoyable than flying. You don’t have the noise, minimal personal space, security inconveniences, or weird smell that I associate with plane travel. However, the train from Portland did smell a lot like pot, so take that as you will.

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