I Was Young When I Left Home

Alex Thesken

Bob Bierkenholz


9 December 2015

During May 2015, I traveled across the U.S. and Canada on Amtrak railways. By documenting my experiences with people and landscape, as well as by writing a narrative that combines folklore research, travel literature, and journaling, I explored my identity as citizen and artist in 21st-century America.

During my travels I reflected often upon the sense of individuality and self-reliance I was forging through planning and executing this big trip alone. For the first time, I got to be alone in not only a new place, but almost every place I got off the train. As I walked and talked my way across the country, the random happenings of life forced me to adjust my schedule often, visit different cities than planned, and stay in places I did not expect. Adjusting my STEP budget, travel itinerary, and  lodgings, all without an advisor or parent to guide me or offer their experiences, gave me the opportunity to trust myself in a new way for the first time and believe that I could make safe, responsible, and meaningful choices on my own.

While I explored this new independence, I also felt the ways in which this trip was offering me an experience not exactly unique to me as a young person. Countless narratives I have read in my Literature education follow young people setting off for the first time to a strange place and – unsurprisingly – discovering similar things about their self-reliance, independence, friendships, etc. While I have read my whole life about travel opening peoples’ minds and offering diverse experiences, actually experiencing those changes for myself became the way these lessons from literature made sense and instilled themselves in my being.

During the first leg of my travels, an Amtrak train in Philadelphia derailed, killing some and injuring many. The stretch of track damaged by this accident is a vital passage between the NYC / Northeast US area and the rest of the contiguous US. The night of the accident I was in North Dakota traveling towards Chicago to head towards New York the following day, but the Philadelphia crash forced me to reroute nine of my twelve train tickets and take an alternate route to New York and Montreal which I was intent on visiting. Family, friends, and even people I met on the trip who heard about my long odyssey texted, called, emailed, while I was out of cell range and had no WIFI, so responding to all my worried relations was a different kind of challenge. Lacking WIFI also made documenting parts of my experience and researching new questions that arose from my explorations difficult, so I learned to re-value the analog world of pen-and-paper writing, which has impacted my writing experience as an English major.

I fell in love on the train. As silly as that sounds, one of the first people I met was an Afro-Anglo-American design student from California who was visiting her mother in San Francisco. During the 18 hours we spent together in the observation car of my first Amtrak train, we talked to strangers, shared our lives, goals, and dreams with each other, discovered a mutual passion for poetry, and exhausted ourselves playing cards and trading stories with about ten other people under 27 who were all on the train with us. During the previous school year a significant relationship in my life ended, which sent me into a bad place for the rest of the school year, heavily complicated by my Seasonal Affective Disorder. Meeting Anicka in the liminal traincar space was such a restorative experience for me, because we both knew that this relationship would pass away as soon as we split for different cities, but that made the experience so much more impactful for me. I was uplifted by the fact that there are people in completely surprising places where I can find meaningful connection, romance, and experience with, and it didn’t matter that this person was not able to be a romantic partner for me, because people like her were in fact out theresomewhere.

Lastly, seeing brand new landscapes stimulated my aesthetic and spiritual wellness. Bob Bierkenholz asked me to take a camera along for selfies of all the new places I would see, but instead I had more fun. My freshman year roommate and I bought a toy in the Short North as a gag over winter break — a five-inch tall green wooden robot which we named Dennis. I took Dennis along with me and, instead of instagramming pictures of myself, took pictures of Dennis doing very basic tourist things — trying new foods, posturing in front of monuments, meeting new people — all in miniature. Dennis gained a small following of my friends, as well as studios and art galleries in the cities I visited, museums, as well as the official Instagram page for the company that produces toys like Dennis. I learned to be comfortable looking totally silly, squatting, kneeling, laying down on the floor, to take pictures of a toy in otherwise very serious places, to make me and my friends back home (plus throughout the US) laugh. Almost too many times to count, I encountered a beautiful coast, park, building, felt myself rejuvenated after a painful and taxing school year, and after a tearful joy passed through me, found a way to make it goofy with Dennis. As this current school year has progressed, I have found myself marrying this serious joy with silliness, which has benefitted my relationships, as well as uplifted me more through these various outlets for self-help.

My STEP experience taught me to prioritize travel as a way to rebalance, explore, and relax. The amount of logistical and financial planning to earn these meaningful experiences has allowed me to cultivate time management skills, detail-oriented planning, and communication skills with a diverse range of people and mediums. I have since begun to plan a trip to Paris with my best friend, as well as another larger-scale solo trip for the summer of 2016, using my student employment and various side hustles like church choir singing and selling plasma to fund my adventures. In addition, I have found several options to make a career out of travel and writing through organizations such as AirBNBs, hostels.com, and Discovery Channel, which I am pursuing throughout the next semester as I plan my post-graduation plans.


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