Mill Run, Pennsylvania.
I got into a habit riding trains for hours on end of taking out my phone, opening my maps application and tapping the GPS to locate me somewhere in America. Mill Run, Pennsylvania was probably similar to a lot of towns in America. In fact, the town of Normalville is only a short drive away from the village’s borders. It is not a lavish area by any definition of the word, in fact the area near the train tracks was downtrodden to say the least. Sun-bleached Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins flags adorned the insides of dirty window panes, and trash and debris littered modest lawns.
I don’t think anybody in the history of mankind has gone out of their way to travel to Mill Run, and I was included in that group. But as I tapped my GPS, looking out of the large glass windows of the viewing car of Amtrak train 30 from Chicago to Washington, DC, I had “the moment” of my trip. After all I had been through, the big cities, the drunken nights, the laughter, the new friends…my most vivid memory came through weary eyes passing through the small village of Mill Run, Pennsylvania.
I had just been through a particularly exhausting portion of my trip. I had traveled nineteen hours from Denver to Chicago, passing from Mountain to Central time. Upon arrival in Chicago, I immediately jumped in a car to travel back west three hours to Iowa City, where the time “fell back” during my stay. After two brief but eventful days, I jumped back in the car to travel the three hours east to Chicago. By time I got to Chicago, my number one priority was getting some rest and re-charging. I stayed at my good friend’s childhood home in the Chicago village of Beverly. It felt a lot like my home back in Burlington, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. I slept on a pull out mattress, met what seemed to be my friend’s entire extended family, and was grateful to enjoy a few home cooked meals.
I began to think of home. Of my mom and dad, who are showing quite a few signs of mortality as they trek through their sixties. Of my little shih tzu, a dog who acts like a kid on Christmas morning whenever anybody walks through my front door. Of my friends from home, the ones I had grown up with in that particular Boston suburb. For the first time on my trip, a bit of “homesickness” crept into my weary mind. How sweet it would be to sleep in my own bed tonight, I thought. But alas, I could not. So I boarded my next train. This time from Chicago to Atlanta, by way of Washington, D.C.
Maybe my slight inclinations to head all the way home had made me rather introverted and reflective, so I decided to head to the train’s viewing room early in the morning. I had not gotten much sleep, and was up with the sun. I shared the viewing car room with a few other passengers who were taking in the rivers and streams of rural Pennsylvania along with me.
I looked at the small one floor homes in the area. Many were worn down and old, some with boarded up windows, some with rusted swingsets, some flew the black and yellow colors of Pittsburgh sports teams.
It was in these moments, passing through this town, looking at these houses that were to some home, but to most merely passing landmarks on a rickety railroad through America, where it all came to me.
It was about perspective. It was about understanding. I knew no more about Mill Run, Pennsylvania than what my eyes could feast on as we rattled past. But I knew there were people in those houses. I knew they had stories. They existed. Maybe that’s what this trip was all about, not only to show myself that there was a lot more out there to see, but to shift my perspectives. To add new ways of looking at things. To look at a person and realize that despite my best efforts, even if I talked to them for the rest of my life, I would never fully know them. Never really understand who they are, or where they came from. Those stories are stitched inside the fabrics of Pittsburgh Steelers flags, oxidized in the metals of old swingsets, stained into otherwise perfectly white teeth.
I only really knew life in New England, and more specifically, I only really knew suburban New England prior to my trip. When I went out, I mainly only talked to my friends. Strangers were usually out of the equation. I usually only talked to strangers when I was working a job, and in those situations often I put on my “work” personality, and they put on their “customer” personality, and we began an staged and faux interaction that led me longing for more, wanting to pry them open, but not wanting to have to force it.
On a trip like this, traveling to places you’ve never been, you’re guaranteed to meet people from completely different walks of life. People you may have never talked to before, but who somehow, someway offer a piece to the puzzle of your life. Helping you make sense of it all.
Like the city girl from Georgia who moved away from home to work in the smelly confined spaces of a ship in the bay, the still-youthful Korean War veteran aerial photographer, the Oakland electrician who doubled as a spiritual guru, the wide-eyed twenty-year-old country boy who had been traveling the country for three times longer than I had, the train passenger who refused to travel by plane after losing close friends on September 11th.
And on top of that, spending time with friends, you’re bound to become closer with those you otherwise may not have spent much time with. Like the assistant track coach who happened to share many life experiences, the fellow New England camp counselor who was more acquaintance than good friend at first, the older brother who moved to Atlanta before a real adult relationship could be formed.
All of these meetings and occurrences came to the forefront of my mind in Mill Run. It made me think of how a chance encounter with someone, in some place changes lives. It made me appreciate the intricate personas of the people I have met, and helped me come to peace with the fact that even through intimate relationships, that some of them will forever remain an enigma to me, and maybe even to themselves.
As the train chugged its way through Mill Run, Pennsylvania, I wondered about the people there and their stories. How my life would have been different if I grew up there and not in the Boston suburbs. Who I would meet if the train stopped and let me off right there.
I remember walking down the streets of Sausalito, California as the full moon’s light followed me across the bay. I remember being hunched over a balcony in Denver, Colorado looking at the awe-inspiring Rockies in the distance. I remember jumping for joy in Boulder with fellow Red Sox fans as they won the World Series on their home field. I remember finally smiling and appreciating country music as I drove through the sprawling fields of Iowa. I remember laying in on a pull out mattress in Chicago and having it feel a little bit like home. I remember throwing on a winter jacket as I walked the unseasonably cold streets of Atlanta. I remember churning through Mill Run on an old train, and having it all make sense.
But most importantly, I remember the people. The relationships I formed and strengthened in cities and towns across America. I realized there’s a little bit of everything in the universe inside of us. Sometimes, though, it takes a town or a face to make us realize.
For me, that town was Mill Run. And though the people there may never hear of me, and I may never fall within its borders ever again, there will forever be a piece of me in that place. The story is engrained in the wood and metal of Pennsylvania train tracks.