A Cross-Country Train Trip Helps a Writer Grow Up
As a teenager, novelist Julia Phillips and her best friend embarked on a month-long journey to escape their stifling lives. It took a cataclysm to bring them back.
Nearly 15 years ago, my friend Leigh and I planned a month-long train trip around America. Fourteen cities in 30 days. We were teenagers, just on the other side of Amtrak’s unaccompanied minors policy.A cross-country summer trip seemed sure to take us away from who we were and toward the independent young adults we longed to be.
Our friendship was built on the shared search for an escape: We’d met on the internet a couple years earlier, when I was writing bad poetry from my parents’ house in New Jersey and Leigh was entering acting school in New York City. We were kids who dreamed of becoming artists. I wanted out of high school in the suburbs; Leigh was worn down by monologue classes, nannying gigs, her family calling from Illinois to encourage her to move back. Through travel, we imagined being transformed.
I met Leigh at Penn Station, accompanied by my father. We boarded a train to Washington, D.C., to stay with her cousin, then rode 100 miles south to meet my uncle in Charlottesville, Virginia. From there, we got on the Crescent to Atlanta. A group of twenty-somethings behind us flirted with one another through the night. They seemed so confident, so smooth. Meanwhile, we ate candy bars and eavesdropped. The landscape was already changing—the banks along the tracks grew thick with kudzu—but Leigh and I remained the same awkward kids.
Only when we reached New Orleans did we find the wildness we’d dreamed of. It was late August, hot and wet in the Gulf, and my older brother was living there in a wrecked old house where the floor was covered in trash. The whole place smelled like swamp and sweated-out alcohol. Lizards skittered up the walls. We went out that night, drank cocktails, wandered back to my brother’s place and made too much noise, played video games, drank tap water from sinks black with mold. This was what independence looked like: messy, hazy, fun. Far from parents. Dangerous in the moment and a crazy story to tell the next day. Our journey was finally starting. We were racing now to find the untethered versions of ourselves.
Austin, San Antonio, Los Angeles. Yellow plains and brown deserts and the churning Pacific. We were far from home and getting farther. In San Francisco, we climbed hills to reach our hostel. We were as distant from our families as the continental United States would allow. Then Leigh’s father called to say her grandmother had died.
Leigh booked a bereavement ticket to Chicago and flew home the next day. But I refused to end the vacation. I would keep going solo. My friend had left grieving, and all I could think about was how this was my moment to change.
On the next leg of the trip, which was supposed to take me into Oregon to stay with Leigh’s cousins, I missed my stop. I didn’t care. A couple of kids on my train put me up for the night in Portland, where I slept on a bean-bag chair on their floor. From there, I took an immense ride, 46 hours, over the Rockies and through the North Dakota flatlands. The sky was bright blue, gold with sunset, black, then impossibly clear and blue again. In the dining car, I introduced myself using a false name. I didn’t recognize the landscape. I didn’t recognize myself. It made me giddy, how far I was from the way I’d been before.
In Chicago, Leigh and I linked back up. We headed to Detroit, and then into Canada. Summer was ending, but I didn’t have that first-day-of-school dread that so often accompanied the approach of September in childhood. The travels had honed me, I believed, into a self-sufficient woman. I had seen new places, I had sat alone at meals, I had lied to people. I was no longer my parents’ child; I was well grown. I was free.
We were in a Montreal hostelwhen my brother texted me some-one’s name: Katrina. I thought, Who’s that, some girl he’s dating? I’d lost sight of family entirely. It was August 30th, 2005. Hurricane Katrina had made landfall. Everything we’d seen of my brother’s—his car, his clothes, the lizards in that house—was underwater. He’d evacuated to Houston while I played pretend inside a train car.
Leigh and I watched the news. We gathered our things. The fantasy of emancipation was over. After seeing so much of our enormous country, we’d gained some perspective. It was time to end out travels.
Our ride to New York was quiet. My father met me back at Penn Station, and we talked about my brother—what was to come. We didn’t know then that he would never go back to New Orleans. Or that Leigh would leave acting to become a writer and that she and I would live in New York together and tell tales about this trip until the sadness of its ending flattened. We’d make it in our memory a brief entry into our wildest grown-up selves.
All we knew then was that we were coming home to families and a country altered by loss. The ties we’d tried to break were winding again around us, but they didn’t feel as claustrophobic any more. They were a comfort now.