This essay appears on the Yahoo! Voices Contributor Network.
To me travel has always been more than just scenery, hotels and restaurants. What makes it memorable is meeting travelers along the way and finding some connection with them.
I may have developed this philosophy—even though I haven’t traveled all that much—because in my youth I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. In fact, Travels with Charley altered my viewpoint of America and helped to ease the groaning I possessed in my twenties to see beyond the hills of my hometown in upstate New York and investigate the full landscape of the U.S.
Even in the 21st Century, when travelers occupy and insulate themselves with iPads, iPods and smartphones, the central message of Travels with Charley still holds up: interesting characters can be found anywhere and the humanity of people can be discovered on the road.
I witnessed this during a train trip in the spring of 2009. I took an overnight Amtrak ride from Syracuse to Toledo, as I was heading to northwest Ohio to see my sister, her husband and their two young kids, Paul and Elizabeth, along with my mother and stepfather, who had already driven there from their home in Rome, New York.
The cab was scheduled to pick me up after work on a Friday, since I would be boarding Amtrak’s westbound Lake Shore Limited shortly after 10 p.m.
It was one of those late May days when all traces of winter had passed. The evening sky was bright, with hints of lavender color, and the sun felt warm, as if its heat originated from someplace far away from upstate New York.
The taxi picked me up at my apartment in Syracuse. The cab driver was a black man missing two front teeth who wore an opened gray sweat jacket, revealing his smooth brown chest. I’ll call him Leon, because he reminded me of boxer Leon Spinks from the Sports Illustrated cover in 1978 when Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali.
We talked in the cab, and Leon said he was a resident of Fort Lauderdale but was living and working in Syracuse for an undetermined period of time. I think he said his kids lived in Syracuse, and he came there because he had a huge fight with his wife in Florida.
“We weren’t getting along, so I just left,” he said. “I tell people when you’re having problems, just take a break. No one gets hurt and you can come back to each other.”
I had the sense this was not a permanent situation for him and that he would likely return to Florida sometime soon. He said, “I don’t like this cold, my blood’s too thin. I’m a Florida boy.”
In the meantime, he said he wanted to earn some money as a cabbie and just spend time with his children.
Leon dropped me off at the Regional Transportation Center near Alliance Bank Stadium (home of the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs), and I thanked him for giving me the ride.
What impressed me most about the cabbie was you could tell he really cared about his kids. And he said he still loved his wife, despite the argument and separation, and he had every intention of going back to her at some point in the near future. He also said he was happy spring had finally come to Syracuse.
On my return to trip to Syracuse, again on board the Lake Shore Limited, which I picked up at around 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday in Toledo, I sat next to a soldier or former soldier. I never got his name, but I remember he was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans and was traveling all the way from the West Coast to visit his children in the Syracuse or Watertown area.
Somewhere between Rochester and Syracuse, when both of us happened to be awake, we had some time to talk.
He said he was originally from Oregon and had served overseas, in either Iraq or Afghanistan (I can’t remember which one), while stationed at Fort Drum as a member of the 10th Mountain Division. He said he had to get back to “see his boys” in upstate New York. I took “his boys” to mean his sons—I think he said he had four of them—as opposed to his Army brothers. I didn’t ask him about his marital status or whether the mother of the boys was around.
It also did not sound like he would be redeployed to the Gulf anytime soon. He had taken up digital photography as a hobby, and with pride, he showed me his camera and some of the pictures he had snapped. There were images of scenery, landscapes, sunsets, his sons and shots out train windows.
Later I said to him, “Thank you for serving.” It had been bothering me that I hadn’t said it sooner, and I wanted to make sure I said it before we parted. He responded, “Thanks.” He then paused for a few seconds, perhaps sighing, and said it had taken him a long time to learn to say “thank you” in return when someone expressed gratitude for his military service.
He told me he used to get angry and tell the person offering thanks, “Well, why didn’t you serve too?” He said now he just replies “thank you” back to the person.
When it was time to leave the train in Syracuse, I turned to the man and told him I had enjoyed talking to him.
I scooted out first because I had the aisle seat. I waited for the passengers ahead of me to gather their bags and then I walked forward and stepped down to the cement train platform suffused with bright afternoon sunlight, and made my way down the tunnel leading to the inside of the station.
In reflecting on that trip, these two figures, the cabbie at the beginning and the soldier at the end, served as bookends to my journey and renewed in me a desire to explore more of the U.S. in the future, by train, by plane or by car. It also sparked my imagination about all the other characters still waiting to be encountered on the road. I guess we all have stories worth telling and I am eager to listen and learn.