I’ve spent a fair chunk of this trip alone. I’m nineteen years old, and five months ago I booked a round-the-world ticket and jumped a plane out of Perth, Western Australia. I was elated to be leaving my hometown. Trip of a lifetime! I trekked through a few different countries before I got to the US, where I picked up a job as a camp counselor. Working on a New England summer camp is one of the best things I have ever done. I can’t even begin to explain why. I can only recommend you do it and see for yourself. When the summer ended, there was a huge diaspora of camp counselors toward New York City. We descended on the town in busloads, tanned and dirty, singing camp songs and bursting into Hebrew. We tumbled into hostels and cheap hotel rooms and commiserated the end of our golden summer together.
We held huge dinners in downtown Manhattan, saying goodbye as we all dispersed to the next steps on our journeys. Some of us were going home; most, like me, were hitting the road again. Counselors from different camps joined us, and shared stories from their summers. It sounded like our camp was one of the lucky ones; other counselors told horror stories of spoiled brats and boring activities. One girl, a fellow Aussie named Ro, dolefully told me how she spent the whole summer standing in a barn. Apparently none of Ro’s campers had been game to have a go on the horses, so she spent most of her time at camp alone. I winced, and tried to downplay how freaking awesome my summer was.
After the goodbye dinners, everyone started to peel off in different directions. Some of the boys rented a silver convertible and set off for the southern states. The English girls went to California, to top up their tans before going back to Ol’ Blighty. My boyfriend went to visit relatives in Niagara Falls, and I took my pre-booked trip up to Nova Scotia. The gang had split up; I was travelling solo again.
A couple of weeks later, I came back down to New York from Nova Scotia, and began the great train journey west. You already know the story of my inability to follow simple directions to a train station, and you know what happened on the train to Niagara Falls. I’d already collected some pretty weird experiences on my travels. But what happens in Buffalo is something I will never forget.
After visiting the boyfriend at Niagara Falls, I am back in New York State, catching a cab through Buffalo. Buffalo is right near Niagara Falls, and it is from here that I will be catching my train to Chicago. I should be excited to see Chicago, but mostly I’m just cried out. I’ve said goodbye to my boyfriend (again), who has ended his trip and gone home; I don’t know when I’ll see him next. It’s hard being alone again. I miss my camp friends like crazy, and I’m already exhausted from shunting my enormous pack around. (Travelling light is not a trend with me.) I drag my bags into the Buffalo train station, in the pitch darkness of night. My train doesn’t leave until midnight. The station is deserted; everyone else has the good sense to travel at a decent hour. This is going to be a long night.
As I enter the station, I feel miles away from everyone I know. Australia seems like a world away. No one knows I’m here, except my boyfriend, and he just flew back home. I am completely, sadly, anonymous.
“Kaitlyn?” Says a voice, incredulous.
“Ro?” I exclaim.
Sitting on one of the cold, metal benches is Ro, the Australian camp counselor I met in Manhattan. She is staring back at me. We’re both having trouble taking in this situation. A month after camp finished, in a deserted train station, in the middle of the night, in a random town in the United States of America, the only other person catching the train is someone we know. It’s insane. It’s amazing.
We laugh hysterically for a while. Then Ro immediately heads for the restrooms.
See, there are things that I didn’t think about when planning my first solo backpacking trip. Like going to the toilet in a public place. When you’re alone in a train station and you need to pee, do you risk leaving your humungous backpack behind in the terminal? Or do you try to stuff it into the toilet stall with you? This is the dilemma that Ro was faced with before I turned up, and she was getting desperate. But, when there’s two of you, everything is easier. You just take turns.
Unbelievable as I find it, Ro is also heading to Chicago alone. Neither of us knows anybody in Chicago, so our meeting is perfect. Now that we are travelling together, I’m feeling way more hopeful. We chatter about Australia and camp and wait for the train to show up. I’m especially glad to have run into Ro when it is announced that the train will be two hours late. We won’t be departing until 2AM. A long night indeed.
The next morning, Ro and I peel ourselves out of our train seats and wander, zombie-like, in search of breakfast. We find the dining cart, relieved to see tables and tables of happy, eating passengers. The train lurches a little as we curve around a bend. Ro and I stumble towards the tables, but something blocks my path. It is a large, bosomy, grinning kitchen lady. She hollers something at me and points, but I can barely understand her accent. In my bleary haze, her Southern jolliness is too loud, too Southern. I look down at my battered Converse shoes. The red novelty shoelaces that I picked up in Canada are trailing limply behind my feet. I stopped bothering to re-tie them several states ago. I look back up at the kitchen lady. She grins and booms, “YOU GOTTA TUCK ‘EM OR TIE ‘EM, SUGAR!”
She and the other ladies hoot with laughter. They shriek and pound their thighs.
I feel near to tears. Why won’t she let me have breakfast? Please, lady, just let me sit down and have breakfast. I spent the night on a train, not sleeping, while children kicked the back of my seat with the energy and precision of an A-league soccer team. (How did those children stay up all night? Surely children will sleep anywhere? My little brother used to fall asleep in helicopters, rock concerts, heavy machinery … In fact, he still does. Okay, that could be narcolepsy.)
But then, I look across at Ro. We both start to giggle.
It’s good to know I’m not in this alone.