It seems that every time I return to my hometown in Central Washington, I’m inspired yet again by some new small town oddity. In the late summer, it was picking huckleberries in the mountains with my parents and my visit to Legends Casino to play blackjack. In the fall, it was the sight of the dozens of windmills scattered across the Lower Valley.
When I returned home for Christmas this past December, a few different events fell into place that seemed too good to be true, so I knew I had to take inspiration from them and combine them into a story. First, I ran into an old crush of mine from when I was thirteen who grew up to become the mayor of our town (and a DJ for a local radio station). Second, my friend and I visited the dive-iest of dive bars, drank too much cheap booze, and danced to country music. At one point the bartender said to me, “Y’all from around here?” It was one of the most crystallized moments of outsiderness I’ve ever experienced in my hometown (not since the time my ex-boyfriend and I walked into a bar and overheard angry whispers accusing us of visiting from Seattle). Finally, I took the train from Seattle to Portland for the first time. I’ve been reading a lot of Alice Munro lately and she has a fantastic story about a train ride called “Chance.” It takes a surprising and deeply sad turn midway through the story, and I couldn’t shake it the whole trip south.
I found the train ride to be a sad event. Perhaps it had to do with events that had occurred only days before in my life and from the memory of “Chance,” but I also think it was from the inherent sadness I feel every time I travel away from my hometown. My hometown isn’t great, by any means, nor do I ever see myself wanting to live there again, but my parents are there and some of my high school friends, and so many of my memories and firsts and all the things that led me to who I am and where I am today. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when you start moving in the direction opposite of where you came.
I haven’t finished this story yet, but in the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs.
An Excerpt from “Homeward”:
Dana had never ridden a train before. She had romantic notions of them because of movies. She couldn’t recall any one specific movie that involved a train, but when she closed her eyes and pictured them she imagined people falling in love or taking part in some kind of caper. She pictured the steel tracks, the tufts of smoke billowing into the January air, and meeting a stranger whom she could talk with the entire ride from Lacey to Portland.
The man who sat next to her looked like he was in his mid-forties and fell asleep almost as soon he sat down. His ashy hair had grayed at the temples and he wheezed a little, almost imperceptibly, as he slept near her. Lacey, a suburb of Olympia, wasn’t a long train ride away from Portland, but on the day after New Year’s Eve, hungover and tired, Dana felt the miles pass like hours.
She never left her seat, not to sit in the bar car or even to use the bathroom. The man beside her spilled out of his seat and made it impossible to climb over him without waking him out of his travel slumber. She slept a little too, the restless sleep of travelers making the most of uncomfortable seats and lack of legroom. But mostly she kept her eyes closed to ease the ache that engulfed her head. Too much to drink last night, but it was for celebration. She knew at the start of her Christmas break—her last one as a college student—that she would make this trip home with whatever memories her body kept from the night before.
It was late afternoon, which meant the sun had already begun its descent into winter darkness. She stole brief glimpses of the coast from the windows on the opposite side of the train, but she had to perk up like a baby bird in order to see over the head of her sleeping fellow traveler and across the aisle, which made her feel self-conscious and childlike. She usually made the trip from Lacey to Portland—from her childhood home to Reed College—on the Greyhound, but in her groggy state that morning she had woken late and missed the bus. Her father—always the frugal traveler—had begrudgingly bought her a train ticket.
Dana had felt this upgrade in her travels immediately as she boarded the train. The train made her feel luxurious, even if it wasn’t more than a glorified bus. It had the separate compartments, the televisions that showed where they were in their travels, and the food car, if she wanted. For all this apparent extravagance, she wished she could have been on the bus. The bus was better for hangovers. Low expectations. You can’t miss anything if you fall asleep on the bus. She wanted to sleep this ride, but the train travels a route, partially along the coast, that you can’t see on the bus.
She forced her eyes open and stared at the blur of passing evergreens, the small towns like Centralia and Kelso that dotted the train’s route, with their post offices and gas stations and empty January first sidewalks. She hated the month of January—its unforgiving cold, lack of festive holidays, and newness that became so quickly old it was dull. The return to Portland helped, seeing her college friends helped, and starting a new quarter helped. But she hated January for its high expectations and its resolutions, its aftertaste of unfulfilled New Year’s Eve wishes. Last night would not have gone any differently, she had to remember that.