At 9:15 on a Sunday morning, we put our daughter Emma on the Amtrak train that will take her from the West Coast to the East Coast.
Then we sail back home on the freeway, strangely clear of the traffic that normally chokes it.
Less than half an hour after hugging Emma goodbye, I am at my yoga class, my routine barely interrupted by her departure.
When I emerge, all stretched out and relaxed, I wonder how Emma’s doing. Has she gotten up yet to stretch her legs? Where is she now? The train has surely hurtled beyond the bay, beyond the suburbs we consider home turf, possibly beyond the great wetlands near Sacramento that attract millions of migrating birds as they touch down between Canada and Mexico.
Our migrating daughter will touch down in Chicago, then New York before continuing, airborne, on the last leg of her journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, for an artist’s residency.
At home I make salad and grilled cheese, using the leftover bread from the Italian restaurant we went to for our last dinner together the night before. It’s delicious. I wonder if Emma has broken into her stash of salami sandwiches. Her food must last for three days. Has she eaten any PB and Js out of boredom, or homesickness?
It’s not as if Emma’s alone in the wilderness, though. There’s a dining car, vending machines and even cafes at the stations where the train stops. Emma has money—not much, but enough—to augment her supplies.
As I eat my lunch, I pick up my book. Has Emma begun the one she selected for her train ride—Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about losing and finding herself on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed really was alone in the wilderness, and ran out of food and money—even her hiking boots! The book’s a good choice for my daughter, who’s about the same age as Strayed was when she made her trek. Emma is not as poorly equipped or facing such daunting challenges in her quest for self, but she, too, seeks something equally elusive and necessary.
At night I go into Emma’s room, relishing the unfamiliar tidiness, mourning the emptiness. As I strip her sheets, I wonder if Emma is settling down for the night—the first of two spent upright in Coach. She might treat herself to a meal in Chicago, but she is too poor for a sleeper berth and young enough still to withstand the price her body will pay for lack of a real bed.
I text Emma, wishing her goodnight as she glides through Nevada and Utah in the darkness. I do not hear back right away, but in the morning Emma’s text alerts us that the snow-covered Sierra was indeed beautiful. No doubt the upcoming Rockies will be too.
I can’t remember when Emma will arrive in Denver; Chicago’s ETA is even fuzzier, Penn Station’s a complete mystery. I am beginning to regret that I discarded the Amtrak brochure with the schedule of all the stops and times—so linear and straightforward, so easy to track.
I am losing track of my daughter. And even if Emma had a smartphone, which she doesn’t, I have not the will nor the desire nor the technological savvy to keep her under constant GPS surveillance. She needs to roam beyond our reach.
We go about our usual lives–dinner, Netflix, laundry, work–as our daughter travels farther away. Soon Emma’s across the mountains, across the prairie, changing trains in Chicago, swept up in the swirl of New York City. We text and talk many times, of course. There are three “Have fun, be safe, goodbye, I love you!” calls alone on her last stateside day. Then Emma boards the plane, lands in Russia. At least Skype and email will keep the connection strong until she returns.
Our forebears, who made this journey in the opposite direction, were not so lucky. The three continents and an ocean they crossed opened many doors, but one closed shut behind them. Home remained as a dream, a memory, a yearning to those who ventured forth—while those left going about their days prayed that their loved ones had enough to eat, a place to sleep, and home carried always in their hearts.