Today we begin with a practice in imagination. Dust off your cerebral cortex and fire up those synapses. Ready?
Take a second to image a sunrise on a vast desert. It is a contained universe with all the blackness sucked out and replaced with an expanse of infinite sands. The horizon is one spatial plane laid carefully atop the earth. Now put rocks, and creases, and stratified bluffs, and the occasional dried shrub on that landscape. Take some tangelo orange and cotton candy pink from your brain’s color palette. Dab it onto the sky of the canvas. It is beautiful and perfect in every way because in this imaginary world you were actually the star pupil of Bob Ross.
Now imagine yourself riding through the desert on a train while looking out at a sunrise. And you think back to that time you painted a desert sunrise in your mind. You ponder the comparison. You walk into your mind’s gallery where you hang up all the imaginary paintings you’ve made and look at that single work of art. And then you smash the hell out of it.
Keep going. Go ahead and kick it. Take your emergency art smashing hammer off the wall if you need to. Give it one more slam for good measure. Good.
That’s what my train ride through the desert felt like.
What’s with the sudden burst of contempt? It’s because visuals are only a tiny fraction of the experience. If traveling could be reduced to a visual voyage, then many of us would already have wandered this world multiple times over. We’ve all visited the continents, seen the lights of Paris, swam with the sea jellies in the Mediterranean, stood at the Acropolis in awe, pretended to hold the Great Pyramids in our hands. I’ve even visited quasars at the very edge of distant galaxies.
So when I say that the sunrise was the best part of my ride from Salt Lake City to Glenwood Springs, I’m not focusing on the sunrise as a visual experience.This sunrise doesn’t stand in its own accord and neither does this photograph. This moment is framed in sleep deprivation and a state of mind that I can’t visually express. Those are the very circumstances that made this moment so special.
Here are the things this photo doesn’t capture: I arrived at the train station at 3 a.m. on the kind of night that makes you wonder if you accidentally woke up on the wrong side of a parallel universe. I walked the full length of the cartoonishly long train toward the only other soul on the platform, the train ticketer (or maybe undertaker, I forget). Either way, it felt like my own personalized “From Here to Eternity”.
Walking into the pitch darkness of the cabin car in a drowsy daze, I had to wonder if I’d mistakenly boarded the train destined to purgatory. The bodies stretched awkwardly across seats in every creative direction only raised my afterlife suspicions. And as we began moving through a world I couldn’t see, I thought that infinity was actually a palpable concept. It is probably the closest to understanding infinity I’ll ever get.
After terrifying contemplations about the infinitude of existence followed by two hours of restless sleep, I woke up in my familiar universe. And I woke up to the sunset. Don’t get me wrong, it was stunning and the way the bluffs’ ember glow is unforgettable, but it’s the unexpected nuances that separate real experience from mere images. The unexpected bad coffee I drank to the unexpected squeaky wheels of the car train, or the unexpected man who divulged his life’s story to me to pass the time. Then there was an unexpected vigor of life that I felt as the world turned on.
The universe greeted: “Good morning, Darlene! We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride thus far. Sorry about that whole weird thing with the world feeling like a delirious nightmare vision. Here’s a sign to show you that you are in fact human and totally existent!”
Night was washed over by light and the journey continued onward across unknown space.
The desert was a vacant universe. Each grain of sand was a star. And the train was the spaceship carrying me miles forward toward the incomprehensible future. I did not need to know where I was. I just needed to appreciate my movement across all that time and space. Movement across places with names I can’t remember. Movement toward something better.
||Images and words by Darlene Barahona||
About this blog series: In February 2015, I did something mad. Chasing Winter is about how I did what I did and the things I discovered doing it. In the midst of winter’s fury, I made my way from West Coast to East Coast across the United States documenting my adventures. These are those stories.