The People’s Climate Train: Departure

Early Monday morning, T.J. and the kids drove me to the Emeryville train station before they headed off to school. On the way there, from the back seat, my almost-7-year-old son Dillon asked yet again, “You’re only doing this because it’s really, really, really, really, really important, right Mama?” I assured him that this was so, feeling more confident in my answer than I had been the night before.

I’d been up late packing, trying to decide how to whittle down my belongings so as to travel as lightly as possible, all the while talking myself through last-minute doubts. “Is it self-indulgent to leave my kids yet again, having just been gone for almost a week? And to leave them for a group of strangers who I’ll be shoulder-to- shoulder with for 81 straight hours? Is the impact that these strangers and I are going to make by undertaking this journey, and the impact that this journey will have on me, meaningful enough to justify another absence?”

But when I weighed the short-term costs of not mothering my children for a week with the long-term risks that they and others currently inhabiting this planet will face if we don’t do something now to cool the Earth’s rising fever, my resolve quickened. When I dare envision the continued droughts, the fires, the floods, the increasingly hazardous air quality, the food scarcity, the migrations, and the resulting political unrest that scientists warn lie ahead for our species if the earth’s temperature continues to rise…then I am certain that my kids and I can manage a week’s separation. As Hermen Betten has said, “We are the first generation to feel the full impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

The evening before I boarded the train, I nudged my kids to make signs for the rally planned for the big send-off at the Emeryville station, the departure point for the People’s Climate Train. Yes, I confess:  I came up with the slogans for the signs myself but they embellished them as they saw fit. Dillon had the bright idea of drawing himself taking the school bus since he knows that when he rides the bus home, he’s lessening our carbon footprint by taking one more car off the street. Not-yet-3-year-old Sasha drew what she explained to me is my choo-choo train.

At the Amtrak station
1) "Goodbye Mama! We'll keep fighting climate change together when you get home," and 2) "Have fun on the choo-choo train, Mama!"
My kids’ signs

When we reached the passenger drop-off zone in front of the Amtrak station (T.J. thought it best to get the kids to school rather than have them stay for the kick-off rally), I pulled my children in close for one last embrace, kissed my husband goodbye and turned toward the station, backpack on, dragging my rolling carry-on behind me.

Inside, were two hundred of what at first glance appeared to be the usual suspects: white-haired, light-complexioned lefties, including one especially fiery sixty-something woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty, as well as many younger of their and my ilk. They were talking animatedly with each other, filling the space of the station not only with their alert bodies and buzzing voices, but also with their luggage, including, in some cases, crates and coolers packed with all-natural peanut butter, presumably organic produce, and other foodstuffs. We had been advised to bring at least some of our own provisions if we didn’t want to rely strictly on Amtrak fare for the four-day trek. My own Trader Joe’s tote bag was well-stocked with trail mix, apples and Kind nut bars.

I must have appeared to be somewhat adrift as I scanned the scene because I was soon approached by a motherly woman with a radiant smile, draped in a shawl with a Native American textile design. She welcomed me warmly, and glancing at my relatively light load, informed me that if I had no baggage to check, that  the kick-off rally would start before long. I later learned that she is Pennie Opal Plant, a Bay Area-based activist of Yaqui, Choctaw and Cherokee descent who has fought for over 30 years for anti-nuclear and environmental progress as well as indigenous rights. Among other affiliations, she is a lecturer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

I’d soon have the opportunity to bear witness to her oratory gifts during the rally that took place adjacent to the tracks just before we boarded the train. Of those of us gathered to undertake this journey to the People’s Climate March in NYC, and of the millions of similarly-catalyzed people each one of us represented, she declared, “We are Mother Earth’s immune system,” which struck me as a particularly apt and fresh analogy. In summoning us to take responsibility for future generations, she reminded us that, “We are the ancestors of the children who have not yet been born,” again using language that brought new life to a familiar but critical message of the climate action movement.

Pennie Opal Plant had been preceded by Ayya Santussika Bhikkuni, a white woman with a shaved head whose slight frame was draped in a rust-colored robe. I’d remembered seeing her at the pre-trip, meet-and-greet potluck in a Berkeley park that I’d attended a few weeks previous, where I’d been too busy running after Sasha and Dillon to have meaningful conversations with my future fellow travelers, including Sister Santussika. Now as this gentle presence stood before us, she explained that before she had become a Buddhist nun, she had been (and still is, of course) a mother, and now a grandmother. Of her dedication to stemming the damage wrought by climate change, she explained, “As a grandmother, I’m committed to doing everything I can to turn this thing around. As a Buddhist nun, I think of this as a pilgrimage…We’re going to be transformed by the time we get to New York. And what’s the holy site that we are going to see?” The hundreds of thousands of people standing up in the streets of New York, she said, demanding meaningful action on behalf of all living beings on this planet.

An Amtrak representative interrupted the rally at this point to relay logistical instructions, such as which cars to board. (While we make up a sizable percentage of the riders on this train, we are sharing it with regular passengers unaffiliated with our group). He also implored us to write our congressmen and senators to continue to fund long-distance train travel, currently on the chopping block. He was not the only Amtrak employee emboldened by the politics of this particular group of passengers to speak more freely than he might otherwise. As we streamed en masse down the platform toward our just-arrived train, dragging our luggage behind us, another Amtrak employee beamed at us and proclaimed, “Be our ambassadors in New York. Board this spaceship headed toward a brighter future,” and other encouraging words.

As we made our way down the platform, I fought back the collective memory of a time in world history when boarding a train en masse was not a first step toward a brighter future but rather toward genocide. Instead of lingering on this disturbing image, so incongruous with the hopeful mission that we were on, I focused on a more immediate task: to find a friendly young woman for a seatmate.

We had been told that as the train was full, those of us sitting in coach (as opposed to in sleeper cars, who were already in pairs) would need to sit with someone. As eager as I was to talk to a wide range of individuals while on the train (thankfully, our group was more diverse than my first impression had led me to believe), when it came to picking a seatmate, the person with whom I’d be sharing not only a good portion of my days, but my upright nights as well, I really needed another woman, ideally one within my age bracket. Fortunately, before reaching our car, I gravitated toward Emilie, a woman my age or younger, it seemed, with lively blue eyes behind rectangular glasses. We slipped into an easy banter and she was only too happy to find a seat with me once we’d boarded.

So far, so good.

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