Next Stop: Montana

Karen Craigo

THERE WAS A TIME when everything I owned fit precisely into a Volkswagen Rabbit. It took some thought—laundry bags instead of baskets, one good purse, versatile shoes.  And closing the hatchback required a few attempts with some rearranging in between. That car, though—loaded to capacity in the back, road and overnight necessities on the seat beside me—was a thing of beauty. It represented a life that was perfectly ordered.


After my college graduation, I was determined to go west, through states I had never seen, to a final destination I had only heard about by word of mouth. I didn’t have anyone, or any place, waiting for me; I didn’t have a job. All I had was a vague idea of something called Montana. Maybe there would be horses.


The day I left my home in Ohio, my mother rattled off a checklist. Yes, I remembered warm socks. Yes, I had the turtlenecks she bought me. No, I wasn’t taking a nice dress. No, as a matter of fact, I didn’t need so many books. No one could load a trunk like Mom. It was as if she knew of a secret room back there. Picture Nancy Drew, tapping on panels and listening for that hollow thwack.


That day, though—Montana day—my mom started to lose it a little. She was a nursing administrator at the hospital where I worked during college summers. On many occasions people stopped me to explain the relief they felt when they heard her measured steps moving down the hallway. She could stick an IV into any vein; she could create order out of frenzy. My mother was famous for her composure.         


So why was she crying?


I was ready to pull out of the driveway, but my mother was, inexplicably, sobbing. And I got it. It was hard to know your daughter was moving most of the width of the country away. It was hard to have a nearly empty nest. She must have been worried, I figured—the world was dangerous; her daughter was brave.


Mom pulled me into a hug and for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to have her sob against me. She said something inaudible.


“What?” I asked.


She repeated herself. “I wish I were you.”




It was a long drive to Montana, especially in an overstuffed Rabbit with an iffy gas pedal. Every so often it would pop out of place, and then I would have to cruise to the shoulder and reattach the pedal with a cotter pin.


My father had helped to plan my route, and my parents insisted that I call them at night to let them know where I was. They followed my progress with a line on a map while I traced mine on the Earth itself.




Fast-forward a few months to a Montana autumn—crisp and cold, and me socked and turtlenecked accordingly. I’m in a black turtleneck where my story picks up. Dark jeans. Dark boots. And I’m trying to figure out how to heft myself into a train car.


The thing about train cars is that they’re a whole lot higher than you think they are. Their base is about five feet off the ground, which gives me only seven inches of advantage over them. In a rail yard, you need to be quiet—otherwise the workers could spot you where you don’t belong and you could get arrested. I challenge anyone to quietly climb into an open rail car. My friend Henrietta and I threw and pulled ourselves up and in. She was lithe. I was ungainly. But we made it. Together we went to the darkest corner and huddled in to wait.


From this point in Montana, we pictured ourselves going east or west—west, maybe, to Spokane, or east all the way to Chicago or beyond. We didn’t care where we ended up; we were just ready to go. We were two shadows lugging a backpack full of bagels and bottled water.


Apparently, our shift started several hours before the railroad workers’ did. We sat close to each other and close to the wall, and eventually we heard feet outside. There were vague sounds of metal on metal—heavy hammers on connectors. At one point someone even started to hammer directly beneath us. We felt the vibrations all the way up our spines.


And then, we moved.


Henrietta and I cheered silently as our car started to inch forward and slowly pick up speed. In moments, we were moving along at a pretty good clip. Then: bam. We slammed into something—another set of train cars, most likely. The impact sent us rolling across the floor of the car.


We retreated to our corner again and compared notes. We were sore, but not injured from the impact. I remember that Henrietta’s body felt tense beside mine—no longer loose and limber. It was very cold in the car. We both had to pee.


After long minutes, short hours, who knows, we began to move again. Again: bam. And again we waited. And again we crashed.


Our rail car slammed into other cars for most of the night as workers assembled a full-length train. And it hurt. We were tense from the cold, full of bagels, and bruised from impact. At some point we both decided enough was enough. With a mutual look, we moved toward the open door and jumped with a crunch onto the stones below.


All around us, heads turned in our direction. We walked to our car at a fast clip, then drove it to an all-night bar (with an all-night bathroom). We got nowhere that night. We had no story to tell.




Today, I see it a little differently, of course. I just told the story. It was an OK one. It featured adventure and daring. The characters were likeable idiots. The scene was reasonably well described—remember the bit about the thrill up our spinal cords from the hammer beneath us? That’s good stuff. I tell the story and people get it. Everyone wants to get away sometimes. Some days, anyone would want to be me—the me with the Rabbit and little else; the me heading off to find my bliss. I guess I felt a little miffed that my mother wasn’t sad to see me go, but her sadness is one I’ve come to know.


I’m trying to tell you about the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s not moving across the country, and it’s not jumping a train. The bravest thing I’ve ever done is to sit in a chair and continue holding a sick baby when I thought I couldn’t do that for another moment. I’ve been brave at parent-teacher conferences and doctor’s appointments. I’ve bravely divvied up a paycheck further than I thought it could stretch.


One of the bravest things I’ve ever done was go to work and be a solid, steady presence, not for ill patients who needed my competence and calm, but for writing students who were in over their heads and struggling. I’m brave, because I’m still that person who wants to put everything I own in a compact car with room to spare, and I want to drive it hard until I find a place so amazing that it forces me to stop.


When I picture myself at twenty-two, I roll my eyes at that woman’s foolish lack of preparation—at a carload of books but no good winter coat. At two hundred dollars in a wallet and no job, no place to stay. I shudder a bit when I remember the risks she took—sleeping on a rest area picnic table, hiding on a train.


But if I could say anything to her, I know just what it would be.


I wish I were you.



 About the Writer

Karen Craigo teaches English to international students at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Her chapbook, Someone Could Build Something Here, was published by Winged City Chapbook Press in 2013, and her previous chapbook, Stone for an Eye, is part of the Wick Poetry Series. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Atticus Review, Poetry, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, The MacGuffin, and others.