JoMamma and Ali McGraw

The Coveted Amtrak Seat

I boarded the Amtrak in Emeryville at 10pm.  I asked the conductor for a window seat in the hopes of catching one good night’s sleep, or at least a block of time for dreaming while traveling to Eugene, OR.  As I approached seat number 3A, my excitement grew.  Not only was I looking at a window seat, but the front row!  This is the coveted Amtrak spot for those who can’t afford to travel by sleeper car (and no, I’ve never traveled by sleeper car).  You have no one in front of you and extra leg room, enough to keep you comfortable and in your seat for hours at a time.

Boarding the Coast Starlight in Emeryville

Boarding the Coast Starlight in Emeryville

As I reached my seat, my excitement vanished.  In MY seat, was a large man settling in and I spent 15 minutes debating on whether I should be that person who demands their seat.  This is a politically sensitive move- I could feasibly be sitting next to this person for the next 11 hours- so any situation should be handled with the skills of a diplomat.

Luckily, the conductor walked by a few minutes later and asked to see the man’s ticket where the conductor had written his seat number.  His english was not very strong and he had read the seat number incorrectly.  I had hit the lottery, not only was the coveted window seat mine, but the other seat was empty!  And for some reason, the conductor made it a point not to seat anyone there for the next several pick ups.  So, it was quite possible that I may have one of the best nights of sleep on the Amtrak in all my years of riding the rails.

The Whoosh of JoMamma

Still reeling from my good fortune, I pulled out my fuzzy Brookstone inflatable neck pillow and eye cover (an absolute must for anyone who travels by train or flies long distances overseas) and my Kelty Hostel sheet (a sleeping bag liner that resembles two sheets sewn together) turned on my Ipod and settled in for some sleep.

I was startled about an hour later by this sudden wave of overpowering perfume and a babbling tiny little woman who threw herself in my coveted empty seat.  What was this disturbance and why was my wonderful Iron & Wine playlist being interrupted by a woman in a bedazzled baseball cap whose breathe was inundated with cheap beer?  She just started talking.  Rapidly.  Like I was listening.

I slowly pulled out my ear-buds, trying politely to imply that I was otherwise trying to sleep and listening to music for reasons of remaining undisturbed.  “I can’t find my seat,” she proclaimed rather loudly. “I’m gonna sit here for a minute.”

I nodded and let her talk.  And talk.  And talk.  In the span of 20 minutes, I learned that she boarded the train to return home to Vancouver, Washington, she had been visiting her father, who was going blind, her dead-beat brother john had been living with her father for about a year and refused to clean up after himself and she was going to sell all of her belongings when she got home and move in with her father as well, and much more.

“My name is Jo, but people call me JoMamma. And I’m an alcoholic.  And I’m fucking drunk right now.  You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?”  Her exact words.  She then went on to enlighten me on how a tiny little white woman in her late 60s got the name JoMamma.  The details are a little hazy, but it has something to with the regulars at the bar where she hangs out and the nickname they gave her.  She seemed very nurturing, in her own way, so maybe the name was derived from that trait.

JoMamma spent the next two hours talking at me.  I do mean at me.  She would ask me questions, then ten minutes later ask the same questions again, then remember she already had those answers and then smack herself in the face or mouth and reprimand herself for being drunk.  She told me about losing her husband.  She told me about her estranged daughters.  She told me about losing her mom.  She told me about putting felt on the numbers on her dad’s phone so he could call people when he needed to.  She told me more about herself then I thought possible.

“If I were your mother, would you be embarrassed by me right now?”  JoMamma asked.  And she wanted an honest answer.  I tried to evade and dodge this answer, so I was noncommittal and said, that depends.

What do you say to that?  Do you say yes?  Would that put this fragile woman in an uncomfortable place or is she too drunk to care?

“You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?”  In fact, I get that often from people of a different generation.  Sadly, I once had to hit the Google to see the resemblance, I didn’t know who she was.

Finally, the conductor came through and asked why she was sitting there.  She couldn’t find her seat, so he told her when the train stopped again, he would help her find her way.

At times like this, I try to find the inner Buddhist that I am convinced lives within me (I’ve been to the Dalai Lama’s temple- I should have acquired some sort of sentient inner being by osmosis- in theory) and tell myself to not be selfish and listen.  Obviously, this woman has something to tell me or I have something to learn from this encounter or else the universe would not have placed her before me.  So, I listened.  I held her Budweiser while she shuffled her things around.  And I listened some more.

When she finally went to her own seat, I hate to say it, but I was relieved.  I made a mental note of the encounter and then returned to my playlist and my fuzzy pillow.  Just as I started to drift off, I smell the wave of JoMamma and hear the whoosh again.

“They took my stuff!”  She hands me her Budweiser- again- and proceeds to tell me that they took her things.  Who ‘They’ are is rather vague, but she believed ‘They’ had committed a crime against her.  She went to have a smoke and came back and her bag and coat were gone.  I really couldn’t help her, so I let her sit and regain her bearings.  And reassured her that ‘They’ did not take her things, she just had to find them.

JoMamma taking a smoke break the next day

JoMamma taking a smoke break the next day

“You look just like Ali McGraw.  Has anyone ever told you that?  They’re gonna throw me off this train for being wasted! ”  And well, I didn’t disagree with her, that outcome was probable. She regrouped, grabbed her Bud, and went to the next train car.

Train Coffee

Sleep was finally mine.  As the sun came up and the outer landscape had gone from pacific coastline to snowy mountain range, I followed the aroma of train coffee and made my way to the lounge car.  Sitting in a booth beside the snack room was JoMamma.  She was munching on some noodles and reading a book.  I guess she had made it through the night after all.

She recognized me as I was heading up the stairs and she said, “there’s the lovely girl I kept up last night.  Doesn’t she look like Ali McGraw?”  I gave her a warm smile and went on about my way.  We had shared enough time the night before.  I sat in the lounge car, sipping coffee and staring out the huge picture window as the world sped past.  I contemplated on what JoMamma’s life had been like prior to our meeting and the events in her life that brought her to the lonely Amtrak, drunk, on a late December evening.

The Lens of Your Past~ challenging assumptions and analyzing your past self.

One of the beautiful things about the Walkabout is the time you now have to really evaluate your present in relation to your past walkabouts.  Depending on who often you travel and how, there are distinct differences in the you that walked-about 7 years ago and the you that walks-about today.

From the One Cup Coffeeshop in Eugene, OR

From the One Cup Coffeeshop in Eugene, OR

When I stepped on the Amtrak in South Carolina to embark on my current journey, I noticed some distinct differences.  It had been several years since I’d ridden the train, and the last trip was my last leg home from a trip through the Middle East.  I was already well worn-down and had been on the road for several months, so I didn’t notice the train’s idiosyncrasies.  Well, I noticed them this time.  I’m not sure if its me or the train, but I felt overdressed and out of place.  Granted, I wasn’t wearing Versace and carrying a Coco Channel purse or anything, but I was wearing some artsy clothes from the Anthropologie clearance rack and carrying all my camera/computer gear.  I felt as though I’d grown soft, as though that tough outer layer that I wear when I really travel had grown rubbery over my years at UNC and living in a resort town at the beach.  So there I was, confronted with the obvious fact that I was distinctly different than my past wandering self.

I flew to Oakland next and stayed with an old friend from my college days at Radford in the early to mid 1990s.  We had kept in touch all these years and hung out periodically and stayed close friends.  But something was different.  We were different.  And I spent a great deal of time analyzing the “Radford” me and the “Post-UNC” me.  The current me had traveled throughout the developing world and formulated opinions that can really only be shared by those who have seen the same.  The post-UNC me spent more time reading and more time studying current affairs and foreign policy than the Radford me even knew was possible.  In a way, I’d become somewhat geeky- and I liked it.  And those past memories of times with my dear friend wouldn’t leave my mind as I spent time in Oakland.  I was looking at my present self through the lens of my past.  It felt uncomfortable and uneasy.  But I guess that’s what one does when they change.  They evaluate the past, celebrate its passing and evolve to embrace the person they’ve come to be.  Even if that person enjoys starting her day off with the NYT Op-Ed page and doesn’t feel accomplished for the day until she’s sat in a coffeeshop and produced something- anything.

Opening Your Eyes

I was visiting my family in Arizona one winter and met a fascinating artist that lived in an RV and traveled the country in his mobile studio.  He was in his mid to late 60s and had been an artist living on the fringes of society for most of his adult life.  He made the most intriguing pieces of art, crystals with etchings in the backs of them.  We were talking about this same topic one day and he made a very profound and true point.  We were talking about going ‘home,’ to the home where you grew up, to the friends and family of your past.  He said its difficult, if not impossible to revisit that person you once were and that geographic location you once were a part of, because “once you open your eyes, you can never close them again.”

As I rode the train north, from Oakland to Seattle, I revisited this conversation and its profound truths.  You truly can not close your eyes once they are opened. I began to open my eyes to a different sort of “outside of the box” living in my mid 20s and continued to run with this perspective until my return to the academic world.  My time at UNC opened my eyes even further, as did my travel abroad to the depths of society.  And its now painfully obvious that my past is done, that person is no longer and I’m learning to embrace the person I’ve become.  And while there are times I wish I could close my eyes on some of the things I’ve learned and witnessed, I can’t.  And that truth is a part of me.

Granted, these self-evaluations are possible in everyday life.  One need not travel 18 hours on an Amtrak train to have a self-realization moment as important and obvious as embracing reality.  But I find that stripping away the distractions through travel, leaving everything behind except a journal and your Ipod and riding the rails for a day or two provides ample time for self-analysis.  Then landing in a place that challenges your tolerance and your assumptions provides further breeding grounds for reflective analysis.

The Walkabout is as much about inward reflection as outward experience of new environments.  And so far, this Walkabout is providing ample doses of self-analysis, realizations and the challenging of my assumptions.  Have you challenged your assumptions lately?

Blogging, Social Media Marketing and Avoiding the Narcissist Within.

How do you become the uber-marketer, promoting your work, your webiste or blog and not fall into the vortex of narcissism?  How do you balance the need to promote your work with the need to not be so focused on self?  Is there a way to engage in Twitter and Facebook without the redundant drum-beating of ‘look at me,’ ‘look at what I’m doing now,’ ‘look, I just completed a menial daily task and now I’m tweeting about it.” Is that really necessary?  How do you utilize social media in a way that both gets your message in front of people and builds your online audience without becoming a self-indulgent, non-sense twittering narcissist?

Twitter Overload.

Twitter Overload.

I ask this because I’m not sure of the answer and I’d like to open the dialogue.  Do you use Twitter in an effective manner that builds an audience and doesn’t put them to sleep with useless information?  Does your Facebook status update resemble a schizophrenic multitasker juggling cubicle life and children or is it strictly for promotional purposes- or both?  I know mine is questionable at times, no matter how professional I want to be.  How do you engage in email marketing without seeming like a 5 year old jumping up and down, shouting, ‘I’m here, look at me, talk to me!’ What are your methods? What works for you and do you think self-promotion is overdone in our socially inclined media climate?

Before diving into the blogosphere, I studied a variety of blogs with content that I truly found engaging and informative.  I believe that is one of the key drivers in self-promotion on the web- provide something that’s worth reading and engaging with.  Its essential.  People want to be entertained and informed, so be sure that you are speaking to your audience in an effective manner. I am hoping to emulate their methods, for after spending almost a year following these bloggers, I’m not bogged down with marketing from their sites.  Though, I may be doing a little jumping up and down, shouting ‘here I am’ for the first few months of this endeavor- so yes, I’ll be contradicting my earlier statements.  Don’t judge.

I have also spent some time following several photography/media industry leaders on Twitter as well as a few big name bloggers.  Each one approaches Twitter in such a diverse manner that I’m still unsure of whether or not to engage with this platform of communication.  But, if my mission is to produce content that people engage with and find beneficial, Twitter may just be another vehicle in helping me reach that goal.  This point is open for debate.  What do you think Twitter’s role in social media marketing is and will it last?

So, I will try to avoid delving into narcissism in my marketing efforts for this blog and my work.  I will strive to provide relevant content for my audience, no matter how diverse it may become and I will try not to be a useless Twittering twit.  But please, leave a few comments about your answers to the questions above. I’m curious.  And your two cents may help another artist/author looking to dive into this realm and unsure of the means and methods of social media marketing.

Living Outside the Box~ My favorite unconventional lifestyle Gurus

“You’ll Never Need to Retire?!”

My father told me this when I was 21 and its one of the best quotes to live by, in my world.  Why should we wait until our most capable and youthful years are behind us to retire and enjoy our lives?  Shouldn’t we strive to enjoy everyday, no matter what age we are, as if we were ‘retired?’  Shouldn’t our professions reflect this desire to live a meaningful life- even in work?

I know this goes against the ‘conventional’ perspectives instilled by the previous generations into their children.  Get an education, get a job, get a 401K, get a mortgage and squirrel away all your money for the likely event that you’ll still be working for the same company at age 55, you’re 401K will still be solid by 60 and you’ll be able to spend the remaining years of your life waiting for the weekly bingo game and the early bird special at your favorite buffet.  Really?  As young 20/30/40 somethings, should we not strive to make everyday as fabulous as it can be and exactly what we want it to be?  And hasn’t the ‘Great Recession’ shown us that none of those conventions of previous generations are a certainty in a world of globalization and corporate capitalism?

Yes, I know, there is a valid place for savings accounts, stability, home ownership, and making a living.  I’m not arguing against this, I’m just making a point that we should strive to merge our likes and our interests with our trades and professions, so that we aren’t spending everyday in a meaningless vortex anxiously awaiting our weekends and longing for the gold watch in 30 years and a some free time.



Below are a few of my favorite unconventional gurus and a few books and blogs that reflect the movement towards a life well lived.

1. Thoreau-  No need to point out the obvious here, but devoting some time to Thoreau’s readings make the case for escaping the rat race and entering a symbiotic existence with nature and things as they are.   Grab a coffee, a copy of Walden  and pontificate the merits of a simple life.

2. Kerouac
-  Again, not to be dwelling on the obvious, but really, who writes it better than Jack .  Venture past on the road and into Dharma Bums and Big Sur.  Its worth it.  And if you haven’t read On the Road yet, seriously, get the coffeepot out again and get to work.

3.  Steinbeck
- Um, hi, Travels with Charlie  Who can resist a travel camper, a man and his best four-legged friend on the wide open road?

4.  Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer- These characters may explain, in part, my case of  adult-onset wanderlust.  By far my favorite book as a child and I recall wanting to be Huck Finn each year at Halloween as a child.  Go figure.

The Motto at the One Cup coffeeshop in Eugene, OR.

The Motto at the One Cup coffeeshop in Eugene, OR.

A little modern unconventionalism on the web.

There is a growing movement for ‘lifestyle design’ or location independent living on the internet.  The evolution of the Web, coupled with the realization that life is fleeting and to spend a majority of it in a cubicle is a sin, has given a breeding ground for this movement.  A few of my favorites include:

Tim Ferris and the 4 Hour Work Week .  Seriously.  Just read it.  Bypass the cheesy title and don’t expect to work only 4 hours a week- you’ll drive yourself and everyone around you absolutely insane.  Read it and embrace the concept of ‘mini-retirement.’  Implement the automation aspects to your daily life and embrace the ‘Muses’ section.  The blog and book may spawn ideas you never knew you possessed, you may wake up one morning with more free time to spend with your family and loved ones, you may find that you have totally automated your income and can be the philanthropist you’ve always dreamed of or you may just chuck everything in storage and find yourself executing a life on the road- free from the normal constraints of rent, paychecks and staff meetings.  Again, Seriously.  Read it.  Enough said.

The Art of Non-Conformity This blog takes the lifestyle design concepts and puts them into action.  The author, Chris Guillebeau shows that not everyone leads a conventional life and you aren’t the only black-sheep wanderer in the world.  The Manifesto is free and interesting and may spawn your creativity in ways you hadn’t anticipated.  I’ve purchased one of his E-Books, about art and commerce, and its been a good resource as well.

Eat. Pray. Love. I avoided reading this for some time because it seemed rather cliche, but once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  Loved it, loved the concept and props to the author for putting herself out there and just doing it.  Again, seriously.  Read it.

Zen Habits , Vagabonding, Matador and the Frugal Traveler .  Excellent blogs and each one has a different theme revolving around travel.  Each one has threads and links that will lead you to people living an unconventional life.  I enjoy reading each of these blogs and try to scan them weekly for some relevant content or to find a new person living a different life.


A few musicians in Seattle working a different way.

There are so many more, I realize I’m doing a massive injustice to the remaining unconventional life-stylers out there.  Please feel free to post your favorites in the comments section below. I’d love to hear of more fabulous living and expand my horizons.

The Walkabout~ my interpretation and why I’m writing about it.

“Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down.”   ~ Thoreau

According to the trusty Wikipedia, the walkabout is a rite of passage for male  Australian Aborigines coming of age where they would live in the wilderness for a period of time, usually 6 months.  Interestingly, in the same passage, this definition may have been misinterpreted by the white employers of the time and the Aborigines may have just needed to get out of town for a few days and were leaving regardless of the employers’ desires.  I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Walking to the Market

Walking to the Market

For most of my adult life, I have felt the need to just leave.  To pack up my belongings, toss them in “storage” or purge them, put my crap in a backpack and land my ass somewhere that I’ve never been before.  It usually happens rather quickly- though the restless buildup can happen months in advance and becomes enhanced if the words “salary with benefits” are thrown down or “year-long lease” is associated with my name.  Many have thought this is my running from something or my inability to commit, and honestly, at times that is sometimes the case.  But more often its the overwhelming desire and need to seek the unknown, an insatiable curiosity.  To test my boundaries and see just what lies ahead for myself when I chuck the conventions of normalcy and just open myself up to the world.

During my time at UNC, I was able to merge this wanderlust with my photojournalism studies and discovered the beauty of grant money.  I was able to diversify my walkabouts to India, Nepal and the Middle East and direct my wandering around social issues that I felt I needed to document and experience to better understand the world and my place in it. During these travels, I met many people embarking on similar walkabouts, though their motives were different, they traveled without encumbrances and itineraries and possessed such varying and enlightening perspectives of the world.  It seems that the community of wanderers is growing and I’ve met lifelong friends on these excursions- even though our time together was brief, we shared a common bond of travel that instantly connects two people.

A Foot in Both Worlds

One dilemma that us wanderers encounter in our “settled” lives is that very few people understand or can interpret this desire to just go.  I’ve been told I have many afflictions, that I’ll never marry, that I’ll grow out of this, that one day I’ll meet that perfect person and the wanderlust will cease.  And frankly, sometimes I want to believe.  Sometimes.  But the longer my feet stay planted in the “settled” world, the crankier I get and the more cynical I become.  And truly, the only thing that alleviates this is leaving.  Not a vacation, not a resort get-away or a weekend ski trip.  But leaving.  No return ticket, no itinerary and no real idea of where the adventure will take me, just that it has to happen.

I have a few friends with this similar affliction and recently we coined this term the “October Syndrome.”  For the restlessness is unbearable this time of year.  Plans fly, craigslist gets worn down and I check Emirates airlines and Amtrak for cheap tickets daily like its the Weather channel and I’m awaiting a blizzard.

A Street Celebration

A Street Celebration

Living Vicariously

What I’ve found interesting over the years is the number of people who are always asking me what’s next.  The past several years have been more sedentary for me with returning to academic life and trying to fund this lifestyle through commercial photography and multimedia.  And as people become more disillusioned with the modern situations and dilemmas they find themselves in, more people are asking what I’m doing.  My mom’s friends in particular are always asking her, where is Crystal now and what is she doing next?  I think they want to join me or at least try a walkabout of their own.

I find those questions to be a motivator and they provide piece of mind, when at times I am seeking a little.  Before I embark on the walkabouts, people ask me to share the stories, to write them down, to tell them a few tales when return.

This latest walkabout was actually a relocation and when it began, I had no intention of wandering (which is why I am wearing clogs in 6 inches of fresh snow!) but as soon as I boarded the Amtrak in South Carolina, I realized that I missed the train travel and I had grown a little soft in my sedentary life.  I missed the wandering.

So, it occurred to me that now is the time to embrace the Web 2.0 and now the tools exist to truly share these adventures with people who are interested.  This blog is going to be devoted, in part, to the art of the walkabout.  My interpretation of it, of course.  For I do agree with the Wikipedia definition. Sometimes I just have to go live in the “wild.”  For me, the wild is the unknown aspects of community, those little towns that have no real rhyme or reason and who have some odd conflicted relationship with the past and its own modernity.  Sometimes, the “wild” is the chaos of the developing world or the chaos of an urban landscape.  Sometimes, the “wild” is just chaos itself.  I crave the “wild” and I need the walkabout.  And I will share this madness with you and you can judge for yourself whether you need a walkabout of your own.  Or if you just want to enjoy the journey from afar.

“It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return– prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man–then you are ready for a walk.”

From Walking, by Thoreau