Where are you traveling on this train? And where are you traveling in life?
I traveled around the U.S. on Amtrak for two weeks — beginning in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 17 and stopping in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, El Paso and New Orleans, and many points between. I talked to dozens of people along the way — fellow travelers, friends and family waiting for loved one at stations, train workers. I generally started the conversations with these two simple questions.
Tereseta, a 22-year-old from Texas, worries that a border wall will separate her from her Mexican grandparents. Pam is raising the children of her nephew, a drug addict. And Machelle, who just found out about her cancer, knows this month might be her only real chance to hold her 3-week old grandbaby.
The people I've met are folks who hate to fly or somehow can't fly, people from the heartland and from cities. Each person is aggressively pursuing happiness and trying to live life to the fullest.
Here are a few of their stories, in their own words.
IOWA: 'I NEED TO HOLD THAT BABY'
Machelle Lowe is a 45-year-old hospice worker in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. She just learned she has cancer.
"I'm going to spend a week with my daughter in Wyoming before I get treatment. Melanoma. My daughter has a 3-week-old baby. So we're going to go cuddle.
"I had a mole on my arm, and at Christmas I was here with my daughter. They just moved here six weeks ago and then had the baby three weeks ago. So she was really harping at me about this mole on my arm. It was flat, I had it for all my life. But in the last year, it got bigger.
"It's advanced. Probably in the lymph nodes. Possibly my lungs. I don't know a whole lot yet. ... It may be irrational, but I hopped on a train.
"This trip means everything to me. I need to hold that baby.
"The other kicker is, I work for hospice. I know a lot. Maybe sometimes too much. It can be a good thing; it can be a bad thing. I'm just going to hold the baby for a week. I can't think of a better way to spend the week."
TEXAS: 'THE ISSUE OF A WALL, IT'S REALLY COMPLICATED'
Tereseta Esqueda, 22, is a student at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her grandparents live in Mexico; she was at the station to send them off.
"I'm here to say goodbye to my grandmother and grandfather. I live in El Paso, and my grandparents live in Juarez. They're taking the train to visit my aunt in another part of Texas.
"I have pride in my ancestry. Even if we are not physically close, they are part of me. My grandparents will be gone now for three months. It will be really sad to me. I'm sad today to see them go. ... I'm in classes now, but probably during spring break I'll go to visit them.
"My whole family is here today because we care about my grandmother and grandfather, and we've come to say goodbye and make sure all will be fine.
"I just want to reach my goals in life. I want to be a graphic designer. I really enjoy all the arts. I want to have my own business here in El Paso. My biggest obstacle in reaching my goals is myself. Sometimes I'm really shy.
"I think the future of America is a big issue. It's really scary. For example, my grandmother and grandfather and other family in Juarez. The issue of a wall, it's really complicated to me. It's my family. I don't want to be separated from them. I'm scared about it. For everybody. A wall means the division of the world. It's not just Mexico or the United States."
OREGON: 'I STEPPED UP. I LOVE THEM.'
Pam Buresh, 54, is a business owner in central Oregon. She's taking care of her great-nephews and great-niece; she says their father is a drug addict.
"We're going to Disneyland. These are my kids. ... Actually, they're my great-nephews and -niece. They're with me, and I'm raising them now.
"We have a farm in central Oregon. I'm raising these guys, and they're super, super great and hardworking. And super polite. They've been through a lot. Their dad is my nephew.
"Family means a lot, but not just family, but kids period. They're the most important thing, and things are really tough. It's hard out there. Our environment is tough. And then you have other setbacks with family. My goal is for these guys to do great. And they're doing great. People love them. They are super awesome. They love God, and that was there when they were very young.
"I didn't think my life would turn out this way, but it's great. What better thing could I possibly do. There's so many kids who need homes. And the meth epidemic is everywhere, across the United States, and it hits every type of family. Kids get stuck, they're left with it.
"I work a lot; so does my husband. We're very busy. They ground me. They take me back. School gets out, I've gotta take care of the kids. It takes me away from everything else. We're always connected with our phones, now with them, because they require so much from me that I have to give my full attention and care. It's healthy.
"I stepped up. I love them. I tried to help their dad out, but he couldn't make it."
WISCONSIN: 'WE'RE TRAIN GEEKS'
Tom Schultz, 68, of Watertown, Wisconsin, was fascinated by trains from an early age.
"We're headed to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It's a very special stop for us. I hate to use the word, but it's kind of a yuppie place. It's very, very nice. You get off the train, and walk 100 feet, and the hotel is there. They've got a microbrewery. They've got this huge pool that's heated with water from the earth.
"I'm with two good friends. Once a year in January, when it gets to be the doldrums, especially after the Packers lose, we usually take a three- or four-day trip just to rejuvenate our lives. We always go on a train for this trip. I love training. Time is the issue. If you've got time, a train is the best.
"I guess we're train geeks. You have to be one to know what it is to be a train geek. I was born and raised ... about three blocks away from the train station in Watertown, Wisconsin. It was kind of a weird deal, back in those days, that was almost like our park. We'd go up and meet the station agent, and we'd have fun and we'd take the train when they'd turn it around. At night you'd go to sleep and in the middle of the night, the train would go by and the horn and the noise and everything, you'd never hear it, because you got so used to it. But it became ingrained in us. I've always been a train fan.
"The station agent that took care of the place back when they had station agents - he died some years ago. And I went to his funeral, and his wife cried with me: 'You were the guys that he talked about.' We were there all the time as kids.
"Getting on the train, it's just a chance to get away from the rat race. You just sit back and enjoy life."
CALIFORNIA: 'I WANT MY DREAM TO PLAY OUT'
Sabrina Feldman is a 19-year-old from Clive, Iowa. She graduated from high school last year.
"We're going to Chico, California. Me and my friend are wanting to move there, and we're going to look at cosmetology schools. I want to own my own salon. For school I want to go to L.A. But we're going to Chico because my friend's aunt lives there. We're only staying for a week, and then I'm going back home, and then I'm going to work really hard to get some money for an apartment.
"I like making people feel pretty, so I want to just do good in school so then I can have a lot of clients and my own business. Whenever I go get my hair done, I'm always really excited. I want to have people leave feeling like they have new hair. I always feel good when I get my hair done.
"I think it will be a lot different in California. Where I live, we have a bunch of cornfields and livestock everywhere. In California, it's a lot busier. I don't know, I've never been to California. This is my first time going. So I'm pretty excited to see what the environment change will be like.
"I've never been to a big city before, so I'm kind of anxious to get there. I hope there will be cute guys. I've heard some things about how if you go to a bigger city, people won't be as nice. Where I'm from, everyone is super nice. There's really not many rude people in Iowa.
"I really want to go to L.A. That's where I want my dream to play out. I'm not scared."
NEW YORK: 'APPALACHIAN SQUARE-DANCE TYPE MUSIC'
Mike Jarboe, 63, lives in Clifton Park, New York. He retired after 40 years as a journalist.
"We play old-time Appalachian square-dance type music, is the best way to describe it to people who aren't familiar with it. I play fiddle, and Paul plays banjo.
"We went to New York City. I have pancreatic cancer, and my significant other couldn't come. And Paul was nice enough to come, because it's nice to have another set of ears with you when you're getting doctor's opinions. And all the opinions are good, which is rare for my cancer. So I'm pretty happy. My doctor is in Albany, and this was a second opinion. So all's good. Today I got information on upcoming surgery. It is rare with my illness that you can actually have surgery. I'm extremely lucky.
"This has been a happy day. I'm so happy that Paul came to be my ears. When you're dealing with something like cancer and talking to a doctor, your mind goes a million miles an hour. They recommend you have somebody to take notes. Also chemotherapy tends to fog your brain. Paul was just great. He's not only a great musical partner but a great friend.
"I'm having a great time. I retired at the end of 2015, I found out I had cancer nine months later, and I am fully intent on beating it. And I am enjoying my life."
CHICAGO: 'I'M GOING TO PROPOSE TO HER'
Everett Grant is a 34-year-old crane engineer from New York. He traveled to Chicago to see his girlfriend.
"She thought I wasn't coming, but I'm going to surprise her. I love to prank her. I like to see her squirm a little. I met her on Facebook. She was a friend of a friend of a friend. I pressed 'like' on her picture.
"I've got my own space; she's got her own space. We've both got our own houses, and I get the chance to travel. It's less stressful. I've been in relationships before where I've lived in a house with a woman. It's just like chaos. The distance has brought the balance. I can focus on my work, focus on going to church and praying, and getting in tune with myself. There's not too much bickering. You know, women bicker. And I can be a bickerer too.
"I'm more introverted. I don't talk that much. This interview is like a gift. I don't give too much of myself away. I don't allow myself to be accessible. But I'm trying something new every day. We've got a new year; we've got a new president. Trump is here, and I hope he spreads some of his wallet with us.
"I'm staying in Chicago five days. I'm going to propose to her. I'm going to move to Chicago. I have a job offer. She doesn't know. I'm not worried, because it's time for a change. It's a new year. I gave us a year, with us being apart, and it worked, so I'm trying something different. A relationship, any relationship, you have to have something different each year. Every stage is different each year."