A few years ago, a friend and I took a day trip on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad here in the mountains of western North Carolina, riding through woods beside the Tuckasegee River, then through the Nantahala River Gorge, and alongside Fontana Lake. Riding that train in familiar territory helped me see my home and my life in a whole different light.
Armed with a picnic lunch and a camera, train windows wide open, we started our journey on a beautiful sunny day. The train didn’t go fast, affording us plenty of time for sightseeing and picture taking. We saw kayakers navigating the river, house boats dotting the lake, waving picknickers and hikers on track-side trails. I’d made this trip on many occasions over the years by car over on the highway, so I knew where I was during much of the ride, but at times we were far off from the road, away from its view, seeing mountain scenery, river bends, and houses and camps I’d never been able to see before, and it was like being in a whole different place. I don’t even know how to get to some of those places by car. They had a certain charm, though, including one old rock house surrounded by colorful flowers, built so close to the tracks that you could touch it out the window, and at one point we rode on the trestle over the lake rather than merely alongside it. I realized yet again what a beautiful place I live in and how big the wilderness area is, yet how little I really know about it. I see some of these views most days, yet I’m still awestruck by the mountains and the hold they have on me. While I never really get tired of living here, sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted, but seeing it in another way, through different eyes, both mine and my friend’s, changed my life.
When you need a fresh perspective, but can’t afford that big vacation, consider taking a trip, even for an afternoon, through your own neck of the woods, on an alternate route, on a different mode of travel (it could even be a boat or canoe), or with a new companion, so you see the familiar sites from another vantage point, from the “other side.” Explore side roads you’ve never been on, meet people you’ve never seen. For me, a simple train trip made me appreciate my home and my life so much more, and many of the details are still fresh in my mind…..ferns growing in huge clumps that I never remembered seeing before, wildflowers in shades of pink and purple, inspiring me to buy a new book so I could identify them, the sounds of the rushing river, curiosity about the people living in houseboats, the desire to learn more about the history of this land where my ancestors settled. The air was sweet and refreshing, the sun warm on my arm out the window, the train itself noisy yet soothing. Even my simple sandwich and chips tasted better than I’d ever known. My senses were reinvigorated, and I was overcome with gratitude and a new reverence and appreciation for life in general and my life in particular.
I realized that my train trip is a metaphor for dealing with life when we’re in a rut. We need to look at things (or people, ideas, or issues) in a different way, from another side, getting excited and inspired, and learning something new. I never actually feel that I’m bored, because in this universe with so much to experience every minute, every place, I’m not sure that’s even possible, but, again, sometimes I think most of us have gotten into a bit of a dull routine at one time or another, doing the same things day in and day out, almost mindlessly, needing something to shake us up a little bit, renew our zest for life, and help us to pay attention!
Recently, I found myself in one of those ruts. After a few stressful months, I felt burned out, like I was just sleepwalking through my days, with not a lot to give. My safe and familiar routines, while comfortable, were no longer satisfying. I didn’t look forward to them any more; I even began to resent some of them. I remembered that afternoon on the train and knew it was time for a change, and I backed off of social media and online groups for a bit. I sat on my porch and enjoyed nature, rearranged my work schedule and my furniture, found new ways to interact with distant family, walked, changed my diet, made future travel plans, and just took a little break away from some of my responsibilities, giving myself time to look at my life through a different lens and get excited about it again. Like before, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and inspiration, and realized there are many everyday adventures ahead, new experiences to have and people to meet. I was ready to wake up and feel the seasons change from summer to fall, to enjoy the colors and smells of autumn, to share again with my fellow pantheists. That act of stepping back, looking at things differently, and paying attention, my inward journey, also led to a new appreciation for Pantheism, my philosophical and spiritual path, and for the pantheist community that nurtures me in so many ways. I’m thankful for some good advice from supportive people who gave me that time to regroup.
Whether it’s ordinary days or extra-special ones, routine experiences or one-of-a kind, an afternoon ride on an actual train or a virtual excursion through introspection and changing habits, life is one exciting journey.
(originally published in Pantheist Vision)