It was from the caboose of that train that I first saw you. The real you—your immense towering, rushing flow unspooling behind the tracks as I stood there, just an iron railing between me and the West. The railroad snaked along a slope above the Clark Fork River. Granite peaks tipped my head back as jade water raced the train, tossing itself white over rocks.
Over the clack of the wheels I heard you breathe. Here, you said. My eyes and my heart followed to copper-barked pine and fir flanking the slopes. Here. To the blast of July sun flooding down. Here.
I fell in love right then, America.
I was 15. Dropped off by parents at the train depot in Flint, Michigan, we were eight teen girls from the Mitten Bay Girl Scout Council headed to Idaho for the 1965 Roundup, On the Trail of Tomorrow.
At Chicago, we joined girls from the east and south on a special Roundup Train, an immense chain of Pullmans and mess cars that carried us two days and nights past wheat fields and woodlots, across endless plains, into the mountains. At a railway platform near Lake Pend Oreille, buses waited to shuttle us to a former naval training camp, which later became Farragut State Park.
Nine-thousand girls from every state and 34 nations arrived in eight-girl patrols that were clustered into mixed camps. Pup tents and kitchen tarps rose in green, brown, and red waves across the meadow ringed by peaks. Girls in green shorts, white shirts, and yellow cowboy hats filled the camp with activity while adult counselors kept things running and National Guardsmen patrolled the perimeter road as if we were gold.
In our two weeks there, we cooked all our meals, attended exhibitions, learned new skills, and met girls from all over. With eager hearts we got to know each other, exchanging addresses and potlatches—small handmade tokens—to remind us of our many new friends.
We explored surrounding lakes and forests by the busload. We hiked mountain trails under ponderosa pines old enough that they still spoke their own whispered language above our heads. After hiking through a recent burn ablaze with fireweed, we ate lunch on the shore of an immense, blue lake, a warm wind ruffling the top layers bright.
On the final night, 9,000 girls filed by patrol into a huge amphitheater where we sat in neat semi-circle rows on the grass. As dusk fell, we listened to speeches about the beauty of our world, the values of our country, the promise of our future. When it was fully dark, the stage lights went out and the mountain sky appeared above us, filled with uncountable brilliant stars. We leaned back, open-mouthed. After a pause, a single torch was lit on stage, the flame passed around to light our individual candles. A single note rang out, inviting us to sing, and 9,000 voices rang with love and longing—every single girl in love with you, America, so vast and welcoming and giving. We were on the trail of tomorrow, and there was America enough for us all.
I knew I would love you forever, America. I was sure.
How then have you grown so small?
Now I stand in a pink hat on a cold January morning 52 years later. The Willamette River is gray, the sky is gray, our mood a mix of grief, anger, hope, and longing.
Packed tight, a hundred thousand women with children and men stand in the cold and rain, jackets soaked through, feet growing numb. We stand while speakers we can’t hear finish their talking so that we can march, America–march to get your attention, march to prove our love for you, march to demand that you enfold us with love once more.
Women carry signs emblazoned with their need for respect and inclusion and our green and sacred land, our clear waters, the air we breathe.
Why have you turned away? Or has our vision grown so dim, so narrow that we can no longer see you?
We stand waiting for someone to light a torch for us and show us the way. But perhaps we might one by one light a candle, pass the flame on to dozens, hundreds, millions more. So we can know each other once more, and find America enough for all.
Header photo of mountain lake by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay.