Man on a train


By Johnathan Pendall



I am not the man I was when I left though I’ve also never been more the man that I’ve always been.

Yeah, that was kinda confusing. That’s what koans do—they confuse the intellect. They’re like a madman with a sledgehammer, breaking down our concepts and beliefs into pieces. Then it breaks down those pieces into pieces, and those pieces’ pieces into pieces until there’s just dust.

Then it sucks up the dust with a vacuum and then launches the bag into outer space to be consumed by a supernova.

August 2015

I traveled from Mendota, Illinois to San Diego, California by train. I wasn’t alone in this journey; my koan was always with me. Mine was the classic passage of the beat poets. A young writer traveling across the United States to see the land and find himself. I even used a little audio recorder during the first part of the trip. I said to one passenger, “I know—a writer on a train. Pretty stereotypical right?”

Stereotype or not, this journey was anything but typical for me. This is a tale of passing through fear and uncertainty. It’s the tale of meeting new people and finally brushing aside cynicism and introversion.

It’s the journey of a Zen Buddhist trying to find Nirvana.

I can’t say that I found anything as grand as perfect, complete and unsurpassed enlightenment, but something has definitely shifted in me.

Now I’m back at home. I just transcribed all the audio files I recorded. While listening, I couldn’t help but ask, “Who is this guy?” His voice is quick and high pitched compared to the John who sits here now. He sounds like a scared adolescent going on his first date.

Coincidentally, my koan is, “Who?” I was instructed by my teacher to continually ask this question.

“Who’s listening? Who’s walking? Who’s tasting? Who’s thinking? Who’s asking who?” The answer to this question isn’t, “John,” because John is a collection of Skandhas (form, sensation, perception, cognition and consciousness). The koan, “Who?” is the same one that Siddhartha Gautama asked after he left home to become a traveling monk. “Who am I? Who is suffering? Why do we suffer? Why do we get sick, get old and die? Why? Why? Why? Who? Who? Who?”

It was this koan and this journey that brought him to Buddhahood.

So this journey isn’t the standard travel log. It’s the travel log of a Zen Buddhist trying to uncover the true nature of himself and reality. I hope you enjoy this quest with me. Over the next few weeks, you’re going to meet many interesting people and see some astonishing sights. You’ll hang out with me in the lounge car while traveling through the awesome New Mexican desert.

You’ll swim with me in the Pacific Ocean. We’ll meet artists, drunks, writers, movie producers, Mennonites, veterans, homeless people and surfers. We’ll meet Missy (the Facebook friend I went to California to meet), her friend S. and his dog Jamie.

We’ll Skype with my mom, deal with condescending Amtrak employees, witness the sublime San Diego traffic and eat the world’s best burrito. We’ll dissolve into the waves and have dozens of insights.

You’ll get to know John; the boy I was and the man I am.

So I invite you into my mind and into my memories, dear travelers. Hope you’ve brought some snacks. By the way, when you see words in brackets [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][like this], those are my comments on what was said. It’s kind of bringing the past into the present.


John Pendall's sunset

Still at Home

August 5th, 11:00 a.m.

Who?… Who, who, who???

This is the koan my teacher gave me: Who? The koan and I are about to begin a 2,000-mile journey across the United States. Leaving by train tomorrow from Mendota, Illinois. I’ll be riding on Southwest Chief #3 for 40 hours out to Los Angeles. From there I’ll be scurried to San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner to meet Missy, a long-time Facebook friend. This journal is a log of my thoughts, feelings and experiences during this journey. [Journey… journal. Ha!]

I’ve never traveled this far by train—never traveled this far in general, actually. I’ve never been farther west than Nebraska. I’ve never met Missy before or seen the Pacific Ocean or any ocean for that matter. Most of all, I’ve never been this far from my family. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m a little nervous. [Just a little?]

It’s going to be eye-opening being away from the familiar. Not only do we bring back with us the places we’ve been, but we feel more appreciation for the people and things that we see every day.

I’ll have a room on the way to Cali, but I’ll be sitting coach on the way back. My step-brother says that coach isn’t too bad.

I’m a comfortable introvert, but I’m going to push myself to talk with people. [Not that I really had a choice. On the rails, it’s either 1) Talk to people, or 2) Stay in your seat and die of boredom]. This adventure isn’t just about the scenery. It’s about the people I’ll meet along the way.

I’ll write more soon. Time to spend time with my mom and cat Zoe. Starting tomorrow, we won’t see each other for nine days.

August 6th, 2:50 p.m.

I woke up today feeling kind of sad. It took me some time to pinpoint the reason for this sadness. It’s the sort of sadness that accompanies loss. In a way I am losing right now, I’m losing the familiarity that I’m accustomed to. I always say that I’m a person who values change and exploration, but for the most I’ve done all my exploring in my mind.

Externally I’ve remained just where I am. I’ve been in the same house for 15 or 16 years and I’ve had the same two close friends for 12 years. I live in a small town [150 people], and I still don’t have my license. So really, not a lot has changed externally. I occasionally make minor changes like starting a healthier diet, going for a walk or something like that. [Haha!] All in all, this area is my home and I’m not accustomed to leaving it.

So it’s a sense of losing familiarity and diving completely into the unfamiliar—the unknown. That’s what perpetuates or creates this feeling of loss. I’m gonna miss this home. I’m gonna miss my mom and my dad, my friends. I’m gonna miss Zoe. I’m gonna miss my bed and my routines. There’s much to miss here. But sometimes we have to depart from the familiar and voyage into the unfamiliar to grow. [Absolutely!]

There’s an imbalance if the internal and external don’t mirror each other. If there’s an imbalance, then there can’t be any real happiness.

Last night I was smoking a cigar. [Yeah… I know] I bought two big ones for before and after the trip. I was walking the property and I saw an orange moon hanging low over the horizon, over the field behind the house. The bugs were singing all around, and the wind was blowing softly, the air conditioner whirring in the background.

As I was looking at the moon, a sense of intimate tenderness and affection came over me. It was almost as if I was giving a mother’s love and being given that love in return.

As my thoughts calmed, that emotion swelled up and tears came to my eyes.

One phrase came up to explain that experience: “Mother and child give birth to each other.” With that, my mind stopped and a feeling of profundity came over me and shattered my mental processes leaving me in the thralls of joyful laughter. Then I asked… who?

My journey begins in less than an hour. Bags are packed.



Photo: We Heart It/Yasmine Vilela

Second Photo: provided by author

Editor: Dana Gornall