This is the third and final part of a series on Transitions.
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
— Country Roads, John Denver
Memories are tricky. Most of the time, they are created without the actors being conscious of the fact.
— — —
I stood at the Milbrae station, waiting for a southbound train that was about to arrive in a couple of minutes. I had a backpack and a hand bag that I had borrowed from one of my friends at the university, both of which were now sitting on a bench.
I munched on a Cliff energy bar as my eyes grew accustomed to the bright sunshine of the afternoon. I was back in the land of perpetual sunlight and cloudless skies after a short trip to New York City, and had shed my extra layers of clothing just a few minutes back. Earlier in the day, I had been on a flight from NYC to San Francisco, taken a cab from the airport and eventually reached Milbrae.
The train arrived, I got on and took a window seat, dropped my bag on the adjacent seat since the train was mostly empty, and started looking out.
I saw the single story buildings that lined up alongside the railway tracks, be it commercial or residential, a facet of architecture that I had begun to associate with Northern California. Fancy cars, vast expanses of vegetation, short structures, sparse towns and perfect roads with law abiding drivers — I smiled as a wave of recognition swept over me. My journey to the east coast had revealed that many of these were not features of the NYC life, and thus were cemented in my mind under a category titled California, instead of being shelved under United States.
The train passed city after city, suburb after suburb, invoking memories at some of them, building curiosity at the others. San Mateo — Hillsdale — San Carlos. Redwood City. I recognized the Oracle HQ looming in the distance, as I recalled the rainy day in the downtown where I had once had bubble tea with friends before watching a movie.
Next up, the familiar station at Menlo Park appeared and reproduced memories almost untouched since they had been created four months back. I had been to that station the first thing in the morning for the first three days of my stay there, boarding an hour-long train to San Francisco for a large-scale entrepreneurship event hosted by TechCrunch. The event was called Disrupt, aptly summarizing the state of my life then.
Palo Alto inched closer as the train moved further south, a station that I had crossed all too often to roam on University Avenue, the road that led straight into Stanford. It was a gateway to the outside world, a world of high hopes, of madness and miracles. Not that the world inside Stanford was very different. Sorry Pink Floyd.
I got off at California Avenue and walked with my bags back to my residence, getting lost for a bit in the twenty minute journey. The daylight was still there, and I was enjoying the walk since I knew the area well. I was entering the campus from the east, a path that I had taken many times during my excursions to the town outside. Downtown Palo Alto was no San Francisco, but it had enough to hold a certain charm for a fresh graduate student. Those cycle trips to the ice cream shop, to the Pakistani restaurant on Cal Ave that served the best Indian food in the area, and to the Starbucks that bordered the campus and was always happy to host me when I needed to be close and yet so far from the university, played through my mind. I clearly remembered the day I had dashed through these roads on my bike to be able to make it to the train station at Cal Ave, excited to meet a friend in Sunnyvale, only to miss the train and spend the next hour at a cafe nearby.
The row of houses on Olmsted Road (where I had once boarded a shuttle bus from, not knowing then that it used to stop so much closer to my building), the IM South Fields (where I had played football, or soccer, whatever you prefer calling it, a couple of times) — memories from the previous quarter lined up one after another as I walked westward, and were dutifully retrieved by my mind, making me feel slightly excited about what was to come.
I went past a hill of grass that I had once went jogging to at 8 in the morning and then slept off on, under the bright sun, listening to Led Zeppelin and enjoying the sensation of dew touching my hoodie. I walked until I reached the building where I stayed, glancing briefly in the direction of the restaurant in front of it that was closed due to the holiday season.
I swiped myself in as an unfamiliar thought grazed the surface of my mind — I was back home. I hadn’t begun to think of the university as my home, but it was the closest to one I had in the entire country.
The thought was both surprising and comforting.