National Geographic-featured photographer Michael George reflects on the group’s final day in Montana.

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Waiting for a train shouldn’t be beautiful. This evening, after we arrived at the station nearly 2 hours early, we were informed our train was running slightly behind schedule. In my everyday life, waiting means frustration and wasted time. For this group, waiting is an opportunity. One of our riders led a small ballet class using the banisters of the platform ramp. Another, in a park across the way, taught lessons on his one-wheel electric skateboard. There was a group sitting on a bench discussing their needs in a relationship, while our videographer sat against the station, earphones in, editing together a video of the day. I don’t know where else you can take a group of 37 exhausted adults, add a pinch of sunset and a dash of pressing conversation, and end up with a salon of visual and experiential art. On average our days are packed with activities and we travel as a unit. When we have the unusual free day I expect most of our passengers to stay in bed. The experience reminds of me being an RA in college. I was scared to let my little freshmen fledglings fly off on their own. What if they drop out? What if my advice was too much, or not enough? What will they do when there isn’t an open door through which to discuss both trivial annoyances and deepest worries? Releasing them was the real test.

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These birds have passed the test time and time again–there is a preciousness to their time that they refuse to waste. Before our evening at the train station we awoke in Whitefish, Montana to a cold cloudy day. Some of the Passport Express family spent their morning at a laundromat-turned-bowling-alley-turned-café-turned-bar. Some of the family boarded a school bus heading up to the Whitefish Mountain Resort, and some of the family broke off for some quiet time, sitting for a coffee at the Red Caboose or wandering the streets of small town USA.

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I went with the group to the Resort and, as our chairlift climbed up the sloping ridge covered in a confetti of wild flowers, I could feel the temperature dropping with every degree. The details of the Montana landscape grew smaller and smaller until the lakes and mountains were blurred into strokes of blue and brown, punctuated with pointillism-like dots of Evergreen trees. Although our group has cultivated a closeness you don’t often see in large groups, I know there are certain intimacies that can only be achieved on a smaller scale. Because of that, I rode the gondola down with three others. We shared stories of heartbreak and love, career goals and spirituality, and our unsettling fears of the future and health. While descending the mountain, I took photographs of the tourists and locals on the opposite side as they ascended the lift. There was one couple in particular who caught my eye: a young guy in a sensational deer sweater with a blonde-haired girl wrapped in a red blanket. After our descent, the four of us settled into the local market and waited for our taxi. We drove into town and met up with our compatriots at the Red Caboose café. We drank coffee and ate scones as we critiqued each other’s work.

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The next time the front door opened I recognized the two patrons. It was the guy with the sweater and the girl with the blanket. I walked up to them with my camera and zoomed in on the photograph to show them. They laughed. I learned his name was Colin. I took his email and promised to send over the photo. Before we parted I asked where he bought the sweater and he told me, “A thrift shop.”

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“One-of-a-kind,” I replied with a tone of both jealousy and admiration. Twenty minutes later I unexpectedly felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Colin, holding the sweater.

“My friends and I sometimes do this and, well, I wanted to give you this.” He handed me the sweater and asked only that I have my adventures in it. My shoulders got chills and my face got hot, I both love and hate that feeling where you’re so unsure of your emotions that all you do is feel. I was surprised, elated, and undeserving of this Hallmark moment in a town whose value system I was so unsure of. We spent another hour in the café soaking up the coffee, evening light, and occasional shoulder rubs. I wore the sweater and it felt like a perpetual warm hug.

From there we left for our impending 3 hours at the train station. Waiting for a train shouldn’t be beautiful, I shouldn’t be wearing this sweater, and as I look at the tired eyes of those that surround me, I know they should all be in bed. But that is the exceptional thing about travel – we experience life not as it should be, but through a paradigm of our own creation.

Written by Michael George

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