While the majority of the passengers on the Passport Express began the journey in Washington DC, a few members of the trip joined the group in Chicago. One such passenger was Danielle Elliot, who arrived on the group’s last day in the city. She reflects on walking into an experience already underway, the bonds that have formed amongst the passengers, and the excitement that awaits further down the tracks.

On Saturday night I was at the U.S. Open, wrapping up two weeks of intense reporting and writing, saying goodbye to the international tennis writers whom I’ve gotten to know over my eight years of covering the tournament. They’re a jaded group; it’s a 14-day grind that robs you of sleep and energy, and can get a bit repetitive. I normally burrow into my apartment afterwards, ignoring the world for a day or two, catching up on sleep and wondering how much longer I want to stay in the rat race of freelance writing.
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Photo By: Mike Seehagel

This year, there’d be no post-mortem. I’d be flying out to Chicago Sunday morning, missing the men’s final on Sunday night and diving straight into another two-week adventure. My fellow tennis writers couldn’t fathom why I was leaving early. But I knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity awaited. I said my early goodbyes and walked out of the tennis center, feeling for the first time in ages that my only role for the next two weeks is to create, to engage, to learn.

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Less than 12 hours later I was in Chicago, thrust into a group of creatives who are energetic and quiet, curious and kind, insanely talented and eager to grow. I dropped my bags at the hotel and debated taking a nap. But I wanted to be present for as much as possible in this trip, and I had already missed the DC-Chicago portion. I rallied. I started the walk from the hotel to the Museum of Contemporary Art. It took less than five minutes to confirm that I’d made the right choice in leaving the Open.

I used to spend the majority of my time exploring, either in my own city or random spots around the world. I loved it, and stumbled across most of my stories just by meeting strangers and striking up a conversation. But over the years I started earning higher-paying gigs that cut into my adventures. For the last two years I’ve had writing contracts that left me glued to a desk more often than not, and I did a ton of additional freelance work on nights and weekends. I was grateful to have the gigs, but also felt so creatively confined. I went on vacations, but rarely adventures. I was a tourist more than a traveler. And I always felt distracted by the work that would be waiting for me as soon as I got home. My latest contract ended with the U.S. Open, so in leaving New York I left more than tennis – I left the desk life. And I have no idea when I’m going back, to work or New York or anything. There’s space to create, space in my brain, space in my life, space in space.

How better to tiptoe back into the unknown than to board a cross-country train with other documentarians? It feels like Passion Passport has given me a bridge I hadn’t realized I needed.

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In the first five minutes of the walk to the museum, it was like my mind was remembering how to be creative. I felt inspired by the river and the buildings and the woman who wore a milk carton as a purse. My senses were on fire. And damn, did it feel good.

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As I walked up to the Museum of Contemporary Art, I spotted what I assumed was the Passport Express crew. I shyly walked through a few of them. I assumed I’d missed a lot by joining the trip late. Were these people already a tight knit group?

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Zach, Passion Passport’s founder, spotted me loitering around, called my name, and pulled me in for a hug. It was our first time meeting in person, yet I already felt I knew him. I slowly met the group throughout the night. But instantly, I felt home.

Monday was my first full day with the group. I started with a sunrise run along the waterfront, then joined everyone to walk over to a private tour of the Art Institute of Chicago. If you’re looking for inspiration, I’d say a morning with Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, and Degas, is exactly what you need. Hours of casual conversation with fellow storytellers doesn’t hurt, either.

This group has already bonded beautifully. There’s collaboration, there’s shared knowledge, there’s constructive criticism.

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Photo By: Kyle Peters

After a little downtime, we made our way to Chicago’s Union Station, where I’d finally see the train. I. Couldn’t. Wait. The first 10 minutes on board were sensory overload. All of these incredible organizations have gifted us with artisanal soap and blankets and pillows and hammocks and leather goods. There are succulents in our room. And in the bathroom. And that’s not even the best part.

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Once over the shock of all the generous gifts, I walked into the observation car. It’s beautiful. And within minutes of our departure, it turned into a hub of communication and creativity. Pei Ketron and Jon Freeman led talks on photography and neuroscience. The entire group contributed tidbits from our myriad freelance experiences. There was so much going on. At one point I walked through to a passenger car, to process all that was happening in a more secluded space. The day was a whirlwind. We continued getting to know each other – people I’d yet to meet introduced themselves. The meetings all felt so organic, there were no forced exchanges. We watched the fields and farms of Wisconsin fly by, caught sunset while stopped at a four-way crossroads that felt like the heart of America.

It’s hard to find a balance between taking time to reflect and engaging in all that’s happening. And just as I started to figure it out, it was time to step off the train again. We’d arrived in St. Paul, where another 48 hours of inspiration awaited.

Come along for the ride.

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The Passport Express

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Passion Passport’s community includes explorers, creators and storytellers from around the globe. Their travel experiences have challenged them, shaped their perspective of the world and given them a better sense of who they are. Both online and off, Passion Passport offers the opportunity to connect with one another, to share those pivotal moments, and to travel with purpose.

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