“Oh. My. Gaaaah!” Ruthie Lindsey coos as she walks up to a man at an intersection in Brooklyn, New York. Wearing cuffed jeans and a sweater, he’s carrying a fluffy grey dog in a shoulder bag. The dog immediately starts lapping up her kisses. The owner looks skeptical – a lot of New Yorkers do as this beanpole in overalls and a white tank approaches them. She speaks a mile a minute, her pitch peaking on the last word of each sentence, her smile so wide it’s as though the corners of her lips are actually going to push her eyes right off her face. “What is this sweet little pumpkin’s NAME?” she asks.
She greets almost everyone we pass as we stroll from Bushwick to Williamsburg. Many get a nickname, a cluster of seemingly irrelevant words strung together so well that they sound like they should always be paired that way. These strangers always seem surprised at first; within minutes they’re old friends.
Lindsey has a way of making people feel loved, of making them feel welcome, that is rivaled by few. This ability to instantly connect had the Passport Express crew falling in love with her as soon as they boarded the train this fall. Her ability to get down didn’t hurt, either.
As the designer behind the overall experience, Lindsey had transformed the train cars into a rolling home. She’d added succulents to every sleeping cabin and bathroom; strung soft bistro lights throughout the main observation cars and curated gift bags with items from independent makers across the country. Woolrich blankets paired with Sisters of Nature pillows, a handmade chocolate placed on them each night. Hand-drawn maps placed next to each bed reminded the passengers of the route; water bottles with the Passport Express logo kept them hydrated. In each bag, a personal note from Ruthie welcomed them aboard. More nights than not, she’d get a dance party going on the train or in that weekend’s city, and everyone knew she expected them to join in.
“If someone came on the train and thought it was beautiful or they thought the design was pretty, that’s great,” says Lindsey. “But for me the end goal was that… they feel really cared for, that it’s intentional. Everything I chose just makes them feel loved and special and that someone actually cared that they are there, them in particular.”
To achieve this goal with a group of 22 passengers, many of whom she’d never met, Lindsey spent hours studying each person’s application. “For me that’s what design is. I want it to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing and feel really good but more of a feeling of warmth and comfort and nurture; a hug more than ‘this is really pretty,’” she adds. “Design is an opportunity for me to connect with people and make them feel valuable and important.” She designs more than spaces – she designs overall experiences.
It’s a career she somewhat stumbled into at a time when she personally needed those feelings, too, when she needed community and connection and love more than ever.
If Ruthie’s life were captured in the “American Girl” collection, it would be the tale of the rag-a-muffin little sister raised by a Southern beauty and a hardworking, generous, hilarious man who helped anyone he could. He was a visionary, she says, a presence larger than life around their tiny Louisiana parish. She and her two older brothers loved the stream of kids who lived with them from time to time as her dad, the local superintendent, helped them get back on their feet. They were a family rich not in money but in love and laughter. Ruthie inherited her father’s talent for connection. On family vacations she’d disappear with other kids she met on the beach; at home she just loved everyone, her two brothers the most. Hearing her tell it, it sounds as though her childhood was full of family, love, and fun.
Her first glimpse of change came during her senior year of high school. She survived a brutal car accident by the sheer luck that she had collided with an ambulance. The medic driving the ambulance knew exactly how to care for her, and she was able to walk out of the hospital a few days later despite suffering a broken vertebrae. She went on to college at ‘Ole Miss and met the love of her life a few years later. They married within months. They went out on tour with his band; they lived life to the fullest. Then, on one otherwise innocuous afternoon, she felt a shooting pain and nearly blacked out.
The emergency wire that had been used to reconnect her brain to her brain-stem had snapped – but it took four years of doctor’s visits and immeasurable amounts of pain to diagnose the issue. Her doctors said that she would need to undergo an experimental surgery if she wanted any hope of maintaining her ability to walk. She knew she had to do it, but her medical insurance would not cover it.
As she was preparing for the surgery, an entirely different type of tragedy took its toll. Her father died in a freak accident. That crushed her – yet somehow her dad was able to give her one last gift: People from across the country appeared seemingly out of nowhere to donate money in his honor, saying he’d paid for their prom gowns or college applications, small gestures she’d never known about. The money they gave paid for her surgery.
The surgery saved her ability to walk – but also caused serious nerve damage. She’ll have to deal with chronic pain on the right side of her body for the rest of her life – it basically feels like fire ants are crawling all over that side of her body all the time. In the midst of learning to deal with chronic pain, she had to have another surgery. While in the hospital, she contracted a bacterial infection called C-Diff. It was one thing after the next, leading her to a life on painkillers that sent her spiraling. Her sister-in-law lovingly refers to that period as “when [Ruthie] was coo-coo,” spinning her finger next to her head.
Throughout the years of searching for the root of her pain, the surgery and the recovery, she was all-but confined to her bed. Knowing her bedroom was basically serving as her entire world, she designed the space down to the slightest details. It turned out so well that a few local publications and then design websites noticed. When she and her husband decided to list their house for sale, the real estate agent ended up connecting them with her first client of sorts. It wasn’t just any client: It was Taylor Swift. The multiplatinum recording artist chose to shoot an album cover in Lindsey’s home. Lindsey took it as a compliment to her aesthetic – she didn’t by any means start to think of herself as a designer.
By the summer of 2012, Lindsey knew something had to change. While her husband was on tour, she moved in with her brother and sister-in-law in Baton Rouge. Over the course of four months, she weaned herself off of every last painkiller. She moved back to Nashville, where her and her husband bought a new house, their “forever house,” she says.
Six weeks later, another seismic shift: the end of her marriage, after 10 years together. She could have turned back to the painkillers, the method she’d taken for so long. Instead she took stock of her situation and knew that she now needed to fully support herself. She needed a job. She needed to not feel sorry for herself. And from there, a design career began to emerge.
At first Instagram was just a place for her to drop photos. Over time she started meeting a few influencers, usually by pure chance as they passed through Nashville for one reason or another. She met Garrett Cornelison (@ReallyKindOfAmazing) at a shop in Nashville because she happened to see his harmonica necklace and commented on it. Garrett was traveling with author and photographer Theron Humphrey (@ThisWildIdea), and these two have since become two of her closest friends. She’s been on assignments with them that are so good she can only describe them as “DUMBBBbbb,” like the time last spring when she and Garrett spent six weeks in Central America shooting for “The Great Discontent,” Maderas Village, and El Camino Travel. Through Instagram and the wider design world, she’s established pseudo communities that remind her of the small town she grew up in, despite being geographically spread all over.
She credits much of this to her decision to keep it real, to share her darkest moments right next to her lightest. “When I started my business I started just posting what I was doing, posting shitty photos, posting all the time,” she says. “I have friends who curate it and are more business minded than me. That works for them. For me, I type the way I speak, the way I talk to my friends. I was just posting the way I talk.” As her following has grown, she’s continued trying to connect with every person who reaches out to her, to help them feel loved, to make sure they know that “they’re important and they’re valuable.”
“It was just this very gradual thing… I was just trying to live life as fully as I possibly could, focus on the people around me. Some people started following me because they could connect with the loss and the brokenness and the hope coming from that,” she adds. Plenty of others followed as they fell in love with the experiences she designed.
When it came to the Passport Express, she knew the space needed to be conducive to connection, she says. “That’s what I wanted for the people on the trip, that’s what we all wanted – for people to come on and to feel cared for but also to connect with all these other humans who are doing amazing things and leave feeling filled up, inspired and encouraged and wanting to go to their own communities and create something like that and to be excited about travel and about people and community and connection.”
She brings this same approach to every job she takes on, whether it’s designing a campaign for charity:water or a dinner party for Free People; The approach carries through in her daily life, too, whether she’s at home in Nashville or walking through Brooklyn. To make people feel loved, special, cared for, not alone – this is what she does so well.
Interested in learning more about the Passport Express? Click here.