En route to tracking down my phone, I passed the boutique spa. I went back into the cool salon, sweaty and disheveled and much more in need of a massage than previously. But the girls who worked there had no phone for me—nor any openings. They, too, were sympathetic and apologetic. It was, I was beginning to understand, the default attitude for Galesburgians dealing with impatient tourists.
I walked very quickly to the rail station. The place so cutely symbolized with a heart in the wooden map of Illinois had now become the center of my world. At least I hoped so. I hoped my phone—my brain! My heart! My connection to everyone I knew!—was there, beating and alive in the Amtrak office.
I retrieved my luggage and unzipped my breast-cancer-research-pink shoulder bag, exploring its multiple compartments. No phone. I checked all of them twice, and then, in disbelief and shock, moved to a corner of the waiting room. There were long flat benches there, where I could unpack everything, plus a grandmotherly type who couldn't hear well but nonetheless took an avid interest in my search (she was, after all, stuck on the station for the same five hours and had little by way of entertainment, so watching me get exercised was probably fairly diverting). I told her I'd mislaid my phone, but she couldn't hear, and kept making helpful observations as I rummaged. "Your glasses are here, look! Did you try the other pocket? Maybe it's in your suitcase!"
I got grimmer and grimmer, and less and less appreciative of her support, as compartment after pocket yielded my paper itinerary and sunscreen and water bottle and, as I got deeper in the packing strata, underwear and rolled tee-shirts and, at the bottom of the big bag, beach sandals and Kindle and a heavy hardback book. I yanked out clothing and papers and toiletries, stacking them on the bench by me like close friends. On display, for all to see, were my bras and dingy socks and tired underwear, the kind I use while traveling so I can throw it away. I pawed through my stuff and flipped things over and swore and did not find my phone.
It wasn't just a phone! It was a barely-two-month old, uninsured iPhone in the case of which were not only my credit card and ID, but my cash. Losing the phone would mean not only that I'd be out of touch with everyone during my three-day train journey but also that I'd starve to death. (I forgot, in my temporary insanity, that meals were included with my sleeper-car ticket; I was reduced to wondering if I could eat leftovers in the dining car.) Already I was hungry; how could I make it to the Golden State without any money? A three-day fast was not part of my travel plans.
Desperate, I stood in line for ten minutes waiting to talk to the nice Amtrak lady, who looked very concerned and directed me across the room, to the little cubicle office for the Trailways bus lines. "Becky will help you," she said.
Becky already looked as if she wanted to help. Having overheard my complaint, Becky was already making assiduous eye contact, signaling with body language and facial expression that she understood my predicament and was ready to give her all in the service of getting back my phone. Nearly in tears, I turned to her, not overly confident that this young woman, dressed in a kind of cotton smock over perhaps uniform slacks, would be able to help me. She seemed only about twenty or so, young enough to appreciate the importance of a smartphone, sure, but too young to appreciate the dire circumstances of being nearly sixty and travelling alone and losing one's identity, grocery money, and possibly even life. Visions of my imminent demise making me inarticulate, I stammered that I must have left my phone on the seat of the Trailways bus.
Becky let me know that she'd recently mislaid her own phone and had never gotten it back, so she was super sympathetic (she, however, had had the foresight to insure her phone, so she at least not had to shell out some $600 or $700 to get a new one, as I was about to have to do). Even as she spoke, she was on her phone, calling the next depot where my bus was due. She alerted the staff there to talk to the driver the minute he pulled in, and board the bus ASAP to retrieve my phone.
"I was in the second seat," I told Becky, urgently, at least three times. "The second row, behind the driver. First there's the driver, then the front seat with the cooler on, it then me." I made little geometric gestures with my hands. I was prepared to draw a diagram.
Becky got it. She was smartly speaking bus numbers and route names into the phone. She commented to me en passant that it had been a new driver, not one of their regulars, and that was why she didn't have his personal cell phone and thus could not call him instantly. She apologized for this, but assured me that once found, the phone could be sent with the driver on his return trip. But, she further apologized, the return coach would not be at the Galesburg station before my train left. "I'm so sorry," she said, again and again.
I was still delirious with gratitude: the phone, once in possession of Amtrak, could be sent to me at some future station, thus assuring my continued life and sanity. Hanging up, Becky said, "I'm sorry this will take a few more minutes. The coach is just now pulling in, and they have to let people off before they board it."
While I waited, I went into the station ladies' room and searched it far more thoroughly than necessary. Nope, my phone was not on top of the towel dispenser. Nope, not in the garbage. Nope, not fallen behind the toilet tank in the stall I had not used. Not there.
When I emerged, Becky was on the phone again, looking sad. She said something like, "I see. Ok. Thank you anyway." She looked up at me with grave sympathy. "They searched the whole bus," she said. "It's not there!"
I was sure that my phone had been stolen—by one of those creepy, honest-seeming, clear-eyed Midwesterners! But I couldn't just sit in the train station and cry. I was going to retrace my steps and search the streets of Galesburg for my phone. As I turned to leave the station, Becky stopped me. "How about if I call your phone?" she asked. "That way maybe someone who is near it will pick up."
I thought it would be fruitless—and would possibly use up the remaining battery in my phone—but Becky wanted so badly to be helpful that I didn't discourage her. She dialed my number and it rang and rang, but of course no one picked it up. "I'll try again while you're out there," she said. "Maybe you'll hear it someplace like in a store or something."
As I walked towards the station exit, Becky hunched over her phone, redialing mine. And then, she was talking to someone! She had it on speaker and I heard a woman answer my phone. Becky seemed surprised. After a pause, she said, "Um, did you—did you just find this phone?"
Someone at the other end said yes, and seconds later I was on my way back to the art store, the place where I'd noticed that I didn't have my phone. Apparently I'd set it down on the countertop before I went to pay, and then hadn't seen it as I rummaged through my pockets and bag, looking for it.
The art shop was Dovetail Rivet and Stitch, and the owner was calmly eating her lunch while guarding my phone. She seemed neither perturbed by my crisis nor especially proud of herself for saving my life. I happily bought the socks, and to thank Becky I got her a little leather key fob with the engraved map of the railways crossing through Illinois, meeting in a heart representing Galesburg. It seemed appropriate.
Very happy, and by then extremely hungry, I went next door to "Baked" for home-made pizza. I was expecting a Domino's analog, but instead walked in to a colorful, music-filled room where the cooks tossed the dough and topped it with rhubarb and goat cheese and asparagus next to a stack of records (!) and a record player (!). "Is that real?" I asked. It was probably just a cover for a device playing Pandora.
"Sure, we spin vinyl all day," said one of the staffers. And they did, too, swapping one LP I liked after another, as I ate a deep-dish pizza with caramelized mozzarella crust.
After lunch, carrying my phone carefully, I wandered further down Seminary Street past several forbidding "No alcohol" signs. I thought it was some kind of Midwestern prohibition against booze in the center of the town. How provincial! But then someone saw my confusion and spoke to me, explaining that the town was preparing for an all-evening street party. The "First Friday" celebration was a monthly block buster with a band—and plenty of alcohol too. It was just kept within a designated area for obvious reasons.
I was deeply sorry to miss that party, which would begin as my train was pulling out of Galesburg. I regretted it, because I thought it would be a really good time. While I hadn't gone to look for small-town America, I sure had found it.
Gillian Kendall is the author of Mr Ding's Chicken Feet, which the New York Times Review of Books considered one of the "notable" travel books of 2006. She also edited the anthology Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Glamour, Curve, Girlfriends, and many other magazines, and she's won a number of obscure awards.
Photos and One Way Ticket watercolor painting by the author.
Taking the Carolina Hometown Tour by Lydia Carey
Locked Out of Canada by Gillian Kendall
Diving Into Art in the Land of NASCAR by Tim Leffel
We're the Greatest! Our Quest to Be the World Capital of...Anything by Chris Epting
See other USA travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: