I finally saw the American desert for the first time this summer at the ripe old age of 28.
I stood on the back of a train and stared at the epic expanse of land for what must've been hours.
The view was breathtaking -- I was hooked.
A good journey is much like a good conversation. It enlightens, humbles and reinvigorates you, while leaving you wanting more.
The train journey I took this summer was a conversation about America: what it was, what it is and where it's going.
I've spent much of the past year or so running around the US covering an election that's filled me with far too many conflicting feelings about the state of America and what it really stands for.
This whirlwind of politically-induced emotions has been compounded by the relentless array of violence that continues to plague this country.
Simply put, it's been really easy to feel like shit about America in 2016.
But, just a few short days after returning from the chaos of the Republican and Democratic conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia this past August, I embarked on a roughly 10-day train trip across the country that would revitalize me in ways I never anticipated.
I traveled with Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a non-profit that brings diverse crews of young people together to foster innovation and dialogue about everything from police brutality to climate change on crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys.
The train acts much like a mobile campus.
It's where the participants eat, sleep, work on their projects, engage in group discussions and even enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine (or three).
The train even has its own kitchen and chefs, and the food is excellent.
About to take this train across the country for the next 10 days or so! pic.twitter.com/oNv5dLKmZ5 — John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) August 11, 2016
Home for the next 10 days. #ImOnATrain #MTP #IdeasInMotion #Millennials pic.twitter.com/zmeStnHEzS — John Haltiwanger (@jchaltiwanger) August 11, 2016
There were two MTP journeys this summer, and I joined the group on the second expedition.
For a little over a week, I observed and lived alongside these youthful entrepreneurs as the train catapulted us across the United States, stopping in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit along the way.
In each city, the group met with everyone from former convicts and mayors to urban farmers and refugees, discussing the various approaches both cities and individuals might take to address the convoluted array of forces that converge upon our society.
MTP, whose lead sponsors are Comcast NBCUniversal and The Rockefeller Foundation, has taken a seemingly antiquated and often neglected form of travel, and used it as a means to catalyze innovation.
The journey is all about fostering connections and breeding solidarity, and traveling by train is an integral part of this.
In many ways, what MTP does is a tribute to America's past.
Trains were what truly connected the US for the first time, revolutionizing the way people communicated, traveled and transported goods.
At a time when America is very divided, there's something that feels natural about embracing train travel as a way to reconnect people.
I've never seen or experienced America quite like I did from the train. It's a much more visceral way to drink the landscape in.
You feel every bump, twist and turn -- even more so than you do in a car.
You're not consumed with finding some form of entertainment to make the trip bearable -- you're encapsulated by the scenery.
Trains are also less restrictive than cars or airplanes and offer more opportunities for meaningful conversation.
You're not worried about distracting the driver or confined to a seat because of turbulence.
There's also something very meditative about train travel -- it's inexplicably soothing.
And did I mention the view?
Long story short, traveling by train is extremely underrated.
Patrick Dowd, the founder and CEO of MTP, perfectly summed up what makes this initiative and train travel so special in a conversation we had just a few months before the journey,
It's really valuable to get out of whatever your bubble is and meet people from other walks of life, other regions of the country, other sectors, other professions. Right now we're in the middle of an extremely divisive election cycle and in the midst of that, we can lose touch with how much we have in common with people from different regions of our country… When you travel across the country and you meet people face-to-face… you find that you can reach common ground and even get to the point where you're creating things together and building new partnerships out of shared interests. I think that travel and the exposure to different communities across the country is essential to that process, especially when we're all so much in our digital bubbles nowadays.
I began this locomotive adventure feeling fairly discouraged about where America stands presently as a country.
I'd just spent two weeks deeply immersed in the toxic madness of the presidential election, surrounded by staunchly partisan individuals who make no secret of their disdain for the other side.
Quite frankly, by the time I stepped on the train, I was exhausted and feeling a little America'd out.
But by the end of the journey, I felt more hopeful about the future of this country than I ever thought was possible during such a tumultuous and divisive election year.
People like to rag on Millennials.
We're frequently labeled as a generation of lazy, oversensitive, naive, entitled narcissists.
This is essentially another way of saying we're just a bunch of smartphone-hooked, selfie-taking mooches who still live in our parents' basements and don't contribute to society in any meaningful way.
There are certainly those among us who might fit this description, but the people I met on this train shatter this stereotype.
They are more invested in the future of this country, and the wider world for that matter, than many people twice their age.
They're working to help homeless youth, spark conversation about democracy, de-stigmatize refugees, support new teachers, foster civil dialogue about gun violence, revitalize America's infrastructure and so much more.
Do Millennials take too many selfies? Probably.
Actually, I admittedly took a few on the train.
But trying to portray Millennials as a homogenous group is as false as arguing every US state is exactly the same.
We're a generation that grew up through 9/11, the War on Terror and the Great Recession, yet have somehow remained optimistic and exceptionally socially-conscious.
In spite of the fact we're often characterized as "entitled," research shows Millennials are more generous than many people think. In 2014, for example, 84 percent of Millennials gave to charity and 70 percent volunteered at least an hour of their time, according to the Millennial Impact Report from the research group Achieve.
We haven't let astronomical levels of student loan debt, on top of high rates of unemployment, stop us from being altruistic.
Regardless of what happens this election, it won't be long before Millennials begin to assume positions of leadership -- and I can sincerely say that's a comforting thought.
While I don't believe we will singlehandedly save the world, I'm confident my generation will be instrumental in shifting things in the right direction.