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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Fed-up with school and living in a dorm room that didn’t have windows that opened, I went online, looking for something to get me far away from here. I purchased a train ticket on a whim. It was the Canada150 promotion – unlimited train travel for the month of July for just $150.

Two days later, the Via Rail website was shut down due to the overwhelming number of people trying to buy the same ticket. Via had failed to realized that the reason young people weren’t taking the train had nothing to do with young people not liking the train. It instead had everything to do with the fact that travel is expensive.

I left Canada Day.

I stopped in Winnipeg, Banff, Jasper, Vancouver, Tofino, Toronto and Halifax. I saw my first mountains, lakes, rainforests and oceans. For a month, I roamed by myself with nothing but a backpack. What most of my fellow travellers were unaware of, however, was the additional baggage I was carrying. Only a month earlier, I had been raped in Northern Ontario while tree planting by one of the crew bosses.

I met people from all over the country and made friends that have survived the test of time thus far. Most of my fellow travellers spent their days gallivanting throughout the cabins of the train or witnessing the incredible landscape that surrounded us. Others took advantage of the bar car as the staff regularly announced the legal drinking age in our present province. For those, like me, whose legality alternated daily, it was a complicated situation to mitigate.

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Instead, I spent most days and nights wary of everyone and glued to my seat because that was a safe place. I fell asleep in hostels with fear strangling me and woke up terrified that I was back in my tent trying to understand why there was blood between my legs.

Even while I remained scared, the new friends I made on the train created a safety blanket around me, a wall of blind reassurance. I enjoyed everything I did for that month of travel, and would do it all over again.

It was only in Tofino, midway through my venture, that I came to terms with what had really happened to me and how challenging it had been. I booked myself a surfing lesson and, upon my arrival, was put into a group with a middle-aged couple and a young instructor. The instructor took an interest in me. He cheered when I got up on the board, and when I looked at his grinning face I had butterflies.

He drove me back to my hostel and we exchanged numbers. Later that night, he picked me up to show me the stars I’d talked about wanting to see. When he kissed me in the front seat of his truck, the fears I had been carrying with me started to melt away.

What was left worried me more than the fear, however, because now I was stuck with harsh reality and pain – physical, psychological, emotional, the works.

He took me to the beach and he bought me ice cream and for the three days we spent together before I boarded a bus back to the train station, I was reminded what it was like to be with a kind person.

The trip to the other side of the country went by without a hiccup, and I continued making new friends. I smiled at the train window and listened to the music he’d introduced me to on repeat. One could call me a hopeless romantic, but I drowned in the knowledge that I could still be desired regardless of my history.

In Halifax, I met up with friends I’d made tree planting who showed me compassion and friendship. I’d proved to myself and my family that I could be independent. I learned a lot about what resilience really meant. I found strength where I thought I had none and my confidence started to trickle back.

The anniversary of the assault and the online memories of my trip will start appearing on my social media. I’m not worried though, because I know that I am stronger than ever.

When travelling solo, you’re with your own thoughts for most of the day, so having a strong mind is necessary. This is true about tree planting as well. My mind was made strong out of necessity, but that was the strength I needed when I came back to my hometown and found it in me to seek out the help I needed.

For a while, I thought it was the professional help I received that pulled me out of my hole, but I’ve come to realize that the days spent seated on a train, staring out the window as the country rolled past, was what really made the difference. It gave me time to think about what had happened and what strength I really had.

Resilience is about more than getting up and moving on. Resilience is about fighting for every single day and thriving despite what each of those days throws at you. It doesn’t mean perfect days all the time, but it means fighting to keep climbing no matter what.

Sarah Pledge Dickson lives in Ottawa.