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Surviving the Journey: Letters from the Railroad's video poster

A young cancer survivor embarks on a cross country railroad adventure while writing her memoir through letters. Read more

Olympia, WA Nonfiction
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This project was successfully funded on August 4, 2011.

A young cancer survivor embarks on a cross country railroad adventure while writing her memoir through letters.

Olympia, WA Nonfiction
Share this project

About this project

Surviving the Journey: Letters from the Railroad is an epistolary memoir in the making.

About the author:

My name is Tammy. (That's me behind the 'Play Video' button in the picture above.) You'll learn a lot more about me through my project but there are two things you should know right away.

First off, I'm a breast cancer survivor. This doesn't mean that I've "beaten" cancer. I was originally diagnosed in 2006 with Stage IIB invasive ductal carcinoma; however, a year after finishing standard treatment (chemo, radiation, and a lumpectomy) my cancer returned. Now I have Stage IV disease, which basically means that I can be treated for an indeterminate time but never cured.

Still, I'm surviving cancer every day, and somehow managing to defy the odds. Physically, my health has been stable since late 2008, when I first learned that the cancer metastasized to my spine. It would be wrong to claim that this disease hasn't affected my life in numerous (often devastating) ways, yet there are moments (dare I say days?) where I forget that I even have it. My cancer doesn't "define" me ... this, I can say for sure!

The second thing you should know is that I'm a born traveler. My parents met on a cross country Greyhound bus trip, so wanderlust runs in my blood.

Although I don't mind buses (or cars, or planes) my heart belongs to the railroad. I first traveled via train back in 1990 on a family trip to Disneyland. I was 11 years old, and from the moment I stepped into the train car it was love at first ride!  

Now, over 20 years later, my passion for the railroad remains intact. I've been able to ride the rails dozens of times since becoming an adult. Many of these trips were long-distance (most of them taken after my first cancer diagnosis). I've gotten to know a good portion of the American landscape through the windows of a train. I love the comfort and excitement of being rocked to sleep under the dark of North Dakota, only to wake up a few hours later to the sight of Wisconsin farmland rolling past my window. Many things inspire me but nothing so much as this kind of adventure!

By now, I'm very familiar with the Amtrak system and could name you all 33 routes off the top of my head. I haven't ridden them all (yet!) but there are several that I've ridden more than once. If you watch my video, you'll see that the first half, my tribute to train travel, features images from some of my favorite routes, captured during trips I've taken both solo and with my husband, Merwyn.

About the project:

The "journey" in the title of my project has multiple meanings.

There's cancer's metaphorical journey that I found myself on almost five years ago at age 27. Unlike most journeys, I don't know the duration of this one or where it might lead. Meanwhile, for better or worse I'll remain perpetually on board.

For my project, I will embark on a physical (and spiritual) journey, by way of the American railroad. I'll travel across the country for about one month, stopping periodically to visit significant friends, family members, and locations. Concurrently, I will reflect on my life's journey through a series of letters that I'll be writing along the way. These letters will eventually be compiled into a book.

Several of the letters I write will touch upon my cancer experience; however, the end result will not be just another "cancer" memoir. Instead, I'll share my story by acknowledging the people and places that have truly helped define me, unlike my illness. Who I am today can be traced in part to the influence and support of others – some close, some personal, some indirect, some surprising. These are the people I will address my letters to. Together the letters will fit like a puzzle to show how life's journey has led to today. From there I can plan what tomorrow might be.

Why travel in order to write?

Riding the rails is a fitting environment for this project, which revolves around so many journeys.

Traveling lends an authenticity to the letters I will write. I'll get to provide unique perspective as a 32-year-old female railroad enthusiast (really, how many of us are out there?) by including detailed descriptions of my surroundings within specific letters, as well as in a handful of separate passages/essays that will also be included in the book.

Many of the people who have impacted my life so significantly are thousands of miles away. A trip will allow me to re-connect with these people face-to-face, which in turn should provide refreshed inspiration and perhaps even lead to new discoveries.

Finally, the train allows plenty of opportunity to meet new people, which is a journey in and of itself!

Can't you just fly? Wouldn't that be easier/more convenient?

Not really. As much as I love riding the train for adventure, it's also much easier on my health.

I have some physical limitations from cancer that can make flying difficult. For example, due to the lesion on my spine and treatment-related anemia, it's often hard for me to stand for extended periods of time, such as while going through slow security lines.

Once inside a plane, I have to worry about how the cramped space might affect my compromised immune system, or how the small amount of leg room might aggravate the arthritis in my knees (a lasting side effect from chemo). Then there's the lymphedema in my right arm. I do have a sleeve to control this, but if the sleeve was ever forgotten or went missing for some reason, a flight practically guarantees a lymphedema flare-up.

Trains provide much more open space and room to move around, therefore greatly decreasing most of my health concerns.

Flying might (arguably) be more "convenient" in terms of getting me from one place to another in a short span of time. But it still requires time spent and arrangements made for traveling to and from each airport along with time wasted and raised stress levels going through security.

Flying would also be cost prohibitive when considering the amount of ground I'll cover.

Which route(s) will you be taking?

Some of the destinations on my cross country itinerary include:

  • Sebastapol, CA, where my father was born.
  • Springfield, MO, where my mother grew up.  
  • Providence, RI. Here, I can visit friends and explore my ancestry.
  • Los Angeles, CA, the first city I ever visited on my own. Many years and visits later, I experienced one of the scariest weekends of my life here.
  • New York, NY, a place I used to merely dream of visiting. I've now been several times, and it's home to some of my favorite people.

There will be plenty of other stops. Most of them are accessible via Amtrak. You can see some of the specific train routes I'll be riding (i.e. Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder, Silver Star) in my video.

In the rare case I can't reach a particular destination directly on the train, I'll ride to the nearest location and then either ride with a friend or use public transportation to make it the rest of the way.

What is the money needed for?

The majority of the funds will cover train tickets. On overnight trips, I'll need to get a roomette due to my health requirements, the fiscal advantage being that my meals on the train will already be covered.

Most of my stops will be in cities where I’ll be able to save money (and enhance the pleasure of the trip) by staying with a friend or with family. For the few times I’ll need to get a hotel room I’ll be perfectly content with something like a Motel 6.

The remainder of the funds will be used as seed money for self-publishing the book when it’s ready.

Kickstarter funds will not be used for souvenirs or nights on the town.

Why are you writing this book?

In addition to reasons cited above -- simply put, it's been ingrained in me almost my whole life that someday I would write a book.

I started writing stories when I was about 6. I was pretty prolific for the next several years. I had a blast writing my stories about orphanages, bubblegum teen pop groups, talking dogs, human cartwheels, and who knows what else. Encouraged by teachers, and even more so by my dad and younger sister (my two most loyal readers), I felt confident that I'd be published, at the latest, by the time I turned 13.

Well, that didn't happen. Fiction writing stopped coming so easily to me somewhere in my early college years. But I continued to write sporadically and held on to the belief that I would someday write (and publish) something.

After my first cancer diagnosis, I finally started to write (or rather, "blog") again on a regular basis. My firsthand accounts of my cancer experience attracted a small audience of readers. Some of them encouraged me to write a book. I liked the idea, but the timing never felt right.

Then I was diagnosed with mets and started to think about the proverbial bucket list. Writing a book was still high up there on my list -- in fact, it was right behind my dream of taking a train trip all around the country. I accomplished the latter for the first time in fall of 2009, and ... well, look at me now. I'm a veteran rail rider!

Despite much continued encouragement from several individuals, it took over two years for me to finally feel ready to attempt to write a book. But the time has come. 

I am ready to tell my story! 

I have a good feeling about this project and a strong desire to see it fulfilled. I've already made a lot of progress. What used to be "something I'll someday do" is now being actively planned and turning into a very real possibility. 

Now I'm asking for your help in taking the next step, and making my project a reality! Thank you so much for considering!

If you have any more questions, feel free to let me know. I'll be happy to answer them, and/or add them to my FAQ list. :-)

Stay tuned for news, photos, and other updates as this project unfolds!


  • No, I'm not currently on chemo. My treatment plan right now is very manageable. My doctors encourage traveling. Some of them are always asking me about "any new trips" every time I come in for an appointment. :-)

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  • I'm aiming for fall, possibly October.

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  • I've written drafts of some letters. I've secured places to stay at several of my planned destinations. I've recruited editing help. I'll keep this answer updated as things progress!

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  • I'm new to video-making and don't have access to sophisticated equipment. This might change later on! Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy my photo montage. :-)

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  • My goal is to have the book (self) published by June, 2012. I'd like to present the first copy to my dad as a Father's Day gift. He has encouraged my writing more than anybody else. He's also my captain and role model when it comes to surviving "health" journeys. (Dad's been on an "MS Journey" for over 20 years, and is now a fellow cancer survivor, too.)

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  • Why not?

    Just kidding. There are actually many ways to answer this question.

    One: I'm a mail geek. I like to write and receive letters. (I have several pen pals.) Letters are fun.

    Two: letters often go hand-in-hand with travel, so it seems fitting.

    Three: It's the most personal and authentic way I know of to tell my story, and to acknowledge/greet/thank/forgive, etc. the people who have shaped me into the person I am today ... and given me a story to tell.

    There are other reasons, but I'll leave it at that for now. :-)

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  • That's a surprise!

    But, to give a vague answer, the list includes friends, family, musicians, doctors, other survivors, other people I've met since being diagnosed with cancer, and people who knew me long before I ever knew what a "ductal carcinoma" was. Some of the people I'll be writing to are no longer in my life. Some of them, I've never even met. Some might not even be human.

    Who knows ... one of them might be YOU!

    Last updated:


  • You selected
    Pledge $1 or more

    0 backers

    Exclusive updates. Heartfelt thanks.

    PLUS (new!) a fun CD of "travel songs" from KAOS 89.3 FM's Think Tank show! The CD will also be available with pledges of $5 or more ... but you can have it for as little as $1!

  • You selected
    Pledge $5 or more

    3 backers

    Exclusive updates, heartfelt thanks, and an acknowledgment in the book!

  • You selected
    Pledge $10 or more

    4 backers

    All of the above ... PLUS a personalized postcard from the road, from the destination of your choice!

  • You selected
    Pledge $15 or more

    4 backers

    All of the above ... PLUS (when the book is ready) an e-copy of the book!

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    13 backers

    All of the above ... PLUS (when the book is ready) a hard copy of the book!

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    6 backers

    Everything that comes with the $20 pledge... but YOUR copy of the book will be SIGNED ... PLUS you'll get a bookmark!

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    Pledge $40 or more

    4 backers

    NEW REWARD! Everything that comes with the $35 pledge ... PLUS an (up to) 90-minute guest appearance on KAOS 89.3 FM's Think Tank show! If you're local, you can hang out with us in the studio. If you're not local, you can call in. Either way, you can chat on the air with us if you'd like (if you're shy, we won't make you!) AND play guest deejay! That means YOU get to pick all the music!*

    The "guest appearance" will also be available with higher pledges if desired, but for as little as $40, you'll receive an opportunity to be the radio star of the hour!

    (*Note, the music must be "radio friendly" and honor KAOS's 80 per cent independent music policy. Otherwise, The Think Tank has an eclectic format; we're very open to most music, new or old!)

  • You selected
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    7 backers

    Everything that comes with the $35 pledge... PLUS an exclusive railroad-themed, silk-screened T-shirt!

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    0 backers

    New! Everything that comes with the $50 pledge ... PLUS an exclusive "Surviving the Journey: Letters from the Railroad" coffee mug!

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    Pledge $75 or more

    2 backers Limited (3 left of 5)

    Everything that comes with the $60 pledge... PLUS an amazing scrapbook of the journey, FILLED with exclusive photos, and handmade with love!

    (International shipping charges may apply to this and all rewards above the the $75 level.)

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    2 backers

    Everything that comes with the $75 pledge* ... PLUS a collection of three souvenirs (postcard, refrigerator magnet, mug) from the state of your choice! You will receive a detailed itinerary of the journey beforehand, and can choose from any of the locations on the list!

    (*Scrapbooks are limited and may not be available with this reward if they have sold out.)

  • You selected
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    1 backer

    Everything that comes with the $100 pledge ... PLUS two extra souvenirs from the state of your choice! (In addition to the postcard, magnet, and mug, your collection will include a T-shirt and a surprise!)

  • You selected
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    0 backers

    Exclusive updates, heartfelt thanks, an acknowledgement in the book ... plus TWO "travel songs" CDs... TWO personalized postcards from the road from destinations of your choice ... TWO signed hard copies of the book ... TWO bookmarks ... TWO exclusive railroad-themed, silk-screened T-shirts... TWO railroad coffee mugs ... collections of five souvenirs from TWO different states on the itinerary ... and TWO guest deejay appearances on KAOS 89.3 FM's Think Tank show! Share the extra prizes with a friend, or keep them for yourself! (This reward is brought to you by the number 2!)

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    4 backers

    In addition to all of the above, I will write you a letter from the railroad, to be included in the book!!!

Funding period

- (46 days)