September 16: Missouri River Runner -- St. Louis to Kansas City (7 hours, 283 miles)
After an overnight push from the Lonestar State the Texas Eagle rolled into St. Louis right on time. This train had left Los Angeles days before and I was impressed and excited by its punctuality. My connection, the Missouri River Runner, was due to leave at 9:15am and I arrived with over an hour to spare. This left plenty of time for failed attempts to connect with the Gateway station's wi-fi, strengthening the old chew muscles with an exercise I call "The Rubber Bagel", warding off a brain-vacuum stupor induced by the grayish greyness of the station wall, and contemplating the impending finale of my trip.
Crunch, crunch, crunch... and I was afraid to turn around. You know, if I keep running, walking, strolling with eyes averting, ears stuffing, mouth agaping, toes pointing and arms swinging there is a very good chance that I won't notice the steps behind me. But, the end monster isn't too sneaky. You know he's there, even when he's 74 years away. Crunch, crunch, crunch... and I just keep going.
"Come on over and do the twist... Love you so much it makes me sick. Come on over and shoot the shit."
I peered out the window intent to extract some meaning from the historic Missouri River. The giant funnels its waters eastward toward the Mississippi and eventually out to the Gulf of Mexico. Just like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark I was headed upstream. (Were they negative creeps? I mean Lewis took his own life after the adventure of a lifetime.) My trip wasn't demanding, consistently life-threatening, unsanitary, or nearly as old. These guys set off into the unknown over two centuries ago in 1804. Though it's just a wink, 200 years is very capable of encompassing quite a good deal of change, especially lately. I was on a train, a human invention that significantly changed our history. This occurred, of course, after Jefferson's explorers added the first major chapter to the American manifest destiny bible. But now the train is viewed by many as an antiquated form of travel only used by septuagenarians and those with a serious fear of flying.
Where did I put my tomato juice? I'm pretty sure it's, well if I could just get out of the this damn tangle of...
Wait, what the hell is going on?
Thanks, Missouri River, for your ancient wisdom.
There is a big difference between a long distance train like the Texas Eagle or the Empire Builder and a quick hitter like the Missouri River Runner. The passengers are different. Those routes that go across the country have a very social aspect that is missing on a lot of the shorter lines. Specifically, I find that riders going shorter distances are more reserved and usually engaged with only their traveling companion(s). And that is fine. But I become irritated when they pile in, excited to experience this romantic thing called train travel, and wind up complaining that five hours is too long to be stuck in transit because they know they could have arrived in four and a half if they'd only taken their car.
I don't encounter much of this thinking on the longer trains. After 20 hours on the rails train brain takes over. Travelers give in to the notion of relaxation and curl up at the feet of the leisure gods. An hour here or there makes no difference. Unless of course it extends the euchre game in the lounge car, the time perpetuating the ass-whipping to the newly learnded youngsters from Arizona at the hands of the crafty Wisconsin couple. Nobody likes to see uneccessary brutality. I want to whisper, "Tell them to pick it up and then trump the first trick. Good, now lead with your ace." Sometimes I do. I love the long train.
But I'll admit that I also get excited to roll into a station and get off of the train. One of my favorite things is to find a place to eat in each new city. On this day I rolled into Kansas City hungry for some barbeque. Thanks to the iPhone I'm able to pull up a famous BBQ joint less than a mile from the station: Fiorella's Jack Stack.
The train that started on the eastern side of Missouri finally slows to a stop on the state's western edge. Those who haven't already, hastily assemble their belongings and wait in the aisle for the train doors to open. I'm reluctant to take off my headphones and jockey for position with the others. Although deboarding is much faster on trains than on airplanes, I still chuckle at the needless rushing, huffing and puffing. Why? For me I know that ribs are just around the corner. I take my time as I leave the train. Stepping off, heading through the station while following my nose and the sweet smell of barbeque, I walk past many people that hurried to disembark before me.
September 11, 12, 15 &16: Texas Eagle -- St. Louis to Dallas/Ft. Worth to St. Louis (31 hours, 1318 miles)
The Texas Eagle was once known as the Love Train, or so I was told. Love was the last name of the first conductor, and his son carried on the tradition for years after his father retired. Evidently it was the mission of the Loves to help get out of love passengers safely to their destinations fully smitten. They would seek out lonely riders and play cupid. The conductors took it upon themselves to decide who was a good match and would seat them together in the coaches or at meals in the dining car.
Love was very much on my mind as I made my way down to Texas and back through the center of the country. I had curls and kisses running through my head. I've fallen for a woman that I've met only four times (all very briefly and never flirtatiously) and haven't seen since July 8.
The first time we ever saw each other was when she came over to the house I live at in Portland to interview for a temporary living situation. To help me afford my trip I decided to sublease my room for two and a half months. She was the leading candidate even though we had only corresponded twice on email as she responded to the ad I placed on craigslist. After our brief meeting with the other housemates her position at the top of the list of potential candidates was cemented. And this was how I thought of her, as a nice person that could be trusted, deserved a good place to stay, and wouldn't cause any problems with the other residents. But there must have been something. Perhaps it was the way she took turns patting her stomach with each hand or maybe it was how she cocked her head to the side when she was thinking before she spoke, because I emailed her an offer to walk her through the neighborhood while she considered the room. She said no. Well, to be accurate she said no and thanked me for the offer.
We met three other times. Two times she was dropping things off at the house. Again I enjoyed these encounters, but it was just business and a friendly "hello". With that being said I couldn't help myself from emailing her about how, like the Digital Underground, I enjoy lumpy oatmeal. We haven't stopped writing each other since.
The last time I saw my lovely penpal was July 8 at Portland's Union Station. I was starting my trip, shoving off and setting forth. She was just getting off the train, starting her own journey of sorts. After seven years in San Francisco she had decided to give a new city a chance. Living in Portland for two and a half months was a fine way to test the waters without diving in head first. I saw her first. We shared a nice talk and a couple of laughs before I made the bold move of asking her for a picture with me (Similar moves - borrowing a pencil, asking for the time, looking away - helped form my old college monniker, Bold Move Kowalski). I heard the boarding call for the Coast Starlight and although I was interested in her, I wasn't interested in missing my first train. We turned to go our own ways, but before we were too far we turned back and mentioned how our meeting at the train station was very much like a movie. Which itself, I realized, was very much like a movie.
Those images and memories prevailed on my thoughts most of the evening until I decided to give her a call. I sat in the observation car, on the phone, as it emptied and before very long it was just me and two others. After an hour or two of Q's separated from A's by giggles and titters, we said good night. After staring out the window at the darkness for awhile I stood up and surveyed the sleeping situation. I remained in the lounge, curled up on the swivel seats of the Love Train, and fell asleep with a smile on my face
September 10: Lincoln Service -- Chicago to St. Louis (5 hours, 284 miles)
This was a quick, colorful little trip. I was surprised to know that it was faster to get from Chicago to St. Louis than it was to get from Chicago to Detroit. Who knew? Something I did know was that the time of day was my favorite and I positioned myself in a seat to watch the sun go down over the fields of central Illinois. Once I'm able to hurdle the initial dissappointment of the sun vanishing for the day, I usually find sunsets to be incredibly rewarding. In writing that last sentence I realized that my appreciation for a pretty sky is groundbreaking, so I'll walk through it for those that have either never experienced a sunset, or don't think one is very nice to look at.
Often times, as the Earth turns on its axis, the sun appears to go down and fall beneath the horizon. As this happens the world around an observer of a setting sun changes its complexion. The colors of the land become muted while the colors of the sky shift to brilliant. This change always varies and no two are ever the same. Some are a lot of red, some are a little yellow, some are nothing but pink, and everything can depend on the clouds. Clouds are a big part of a sunset because they reflect the light. They are sky highlights: little purple puffs, stretched twists of fading neon, choppy patterns of orange beads laid end to end, mountains of magenta masking moons of modest maroon... and no two clouds are alike. The infinite combinations of color and cloud occur over a constantly, but imperceptibly changing sky. The sky migrates from daytime blue to midnight blue, somehow spending most of its time a color other than any blue at all, and is draped behind a scene of silhouttes that are as unique as each observer.
Every evening, every person on the planet is given this special treat. Some sunsets, depending where on the planet they viewed are more beautiful than others, but they are always lovely. The number of sunsets each person gets to watch is finite. Due to this indisputable fact I find that it is important to appreciate them as much as possible. And I haven't even mentioned how powerful they can be metaphorically.
So I watched the sun go down on Illinois and the Lincoln. I'm sure that I'll never see another one like it. Here are some pictures:
September 9 & 10: Wolverine -- Chicago to Detroit to Chicago (13 hours, 562 miles)
I was up at 5:20am and on the L by 6 to catch my train at Chicago's Union station. My flannel shirt and sandals, amongst all of the pale blue collars and striped ties, clashed almost as obviously as my slow, relaxed gait down the middle of the busy sidewalk. I ducked into a side-street coffee shop to eat a sausage and egg crouissant with my cup of coffee. The television news was talking about Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry. Again, I felt the strong indication of difference before I hoisted my pack over my shoulders and finished my stroll to the station.
From the windy city and around the south shore of Lake Michigan, to Kalamazoo and Battle Creek and Ann Arbor, into the ghost town of Detroit goes the Wolverine. A modern day ghost town that is. The city still has plenty of residents and is the 18th largest city in the United States, but in the past 35 years over half its native population have fled to other areas and a quarter have left in the past decade. A reluctance to understand when, why and how the American automobile industry had reached its peak in productivity and profit has almost destroyed what was at one time the fourth most populated city in the country. This reluctance to face facts was (and is still) significantly exagerrated by generationally ingrained expectations of entitlement and poor planning. I can see a future where the automobile, again, becomes our ticket to prosperity. But it is not here yet and we surely can't depend on it coming into our strike zone like a batting practice meatball. Rolling into Detroit I am filled with the hope that we can understand our rapidly changing transportation needs and recognize how to implement many of the technologies (like high speed electric rail) to sustain clean, efficient, vibrant cities of the future.
Detroit, and the collapse of many midwestern cities (Flint, Toledo and Dayton to name three) is a fascinating topic. What is it that has caused the enormous downturn in their economies, inn turn causing such dramatic losses in population? Why don't we talk more about what this has done to many of the schools in these areas? And what trend does that establish? And how do you reverse the trend? The gap between poor and wealthy (educated and poorly educated) increases every day. Schools are bankrupt and teachers are under fire from frightened Americans worried about sharing more of their money. Meanwhile we drive along, paying $4 a gallon for gasoline, sending many of those precious dollars to foreign countries, some of which support radical, evil people that think warring with us will put them in heaven when they die. Averting our eyes we ignore these facts, resisting sacrifice and change, only rearing our anxious heads to demand that our teachers - those generous and loving people crazy enough to spend their days fighting what seems to be a losing battle - give even more.
The future of the gasoline combustion engine, and our dependence on it, is as empty as our midwestern cities. It is clear that in order to attract residents viable transportation alternatives, among other things (like support for education), are necessary. Along with these alternatives come new jobs, reliance on domestic industry, a healthier economy, more money for schools, and hope. Most people don't ever want to leave their hometowns for good. But the recent exodus of bright, talented, hopeful college graduates from the midwest is directly related to the lack of opportunity. Unlike their old cities, these transplanted young people understand the importance of sacrifice, investment, and forethought. Indeed, that's exactly what they are doing and what Detroit and all the mini-Detroits have failed to do.
September 7: Empire Builder -- Chicago to Minneapolis to Chicago (17 hours, 836 miles)
Although I've driven through this area before I was really looking forward to seeing Wisconsin and Minnesota from the train. I have really enjoyed the scenery the last few train rides and the Empire Builder was no exception. It helps that I've always been drawn to the Wisconsin landscape - the sand counties, its Dells, three major waterbody borders - since reading Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. So I found a spot in the observation lounge, popped open the laptop and settled in for a comfy cruise on both the ride to and from the twin cities.
|Early Empire Builder|
On the way there I spent most of my time writing a blog post about why I like riding on the train. The subject sprung up very organically because I was truly enjoying myself. The sun was pouring itself across the corn fields, wild flower patches, manicured farms, and the stands of hardwood. I wasn't very rested coming off the overnight train from Pittsburgh to Chicago, but I was to meet my Aunt Margo in Minneapolis and knew that a comfortable bed awaited me. The feeling of successful adventuring was strong in me and I wanted to put many of these feelings down. The passing scenery enrgized me. At that moment I didn't want to be anywhere else, which is really saying something because there is a girl in San Francisco that I've grown very fond of.
|The glow of sunset over the Mississippi|
The trip back to Chicago was just as enjoyable. Leaving Minneapolis/St.Paul and heading east the Empire Builder follows the bank of the mighty Mississippi (the Old Man, "Deep River. My home is over Jordan") for about 150 miles. On our way into Minnesota the sun had set, and although there was a fabulous red sky over the river it was illuminated only briefly and I was unable to see very much of the great waterway. Now I was able to digest the immensity and history of the river. My concentration waxed and waned from casual glances to intense scutiny at my choosing. I had 150 miles to take it all in.
Another added bonus about the trip back were the Trails & Rails volunteers that sat in the observation car from Minneapolis to Columbus, WI and used a microphone and speakers to comment on the areas that we passed. Amtrak and the National Park Service have teamed up for this program. Here's a description lifted directly from the website http://www.nps.gov/findapark/trailsandrails.htm:
"Trails & Rails is an innovative partnership program between the National Park Service and Amtrak. This program provides rail passengers with educational opportunities that foster an appreciation of a selected region's natural and cultural heritage; it promotes National Park Service areas and provides a value-added service to encourage train ridership. It also renews the long tradition of associating railroads with National Parks."
I enjoyed sitting there, with nothing to do but listen to a pair of good-spirited volunteers talk about all the interesting areas we were passing by. Many of the facts were fascinating. Wisconsin is home to the world's largest crane conservation organization, the International Crane Foundation. We passed through miles of wetlands filled with Sandhill Cranes and were told that captively born Whooping Cranes are introduced to their natural southerly routes by ultralight-led migration. The inexperienced cranes follow a remote controlled flying device, learning like they would from an older crane. After they make the trip once they know the way for the rest of their lives.
September 5: The Pennsylvanian -- New York to Pittsburgh (9 hours, 444 miles)
The Pennsylvanian starts in New York City and crosses the Delaware into Philadelphia before becoming one of the more beautiful train lines I've taken. It stretches out to the Susquehanna, following it for miles and miles before passing through Altoona and Lewistown. It continues through the Appalachians, rolling and rocking past Latrobe before finally coming to rest in Pittsburgh.
|A hill rising on the far bank of the Susquehanna|
It had been awhile since I'd boarded a train in the morning with all day to stare out the window and see the land. Now I could see the Pennsylvanian countryside, in stark contrast to the crowded streets of Manhattan, rolling past my window. I liked it. There were wooded hills, small tree-lined creeks, wide smooth-surfaced rivers full of boats and floating people, tiny towns and occasional cities. I wondered about what it was like to live down the country road that connects Huntingdon and Tyrone or on the banks of the Susquehanna. Did these people yearn to get out like I yearned to be in, if just for a day? Was it where they were and always wanted to be? Was it where they were and never want to be again? How long had they and their families been here? Do they get pissed when it snows in March?
There's a lot to be said about the country or the small town life. Sure, everybody knows your business, but they probably care. And there is no doubt that I enjoy the anonymity of the big city as a traveler and observer. So why is it that I feel lonely when I am anonymous in the place that I live? Or, why is it that I feel good when I am recognized in the place I live?
Does it have something to do with where we've come from as humans? Most of our ancestors lived in tribes and small, social communities where the instinct of participation was just as valued, if not more valued, than the instinct of greed. Everybody performed a role to help the community function as one large organism taking care of what needed to be taken care of. It must be the stationing of myself permanently against this potent grain that feels so intuitively wrong and unnatural. I want to help my community and I want to be recognized for it. Sprawling cities, computers and the automobile have taken more and more of these opportunities away.
The goddamn automobile. What a blessing and a curse at the same time. We've become so prosperous from the automobile and have been able to lead lives so full of adventure and convenience that we don't (or can't) recognize how it is failing us. I thought, looking out the windows at people that need automobiles to live, about what my life would look like without cars and I shuddered. Then I cringed as I realized that the obvious efficiencies provided by the automobile help blind us to its camouflaged deficiencies. Then, I waved at a couple floating down the river in tubes and they return the gesture and my brain whirred, like the landscape outside, in a frenzied rush of hopefulness.
The pangs and incomplete thoughts continued on my ride towards Pittsburgh. I climbed out of the train car, through the station and out into the city. Pittsburgh. I pulled out my iPhone and headed in the direction of my hotel, weaving in and out amongst the skyscrapers and empty streets, thankful again for technological breakthroughs and the brains that produced them. I watched cars drive past and smiled at drivers that I crossed the street before. I do this frequently and many never smile back. Today my friendly gesture was reciprocated. I liked it. I tried to imagine a world without smiles. Bubbling with fantastical pessimism and to the surprise of the hotel employees I arrived at my hotel on foot. I liked that too. I've always loved a good surprise.
|Downtown Pittsburgh near the hotel|
August 31: Crescent -- Atlanta to Baltimore (14 hours, 674 miles)
There's not a whole lot to write about this train. I boarded just after 8pm in Atlanta. I was exhausted from a full day and a Doug-sponsored Braves bash the night before. I spent an hour texting with a very smart, beautiful young woman that has somehow weathered my barrage of electronic courtings with enough enthusiasm intact to respond just as frequently. After saying good night to her I drifted off to sleep, cushioned on the left by a pillow-covered window and braced on the right by the body of a rather large woman that wobbled, like an egg on its end, into me throughout the night. I awoke to Washington D.C. and the monuments named after our first and third presidents. Soon after that we rolled into Baltimore and I bounded off the Crescent, excited for my day in a new city.
|Washington's Monument rises above|
|Baltimore's Penn Station with Jonathan Borofsky's controversial "Male/Female" visible in the left foreground.|
August 21-22: Silver Meteor -- New York to Washington D.C. to Miami (28 hours, 1389 miles)
It was a pretty good sized rat that went scurrying along in front of me and nobody else. That's because it was 5:30 in the morning, Sunday morning in Brooklyn. At such an hour it's just you against the rats. "They don't eat, don't sleep. They don't feed. They don't seethe ... they don't compare."
And it's a lonely feeling to be in such a big city, faced only with the incomparable. That's what a lot of New York is after all, relatively speaking; your shoes vs. mine; this picture vs. that; Yankees vs. Mets; my life vs. yours. But New Yorkers do these comparisons sneakily and unconsciously, usually only to other New Yorkers. They are experts at it. After all New York is the center of the judging universe; music, art, fashion. These industries revolve around New York like Mercury, Venus, and Earth do the sun. Unfortunately, this year asteroid belts aren't in season.
Standing alone on the subway platform, just me and the rats, I felt more at home than I did at the party the night before. It's not that I didn't have fun or don't like the people. I do and I am glad I was there. I just feel more comfortable with the rats. I can understand the rats. They're simple. Maybe there's something to be said about how the rats feel at home with me too, just like any other human. To a rat it doesn't matter how long I've lived in the city, or better yet, which part of the city. And they surely don't try to do your thinking for you, which is something I've experienced too frequently in the city.
Of course I'll admit that I probably put the New Yorker on guard too. Excited to please and show off their city's essence, I come at them guns a blazin', both barrells full. One full of questions and the other loaded with challenge. This is primarily because I want to climb inside the head of the New Yorker, to understand them like I do the rat. I'll also readily admit that I come to the conversation biased against the city, with its taste-makers and obnoxiously visible plutocracy. Perhaps they're as uncomfortable with me, an outsider, as I am with them.
I love my sister Holly more than I can write here. Departing hurts every time. But once I come to terms with leaving her behind, I love pulling away from the city and feeling the tranquility return. I breathe, regain form and know that once again, I'm myself and not a comparison.
Leaving the rats behind I headed south from Penn Station towards Washington D.C. where I was going to catch the Sunday afternoon ballgame between the Nationals and the Phillies. The Phillies are very good, and because of that their fans have gone berserk over the past few years. In Philadelphia and its nearby stops all of the official team sponsors boarded. The Phillies' division rival is only about two hours by slow train (the Acela Express can get folks there in half the time but its more expensive), so many fans were making the quick ride down.
For numerous reasons, the east coast is not somewhere I'd like to live. But I am extremely impressed with the transportation set up and the use of trains. They get it out here. Without researching I'd guess that trains run between Boston and Washington D.C. ten times a day, and these trains are full. Once at the station (Boston, NY, Philly, D.C.) all one has to do is hop on one of the many local trains, usually in the form of subway, to get where you need. It is simple, inexpensive, clean, and efficient.*
So the Philaelphia contingent was using the train to go see their team play against Washington. Smart people. Maybe I've sold Philly phans a little short. Indeed, most of the folks I've met clad in Roy Halladay jerseys or Mike Schmidt t-shirts have been not only knowledgeable, but more importantly, friendly.
After the game, and after a couple of hours in my favorite train station so far (Washington's Union Station), I set out on the Silver Meteor for Miami. Immediately a change from the other trains was noticable, color. This is a touchy subject and I get nervous writing about it. Not for fear of expressing my observations and opinions, but for being misunderstood. Or worse, for having incorrect assumptions assigned to a harmless fact. There are more black and brown people than white people on this train and that is the first time this has happened.
Another thing just happened for the first time. Sitting here in Jacksonville I was approached by a United States' Immigration officer. She snapped off her sunglasses, spit out her gum and shooting lie detectors into my eyes asked me for my citizenship. I said,"U.S.". She said, "Thanks, have a good day." Is it cynical to believe that she was just using me to prove to the rest of the train that she was not a profiler?
I just watched a portion of Amistad the other day and am pretty sensitive to issues surrounding race and immigration right now. So I'll change course a click, keep my ranting to a minimum, and only say that the line "what's good for business is good for the country" was the same one used by the confederacy on the Union.** That argument, by itself, cannot stand. So why, free from a healthy and truthful context, is it still used?
I knocked myself out from Richmond to Savannah. Early in the trip I had trouble falling asleep on the trains, so I purchased some Unisom to help me nod off. That shit sure does the trick. I finally awoke around 8am and made myself comfortable in the lounge car. This is where I like to spend my alert hours. I usually bring a book, my laptop, and my headphones.
When I'm not reading, writing or listening to music I'm meeting people. On this day I met Babs and her two sons Eugene and Elliot. They were fun and we played cards to pass the time. Gene is one helluva "Go Fish" player. I think we played eight games and he was victorious in seven. "What's your winning percentage?" I kept asking the boys math questions. They were a smart pair. Babs and I tired of "Go Fish" and decided it was time to teach the boys gin rummy. They picked up on it pretty quickly and seemed to enjoy taking part in an "adult" game.
|How many nickels in a dollar, Elliot?|
|Babs teaches gin rummy|
|Everybody say "Go fish!"|
*One of the arguments I frequently hear against public transporation is the issue of safety. On the trains and buses that I've taken in now 10 different cities I've never felt threatened or unsafe.
** Thanks Ani.
August 10-12: Lake Shore Limited and Maple Leaf -- Toledo-Cleveland-Buffalo to Toronto to New York City (27 hours, 953 miles)
This section of the trip was marked by early and inconvenient hours of departure and arrival, the companionship of three young ladies and customs inspections.
My sister Julia had never been on a train before, at least not an Amtrak train and we were due to leave Toledo at 3:20am. That is not a fun time to arrive at a train station. Nor is it a good time to experience your first train ride. A big part of riding trains, as I'm sure everybody knows, is looking out the windows at landscapes you've never seen before; landscapes that can't be viewed from a car window on an interstate. So much for that, eh Jules? When you finally board the train at 4:45 it is a only good time to lay sideways on adjacent seats and futily attempt to catch an hour or two's worth of shuteye. We made it to Cleveland quickly and then took naps.
After Cleveland and a lovely time on the southern edge of the most tempermental of the Great Lakes, I stepped onto the Lake Shore Limited for a third time. It was 5:40am. This time I was bound for Buffalo. My few hours here were rather uneventful and I can't even recall what I was doing during those few hours. My guess is a mix of reading Steinbeck's "In Dubious Battle" and watching youtube videos on my iPhone.
At half past ten I arrived in Buffalo-Depew. I had a few hours to kill before the Maple Leaf pulled in on its route from New York to Toronto. I inquired with the friendly man seated on a stool behind the wall of glass that separated Amtrak employees from the tired little passengers-that-could about places to eat nearby. I was surprised at all of the options available, because when we arrived I looked around and saw nothing resembling a restaurant. All I had to do was walk a mile, which at this point of my trip is a very nice sounding thing.
With delivery trucks speeding by and rippling my Buchanan plaid I made my way to your average looking shopping plaza. Points of interest in the plaza included a thrift store, a drugstore and a "breakfast served all day" type of joint. I made my way for the food and checked out the Thursday lunch specials. Nothing really jumped out at me so I resolved to order anything that I thought might be unique to Buffalo. Nothing. I re-resolved to order something unique to this particular restaurant. Nothing. Finally, I tripled down in an effort to find something that I'd never get in Portland and found what I was looking for: the fried bologna and onion sandwich. Mmmm, Buffalo. After lunch I strolled through the thrift shop and purchased an Edward Abbey book for a friend. Then a bubbly envelope at the drugstore to ship it in. After the excitement of the late morning I walked back to the station to wait for the Maple Leaf.
Back at the station I sat down to do some writing. I had trouble concentrating though because a girl kept glancing at me. She was attractive in that "I'm not sure who I am but I know I've got something going on somewhere" type of way. She wore a lot of black, had a piercing in her nose, and tranqulizing green eyes. There's always a time for a single man in these types of situations where he says one of two things to himself. I went with the "What the hell?" option.
She was pretty and young, 23, and named Brianna, but she told me to call her Bree. Just like me she was headed for Toronto. The Maple Leaf rolled in. I hoisted my pack, pointed at the train, smiled to Bree and said "Forward!" I didn't know that my directive would be taken so earnestly. I'm not sure if I've ever been around a stranger that was quite as forward with me as Bree was. Though nothing remarkable occurred between myself and the beautiful Bree, I must admit that I enjoyed the attention and had an enjoyable four hours to Toronto. It felt like four minutes.
At reasonable 8:20am and after two nights in a wonderful city I strided onto the Maple Leaf again, now bound for the Big Apple. Unfortunately, it seemed that everybody else in Toronto had the same idea. All the way to New York I heard conductors mumbling, "Full train. We've got a really full train." I postioned myself next to window to await the outcome.
Every solo Amtrak passenger observes the spins of the roulette wheel of potential seat partner with guarded optimism. Sometimes you get lucky (an empty seat, a new friend, Bree), sometimes you don't. I've been on a hot streak and was confident that it'd continue through to New York, at least. It had to. We weren't due until 9:45. Three irascible New Yorkers whose voices never quite found a way to drop below whine level meandered about. Three! An odd number. Shit. Another conductor made his way through, mumbling something about a full train. But he was followed by a nice face. I flashed a quick smile, a show of friendliness and moved my belongings off of my seat. Yahtzee! And phew.
She was from Israel and as quick to laugh as she was to roll her eyes at me. We talked. We read. We talked. She slept. I read. I listened to music. We talked. Aside from the moments when we weren't in our seats, this went on for 17 hours. Customs took up close to three of those hours and a motionless delay outside of Syracuse took up another three. If he's not careful a man can go crazy locked up in a box that's not moving. This is particularly true if the person sitting next to you is complaining about it the whole time. Thank you Israeli girl who told me her name as quickly as I forgot it while shaking my hand, smiling and telling me what a pleasure the trip had been except for the 6 hours when we hadn't budged. You kept me sane while surely keeping others from harm.
August 2: California Zephyr -- Denver to Chicago (28 hours, 1038 miles)
This one started rough. Due to rail work in the mountains the Zephyr pulled into Denver's makeshift train depot (Union Station is undergoing surgery until 2014) two hours behind schedule. At 9:30pm I climbed aboard and watched the train lurch ahead for about 50 yards, where it stopped and stayed for what felt like an hour. There were reports of electric failures causing the conductors to jump off and throw switches by hand as well as flooding far ahead in Nebraska.
I went downstairs, bought a Sierra Mist and filled the bottom of my my cup of ice with gin. I had to buy Diet Sierra Mist. I didn't care and topped it off anyway. My across-the-aisle buddy from Kansas and I were drunk before Ft. Morgan. It was one of those stupers that begins by promising brilliance but quickly descends into blankness. There are moments when being in a state of nothing can be quite pleasant, because even nothing can have color. Not tonight.
Only in retrospect have I decided that there are degrees of nothing. At the time I was too emersed in all of it that wasn't there to qualify everything that was not. Here I was on a grand cross-country adventure, presumably ecstatic at fulfilling a dream of mine, experiencing blank nothingness. Even if it was clean, at least that'd of been something. I couldn't even hoist myself to a dull turbidity, there wasn't anything to hold on to. I became agitated out of desperation.
During this swing from momentary brilliance, to nothingness, to anger I tried to compose a flirtatious email and was sure that I had failed miserably. So I deleted it. At least I thought I deleted it. Evidently the gin had me like a puppet and my fingers pressed send. The damn thing wasn't even finished. So there it went, my piece of shit attempt at cyberwooing flying through the ether surely to be met with disdain on the other end. And we were still in Colorado.
Nebraska came over like an uninvited and unwanted neighbor. Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock... I tried to sleep through it, but was unable. The automatically closing door between cars was broken and continued opening and closing. Knock, knock, knock. The train stopped again. Finally I invited Nebraska in and told it to make itself at home. I wasn't interested in chatting and tried again, this time successfully, to fall asleep.
I awoke to Nebraska rolling past the window, immediately making me dizzy and sleepy. "Still here?" I stayed at attention for a good two or three minutes before I shifted the pillow and drifted off to sleep again.
"Finally Iowa." That's right. And along with Iowa I began to feel the drowsiness lift and a return to normalcy. There were new people on the train too. Kansas guy had left a long, long time ago. The trouble is that we had been re-routed around Omaha because of floods and so had every other train. The freights own the lines, so we just had to wait. We must have been in Iowa for 12 hours. I amused myself by making music videos out the train window. Some came out nicely.
Becky and Lauren saved me. We had talked a bit in our car, but didn't really get to know each other until we ate our free dinner (Amtrak was doing all they could to prevent a revolt) together. But by this time I was fine, so were my new friends.
Becky and Lauren are a mother/daughter combo that had planned on boarding in Omaha at dawn. But the train wasn't coming there because of the floods. Luckily for them the Zephyr was running behind schedule so they could be transported an hour west and with plenty of time to spare, still catch it at Lincoln. They were on their way to Illinois to see Becky's mother. Lauren was excited because her grandmother always makes such a fuss over her and shows her off to all of her friends. I can see why. Lauren is one of the coolest 14 year-olds I've ever met. We chatted, told each other jokes, became facebook friends and I showed Lauren how to make music videos out the train window.
They departed and I was left with the final three hours to ruminate on the previous 25. By this time there was no chance of catching my connection to Toledo (even with a backup of five hours built in) so there was no point in worrying about that business. Amtrak had assured us that all 175 connection missers would be put up in a hotel for the night. They stood by their word while also offering to cover cab fare and the next day's meals.
Standing in front of the toilet I swayed back and forth without moving. I rocked, not like a hurricane, more like Neil Young with soul in my eye and a toothbrush in my mouth. I slipped under the sheets at Chicago's South Loop Hotel around 3:30am, 33 hours after arriving at the Denver train station. My head hit the pillow like a Mallard landing on a frozen lake and I have a suspicion that it was all very much worth it.
July 26: California Zephyr -- Sacramento to Denver (33 hours, 1315 miles)
I had made it to Sacramento on the Capitol Corridor line from Oakland's Jack London station. It was from Sacramento (which has a roomy station and a nice downtown) that I boarded the Zephyr at 11am, setting up a lovely afternoon ride up the Sierra Nevadas on the first transcontinental rail line painstakingly built by thousands of Chinese immigrants 145 years ago. I have trouble imagining a more spectacular train ride in the continental United States than the western sections of the California Zephyr.
One of the nice things that the folks at Amtrak do is to tri-coordinate departure times with geographic sections of intrigue and daylight. By departing in the morning the Zephyr makes its way through both the Sierras and the Rockies during daylight hours. They know what they're doing, because the train offers an easy, relaxed, and unique perspective to view these majestic mountains. It's like an episode of Planet Earth right outside your window to whatever soundtrack you choose. Mine was Air's Moon Safari.
In American grade schools we all heard the story of the transcontinental railroad. One group of men started building a line in the east and raced another group of men building from the west. Then both sides finally met at Promontory Point in Utah in May of 1869 and drove through the golden spike to solidify the technological feat of the century.
In the scholastic explanation of the toils of the railroad workers there was mention of the unbelievably difficult conditions that the men had to endure. But as a child I had no frame of reference for, nor the desire to understand what that all meant. Now as a man that has spent time doing many different jobs (some easy, some hard) and living in a myriad of conditions, my appreciation for the work all those Chinese immigrants did exceeds accurate description. It may sound a bit cheesy, but I found it difficult to travel through any of the numerous tunnels without an inner "thank you" to the engineers (Judah, Strong, Montegue) and the big four financiers (Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker). But I am most grateful for the many many men that worked everyday (sometimes with progress as little as 18 inches a day) so that today I can travel in the utmost comfort and leisure over places as historically formidable as Donner Pass.
July 23: San Joaquin -- Bakersfield to Oakland (7 hours, 315 miles)
So I was originally scheduled to take the train straight from L.A. to Oakland. Unfortunately I didn't get to the station on time to get my bicycle on board, so I had to come up with a new plan. That plan involved taking a bus for two hours from L.A. to Bakersfield and then catching the train up the San Joaquin Valley to Oakland. This proved very easy to do and I enjoyed the ride through Central California. I like California's trains. They treat their customers well while running often and on time. It seems that California is hip to the train culture and it is reflected by the efficiency and ease with which they transport their riders.
The line itself is interesting for showing off an important, but frequently neglected part of the country. Riding up the center of California's San Joaquin Valley one sees every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable growing in great quantity. Well, not every type, but damn close. This section of California produces an enormous proportion of the food we eat everyday. Yet I saw mostly poverty along the way. Why is it that the people that harvest our food are living in such squalor? Aren't we dependent on them? So what is the cause for this vast inequity? Do we care or don't we know? Can it be changed? Where's John Steinbeck? These are just a few of the questions that raced through my mind as we chugged upstate.
July 19 and 21: Pacific Surfliner -- San Diego/Oceanside/Anaheim/L.A. (4 hours, 120 miles)
I love this little commuter train up and down the coast. To ride costs very little money and it got me to where I needed to be. One of the perks was that it dropped me right at Angels Stadium. I picked up the train from Oceanside in the morning and took it up to Anaheim. Then, after the game I re-boarded and wound up in L.A. What a great way to from place to place. I wish more areas had trains like this.
July 15: Pacific Surfliner -- L.A. to San Diego (3 hours, 86 miles)
This was a fun little jaunt down the coastline. The Pacific Surfliner has a different feel than other lines because it is a commuter train. It makes 7 or 8 trips up and down everyday. The seats are snatched up on a first come first served basis; beer is brought aboard and passed around between friends (even at 9am); many of the passengers are regular riders along the line; and the stops are much more frequent. I spent most of the time gazing out of the window at the surfers and beachgoers. Here's a clip:
July 14-15: Texas Eagle -- Maricopa, AZ to L.A. (7 hours, 407 miles)
There's not a lot to say about this stretch of the trip. I boarded just before midnight and got off at 7am. I slept most of the time. I did manage to talk one of the many young whippersnappers aboard, a young Brazilian. In between winks and he told me that he was part of a youth group composed of students from 14 different countries that was finishing a train tour of the U.S. I overheard two comments that, taken with no context, I found to be humorous. Girl to boy: "You're smile is too big. Please speak English." And another boy to another girl: "Swedish? Swiss?" Girl: "Nope. French." Boy: "Oui, je peux."
July 10-11: Southwest Chief -- L.A. to Flagstaff, AZ (10 hours, 566 miles)
I glided onto the Southwest Chief with a couple beers in muh belly. My wonderful day on Olvera Street had left my in a light and gregarious mood. I made a friend immediately. Richard and I purchased a couple of Siera Mists and split a small bottle of Seagram's 7. So would that be a 7 and Sierra or a Sierra and 7? Does it depend on how much booze you add to the drink? "I don't know about you Steve, but I never drink a coke and rum or a tonic and gin." 7 and Sierra it is.
We sat in the observation car bullshitting and laughing. Later in the conversation Richard told me he thought President Obama was the worst president ever. I slowly talked him down from that ledge of irrationality before we focused our attention on the hundreds of FedEx trailers docked at their Southern California hub. "No shit, there's another one."
It was lively until midnight (apologies to Wilson Pickett and Eric Clapton). Then we retired to our seats and nodded off. Richard disembarked at Lake Havasu. I stayed on for four more hours, getting off at Flagstaff.
Richard in the observation car/lounge:
July 8-9: Coast Starlight -- Portland to L.A. (31 hours, 1190 miles, O stadiums)
Between Portland and Eugene I was looking out the window and saw a field of tall grass run up against an evergreen forest. Hedging the field and woods was a dirt road with some well-worn tracks. "Who goes down that road?" I asked a lot of questions like that as I click-clack, click-clack, click-clacked my way down the Pacific coast.
South of Eugene we roamed up 4800 feet to a pass in the Cascade mountains. It was during this stretch that the conductor chimed in, "Two years ago... right here... landslide took out the whole side. If the train was running on time that would've been gone too." But it was exciting to look out the window in July and see snow. It's been awhile since I've done that. This section from Eugene to Klamath Falls was gorgeous/stunning/breathtaking (take your pick). If I were a better writer I might take a shot at a description.
Night fell and the hours stretched themselves like upside-down yawns from upside-down animals in upside-down trees.
Sacramento at dawn and I said goodbye to my friend Forrest, who I had just met in Portland. I slept intermittently, wondering when the time would come that I'd be refreshed enough to be curious again. The intriguing backdoors of Oregon had given way to the "who gives a shit" cul-de-sacs of California. Gone were the romantically shaded orchards of apples, peaches, and cherries; replaced by laboriously rowed acres of strawberries and lettuces with their hunchbacked harvesters. I slept. I read. I slept. I slept. I had sardines and triscuits for breakfast. I slept. I brushed my teeth.
I must have slept enough because I became revitalized and my curiosity returned. It came back just in time for us to enter Steinbeck country. Although, I'll add that I am regarding the two facts as coincidence like I regard television programming as harmless. Watsonville (setting for East of Eden) and Salinas approached and rolled slowly past. But as hard as I tried I could not picture myself in the Pastures of Heaven. I could only imagine better what it was like, and in doing so, remebered why I loved John Steinbeck. Because he is better than real.
The coastline from San Juis Obispo to Los Angeles was a fitting ending. It was like a reward for finishing such a long journey. I was happy staring out the window at the surfers and the beaches and I was content calling my mom to tell her what I was looking at. This section rivaled the southern Cascades in its beauty. But it was softer, mellower, more relaxed. Or that might have just been me.