With the “let’s wait to hear if this was REALLY racially-motivated” option gone, the people who are heavily invested in believing that we live in a post-racial society, no one sees color and that racism no longer exists will no doubt next go to with the “this was a sick person and an isolated incident” approach. Don’t let them get away with that. Because while the violence, especially the violence of this magnitude, may be isolated, the sentiments and beliefs which motivated it are not.
It’s amazing what people will say when they think you may agree with them. For example, if you’re a white bald guy, living in the suburbs and approaching middle age, people will consider you “safe.” They will see that you like to keep your yard tidy, go to Home Depot a lot and watch sports and assume that you probably think a lot like they do. They will think that they can say what they want when it’s just the two of you talking. And boy, they will say it.
You’d me amazed at how many people – good, otherwise respectable people who would never breath a racist breath publicly – offer the most vile sentiments when they think they’re among friends. I saw this often growing up in West Virginia, but it is by no means strictly a southern thing. The sentiment Dylann Roof is reported to harbor – “blacks are taking over the world” – has been said to me in those exact terms in my old law office, on the sidewalk of my pleasant and friendly little suburban neighborhood and over drinks at nice and friendly bars in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It and other things like it have been said to me by people who publicly denounce racism and offer no outward suggestion that they’re anything other than perfectly nice, perfectly open-minded people.
Of course these people and most people like them would never commit an act of racial violence. But take this extraordinarily common sentiment, allow it to fester uncommented upon and, quite often, supported and echoed in private conversation, and add in a couple of other factors, and it’s not hard to see how events like Wednesday night’s massacre can take place.
When you take all of that together, it’s not hard at all to see how, eventually, someone will do what Dylann Roof did. It’s not a function of some crazy outlier of a person harboring crazy, outlier ideas. It’s an extreme act, to be sure, but it’s an act born of oh-so-common sentiments, held by far more people in this country than anyone wants to admit, and goosed by some factors that are totally within our control.
June 3: --I'm Off
I’m off on my Amtrak Writer’s Residency. I leave today, stop in Chicago and then head across the country to Seattle. A short jaunt down to Portland and then back across the country to Chicago and home.
There are a few people I will see and/or meet along the way and I am looking forward to that. But mostly it’s about losing the day-to-day distractions of home and immersing myself in writing.
I have a project I’m working on about which I’m rather excited. It won’t be posted here any time soon and I can’t really mention it yet, but if something comes of it I’ll let you know.
I’ll try to post updates from the rails here. And because I’m an addict, I’ll probably be tweeting too.
June 4 -- The Joy of Being Alone
Columbus, Ohio doesn’t have an Amtrak station. People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. Thurmond, West Virginia (population: 5 – really, that is the actual population) has thrice-weekly train service to D.C. or Chicago, but if you live in the 15th largest city in the United States, you have to go elsewhere to hop a train. I’ll leave it to others to investigate why such inefficiencies exist in our nation’s passenger train service, but know that that’s why I’m starting my writer’s residency in Chicago. I got here yesterday. My train leaves this afternoon.
Yesterday I walked around a bit and then went to the Art Institute. It’s one of my favorite museums because it has a bunch of stuff I know already. You’re not supposed to admit that sort of thing, of course. But just last week in Columbus 60,000 people paid $100 per ticket to hear the Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar,” so I figure it’s OK if I paid $23 to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” That limited-time medieval Asian teapot exhibit may be wonderful, but it’s equivalent to hearing Mick Jagger say “here’s a new one we’ve been workin’ on …” I’ll admit that I’m a philistine if you’ll just play the hits, man.
After the museum I met a friend for a drink. Met him for the first time, actually, even though I’ve known him in that way you know people on the Internet for many years. Such virtual friendships are an increasing part of everyone’s life, but they’re a much bigger part of my life than others. Once you’re out of your 20s most people’s friendships come via work and romantic relationships. In the past six years I’ve left my regular job to work at home and I got divorced, so traditional friendships have largely melted away for me.
Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. I’m something of a hermit and maintaining acquaintances seems to get harder for me the older I get. The Internet allows you to be on or off with the flip of a switch. You can enter or leave the “room” without having to make apologies and if you disappear for a couple of days no one worries too terribly much about you. There are some drawbacks to this, of course, but I rather like being able to start talking to people without having to make plans and meet up and pretend we want to hear about each other’s kids, jobs and property values first.
Another bonus is that, thanks to the Internet, I am in a position where I “know” people in most cities in the country. I like to travel and I like to socialize in controlled bursts with definitive end points, so this arrangement works very well for a person of my temperament. Last night I could meet Levi for a drink in Chicago and on Saturday I can meet Brandon for lunch in Seattle and on Monday I can meet Rob for a beer in Portland. My hometown is filled with strangers, but I have friends, such as they are, all over the country, and we don’t ask too terribly much of one another.
I have had real life, in-person friends tell me that they worry about me and the amount of time I spend alone or on the Internet. But what seems worrisome is in the eye of the beholder. This morning I had breakfast at a cafe near my hotel. The place was empty except for two twentysomething servers behind the counter who gave off a vaguely and somewhat calculatedly bohemian vibe. I didn’t hear most of their conversation but it was about travel. At one point one of them said to the other, “No, I’m never going to Texas. I promised myself years ago that I will never step foot in Texas.” Later he said that he didn’t like to travel much anyway and that “everything I need is here.” If one can judge by appearances I’d guess that this person has a vibrant social life here in Chicago with a lot of friends, but his comment made me feel sorry for him. I’d rather be alone in any number of places than stuck in a silo with oodles of friends.
As I listened to the servers’ conversation I was eating breakfast alone. Yesterday afternoon I walked through a museum alone. I spend most of my day working alone. I like to go to movies and go out to restaurants alone. Outside of the time I spend with my kids and my girlfriend, I spend most of my time alone. Alone is comforting to me.
This afternoon I’ll be getting on a train and traveling across the country alone. Outside of that drink with Levi, lunch with Brandon and the beer with Rob, I’ll explore three cities alone. Maybe this makes me strange. Maybe it’ll become a bigger problem the older I get. I’m not sure. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. And I’m not sure how else to be.
June 4 -- A Human Way to Travel
We rolled out of Chicago on time at 2:15 PM. The ride to Milwaukee reminded me of the commuter train route I take when I visit the NBC home office in Connecticut. Short, halting and very little scenery. Things open up after that, however, as we rolled through lush Wisconsin farmland dotted with little red barns. Whoever designed the Wisconsin license plates was clearly inspired by a ride on the Empire Builder.
I’m researching and outlining a possible book project on this trip. It involves wading through 350 pages of legal documents and cross-referencing two other books. Based on how that sort of thing used to go back in my lawyering days – and based on how hard I find it to work when I’m on a plane – I was worried that I’d be unable to concentrate. But I fell into a nice working rhythm as the farmland went past.
It’s all about personal space. You simply have more of it on a train than you do when you fly. No, the 8’ x 4’ roomette I’m in is not luxurious, and if you’e expecting your house, a hotel room or the Orient Express, you’re in for a rude awakening. But I can shut out the rest of the world with a door and curtain if I’d like. I can put my feet up. I can scatter my documents all over the place and leave open books lying around without worrying about bumping someone’s elbow. I can walk around if I need to stretch my legs and get a drink if I want a drink. I’d never argue a train is a more quick or efficient way to get one’s ass across the country than flying is, but in an age of security theater, fasten-seat belt signs, air marshals and ever-shrinking legroom it’s certainly more human.
I plowed through a couple hundred pages of work before dinner, which is served cruise-ship style, in that if you’re less than a party of four you share a table with someone. My love of being alone notwithstanding, I found this to be a pleasant experience. I was joined by an older couple from the U.K. who are making their first visit to the United States and an ornithologist from Montana who was returning home after visiting family. We ate our better-then-you-might-expect steak and had a lively chat about the Mississippi River which we crossed during dinner, and English soccer. The Brits thought the Mississippi went east-west rather than north-south and we corrected them. I thought they said they supported Manchester United when they actually supported Leeds United and they corrected me. The ornithologist briefed us about how meals and tipping work on Amtrak, as he has traveled the Empire Builder at least once a year, every year, since the mid-1990s.
Back to my roomette for more work and the pleasure of doing something else I can’t do on a plane: cracking open my own bottle of whiskey I brought along, putting on a pair of pajama pants and laying back with my feet up. Did I mention that train travel is more human?
The sun went down and the sky turned a brilliant red just as we left Red Wing, Minnesota. As I write this it’s 10pm and we’re pulling into St. Paul. I’ve adjusted nicely to the gentle rocking of the train and anticipate a nice night’s sleep. When I wake up I’ll be someplace in North Dakota. I’ll get my bearings, walk down the hallway and get a fresh cup of coffee, stretch out a little and then get back to work.
June 5 -- Boomtown
The good night’s sleep I was anticipating last night wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Not terrible, but I was jostled awake a number of times. At 5:19 A.M. a couple of loud people got on board at Grand Forks, North Dakota and made their way into their roomette just down the hall from me.
“I’LL TAKE THE TOP BUNK, OK?”
“YAH, YOU CAN HAVE IT, I’LL STAY DOWN LOW!”
“BOY, IT SURE IS CRAMPED IN HERE. NOT SURE HOW I’LL SLEEP!”
Oh, believe me. If you try to sleep I’ll be sure that space is the least of your problems.
Whatever. I wake up at 5:30 most days anyway. At home it’s the cat. Here it’s the loudmouths from Grand Forks. May as well keep my usual rhythms. Besides, it could be worse. After getting a cup of coffee I made my way back through a couple of coach cars to the observation car and passed by people sleeping in all manner of contorted angles in their seats and, in some cases, on the floor. The coach seats recline and have lots of space, but at some point you need to be horizontal to sleep well. For all that I have loved in my day on the train so far, it’s worth remembering that I’m very fortunate to be in a sleeper car. Even with the loudmouths.
I watched the sun rise over the prairie for a little while. After a few minutes a rather hard-looking man in his 30s sat down next to me. We made small talk for a minute and then the talk got big.
“So what do you think of the marijuana legalization stuff?” he asked me.
“I’m in favor of it,” I said. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
“Do you think they should legalize hard drugs?” he said.
“I really can’t see anyone having the political will to ever make that happen,” I said.
“Oh, they won’t.” He said. “But I’m asking should they?”
Something in his tone and his look suggested that he had a greater stake in this than mere intellectual curiosity. It seemed like he was looking for validation. I made some non-committal grunts, changed the subject back to the weather and bid him good morning.
Over breakfast I talked to two women from Minot, North Dakota, which we were quickly approaching. They’ve lived there for a long time and make the trip between Minneapolis and Minot a couple of times a year to visit family. Minot and all of western North Dakota has experienced radical change in recent years thanks to an oil and gas boom. A boom which has lined a lot of pockets but which has brought in workers and wildcatters, some just looking to earn a living, others looking to strike it rich. They told me that, as with any boom, it has brought with it a lot of problems in the form of transients and troublemakers, heavy drinkers and hard drug users. Many of them are rootless and work two-week-on, two-week-off schedules, going back and forth between Minot and either Minneapolis or Seattle. Often on the Empire Builder. “Watch yourself in the lounge car later,” one of my breakfast companions warned me. “Sometimes they get rowdy.”
I can’t say I’ve seen any of that yet. But looking out across the rather bleak North Dakota landscape I can certainly see how being here might inspire a non-native to seek out pleasure and excitement however one can. Like most places, including most places I’ve lived, I’m sure it has its beauties and its charms. They’re just not obvious to an outsider merely passing through.
As I write this we’re pulling into Williston. It’s the last stop in North Dakota. We’re close to an hour behind schedule which, based on what I’ve heard about the Empire Builder’s track record, is better than I assumed it’d be at this point. Montana is next. For four or five hours it will look a lot like North Dakota, and I plan to use that time to work on my book proposal. By around dinnertime we should be into some pretty country, including Glacier National Park.
June 5 -- Losing Time
I’ve been on this train for about 30 hours, but time has ceased to mean much. The meal service structures it somewhat, but just somewhat. For the most part I’ve just sort of … floated.
Normally such circumstances are torture for me. I thrive on structure and schedules and I don’t do the just-sit-there-and-stare-into-space thing very well. And I’m not good at waiting for anything. At all. Ever. But today has been quite relaxing for me.
I got more work done than I planned to yesterday so I didn’t feel too terribly pressed to write as much today. I’ve written some, but I’ve also looked out the window a good deal. There’s no Wi-fi on this train so I’ve only briefly gotten online when I’ve had a strong enough cellular signal to tether to my phone, but that hasn’t been often. I’ve read some. I’ve listened to music. Mostly I’ve watched North Dakota and Montana go by.
Or not go by. The train was stopped near Wolf Point, Montana for close to two hours early this afternoon due to a track obstruction. Even minor flight delays cause me aggravation, but being at a dead stop in the middle of the prairie that long didn’t bother me a bit. We’re something like three hours behind schedule overall, but I don’t care. I don’t have anything pressing that I’m at risk of missing and I’ll get there when I get there. All of this time out here in the middle of nowhere is a feature of this trip, not a bug. A delay here and there almost feels like a gift to me.
At a time when our jobs and families require so much planning and structuring and even our vacations are scheduled to the nth degree it’s important to just get lost sometimes. To just float for a while. So far doing so has cleared and quieted my head. And that’s almost as important to my writing as the actual writing is.
June 7 -- Life Hacks: Wake Up Early, Travel Alone
I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning. My body thought it was 5am due to the time change, though, so I guess that makes it OK. Idaho turned into Washington and we reached Spokane just after sunrise. The Pacific Time Zone is made for morning people. It gets bright there so much earlier than it does in Ohio. A Mennonite farmer from Indiana who had been traveling with me since Chicago agreed. “I have no use for it being light at 9:30 in the summer,” he said. “I’d love it to be light at five, though.” So the Mennonites and I have at least one thing in common.
By now our train was three hours behind schedule. As a I said before, keeping a schedule isn’t important to me on this trip. One downside, though, was that instead of reaching Glacier National Park before sunset the night before we reached it after dark. I’ll see it on the way back I suppose.
It’s hard to figure that the scenery could compare to the Cascades anyway. The stretch between Wenatchee and Seattle was breathtaking. The route follows the Columbia to the Wenatchee to the Skykomish rivers. Though the Okanogan National Forest and past a half dozen beautiful mountain peaks and over a few dozen bridges above waterfalls, rafters, kayakers and fishermen. The only part that wasn’t beautiful was nonetheless amazing: the Cascade Tunnel, which took us under Stevens pass. At nearly eight miles long it is the longest tunnel in the United States. I turned the lights off in my roomette an went through it in near total darkness.
I took some pics from the train window. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to hike and raft in this country. I plan to someday.
At Everett we turned south and headed into Seattle with Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to our right, Mt. Baker behind us and Mt. Rainer ahead and to the left. The day was sunny and crystal clear. The conductor said that we were lucky to see them all.
A baseball writer friend – another one I had never met in person – picked me up at the station. We had lunch and talked about our various writing projects. He’s writing a book I’m rather excited about, as it encapsulates and will attempt to quantify an idea about baseball, fame, stardom, hype and media bias that has fascinated me for some time. I was flattered when he asked me to write the foreward. I hope I can do the thing justice and I hope for my friend’s sake that the book is a success.
I made it to Safeco Field late in the afternoon. By sheer happenstance some baseball bloggers I know were holding a group event before the Mariners-Rays game, so I bought I ticket to that. I met a handful of HardballTalk readers and people I know through social media and enjoyed a couple of innings of Felix Hernandez shutting down the Tampa Bay Rays. Midway through the game I left the group to get a better look at the ballpark. Just after the fifth inning I hit a wall, however, with a couple of days worth of sleep deficit finally waylaying me. I hate to leave a ballgame early but I could tell that I wasn’t going to be good company if I had stayed.
It was a nice night so I walked the mile and a half back to my hotel, going through Pioneer Square, stopping at Pike’s Place Market – the fish-throwers were closed for the night, sadly – and trying to soak in what little bits of Seattle I could in my short time here.
I made it back to my hotel, got a drink in the bar and took it upstairs. The hatch to the fire escape at the end of the hallway was open for some reason. I climbed through it and sat on the fire escape for a while listening to the sounds of the city. My head hit the pillow just after 10 and I was out a second later. I slept eight and a half hours, which I never, ever do. A bed that didn’t rock back and forth was just what the doctor ordered.
When you’re a morning person breakfast is really important. Which makes Sundays hard sometimes because I don’t want brunch, goddammit. I want breakfast. Not at 11, not at 9. But at 7. At the latest. Denny’s and Waffle House are always there for you, of course, but we morning people who are interested in something a bit more adventurous on Sundays usually have to wait. Luckily I found a nice place near my hotel that opened at 7. I only had to wait outside five minutes for them to open instead of my usual 15 minutes. I sort of have a problem.
From breakfast I walked to the Space Needle. I was told that after 10am or so on the weekends that the line can stretch forever and you can wait over an hour to go up to the top, but for me there was no wait. Another clear day gave me a great view of Mt. Rainer and a city that has no business being as beautiful as it is. Once back down I wandered through an interesting neighborhood, found a cafe, got some coffee and relaxed.
On the train I’ve felt like I’ve been working. In Seattle for the past 24 hours, however, I have felt like I am on vacation, which is not the sort of thing most people do by themselves. I suppose people think it’s odd to do it. They really shouldn’t. It’s pretty fantastic. You can make decisions quickly. You can sit in a cafe or on a bench and watch people and listen to their conversations. Or you can do nothing for a longer period of time than you might otherwise. You can get lost in your thoughts and not worry that you’re being rude to your companions.
I plan to vacation with my kids and my girlfriend and other loved ones throughout my life, of course, but I think I’ll always make a point to take some trips by myself too. Traveling is about getting away from that which is familiar. That applies just as much to your headspace and routines as it does to your home.
I’m getting on the train to Portland now, where I’ll spend the next couple of days. More updates to follow.
June 9 -- Portlandia
I have spent the past 50 hours in Portland, Oregon, my new favorite city in the country.
I think most people, on every good vacation, get that “man, I’d love to live here!” feeling. It usually goes away in a day or two after the trip is over and real life resumes. Maybe that will be the case with me too, but I’ve never gotten that feeling as strongly anyplace else as I have in Portland. Assuming I’m still doing the same sort of live-anywhere-you-want kind of work in a few years when my kids are out of the house I could quite easily see myself moving to Portland.
The beer, coffee and food is fantastic. It’s a beautiful city aesthetically speaking. The people are generally pleasant and helpful to obvious tourists like me. The city is nice and compact and walkable and when it’s too far to walk it’s got the best mass transit system I’ve ever used. In the past couple of days I’ve taken the light rail, the streetcar and the bus, all of which has made a big city feel small. I haven’t even been bothered that it’s been unusually hot while I’ve been here.
The “Portlandia” stuff is pretty obvious here, of course. In some ways this is a good thing for someone like me. I’m a pretty liberal guy with progressive social, economic and environmental attitudes and those sorts of sensibilities would fit in here. I could see myself getting somewhat exhausted by it in excess, however. I met a guy for a couple of beers yesterday. He works in public health and he says that the uber-granola tendencies of Portland also lead a lot of people to be anti-vaccinators, to oppose fluoride in the water supply and other similar bits of dangerous nonsense.
That might drive me a little nuts, but then again, living in places with stifling conservatism for most of my life already does. I’d be willing to risk the opposite for a few years.
I’ll forego the blow-by-blow of my time here and just offer some observations:
The Ace Hotel: I stayed here. On one level it’s a somewhat ridiculous conceit of a hotel, with its old-timey everything and extraordinarily self-conscious hipster vibe. That notwithstanding, it’s a wonderfully pleasant place to stay. I like the simple, uncluttered aesthetic, wood floors and old plumbing fixtures. And even if it is sort of contrived, it is a legitimately old building – it was the flop house in “Drugstore Cowboy” – and old buildings rule.
Beer: I went to two places, each of which would be the best beer bar in most other cities. Bailey’s Taproom is downtown. Apex Bar is in southeast Portland, but it’s easily accessible via the number 4 bus, which runs often. The selection is fantastic and everything is fresh.
The Heathman: it’s a hotel, but I’m referring to the restaurant. I likely wouldn’t have thought to go there, but my friends in Chicago know their sommelier, James Rahn, and recommended I visit. I ate dinner there Monday night and James sent out drink after tasty drink. Which today has necessitated …
Coffee. And lots of it. Everyone talks about Stumptown, which is excellent, but the best cup I had was at a place called Case Study. I also had great coffee at a place called Barista. I imagine there’s bad coffee in this city. Luckily I didn’t find it.
Salt & Straw Ice Cream: People from Columbus (and a few other places) are familiar with Jeni’s. This is Portland’s Jeni’s. Or Jeni’s is Columbus’ Salt and Straw. I have no idea. Upshot: crazy-inventive flavors. Including a whole selection at the moment inspired by local food carts. Kimchi. Poutine. Yes, poutine ice cream. I got strawberry/honey/balsamic, though. Really couldn’t bring myself to try poutine ice cream. Especially given that, when I was there, I was still pretty hungover from the night before.
Kenny and Zuke’s Deli is known for their pastrami and other classic Jewish deli fare, but the breakfasts were great too.
I took a bunch of pictures too. You can see them all here. I’m back on the train now, rolling out of Portland and heading back east. Back to the working part of this working vacation. Installments when and if cellular service allows.
June 10 -- The People You Meet on the Train
We pulled out of Portland a bit late yesterday but, again, time means little on the train. My decision to come in via Seattle and leave via Portland was validated by the views of the Columbia River gorge on the way back east. I’ll give the Cascades up in Washington a slight edge, but the Gorge was nothing short of gorgeous in its own right.
On the way west I was in the first car past the engine and crew quarters. For this part of the trip I’m in the absolute last car. I don’t think it’s my imagination making me believe that it’s a less smooth and steady trip being in the back. The car seems to rock and sway far more back here than it did up there and going to sleep was a problem. Staying asleep was a problem. Sleeping without dreaming about being on a pitching ship or on a roller coaster was a problem. I’ve been sleeping on the fold-down bed the whole journey, but at midnight last night I switched to the lower level, fold-together lounge chair bed because I was legitimately worried about falling the hell out of my rack.
This morning I woke up just as we headed into Whitefish, Montana and then Glacier National Park. I missed that on the way out due to darkness, but seeing it at sunrise was worth the wait. The tracks hug the south bank of the Flathead River and my roomette on the north side of the train gave me spectacular views of the mountains forests and yes, global warming notwithstanding, some snow fields on the peaks.
I don’t always do social situations well, but by now the lottery-like nature of meal seatings has started to appeal to me. At breakfast I was sat next to a Japanese woman and her adult son. She lives in Japan and speaks no English. He has lived in Las Vegas for 19 years and makes a point of showing her around the United States on various trips. Over the past few years I’ve learned that I can talk baseball with just about any Japanese person I meet, and they were no exception. The mother wanted to know what I thought about Yu Darvish. I’m not sure what it is, but every Japanese person asks about Yu Darvish first. Ichiro? Eh. Hideki Matsui? Old news. It’s all about Darvish.
At lunch I met a guy whose job it is to drive brand new RVs off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana and deliver them to customers on the west coast. His employer makes a deal with him and his fellow drivers: they can get paid a certain rate if the want the employer to fly them back or they can get paid a much higher rate if they take care of their own transportation. A betting man, my lunch companion has, for years now, taken the latter option and the train has been his secret weapon for coming out ahead.
I just finished dinner where my companions were an academic couple from Madison, Wisconsin and the closest thing to Dos Equis “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” The academics wanted to talk about whether I think Bernie Sanders has a real shot at the presidency, and they REALLY hope he does. The World’s Most interesting Man – in his mid-60s with a salt-and-pepper beard – spent time in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, road tripped through pre-civil war/breakup Yugoslavia and is on his way to some place in Minnesota where an Airstream trailer is waiting for him, which he’ll then take to the Maritime Provinces of Canada for the summer because, hell, why not? I want to be him when I grow up.
Let’s see, what else. Oh yes! The smokers. There are a lot of smokers on Amtrak. Someone told me that a certain sort of smoker likes to take Amtrak, even if it takes way longer than a plane, because it’s impossible for them to go five hours across the country on a flight without a cigarette. That seems extreme to me, but there are certainly eager smokers on Amtrak. We stop every couple of hours at a station that affords them time to burn one, but for some it’s still not enough. This afternoon, during one of the longer stretches between stations in the middle of Montana, an announcement came over the P.A. from the conductor saying that he knew someone on board was smoking and that, if caught, they would be put off the train. I’ve been told by others that it’s not at all uncommon for someone to be kicked off the train on long hauls either for smoking or for being drunk, so I was sort of looking forward to the drama. Sadly, the offender was not caught and cast off into the prairie land to die of exposure.
I’ve gotten more work done on my book proposal today than I have in several days. I still don’t know if it’s any good, but I feel that way about almost everything I write. For all of the people you talk to on the train you do spend a lot of time alone as well. In my roomette alone, I have zig-zagged between confidence and self-loathing with respect to my writing. I’ve had moments of supreme self-satisfaction and moments where I’ve questioned why I’m bothering or why anyone would want to read any words I put down on a page.
The more real writers I talk to the more I learn that this duality is an inherent part of the gig. I’m not sure if that should comfort me for being on the right track or scare the fuck out of me for choosing a life that is fraught with such highs and lows.
I’m in North Dakota now. I’ll wake up in Minnesota and be back to Chicago by early evening. The journey is almost over.
June 11 -- Thanks, Amtrak
I woke up yesterday morning in western Minnesota. I got a cup of coffee and talked to the sleeping car attendant who told me that a couple was put off the train at Grand Forks, North Dakota in the middle of the night because they were caught smoking pot. I asked if they got arrested or anything and she said no, they were just kicked off. I imagine to some people it may be preferable to get arrested than to just be dumped in Grand Forks at 2AM, but I wouldn’t know about that.
A little while ago I did some Googling of “marijuana on Amtrak” to see how common this is. Most results were about getting through the station carrying. The consensus; no one cares if you’re just holding, which squares with my observations. No dogs, no metal detectors.
It rained most of the rest of the way to Chicago, which was good for working and good for occasional reflection. Work on what is turning into a pretty OK book proposal, I think. Reflection on my last week and change, mostly, and how different it is to see the country by train than it is to fly or drive through. It’s not fast as flying and it’s not as comfortable as being in your own car on your own schedule, but I feel like it has its advantages as well.
It forced an introvert like me to interact with people. The folks I rode with and ate with and the folks who fed me and the folks who attended the sleeping car. The people who picked me up at train stations. I still like to do things alone including travel, but it’s amazing how little one can interact with other people if one sets their life up just so. Taking the train disrupted that and I think that’s a good thing. And, if anything, gave me more license to travel alone because I knew that even in doing so I would not be isolated.
It made me let go of time. I was delayed three hours on the trip out and over two hours on the trip back. Sometimes I had to wait for the dining car to clear out and sometimes I had to wait to use the bathroom or the shower. It didn’t matter. I was not in a hurry, by design. There were some minor frustrations while traveling by train, but there was very little stress.
There was no Internet on the train. Yes, at times I tethered to my phone to post one of these entries or to waste a few moments online, but a lot of the time I didn’t even have a cell phone signal. I’m not one of those people who believes it’s bad to be online, but it was good for me to be offline more than I usually am. And I imagine being offline had a great deal to do with me feeling little stress and not worrying too much about time.
Mostly I was just happy to see some places I’ve never seen and do it in a way that I had never done. I have a lot of responsibilities in my life. I don’t lament the fact that I have them and I don’t resent those to whom I owe them, but if my responsibilities disappeared tomorrow, I would be traveling, possibly constantly. That I was able to freewheel for ten days was a rare treat which I savored and will always savor. And that would be the case even if I didn’t make a lot of headway on a writing project that, if I’m lucky, will turn into something fun.
Thanks, Amtrak, for giving me this writer’s residency. Thanks for the time to think and not think and to see the country in a way people don’t see it too terribly much anymore. More people should.
Maybe book a trip the next time you get a few days off. As long as your expectations are realistic and your mind is open, you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself. And about some other things.