The Portland resident in me is better off in motion away from Portland during the dreary and too long winter months where nothing happens: not between my ears, and not anywhere else. Netflix feels like a relationship that’s a constant source of disappointment, and baristas feel like personal friends unable to escape my grim confession.
Weeks ago when my partner and I first discussed the idea of escape by rail, the plan was to take Amtrak from PDX to LAX and back, nodding off into mountain sunsets and waking up to redwoods. We ended up flying in. The week before our scheduled departure I made an unexpected detour to Cleveland, where my sisters and I were occupied with practical, terrible things like attending my father’s funeral.
Assuming half-orphan status isn’t something I’d recommend, regardless of whether childhood stories recall Harry Potter’s cupboard or Beaver Cleaver. In the aftermath of all the death events I was left glaring at my reflection like Ed Norton in every movie, wondering why I couldn’t be one of those collapsible people who inflates and deflates at the right occasions and is easily stored when not of use. Stupid flesh and bones. Why couldn’t I be a bouncy castle?
- My nieces Rayne and Simone thought I should perhaps consider the strange fate of a banana marooned in a poisoned pumpkin patch instead of brooding so much. Clever girls.
After I returned we went south to Ventura, CA for my partner’s grandfather’s 90th birthday party. I never had the chance to meet either of my grandfathers, as the men on both sides of my family often choose professions and habits the inform early death. I didn’t want to lose the chance to meet my version of a unicorn. California taught me that everything such unicorns say is amazing, as is a steady influx of naturally produced vitamin D absorbed through head and hands. It’s also impractical to stay in a jacuzzi forever, tempting though it may be.
The return: 27 hours on Amtrak, Oxnard to PDX. An unexpected price spike in the tickets after the website went down (then back up again) = bitter grumbling, particularly since it was only our selected date that reflected the increase. Attempts to contact Amtrak by phone were a fail, as was attempting to contact them by email. Note to future travelers: you cannot contact Amtrak unless you go down to a station in person.
Still, last minute train tickets are cheaper than last minute airfare. Oxnard Train Station was irritability balm, with its comfortable classic train station aesthetic, grand wooden benches recalling church pews. People were mellow. One of the things that distinguishes train travel from air is the absence of an interior pelvic ultrasound prior to boarding. With trains you check in, get on, put your bag in the communal storage area, trust your fellow passengers, go to your assigned seat and stay there until a man in a funny outfit comes by to give the ticket an official scan. Then you get up and take several wobbly steps and apologies to the observation car, where travelers sit armed with awful and amazing stories begging for participation or ears. You might even play cards.
The outside waiting zone invited us to get in touch with our inner cattle, and likely informed a mini stampede when the train rolled in twenty minutes late to collect our bodies and bags and head northward.
- Oxnard Train Station Hogwarts Invisible Entrance
Every observation car is loaded with interesting human specimens, and no one is going to convince me otherwise. I’ve never ridden a train and found myself bored by my fellow passengers, and the longer the trip the greater the likelihood of it evolving into a Breakfast Club edition of group therapy. The scene: to my right, an Arabic woman seated across from a soldier. They’re playing cards. They exchange a few awkward sentences about politics. She’s trying to be careful; he’s 21 years old and already convinced. The first smoke break allows him to locate another uniformed sort to trade fart jokes and tattoo ideas with. I’m relieved to return to my regularly scheduled stereotype; she’s already decided to move elsewhere in observation anyway.
Later the soldier talks to my partner about Americans being especially nervous about bombs, his Bud Lite breath hitting my neck, and I can only assume this is because he’s never been overseas or watched the news. Then I consider that he’s in a position where his own relationship with bombs and fear is about to be tested, and this is coping, so I say nothing and dodge living up to a stereotype all my own.
- view from the observation car. Insert happy sigh.
There’s also a pair of newlyweds, still careful in the way they touch and smile at each other, having circular conversations about the past and future. As the day winds into evening she slowly divulges details about a stint in prison to the room. Meanwhile, a chick with a moleskine notebook and laptop much like my own operates with the same spy-and-tally gaze that leaves me wondering what she’s recording about my own disastrous presentation. I’m holding myself together with socks and scarves, and she could be on to me. She falls into conversation with a tattoo artist on his way to a convention, and I’m distant and distracted.
A camera I claimed from my father’s abandoned objects is capturing images out the window, and in each instance the lens steals something from the scenery and something of the train. I spend a second wondering if my camera is ghost locked.
- Not bored, drinking in the California Coast
- Scene from California’s coast
- Farmland, desert dry
The memory card came preloaded with pictures detailing all of Cleveland Metroparks’ fauna. He mentioned in an email that animals were practically crawling into his lap of late, and now that I’m familiar with the zoom capabilities (and limitations) of this particular Nikon I can measure the accuracy of that statement. Many of the photos are gorgeous, intimate portraits revealing subtle coloring and patterns pressed into natural adornments. The only pictures that appear awkward are the ones of people, which is an honest reflection of someone who struggled in the company of others — an issue I experience in my own way as I adjust to sharing a train for 27 hours with strangers.
At each stop up the California coast people get on and off. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obespo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville. After my third “I thought there was supposed to be wireless on this train?” conversation with an angry mouse clicking guy in a tie, it becomes clear that those searching for a signal will never, ever stop, and will simply load and reload their browsers, ever more desperate to log in to something for affirmation of ongoing technical existence.
- Can’t download music software = butthurt.
When all else fails, and even when it doesn’t, there is the bar car.
It takes no time at all for the lower level to light up like a bowling alley. Imagine a pod of shitfaced men in jeans and women in tube tops and too much hairspray somewhere between fist fight and free hugs, en route to a Poison concert. It’s that awesome. If you’re suffering a flirtation deficiency, a casual stroll down to this level will likely rectify the situation, and fear of being ejected from a moving rail inspires a degree of respect. If I were four notches less exhausted I’d join them in their loud binge-fired confessions, but I’m not ready to release my truth. And sometime in the next three hours they’re either going to be crying into their coat sleeves or trading blows during the next smoke stop over which branch of the military is superior, regardless of whether or not any of them actually served. I can’t believe I’m going to miss it. I won’t miss the sunset.
As meals are distributed to those who opened their wallets, sighed, and surrendered, it occurs to me that there’s no entitlement on the train, just a lot of laughter about what it might be like to travel in a car that allows for wine and cheese before the evening meal. There’s debate about whether to call this first class or sleeping cars, or just perceive it as a safety net that ensures our leg of the train won’t be the one robbed first. This is also radically unlike a plane, where after being frisked and fondled by a security force paid to be overzealous about things like lotion bottles and fingernail clippers you damn well better get your free plastic cup of cranberry juice. Every announcement is met with laughter or cheers, and reminders regarding the prevalence of booze in tiny bottles that we’ll later stuff ourselves back into, just to smell something different. The faithful attendant of this slobbering bunch takes occasional meal breaks, to the nail biting chagrin of his new best friends, and I join the league of fanboys and girls when he promises me that when I come down for my third coffee refill it will be free.
- War of the Worlds Sunset. California lasts almost as long as Kansas.
After sunset offers a fog heavy alien landscape, I abandon my observation station and collapse into my assigned seat, welcoming the dawn of a murderous rage that makes me understand what a complex housing situation prison must be. First, a couple propping up their sleep with a Spanish horror movie, live and without headphones at 3AM. Absence of English would make even my most bitch face comment useless, and I’m trying hard not to be the token temper tantrum. I am a bouncy castle. I am a bouncy castle. This sound is chased by my very own partner’s decision to go mining in a snack bag for the loudest bag of cheetos ever produced by Trader Joe’s. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE, chomp chomp chomp, screams and pleas for mercy in Spanish. Then, the negotiation of various cords and wires to ensure that every electronic gadget is sufficiently charged, should the non existent wireless connection suddenly surface and threaten all of the coach passengers with a whisper of first world mopey civilization. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE. Snap. I ask him to chill out with the cheetos and he shakes the bag in my face, and I realize we’re both train crazy.
The mood sinks further when we brush city limits and phones materialize out of no where for rapid facebook examination, and I’m still thinking about the fact that my father died and my best bet for communicating to as many distracted sorts as possible the insanity that immediately follows is a thoughtful status update that summons clicking of the “like” button. It’s not that the world is a terrible place, or that we are flanked by terrible people. It’s that we’ve gotten lazy, and don’t know how to talk anymore. I don’t know how to talk anymore. I need to work on this.
I pacify all of this this by relocating to the seat closest to exit.
When dawn hits I drag myself up in enough time to witness this:
- Good morning, Mt. Shasta!
Oh, and also this:
This is what I took the train for. It’s the ultimate road trip without the pressures of changing lanes and keeping eyes on the road. Early morning fog creates an eerie entryway to the mountain, and it assumes the shape of hobbit homes.
Near Klamath Falls we pick up a couple of tour guides and I pick up the promised cup of coffee. The super power of this duo is announcing things they consider photograph worthy too early or too late, but overall their presence is pretty adorable.
- Mount McLoughlin
- Hello, Oregon
Somewhere around Eugene my brain came alive again with daydreams of home, and I thought about what it would be like to do this again when the days are longer and you can swallow every drop of sun and scenery from LA to PDX.
- Not tired. Nope.
A woman with a collection of O magazines attempts to hater-bond with me when she notices me taking a photograph of a graffiti artist in action and suggests that I get an upclose shot of his face. From there she transitions to a discussion of Shirley Jackson inspired by the book on my table, questioning whether kids today can grasp the message. I confess that I’m fairly certain that anyone who can digest an episode of True Detective or Breaking Bad can perform the simple linguistic mathematics required to grok “The Lottery” and then I want to wish her away. I’m not up to being cynical and hater bonding anymore. It’s too much work to buzz kill every conversation with a dark eyeroll. I’m trying to be a bouncy castle here.
I’m afraid to be back at home. I don’t know what will swim up and slap me, and I haven’t even chronicled every awful notion of a visit such as this. It’s like I’m there, waiting for myself, demanding inspecting and isolation and a transition from another winter wrapped in Netflix and little else. Anywhere else I could be a new me that’s far less predictable, that lays new tracks for trains headed to abandoned stations to collect ghosts and all their ornaments.
They’re around me all the time anyway. Might as well assist them with travel.