AWP Trek Part 5: Morning out of Montana

Almost everyone in my car has two seats to themselves, and while this might not be ideal for Amtrak’s bottom line, it’s the closest to paradise I’ll come for 39 long hours. Instead of an intimate co-sleeping arrangement with a massive gentlemen en route to North Dakota’s pipelines, I’ve made a sloppy nest of laptop playing Wes Anderson’s entire movie cannon, plastic bag pillow, jar of olives, journals, glasses, hair tie. If the olives are producing a noxious odor, I’m beyond detecting it; there’s too much competition between liquor, exposed feet, and the steady fart trumpets from people all around me. The jar of the lid captures the scent, or so I tell myself, while realizing that I was destined for train travel, with just the right amount of clueless to time the opening of the jar and the loud fork olive extraction and the messy crinkle-crinkle of my plastic bag pillow to keep rhythm with the person sneezing behind me. We are a factory of sleep disruption, and our song goes: sneeze, crinkle, fwop, tinkle tinkle, cough, click, thunk, crinkle. If the entire car hates us with the heat of a thousand suns, we earned it.

Not that we’re the only pair of dedicated sleep disruption artists. That would be disqualifying the man watching a shoot-em-up action film, speakers blaring. It’s like I’m there, in the casino, angry at Al Pacino. After the conductor comes through and kindly points out the error of his ways, the man says, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone else could hear.” It’s then that I notice the dangling cord, and consider that in this headspace, it’s just as likely that his headset had always been plugged in and the rest of us developed supernatural hearing.

The rest of the train ride is a blur. Memories include excitement bordering on hysteria at being awake for the 6:30am breakfast crowd, which was me and three other people stuffed into a single table by someone whose been angry since 1976. Everyone else was freshly hatched from the comforts of their sleeping cars, including the elderly couple arranged across from me and the surly fellow to my right. He explained that he was accused of theft the previous day when he was trying to purchase a sleeping car, and I was never able to make heads or tails of the misunderstanding, though there was nothing he said that sounded untrue. I’m also a sort to be accused of strange things when in the company of people who brag about being normal and can never consider the shifty-eyed disposition might emerge from someone with perfectly clean hair and filed fingernails…so I get it. Still, I can feel his disdain for me developing with every sentence that leaves my mouth, relating my route to a writers’ conference, the joys and perils of traveling alone. Whatever, I probably sound like someone trying too hard to escape semi-colon existence for an exclamation mark inspired life, but it’s 6:30am. His posture and sideways glances communicate what I’m used to hearing from a certain type, notions that I’m this “little girl” one wide-eyed moment away from an axe murder. The usual underestimation of my own tiny knives. I’ve found that the men most likely to assume this about me have never actually been in an urban environment, and underestimate the value of intelligence in navigating strange spots in favor of pure brawn. The ability to talk another person down or fake a level ten crazy is just as useful as going toe to toe. This is not a conversation we have, but the post script of my head that happens when my computer is in front of me again.

The actual conversation is me guessing one part of the pair was once a teacher, based on the steady expression she maintained through the scenery and conversation loop, learning her husband had been raised on farm work and was once a machinist, daydreaming about their lives, their children, and the amazing scenery likely offered through their daily drives. It was the sort of conversation that happens on trains, a combination of detail and restraint, confession and pause. This, alongside the admission that we’ll all leave the train swearing it’s our last time on a train, because it’s slow and hard on the body, all the while knowing we will definitely be on a train again, awkwardly arranged in coach seats. No matter the discomforts, it seems criminal to just fly over Montana like it doesn’t mean to be there, like those mountains and rivers aren’t something to see. If I could take the whole thing by swingset I would, but until that feat of science, there’s Amtrak.

The breakfast itself is terrible, wads of reheated eggs looking exhausted on a plate that somehow came to $20. The sun revealing green all around us was everything.

Amtrak PDX to MSP Part 4: No sleep

This is how you know you’re in coach on Amtrak: all the neatly closed and coordinated luggage has been properly stowed in sleeping cars. Coach is not a place of matching sets in modern colors, hard-shelled and adorned with stickers announcing far away cities that might not really exist. We are a tribe of borrowers and Goodwill shoppers, garbage bag packers and shopping bag haulers. There is no one in coach in expensive jeans, no skateboards covered in sponsor labels velcro’d to a brand name backpack. It’s men who shoved their personal possessions in a camping backpack and a bottle into a front pocket for slow sipping at each announced delay. It’s women with so many children they haven’t known a private shower or a hairstyle more complicated than a ponytail in years. It’s people who walk on in pajamas and stay that way, and confuse the courtesy of the kind chap selling coffee for friendship; a friendship that is revoked the moment his lunch break lasts a little too long and all the addicts tighten their line formation and bristle. Coffee. This is about coffee. And beer. Definitely beer. It’s people who are accused of things by other people, people who are a bit more tired at 30 than average, it’s people who Know Better Than You about so many things, if you wouldn’t only take the time to listen.

And in the midst of this is me: borrowed suitcase (check). Uncomplicated hairstyle (check). Personal weirdness to account for (check). Mounting exasperation and an inability to complete a sentence (double check).

There are very few women in coach during the journey from PDX to MSP, though two men in hunting jackets and John Deere trucker’s hats have managed to find one. She’s a Japanese tourist with an east facing seat in the observation car, and both of these men are eager to tell her everything she’s not asking about America. I’m seated behind her, barely remaining upright and thinking about disease. The American men are talking about how their parents can’t retire, early careers in dirt bike racing, and why Americans need to repeatedly renew their drivers’ licenses. The Japanese tourist mentions speaking three languages, and one of them tells this joke:

“Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks three or more languages is called multilingual. What do you call someone who only speaks one language?”


“An American!”

Lulz all around.

Their conversation is slow and meandering and surprisingly intimate, as each produces a phone full of images of their respective hometowns to best illustrate their explanations of everyday life. I hear her comment that she doesn’t have the same journey that a lot of Americans feel compelled to experience, the journey of identity, because she knows exactly where her parents were born and what place they started from; she knows what village they belong to, what palace resides there, and what it means when the bells toll. Both men are silent at this, out of respect for the truth and the poetic delivery, and I’m thinking about it too, and my own need to inspect my genetics and identify as American plus something else. I wonder if there will be a time in the future with a single identifiable American ethnicity, one that has nothing to do with the Civil War and dates of immigration, and if during this time Americans will be a bit more interested in story, having been freed from the prison of memorized names and dates and graves.

These meandering thoughts sustain me and them until sunset demands retirement to seats for movie watching and pseudo sleeping. There will be no sleeping.

There’s a guy who is sleeping, and every third breath he yells, “whoa!” I got the seat with the light always on. This makes me feel responsible. Somewhere the whole train turned North Dakota, which means it’s occupied by oil men who make Montana snowboarders coy about their drinking habits. Everyone is sick, or at least sick of being on the train, expressed through repeated sighs, stomach clutching, head clutching, groans. We are the unwashed masses, and the smell is real. I steal a fork from the kindly chap peddling coffee to friends that aren’t friends to finish my giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Everyone doesn’t know they’re jealous, but I’m the least sick and the most delicious. The fork makes clink noises against the glass every time it takes a dive. The light is on. Dive. They know what I’m doing. Dive. I’m responsible. Dive.

Amtrak Hellride for the stripes.




Day 2: Closer to White Fish

Finally on the train, everyone around me immediately fell asleep, informing a suspicion that Amtrak avoided further confrontation by stuffing those free sandwiches with sedatives. Another way being gluten-free = torture. They thanked me for my services with a seat directly below a light that was always on. Even the observation car was empty, which made it look like a scene in an 80s movie right before a red leather jacket dance battle takes place that tears the whole place apart. The only people to trickle in were teenagers, the sort that buy Nirvana t-shirts from Target. Both sleeves of crackers were history, which left avocados, and I cut the first one down the middle and began eating little slivers with my knife. The teens looked at me, and tittered. Whatever. I was laughing at them the whole time, too. At some point I fell asleep and snapped awake when my glasses hit the floor. This is why I purchase pairs that cost less than $100.


Light of dawn meant Montana, and I hurried to the observation car to take in Glacier National Park without even wearing a jacket. Every seat was cameras and conversation. There was a woman of about 40 with hair the color of sand and a face shocked red who was giving an on the fly science lesson about grizzly bears in Montana. She reported that 40% of the grizzly population lived in Glacier National Park, and then went on to describe a fault line you can actually see. Amtrak’s absence of reliable wi-fi services makes trains the perfect place to compulsively lie without a smart phone interruption. If it wasn’t for the olives I would have feared I was contributing nothing to the Amtrak community, especially since I only just then noticed that I’d failed to seize an opportunity to create an elaborate nature story that would shock the German tourists to the core. And just when my jealousy couldn’t get any thicker, the 40ish lady said, “you know, the smell of bear shit never goes away. There’s areas all over where you smell nothing but that. Nothing.”


Please, do go on.


Note from Amanda: super exhausted today, so this is short so i can sleep. More tomorrow!

Report on AWP Experiment, Day 1

I got off Amtrak today wearing 39 hours of train haze and a body odor generally reserved for detox diets, checked into my hotel, babbled at my partner, hung up on him, showered, and then collapsed for two hours. Two fitful hours of frantic arm itching as each hair follicle threw a tantrum, I thrashed the blankets all over while mumbling about how my hair is red, my skin is red. Then I wrote this in my dream journal with a certainty that this will make deep psychic sense later. Much later.


When I stood up I thought bedbugs, hives, eczema, dry skin, autoimmune issues. Then I looked down at ankles that had assumed the curvature of a redwood, with just as much spongy resistance. To the Internets! After reading about blood clots and kidney disease and liver failure and poking my ankles to measure resistance, I called my mother. She was babysitting my nieces, which is something I learned after I called her house phone, then called my sister, and then called her cell phone.


“HELLO!” my mother said. Her cell phone is a friend from another country who only understands English with exclamation marks.


I was trying not to cry. My cell phone is a therapist with opinions. “My ankles are swollen.”


“I’m with your nieces. We’re playing Sorry!” That was a good response, because my next thought was holy hell that’s a boring game, even more boring than the game where I’m dying of ankle swell on the 10th floor of a hotel. Then she said, “Have you been eating a lot of salt?” That’s when I remembered all those olives.


Let me back up:

Yesterday I got up late because I went to bed late, and ran around stuffing too many t-shirts and not enough anything else into compression bags I didn’t close properly. Then I shoved all these bloated plastic bags spun into knots that rendered them more cumbersome than folding would have been into a tiny suitcase, and then I said oh no, and flapped my hands until a friend came by with a bag designed to handle a whole lot of suits. Apparently this is perfect for 9,000 t-shirts and air-filled bags.


While I was flapping, my partner was doing things like depositing checks and dropping off rent and picking up prescriptions and not saying too much about the too many clothes I was definitely going to take. He also managed to not say anything about the number of books I was taking to sell at a conference where people notoriously scoff at self-published authors, and did not say a word about the giant bag of Trader Joe’s food that made no sense for any living being. Items included four watery avocados, two sleeves of rice crackers, two Stumptown Cold Brews, two snobby German mineral waters, chickpeas trapped in an oil stew, carrot sticks, and a giant jar of garlic stuffed olives. Green was well represented.


Now that you have a clear image of the slapstick in progress boarding the train: I did not get on the train. At the Amtrak station I was ignored by one woman busy wishing she worked elsewhere, and then was handed a ticket by a pasty man who announced I was bound for Pasco. Huh? Someone was handing out boxed lunches.


“Where’s Pasco?” I asked.


“I don’t know,” was his response. I took the box labeled Turkey, because yeah.


The bus was all the things bus dreams are made of: fart smell and windows that don’t open and rotten food and babies with the lungs to scream for four hours and confusion. No one knew why the hell we were on the bus, and after a few shouted questions we learned an entire fleet of buses were headed to Pasco, because the train was not coming into Portland at all. Since none of us were new to this transportation experience we got over it in favor of trading cookies and chips with an efficiency that would put a playground to shame. As someone gluten-free I was an instant celebrity, as the entire contents of my box save for the apple were rationed out to people who like eating. The bus pendulumed my stomach, and I shoved crackers into it to keep it quiet.


At the Pasco station the Amtrak employees had a mutiny on their hands. Four hours on a bus is tolerable with a food bribe; we were now stuck waiting in a tiny lobby with no indication of when this would end. There was a great thunderous volley of complaint, as people jockeyed for status as Alpha Complainer, angry eyes encouraging the crowd to hoot their support for one of three Silver Backs. My favorite was a woman in her mid fifties with brown hair curled for battle, a hands-on-hips, this-is-bullshit strut that announced she was born to do this. There would be letters. There would be calls. There would be a sleeper car, and it would be clean! Not like last time!


Meanwhile, I was Tweeting to Amtrak, since I learned during a previous trip that this is the only real way to get a response. Fair enough; I don’t answer my phone, either. The Twitter exchange told me how far behind the train was and was quite apologetic, and I was quite apologetic too, because it’s not her fault that her time control device need new batteries and physically present Amtrak employees eat anger as a delicacy. Like any good coyote I kept this new information for myself, because I eat hilarious, and one of the would-be Alphas had just declared, “This is CRAZY!” A girl in newsprint pants glanced up, then unplugged her headphones and turned Snoop Dog way up. The complaints now had a beat. This was amazing. This was for everyone.


Then they made us get in line.


A theory: there are pressure points on the bottom of my flat, flat feet that trigger misery when I have to stand without moving for too long. Too long = five minutes. Standing in line, my brain said: what am I doing with my life? I don’t think I was happy enough my 36th year. Do I say that every year of my life? What year do I look back on as my happy year? What was happening then? I probably wrote about it as miserable at the time. Maybe this has something to do with the transition from hair metal bands to grunge bands in the early 90s. Went from ridiculous-spandex- high-kick girls-girls-girls nothing-but-a-good-time to I’m-still-alive and I-think-I’m-dumb in 18 months time. Maybe I should listen to more Motley Crue.


She took my ticket just in time, but didn’t direct me anywhere. So I stood there, five hours older, three bags heavier, 34 hours to go, before finally picking car 15 because an Alpha Complainer stood in front of it yelling, “Is this it? IS THIS IT?”


Amanda will be writing one thing or the other about this adventure every day this week for #AWP15.