Amtrek, Part 1

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.



America by Space Ship Part 1: The Badlands

Landlock after extended road travel leaves me sourpussed. Only 46% of my person percolates in the present; the rest continues merry wandering in the same rented Dodge Avenger we dubbed the Space Ship, a craft that accumulated 6,158 miles before we reluctantly surrendered the keys to Avis and accepted a deflated bus ride back from BeaverTRON into Portland proper. The other 54% of me has elected to re-visit newly collected haunts. First re-entry point: the strange space of South Dakota, where half the state is a waking nightmare pulled from the pages of Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction masterwork In the Spirit of Crazy Horse; the other half is accessible only by invisible slide. My co-conspirator Dok Z and I Lewis and Clark’d this territory for two days, and my skin still smells of sage and is bronzed orange-red from awesome sun.

South Dakota: we arrived in Murdo sleep deprived and irritable, having narrowly escaped the Corn Palace insect-saturated South Dakota hellmouth. For endless exits there was nothing save for ghost town gas stations daring us to stop to clean the windshield. There we’d inevitably find a wiper and water bucket so thick with unidentifiable six-legged somethings that if a sample were collected and placed on a slide, it might devour the microscope. Aliens have arrived, people. They’re just very small…

Anyway, in Murdo the border of our motel (the only one with any vacancies) was lit with PINK neon, and as we exited the Space Ship the manager was waiting for us, and in some unseen nook or cranny Quentin Tarantino was waiting to film.


Other than the neon it looked like hundreds of other motels, a simple series of windows and doors arranged in rows, a parking lot filled with out-of-state license plates and construction worker pick-up trucks. Manager chap was nice enough, and inside the room was decorated with endless signs listing reasons to be excited about the hand towels, and reminding us to respect the queen-sized bed as a holy resting space.


While I can’t confirm the existence of secret passageways and have never been accused of super-sluthery, I can testify that throughout the night, whenever I looked out the window, the manager was going into one door, before exiting from another completely on the other side of the motel. Attempts to rub the funhouse from my eyes failed. Dok Z mumbled in his sleep about gunshots, then woke and asked if I heard them. Did I hear them? I was busy listening to the argument happening on my face, while negotiating the black cloud that entered the room to cowboy clock my sixth-eye closed.

Whether you’re inclined to indulge the hocus-pocus or are the type to stodgily insist that nothing is real until Mythbusters conducts the appropriate experiment, the fact remains that this motel was plucked from an unaired episode of Scooby Doo, bulging with entities eager to latch on and puppet unprotected people with ghostly tentacles.

In other words: South Dakota is a haunted holy fuck of a state. The 2000 census claims the population of Murdo is 612, and I suspect 40% of these folks have since been eaten.

Burning rubber back on to 90W we learned fast that the western side of South Dakota is equally haunted but wears a prettier face. Amazing scenery does not, however, slow the pimping of the waterpark, an aggressive boil on the butt of family tourism wank that begins blooming in diaper rash earnest with the Wisconsin Dells. It almost doesn’t matter what the Dells are, exactly, because every billboard coaxing your car towards exit doesn’t give a shit about this natural wonder. Advertisements ham-fist tease about dozens of hotels and lodges and mini-person prisons engaging in full-tilt street brawls for the coveted title of most HOLY FUCK water park, each featuring rides that inexplicably reference stinging land-based mammals and insects. Grinning faces of prepubescent youngsters on waterslides and body surfing through furious chlorinated water are framed by screaming comic sans demands to GET WET.

I know what you're thinking: why doesn't the boy have face paint?


Dok Z and I spent several dull-scenery minutes working on the marketing campaign for our hypothetical water park, WET AS FUCK, and while I don’t remember much of the proposed schematics and body pummelling near-drowning excitement, my current fantasy goes like this: at WET AS FUCK, the minute you walk through the hotel doors three retired firemen in Clockwork Orange uniforms immediately render the entire suitcase-baring family WET AS FUCK with the assistance of a firehose. Those dedicated cigar-smoking workers don’t let up until your whole family is unconscious and pressed into the concrete, clothing in tatters, shoes knocked loose, spinal deformities violently corrected. In this state the fam is directly deposited (courtesy of black unmarked van) to the Badlands, which has a way higher amazing-factor than anything involving a plastic slide and pee water.

Badlands National Park: Seriously, wow. Dok Z wasted no time in claiming this turf for his personal pleasure saucer, and I can’t fault him the quick action. We initially choked at the $15 investment required, but less than a mile deep I was pondering permanent relocation. Hiking the Enter the Door Trail exposed us to prehistoric landscape locking the bodies of undusted dinosaurs, and blue sky accented by golden eagles. The trail was not really a trail at all, just a collection of yellow flags tricking your eyes in a half-hearted attempt to direct your party away from permanent LOST status. Signs warning of rattlesnakes further activated my inspection of the dots and dashes pocking the cliff sides. I let the dust sink into my skin, invited it in, harvesting a new kind of high.

Off-camera: sense of purpose restoration


It was in this space that my nose-twitch towards other tourists switched. I wasn’t alone in my awe, and regardless of age or physical ability the terrain was explored with care and appreciation. Kids ran to have their pictures taken between rocks that framed their bodies and scrambled up the buttes, while older folks examined edges for footholds and let their eyes turn skyward on the lookout for birds of prey and incoming saucers. Sure, there was the lone marble-mouthed cell phone jockey blathering day-trader jargon into his sweat-soaked armpit while his unattended children played tiddlywinks with a cougar and plotted their forthcoming angst, but without those kids we wouldn’t have Marilyn Manson, and then what would their t-shirts say?


Dok Z, recasting his vote on the relevance of Creed

According to the National Park Service website, the 244,000 acres comprising the Badlands are “one of the world’s richest fossil beds,” functioning as home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and black-footed ferrets. After exploring the visitor center’s winding corridors and informative, touchable science-things, we picnicked and examined the camping spots while daydreaming of future visits where we’d have the opportunity to linger. Then we traveled into the higher altitudes to spy prairie dogs running across roads and standing on top of little mounds, looking adorable in squeal-and-freak-out fashion. Higher still, a single goat with a collar, ear tag, and bored expression wandered into the road and dared the slow moving cars to accelerate to ramming speed, before enjoying the absurdity of a half-dozen white people ape-footing out of vehicles to ignite the possibility of an animals-attack style YouTube video.

When animals don't attack


Leonard Cohen was an appropriate companion. Next time I’ll stay longer than a day.

Next up: The waiting arms of WALL, South Dakota.



Recalling Summer, 2009

Amish kids are eating sandwiches that taste better than mine, wrapped in wax paper and pulled from metal lunch pails they carried on to the Amtrak. They don’t have luggage, just the sandwiches on thick slices of bread, adorned with slabs of meat and cheese that smell curiously clean. They’re in the lounge car, waiting for daylight to fade along with the rest of us, anticipating the night time insanity of passed bottles of booze they won’t drink from and long-winded stories about the death of an innocence most of us never had. Four of them are packed into a single table, just barely men, wearing suspenders and collared shirts and sensible-looking shoes with bowl hair and bangs cut clean across. They have really earnest conversations with people of the same sex and women over 50. Their beards are like what I’ve seen on hipsters at recent music festivals, and the one with reddish brown hair catches me staring. I wonder if I brushed my cheek against his if it would feel less polluted than Portland beards, all gravel filled and pubic rough from too much bad attention. If I brushed my cheek against his would I pull back and know that his eyes weren’t blue but were piercing anyway, that his smile was endless and drawn from some serene place, that his hands and body were shaped by work and not sitting and thinking and wondering. And would he know in a single glorious second that all the thoughts he’d carefully masked and thought were his alone to die with were poised to unravel in the company of greedy me? No: I’m vulgar. He knows it. There’s nothing to explain.

The plot thickens when one of them produces a deck of cards, and an older woman with bright smile, age-faded eyes, and silver-rimmed glasses asks to get in on a game of Hearts. They nod and answer her politely and make eye contact and she’s in. Damn. As they laugh and listen the woman asks some of the questions I’ve written down in my head, but none of the good ones. If I only got one question I couldn’t resist: How do you react to someone saying “I love you,” having never seen it on television? Then before I can wonder and wander any deeper someone taps my shoulder with a whiskey bottle and I smile and refuse because I don’t drink anything brown, but still I retreat to the familiar temple of loud laughter and tales of travels unfinished, partners met, and how life is just long enough to assure us in an instant that our hearts will never stop breaking.