My various social media feeds keep reminding me that four years ago this month I took to travel the United States and for a short time assumed the life of a Dharma Bum aboard the long-distance Amtrak trains.
The day after being escorted out of my office by a rather large man who smelled of kale chips and Green Machine Juice, I was curled up under a number of blankets in my unheated loft room reading Into the Miso Soup and listening to my 6-12 roommates carry on about their daily lives outside my door. An interesting read, the novel for a time took my mind off of my situation. Here I was, ready to take the Booby Prize in life.
My trip down Washout Alley blindsided me. It seemed just when things were going in a positive direction at my job; I was screwed over by new improved ways of minding one’s personal data. Embarrassment was the least of my emotions. Fear and loathing were somewhat stronger. Hatred at myself, paramount. How stupid was I to cause such ruffled feathers at work? How was I going to pay my bills? My student loans, my mortgage for a place I had to rent out since I couldn’t afford to live there, my rent in my current place, what about healthcare if I get sick I will die, die dead because of a joke on social media so forgettable that I had to remind my friend months later what it was I had said… Looking back, it all seems silly. But at the time it appeared that my life had ended in disaster on economic, political, social, and familial fronts. After a few days of chugging the pity pills, I became resolved to do something positive. Rather than being weary and distraught (I didn’t leave my room for the first few days), and wallowing in my own offal, I took the train.
Amtrak has a unique offer (or had, depending on our political climate), where one can travel about the country for so many days for what was then $400. My accommodations would be coach class, so no sleeper, but I was game to try this out, and I had spent time previously in trains albeit not in the United States. I thought I would sleep a day or so on the train and then stay in some cheap housing or with friends and freshen up before taking my next leg. Packing a small bag, taking my old laptop, and a hotspot I had in my possession that had not been switched off, and I figured I’d use if for as long as I could. With my cracked iPhone, out-of-date computer, and fail-at-any-moment hotspot, I went to live on the rails as a digital nomad and Gotham economic refugee sorta in a #firstworldproblems kinda way.
My first leg was to New Orleans on the #19 Crescent. From New York City to D.C. is a depressing stretch, and while I hear the Smokey Mountains are beautiful, the trip from New York to Washington D.C. is dismal. Really everything wrong with the post-industrial country.
The next day was little better, but with all the junk cars and abandoned small southern railroad towns I wondered if this journey was a huge mistake. Having missed the mountains, I did not see anything particularly picturesque until late the next day as the train Backed into New Orleans.
Not that the rail yards of the Big Easy are the stuff of coffee table books. New Orleans is where my journey really took off. To keep in my very tight budget, I stayed in a bunk bed in a hostel knowing I was far older than I should have been to do this, but since the Jazz festival was coming up, the place filled up with old geezers such as myself as well as the usual crowd of travelers. I joined a group at the hostel and jaunt about the music halls taking in the many venues and enjoying my comrades, one of whom was determined to “bring the pickleback to New Orleans,” which he did.
After two nights and a day of aimless wanderings soaking in the spirit of New Orleans, it was off to Tuscon aboard the Sunset Limited. The Sunset Limited was where the nature of American Rail travel on Amtrak switched over from those tired and cranky commuters of the Northeast gave way to vacationers, vagabonds such as myself, and a curious mix of rich and poor. The train stopped several times to wait for the freight trains affording views of bayous and rivers.
At one point the conductor pointed out a flock of birds on one side of the car and a group of alligators on the other side of the tracks. From New Orleans, we visited Houston, the rail station being in a horrible underside of the city, and then we left all the development and sped into the night. I played cards in the observation car since this is a feature of the long distance trains outside of the Northeast. The next morning I woke up early and peered out the window to the sun rising over the desert. “Are we in New Mexico,” I inquired of the conductor. No, she laughed, we’re in Texas and will be until tonight. It’s a big state.
For the rest of the day I typed up cover letters searched job boards, a emailed until my connection finally dropped and I was in the wilds of West Texas. I went to the observation car where some older gentleman was serving drinks from a container he has smuggled on board. We looked at the darkening landscape, and a merry band passed the time until it was late. I retired to the coach seat that reclines like those dads pass out in front of the TV in and slept to the rocking of the train.
The next day I was in Tuscon, a city I was introduced to by a friend who then served as a conduit to a whole community of what I joked were Tuscon ex-pats in Gotham. I met my friend’s brother (really another friend at this point) and went to stay with his mother, a loving and creative woman who made me at once at peace. The next day my friend’s mother and I hiked in the Sonora desert, and she taught me about the plants and environment as we walked, stopping only to look at a cheeky bird or two who called out taunting us. It was still early in the season but the day was particularly, and I got a chance to catch up with the brother and his mother and tour some of the city. We had the best Mexican food I had had in a long time and the worst haircut I had ever gotten (for $5 from a barber shop in Tuscon, what can go wrong?) and after a short day, I jumped aboard the Texas Eagle off to L.A. having had a few drinks at the bar in the grand old railway station.
The dry lands of Arizona turned into those of California, and after a short night, since I again spent most of it in the observation car, this time with an elderly African-American comedian who used to play the “chitlin circuit” long ago, I had a short stop over in L.A. before my next train. I shouldered my bag and rode the trains a little. I didn’t see anything particularly of interest, so I bounced over the Hollywood to see a few things and then scurried back to my train to Portland pity the Coast Starlight.
On the Starlight, we rode close to the ocean and then turned in and made our way through rolling hills. Having never been to California before, I didn’t understand the attraction to the place when I was in L.A., but could easily see why this was the place to go for so many. The sun was already warm (I had left New York in the cold snow of early April) and the grass brown from the hard drought the state was experiencing. At a certain point, the train was stopped dead and had to wait for a broken down freight train to move out of the way. What was a small polite gathering in the observation car turned into a full on party as the conductors relaxed the rules somewhat to compensate a train full of people suffering in the now hot sun. We made the best of the time (ironically the train was stuck next to a field and a gravel pit, the least scenic spot of the entire trip), and very late we made it to Portland, hours and hours and hours late.
In Portland, I almost stayed in the worst hostel I had ever seen but was able to find an inexpensive bunk across town that worked out and allowed me to join a communal brunch. I was already doing phone interviews and getting a few job nibbles, so things were looking up already, even if the hostel brunch was vegan. The first full night I was in town, I joined my friend (a former student of mine) who invited me to a party that turned out to be a rent party for a woman who had unexpectedly died and her flatmates were attempting to make up for the shortage by “passing the hat.” Very awkward, but very Portland.
Just a few nights before, at the time it felt like years, I was freezing and bitter in my unheated loft, and now I was about a campfire in a backyard with music and outside this house was like a hundred bikes because this is Portland and of course everyone rides a bike. The next day, I too rented a bike and cycled about the city exploring this and that. I was on a tight budget, so there wasn’t too much trouble I could get into, but I did manage to buy some trinkets from a junkshop. My friend had another party lined up, but my time was short, and I had to move on in order to cross the country before my ticket expired.
I boarded the Empire Builder and got a chance to see Mount Hood before the sun set. While we traveled through what I can imagine is fantastic territory, early the next morning (this time I was asleep at a reasonable hour and strangely used to sleeping on the train by now) I awoke to the Rocky Mountains and snow. I thought of my time in New Orleans just a few days prior, the walk in the wilderness, the meandering about Los Angeles (LAX), and the campfire in Portland. Now I needed my coat again when I stepped out at the longer station stops. The train traveled through magnificent mountains and was often perched on what seemed like cliffs or wandered through dark and long tunnels. The observation car had a few retired park rangers, and they narrated a section of the journey from West Glacier Park until we reached the flats of Montana. From there, we entered the flat lands and sped again into the night and to Chicago.
Chicago was chilly but not cold. I checked into yet another hostel, this time in Greektown. Leaving my bags at the front desk, I was able to navigate the city and visited a few museums. While it was hard not to spend money, there are a few good places for inexpensive eats and cheap drinks. I cranked out a few more resumes and spend time at a cafe loading up on job listings since I had been doing that at the cities so when I lost a signal on the mifi I could continue to craft a cover letter. I was, after all, not on vacation, but unemployed. It was starting to soak in that I was having to return to my home and pick up the fight. While I would still (and for months after) wince when I thought of my termination, I was no longer troubled, and the whole experience seemed more in perspective.
I had, after all, just seen all of America in under fifteen days. I had stayed in glorified Tripadvisor Yelp-approved flop houses, had partied in the cafe car with an elderly-divorced-yet-still-together couple, I had swigged shots with a self-proclaimed gangster from the streets of Baltimore and watched the landscape of all things great and small unfold from the observation car of train after train. The last leg home via Buffalo was enjoyable, but I was already stepping back to work mode from party mode, and by the time I got back to Gotham, I was back to the grind. It would be another few months before I was again employed and in that time I would lose my apartment and have a few other setbacks, but the experience of my trip stayed with me.
It is typical for the young to go out on some life-changing road trip. It is a rare opportunity that someone much older can learn so much about a country I had lived in but had not truly seen. My advice, if any can be given, is if you are unemployed or otherwise in a funk, take the train. You have nothing to lose.