Friday, January 29, 2010

New Orleans, 26-29 January

It’s around this point that I started to really realize how little time I’m spending in each cities. This is my fourth time to NOLA, I think – maybe fifth? – and I was excited to be in some relatively familiar territory. This was also the first city I stayed alone in. After about an hour and half of walking to find the hostel I'd be staying in, being somewhat lost and somewhat on the wrong side of town, I found the India House Hostel ( just off Canal Street. The place was big and airy, with high ceilings and artwork all over the walls. Paintings and drawings of women in Indian-Goddess-esque poses adorned the walls, along with a few elephants, trees, and vines in all sorts of colors. There was a communal kitchen and a grand total of five fridges spread throughout the place; two smaller living rooms, and a typical Spanish courtyard in the center. A large pond with gold and white koi and a small fountain lay on one side; a mosaic-tiled floor was installed nearby. A grill and a few picnic tables, as well as a small swimming pool, filled up the rest of the space. Music, at discretion of the hostel employees, was always playing.

Restless after my long train ride, I left my stuff in the room and headed over to the gaudy, over-toured French Quarter for some fresh air and sightseeing. I’d been in and around the area for Mardi Gras last year. New Orleans’ charm, as expressed by the tourism bureau, lies in being cheap, garish, and welcoming. In and around the Quarter, tourists pay a lot of money for very cheap stuff (i.e., $6 for two strings of low-quality plastic beads). It’s easy to find friends for a night, and everyone is in a buoyant mood, always looking for the next laugh. The city is built on entertainment, and the town's hooked on its own drugs. The effect on the residents was apparent in their outlook on life, and in the types of conversations they strike up. It is fun, it is easy.

I walked around for a couple hours, stopping in the art galleries on Royal Street and strolling through the easy music on Frenchmen Street in the early evening. After the sun set, I headed back for the hostel.

Not long after I got back, a couple other people staying there invited me to go out with them to see a brass band in the Uptown. I headed out with them and stayed out for a few hours, dancing and drinking in a large crowd. The band – four trumpets, a trombone, a sousaphone, snare and bass, saxophone, cowbell – was good, really entertaining and they had a great stage personality, but they played a few too many standards. I caught a taxi back with a super-drunk Aussie and a 60-year-old Kiwi who was on his way to South-By-Southwest.

The next morning I got up early to go for a run – I’m horrendous at sleeping in – and discovered NOLA’s City Park. It’s huge, with a stadium, an art museum, a small train that goes all through it, a sculpture garden, soccer fields, and large lake with islands for picnicking on. Later that afternoon, I met up with my friend Amy’s little sister, Tory, who is studying at Tulane.

New Orleans has a couple streetcar lines that run on the medians of the larger streets. They’re fairly cheap, straightforward, and easy to use. One line goes along St. Charles, which is the main drag through Uptown and the Garden District – the poshest areas in the city. I read that the aristocrats who built up this part of town were trying to outdo the French-Creole elegance and style in the Quarter. Every house has lavish and tasteful Mardi Gras decorations, a balcony or two, widow’s walks, gables, eaves, Spanish moss, covered walkways – you name it. Southern grandeur at its finest. I’d love to poke my nose around inside some of the houses. The streetcar ride is a great way to see it if you don’t have much time to explore.

In any event, I decided to take a city bus that wove around a few other neighborhoods instead of the streetcar. I didn’t know anything about the areas we’d go through, but was curious to see more of the city than just touristy places. Bus #34 went through poorer areas, with cracked roads full of potholes and interspersed with government-funded housing projects. Only two blocks to the left were the edges of Uptown and its beautiful houses. I was struck by how sharply the atmosphere had changed in so short a space and time. The bus let me off at Audubon Park and Zoo, which I got to walk through in order to reach Tulane. The man who designed this park also designed Central Park in New York City. I wish I would have had more time to explore it.

That evening, I went to see some free jazz for a bit at a small and smoky club on Frenchmen Street. Beer was fairly priced and the audience was easy and friendly.

My last day in New Orleans, I ran again to City Park before going to Café du Monde for its famous coffee and beignets. I sat in the National Jazz Historic Park and watched the tourists and the peddlers on Decatur. I spent the late morning walking to the Museum District and checking out the Preservation Hall (, trying to learn more about the history and architecture of the city.

That evening, my friend Harry’s brother came to meet me at the hostel. He gave me a driving tour of the city, including the “hip” Marigny district, which I’d wanted to see for quite some while, and the Ninth and Lower Ninth wards. There isn’t much to see in the Ninths; most of the debris has been cleared, and a few seemingly abandoned houses lay scattered in between new, “green” architecture. Every one of these new houses is high off the ground and unique in design. Candy-bright colors and dramatic, the avant-garde architecture give an air of hope and renewal to the area.

Maybe it should stay a flood plain; I wonder how many and what alternatives to rebuilding the city considered.

The Lutons hosted me for dinner that evening; I wasn’t able to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked there. Another friend’s family, the Threlkelds, was kind enough to give me a ride home (along with a few goodies!) across the 24-mile Lake Ponchatrain Bridge. I wish I had another couple nights to spend in the city; I hear the pre-Mardi Gras celebrations are much better than the actual parades, and I wanted to have more time to explore the city in-depth.

New Orleans residents are easy to get along with, genteel, and super-friendly. Oftentimes, though, relationships are hard to maintain and strengthen – people float. I'm itching to get beyond the visitor-level information and knowledge of the city, but at the moment all I'm getting are a few glances below the surface.

Getting up at four a.m., I gathered my stuff and left for Birmingham, to visit my Aunt Dixie for a night.

Train, 47 hours, Los Angeles to New Orleans

Hour #21, somewhere outside of Alpine, TX – near Big Bend National Park. Dad and Becky probably went through here.

There is an old man strumming a guitar and a younger guy picking a banjo. He sound like Levon Helm, and sings almost too loud; his hair is slicked with oil. He’s talked for hours and hours about how he should get a six-pack and start pickin’, he’d have a crowd around him. The crowd in the sightseer car claps and cheers occasionally after “Your Cheating Heart” and “Good-Hearted Woman.” He’s fairly obnoxious when he’s not playing, yelling and crowing. He covered standard Americana and honky-tonk for about two hours before a car attendant asked him to stop.

There is an Amish man on the train who seems to hang around the dirtiest women aboard: an obese desert hick who explains to him that her sex life sucks and that she’s okay with gays raising children over the course of an hour and a half; an alcoholic cokehead, dyed blonde, wearing Uggs and sunglasses who endlessly compliments him on his beard and the blue of his suspenders; an eleven-year-old goth skinny as a whip who already has a Celtic tattoo across her chest. I hear him later giving marriage advice from the Bible to a poor black single mother.

I realized I'd gotten somewhat homesick at this point.

One young man on the train has a Bell’s brewery hat – I have a sticker with the logo on my computer. I wonder if he noticed. C’mon, anything for a conversation. I played scrabble with two women for an hour or so; I’m about ready to move into my sleeper. Since I got up at 5:30, I haven’t really been back to my seat – that makes almost 12 hours sitting in the lounge car, reading and now writing.

First Class. (It gets its own section. Get it?)

I decided to upgrade to First Class for the last 20 hours of my trip. It was fairly expensive, but I thought that the experience would be worth it. I was feeling pretty strung-out by the second day on the train, and thought to treat myself. All my meals in the dining car are included – up until now, I’d eaten travel-bruised fruit, English muffins, tortillas, warm cream cheese and hummus. Some cheap candy and black coffee. I also get a shower, a more private restroom, a private room, and a bed (!). I realized that since I left home, I hadn’t had much of any privacy. Staying with friends and family, public transportation, and coach class hadn’t afforded me much space.

So when I walked down to the sleeper cars and Brian, my car’s attendant, greeted me by name and showed me to my room, I just about swooned. I felt like a queen. Free coffee and juice awaited me upstairs, and a virtually sound-proof room let me make calls without feeling like I was being rude to my fellow passengers. A large window in my room gave me a great view, and the restrooms were roomier and cleaner. I slept through the entire night. The difference between coach and first class is astronomical!

If you do a series of overnight train trips, first-class is the way to go. Do it for at least one night. I’m glad I did it once, but doing it coach for almost 150 hours made it all that much sweeter. This is luxury.

At dinner, I sat with two men from Kinocha (sp), WI: a professor - cyclist and sailor – and a man who’d grown up there and simply loved the town. Breakfast, I sat with a former president of Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, IN, and his wife, who is well-traveled and seemed to take the same curious approach I do to cities. They were well into retirement. The husband now is a senior advisor for Mercy Corps, an international aid and relief organization. After hearing about my degree (Nonprofit Management), he told me about the work they do and gave me a card – said to look for a job with them.

I heave-ho’d my pack a few hours later and stepped out into the comparatively utilitarian Union Station in New Orleans around 1:30pm.

Long Beach, 21-24 January

My aunt Pamela and her friend Priscilla picked me up at the train station around 9:30pm, and we drove on many-laned freeways, highways, overpasses, bridges, and streets through LA and between Long Beach roads in order to get back home.

Pamela and I hadn't seen each other since I was a little girl; my dad and sister had been to visit her in recent years but this was my first opportunity. While I intended to stay for only one full day, bad weather (flash floods and a small tornado) cancelled trains and kept me seaside for four instead of heading to Tucson to visit Jenny. (Sorry, girl.)

We talked about family and friends, visited the beach and a small art museum (where I saw a Rickey sculpture), and laughed ourselves silly over furballs. I watched movies and ran in a park that edged the concrete-bound LA river.

It was a real treat to be able to stay with Pam for a decent length of time, and to meet her friends. Words can't do it justice!

[Pamela or Priscilla or Jan&David - I hope you found the blog! Call or write and let me know if you catch it. :-)]

I shoved off for another 47-hour train ride to NOLA, 'cross the desert and the swamps.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Portland to Long Beach: 20 January, 30+ hours

After the Chicago-Seattle trip, 30 hours was nothing. Slipping on down south, I saw the countryside and enigmatic towns of Oregon and northern California before the sunset. This train takes us down California, at first through the middle of the state and then zipping along the shore of the Pacific Ocean. Oregon is a beautiful state, lush and green, with dark gray mountains and deep blue rivers framing bright hollows and pastures. Just outside of Portland, there were a few mooners to properly bless the trip. This train is crowded and just about everyone in coach has a seatmate. (My seatmate, Josh, has a sister who just moved to Bloomington. We exchanged information – hopefully I can meet up with her back home!)

As I was talking about taking public transportation from downtown LA to Long Beach, where my Aunt Pamela lives, other passengers started advising me to take a taxi and even offering rides rather than take any form of public transportation. I had heard about how atrocious LA’s PT was, but I didn’t think it was that dangerous. Pamela ended up deciding to come downtown to pick me up, but I did ride the metro back to Union Station.

While in Seattle, I’d picked up a compilation of interviews with Chomsky and a book by journalist Rick Bragg, expecting to finish The Wind Up Bird Chronicles before I reached LA.

On the train, I overheard one girl say “Yeah, we had to just go and buy a house up there” as though it were a chore. “When I get back to San Luís [de Obispo] I’m just going to toke up on my Grandma’s shit.”

I moved to the lounge car to read a few hours after sunset. A woman got on at one point, and sat right next to me in the mostly-empty car. She must be OCD, I thought, as she lined her seat with cardboard and changed her doctor’s gloves twice in the process. She muttered to herself about water and decided to risk leaving the train near departure time in order to fill her bottles in the station rather than on the train. She started talking to me after we made eye contact, telling me about her gangrene; her troubled relationship with her doctor daughter; her love for God and the mansion that waited for her Up There. She was a sound engineer for Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder. She talked to me for over 30 minutes; I silently counted my blessings.

I remember Mom saying that women civilize a society. I’ve noticed I feel safer, more at-ease, when a healthy mother and her young child are near. Alone, around men that don’t give me a familiar vibe, I feel compelled to be more alert.

Northern California was covered in thick, sticky snow at times; the train slowed and even stopped at a few points to allow the track to be checked and cleared as necessary. Evergreens with what seemed like a half-foot of snow on their boughs turned bright yellows and pinks in the sunlight; when only lamps along the tracks lit the scenery, I felt as though I was on the Christmas Express or something similarly mystical.

Sunrise over mid-California revealed mile upon square mile of farmland. I found myself wondering with increasing frequency what this land would have looked like without the Garlic Capital of the World and the Artichoke Capital of the World; the Happy Cows of California; the energy plants and the occasional rows of parked delivery trucks.

From these speckled green-and-brown hills, I see mountains in the distance.

As we rolled along, I saw the Chevron oil fields. The pumps, like see-saws with a hammerhead, looked alien and scary. I thought of H.G. Wells’ tripods from War of the Worlds. They were black with orange tips, two stories high, and located in and around a dry vineyard. There are acres of these machines.

Due to flash floods in this part of the state, we were put behind about an hour and a half. We entered the Santa María mountains, far from any farms and paved roads. Not many people see this enchanted view – it’s one to make you believe in a fairytale God, or maybe Pandora of Avatar. (I read in the NY Times that some people are becoming depressed when they learn that Pandora doesn’t really exist, by the way.) Dramatic, low-lying hills with steep ravines are lined with lush green trees. Small cities seem like they rolled down the mountain slope; wet dirt roads are occasionally carved into the hillside.

It’s 3:45; more people are starting to drink. The first-class passengers get wine and cheese tastings on this train, along with a movie (Julie and Julia). I toss around the idea of buying a sleeper car for one overnight – with such a lack of activity and cramped space, I rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time in coach class.

The scene looks like a child’s sandbox, left for years and grown-over with baby grass. Trees, low-lying and thickly-leaved, stick out at all angles from the mountainsides. The peaks pull fog to them and heavy rain clouds are hanging in the distance. Sun stabs through the clouds, Lion King-style.

In the first-floor lounge, a clean-cut Asian man with a nice watch and tattoos all over his hands buys a half-bottle of wine ($13) and sits across from me. We do not speak. I had not felt like talking to anybody that day; the scenery and my reading took my full attention.

Around 9:15 p.m., we pull into Union Station. Pamela and her friend Priscilla find me in the lobby and we drive for some time on ten- or four-lane highways until we reach her endearing home in Long Beach.

Portland: 18-20 January

After a long nap on the crowded 4-hour train ride between Seattle and Portland, I found myself in the beautiful Union Station of Portland, Oregon. My friend Grace and her company, having just come off a 5-day drive herself, picked me up right on time. Night had fallen, so I couldn't see any of the city on our way out of it toward Lewis and Clark College ("LC").

LC requires that one dorm per holiday break pack itself so that the students and athletes that stay on campus over break have a place to stay. Grace's dorm happened to be the one to temporarily move out, and they had to move everything back in again upon arrival. I helped a few people out - mostly sophomores - and hung out in dorm rooms with the students until midnight or so. It can be somewhat exhausting to meet so many new people in such a short period of time, but most everyone I met at LC was relaxed, engaging, and super-friendly.

The next day, Grace loaned me her Trek commuter-esque bicycle so I could tour the area while she continued unpacking. I couldn't have been more excited to explore on two wheels in Portland, the city whose reputation for being bike-friendly far exceeds most of its other aspects.

There are bike lanes everywhere, and outside the city proper Portland is hilly! I was sweating while I rode for an hour or so, going over bridges, past roadside coffeehouses, and through a nearby State Park. The sun was out, tenatively, and the sky was a deep, tangible blue. The greens were profound. Runners and families abounded; Portland's pedestrian ways are actually used. The town feels wholesome and intentional.

To that end, not much in Portland is solely nominal in nature.

Later that day, four of us went to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I was psyched for a history lesson, but ended up learning through having fun at the kid-oriented museum. I saw a fetus grow through each week, and watched a computer animation program age me 30 years. The largest T-Rex skeleton and a green-screened weather forecast garnered attention, plus a toad feeding (less exciting than the octopus feeding in Seattle). I wished I were twelve again!

After breakfast on my last day, I had a few hours to explore Portland on my own before my train left. There are officially about 600,000 living there. It's known as the City of Roses and the City of Bridges. It has aggressive anti-sprawl policies, the most notable of which is the urban growth boundary. A popular sticker seen on bicycle tubes is "Don't Mess with Portland."

I don't like the downtown so much. It is rife with pushy homeless people who lick their lips and stare at me; with others who push and kick trash cans and rummage through them for bread and cigarette butts. I didn't feel comfortable walking on the sidewalk; I'd feel better on a bicycle. It's not a city to meander; I would feel better if I were there with an explicit purpose. The edges and beyond of the city are much more liveable and appealing.

Portland feels nervous and defensive, as though it's ready for a fight. Almost as though it's looking for a fight - for another establishment to repel. The recession may have hit it pretty hard.

While the city itself was somewhat of a turn-off, every single person I met charmed me. Conversations are sincere and easy, and I sense that people respect one another regardless of differences.

I grabbed a coffee and marched to Union Station just as it started to rain. Inside, a girl with a frame pack and banjo sat on a bench and played as we lined up to board the Coast Starlight, heading south. It's a sweet memory, and a good one to take from Portland.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Seattle: 14 - 18 January

The train wound around the edges of Puget Sound, dumping its restless passengers at King Station, Seattle, around 10 a.m. on the fourteenth. "Welcome to the Emerald City, folks. The train's stopped, you must get off! Forecast calls for a high of forty-nine degrees, with scattered showers." I grabbed my pack (it weighs around 37 lbs, I learned - not too bad, but it could definitely be lighter. Maybe I should mail home some stuff.) and headed off in the direction someone told me was Pike Street.

After about a mile, I stopped to grab a coffee in the Victrola coffeehouse, on Pike, right east of Capitol Hill. Walking in looking like a wet mouse, I was met with some curious stares but nothing judging. I liked the city. The coffee was roasted on-site, and was thick and creamy even black. Victrola ended up being my favorite in the four days I was there. (Thanks to Peri D. for convincing me that black is better.)

I found the home of Nate, my host, for the weekend in short order. It was a Thursday and he was still at work, so he had left me a secret key. Once inside, I tossed my bags in the living room and went for an hour-long jog around the downtown area (the "Retail Core," the guidebooks call it). I explored Chinatown (aka the "International District") and the famously smelly and crowded waterfront as well. There was a communal garden, in a Japanese style, that had a beautiful series of steps through it. The waterfront was exciting; the smell of the breezes off the Sound were invigorating. I missed being near seas.

Seattle's downtown is the hilliest I've ever been in. From the waterfront, it is a steep, steep climb to the nearest level point. No one would ever want to pedal a bicycle up it, no matter how small the gear. For me, this was one of the most aesthetically pleasing parts about the city. For being technically just barely above sea level, the integers that make the low-lying mean are quite extreme. Seattle's ripples and folds are exciting to walk through; the crest of every hill offers something new.

That night, Nate and I went for drinks and dinner in Capitol Hill, the area which I gathered was the hippest and most happeningest in Seattle. Twenty-somethings lapped up drinks amid the rain showers. Everyone seemed to be curious about everyone else - I certainly was. Bleu's two waitresses are stellar characters, and the drink menu's to die for even if the mac and cheese is only passable; Linda's atmosphere and happy hour specials was my favorite - pub-style, with a stage just-in-case and a good brunch scene. ChaCha's crowd, activity, and layout reminded us of the Vid in Bloomington. Big Mexican tissue-paper flowers hung from the ceiling by the bar, and reddish lighting around the edges make the basement bar's dark corners ripe for imagination.

Over the four days I stayed there, I did a good bit of exploring by foot. I jogged to the Washington Park Arboretum, in Capitol Hill area. It's a really lovely oasis in a city of green; the roads to get there are mostly urban-suburban with beautiful old houses and friendly people. There were a lot of fellow joggers and dogwalkers, knolls and small churches. Walking around, I noticed a great number of bookstores and odd shops loitering behind corners and between apartment buildings. I stopped in Twice Sold Tales and the owner, an engaging and well-read woman, talked to me for twenty or so minutes about Dickens and birth control and British-Indian imperialism before I paid.

Seattle's technology industry was built on the fact that electricity there is cheap, being that it is mostly hydroelectric. Young, tech-savvy people move to the area with jobs for Microsoft; many members of the generation are transplants from other areas of the US - mostly the Midwest. The money they make and the cultural tastes they express are making Seattle legitimately cool.

The city's vibe is so much better than that of New York or Chicago. People are genuinely nice and will take the time to chat. Midwesterners I think make easy first friends. The city isn't expensive, competition isn't dire, there's space to move and breathe, and I like the camaraderie of those who live in Seattle. There's a pride associated with it, which I can see as being distasteful to some. I like it, though - it's a city to be shared.

I felt like I didn't spend enough time there; if I return I hope I can stay longer - perhaps even move there. I felt satisfied and comfortable while there - I'd love to be a part of the city.

Nate very kindly and patiently drove me to the train station the afternoon of the 18th, where I caught the 2:20 "Cascades" train to Portland.

Wisconsin Dells to Seattle: 47 Hours

Can you imagine it? Forty-seven straight hours sliding through the northern Midwest on slushy, snowy metal rails. I boarded the train at 6pm after a fine lunch and two glasses of wine at High Rock Café in the Dells. I highly, highly recommend it. My aunt and uncle saw me off while their sons practiced basketball in the gym across the parking lot.

A bit about the train's setup. There are two levels; the lower one holds staff, baggage, cargo, and a small "lounge." The upper is all passenger seating. The cars are about eight feet wide, each one holds about 100 people. One car, the "Sightseer Lounge," is all windows, and chairs face outward. I spent upwards of fifteen hours there, reading by daylight and chatting to other passengers at night. It's easy and fun to talk with whoever sits down next to you.

I finished By Night in Chile in short order and hope to read it again; I pushed through about 270 pages in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle during the train ride. I like the lack of time and schedule on the train - I can do what I want, when I want, and I rarely glanced at my watch. Time was replete and its passage was relaxed.

The social scene on the train is similarly relaxed. If you're in the Sightseer Lounge, you're game for chatting; if you're in your seat, probably not. Conversations start and end easily, and it is easy to be open and share secrets with strangers; it is also easy to share life experience and give or take advice and opinions without obligations or strings attached. The first night, a group of four huddled around a table in the public lounge, talking loudly and rudely; I found out later they were drinking Michigan moonshine and watered-down absinthe.

Through most of Minnesota, and all of Montana and North Dakota, I was without cell phone service. I sat in the Sightseer Lounge for most of the 13th, watching the scenery go by. The sunrise was generally unremarkable. Same for the sunset. The view hardly changed one iota. There were fields, after fields, after dead fields of what someone told me was hay. There were occasional, misplaced mounds of earth that looked like sand dunes - I think the farmers leveled the land some time back, and the mounds were just excess dirt.

A man in the car stood up and said loudly, "A prayer for Haiti - an earthquake just leveled the capital! . . . .Seattle's next, I bet!" Next to him is a fat man with huge glass gauges in his ears, wearing a dirty black t-shirt that reads "Harley Davidson - United Arab Emirates." I laughed.

This part of the country looks unhappy and unforgiving; the first people to live here tamed it over generations, and the effort was not remotely rewarding or joyful. The land is scraped and scratched by wind and ice. Small towns come along every ten miles or more. In a veritably treeless area, evergreens are allowed to grow on the edges of the town. From the train, I can see no roads into or out of the town; occasionally I can see dirty, slushy roads in between unhappy, weatherbeaten houses. Looking east, below the sun, the sky is an ashen blue.

I remember learning of how towns would compete bitterly for rail tracks to run near them. The majority of places the train stopped in seemed to claim a population numbering less than that of the train's passengers. I wonder what the towns were like a century ago - 1910.

A blind black man pulls out a guitar and begins to play in the lounge. I close my book and listen - he has a deep, gravelly voice that I found comforting. I fell asleep in the sun for an hour or so. I met the guitarist later - Storm, he called himself. He is blessed with five daughters and spends his life traveling to visit them and their children while freelancing as a singer. He told me he gave up money early on in order to find some happiness, and thought I would like Seattle very much.

I spent an hour and a half talking with Hazel. In her own words, she is "four and eleven-twelfths years old," and "has great phonetic spelling." Mawntyn. I complained of my poor cell reception, and she told me she knew a great place to buy a new phone. "Go to Seattle! They have a lot of cell phones there." I laughed. We talked about living underground and on houseboats, and about how kids have fun in the prairie towns (neither of us was very optimistic). Her parents checked on us a few times and played backgammon while we drew and imagined together. I think our conversation really lightened the mood in the car for a while - it warms hearts to see kids having a good time.

What Amtrak doesn't tell you is that in the winter, any sights worth seeing (Glacier National Park, Cascade Mountains, etc) are passed in the night. The dawn of the 14th, I was awake to see the Cascade Mountains almost pressing up on the train's windows. The train was absolutely silent, except for the irregular, beating thuds of the wheels on the track. Seeing the peaks covered in cloud and snow was eerily mysterious. I haven't been in Western mountains in years. I was so happy and excited to see the beautiful, drastic change in scenery! Thick evergreen boughs seemed wet and heavy, weighted down by dew or melting snow. The sunrise flourished briefly in the overcast sky, spreading pink clouds over the mountains. The towns here seem more alive.

We arrived in Downtown Seattle, King Station, at 10:00am on the 14th.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chicago to Wisconsin Dells

Segment One: Chicago to Wisconsin Dells. Four hours.

10 January 2010

We left at 2:35pm from Union Station, Chicago - fifteen minutes late. Amtrak trains are cozy; I could really spread out over two seats and stretch between rows. The train swayed, smooth and easy, as it rolled out of the Second City. I was reading By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño and remembering the country in between pages.

I’m looking forward to the many hours of travel time in between cities as much as I am the time in each city, truly.

There are a group of four Midwesterners on this train, two middle-aged couples. They make down-home jokes and have a strong accent. “Sure, you betcha!” they laugh. They are cracking open snacks - cheese, caramel corn, Wheat Thins and summer sausage - and discuss the merits and faults of each with an almost self-mocking air. The couples tease each other and one man waggles a fifth of brandy between his forefinger and thumb.

Wisconsin Dells

10-12 January 2010

First stop, my relatives’ beautiful, spacious home in the Wisconsin Dells, right above the Wisconsin River. I will be here from the night of the 10th to the evening of the 12th. The town holds about 2,500 people; the greater area’s population reaches 5,000. The Dells are the world’s largest water park; I remember finding it gaudy in summer and unseemly in winter. I was last here a couple years ago. The people who live here are friendly to a fault and very personable. It is easy to be a big fish in such a small pond, and difficult to be anonymous; not much escapes a small-town Midwesterner’s eyes and ears in the dead of winter. There just isn’t much to distract from the bleak, pristine snow; the old metal contraptions left to rust in backyards; the slush in parking lots and the white of down-home frozen potatoes with sour cream.

After a day going around with my aunt and uncle, I came to appreciate the Dells' intimacy. It sounds like working here for the summer would be entertaining - enjoying the freedom of being a temporary local with others.

When I slept on beaches, years ago, I heard the sea waves all through the night. After returning to Indiana, a few nights passed before I didn't physiologically "feel" them. Last night, I felt the rocking of the train while slipping into sleep on my relatives' futon.

Notes from the train (unedited).

“That woman looks like a roll of ones wrapped in a twenty.”

I am taken with one Latina who is looking anxiously out the window of the seat across the aisle. A tall Styrofoam cup of coffee sticks to her sweaty, fleshy palm. A 30-ish couple, overweight (though the woman could be pretty, with her thin painted lips and high cheekbones), sits in front of her window. The Latina plops into her seat, a little nervous and huffy.

People-watching will be some entertainment. I’m not generally annoyed by people like I gather most are – I don’t take it personally, who they are and how they act. Disappointment, exhaustion, fear, and stress; I’d like to have compassion for my sake and theirs. I’ve cried at the airport ticket counter and implored bus drivers to turn around.

I see a wolf passing through a field near a landfill just east of Chicago.

Hyde Park, Chicago: Statues like chess pieces – the knight and queen. Houses here are tall and thin, without porches or balconies. Turrets and towers create a modest motif in this part of town. Kids in this city sled off the mounds built for statues.

Home to Home

I am a 23-year-old woman who recently graduated from Indiana University, with a BS in Public Affairs (I always liked the implicit pun). A month or so before graduating, I was offered an AmeriCorps position in Durango, CO; the job starts this April. Until then, I’m essentially on a four-month vacation from work and school. I was mulling over ways to spend it, most of which centered around interesting ways to earn some extra cash around Bloomington (where I live), when it came to my attention that an acquaintance of mine needed a room for a month and a half after the New Year. Almost on impulse, I rented her my space and took the opportunity to plan a trip around the nation via rail.

I started contacting far-flung friends – people who lived on my dorm floor freshman year, family I’d never met before, co-workers who’d moved on, one who’d studied abroad with me, and even friends’ families in a couple cities. The feedback was wonderfully complete and enthusiastic. As I gathered information on who would be willing and able to host me for a couple nights here and there, I tracked the rail ties between cities and found I’d be able to travel completely by rail. Thanks to my hosts and my subletter, I’ll be visiting ten cities over the next thirty days (an average of three days per city) on all coasts and borders of the States.

Wisconsin Dells, WI

Seattle, WA

Portland, OR

Long Beach, CA

Tucson, AZ

New Orleans, LA

Birmingham, AL (?)

Charlottesville, VA

Washington, D.C.

Philadelphia, PA (?)

Chicago, IL

Pre-Trip: 9 January 2009

I left Bloomington, IN around 10:30 a.m., heading almost due north to my parents’ home in Bristol, IN. I stopped in Indianapolis to sell my bicycle and hopefully pick up my rail pass (which you have to do in person at an Amtrak station). I discovered that the Amtrak station in Indy is only open from 11:30pm to 6:00am. This, I think, will be the first lesson toward internalizing the fact that Amtrak is not as convenient or efficient as it markets itself. I resolved to arrive early to the station in Chicago the next day to pick up the ticket.

Day 1

I woke up at 6am in my old bed. Mom drove me to the South Bend airport, where I was to catch a commuter train to Chicago’s Millennium Station. The train ran late due to a broken wire; luckily, I had about a four-hour layover cushion in Chicago. I squirmed and settled in the plastic and vinyl chairs and watched the sun rise over the snowed-in rust belt of northwestern Indiana. I collected my rail pass and the first half of my segment tickets in Chicago without any difficulty. The woman behind the counter was so thin and disdainful her skin pigmentation lightened around her nose and cheekbones. She informed me nonchalantly that the Empire Builder (between Chicago and Seattle) had been down occasionally over the past couple of days due to conflicting uses of the tracks between Amtrak and Union Pacific Freight. It “…should…” be ok by Tuesday, when I plan to leave for the Pacific Northwest.