The Gateway to the West

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Sunrise somewhere in America from the train

Chicago to Denver on the Zephyr

Working my way across the midwest on the train in November. Very monochromatic and the towns in Ohio look very poor, though the view from the train shows the worst parts of these small towns. My first takeaway is the concept of the flyover states, those places that felt left out of the American dialog and elected the person we are dealing with now. Though I am a classic northeast liberal, this trip is helping me understand just a little of their frustration.

The farms I’m passing in Iowa are isolated islands in a sea of fallow corn fields. If these isolated Americans are getting their news from Fox and online junk, I can understand their belief in conspiracy theories like the deep state.They are being played by the political powers that be and their own belief in the American individual, except a version of it that has not existed for many years, if ever at all.

Indiana and Iowa look more prosperous from limited point of view. Not as hardscrabble as Ohio near Indiana. Gary, outside of Chicago, is as awful as I remember, a tangle of slag, rusted cranes, and railroad yards. 50 years ago I was traveling to Colorado from Toledo with my cousins and aunt and uncle and our tent trailer broke a leaf spring in Gary. It was a Sunday and finding a repair garage in those phoneless days was a royal pain for my uncle who was also riding rein on three adolescent boys. I’m sure it was hell to start a trip like that, but we had a fantastic time with my uncle Francis (who landed in Normandy on D-Day and passed away last month at 96, a true gem to the end. I salute the veteran and the human) and my Aunt Betty.

The train stopped briefly in Princeton, IN, which bears a striking similarity to its New Jersey namesake (no, it does not!). Pretty little brick train station with Christmas lights up and a manikin in an old conductor outfit near the door. It looks like some people are hanging out in there. Maybe they are swapping stories around a pot-bellied stove. Staring at phones more likely!

This stretch from Chicago to Denver is a long one, 14+ hours, and I’m going to try sleeping in my seat again, which didn’t work out well on my first leg from Rochester, NY to Chicago. A lot of that was my fault, having downed three martinis before boarding my train at 11:30pm. Not doing that this time. Last night I got a great night’s sleep in my monklike room in a condo in Chinatown, in a place taken care of by a Chinese couple who did not speak any English. Very nice, very clean place, and quiet. All I wanted. No TV. Slept for ten hours.

A primary reason for this trip was to break down all my daily routines, as I wrote about in my first piece about it (link at end of article). Those daily routines were pleasant, not a bad life at all, but getting too set in their pattern. To be honest, as I wandered around Chicago in an exhausted daze yesterday, I missed them. But that disappeared once I got some sleep and I began to go with a new flow.

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6:30am Mountain Time. Just outside of Denver. It is bitter cold and snowy outside. Won’t be much of a sunrise, just gray light getting brighter. We arrive in a half hour and my day in Denver will be prescribed by weather. And my trip the next few days, by schedules not my own. After last night I hoped to not sleep in a train seat again, but after a night in an airBnB tonight I’ll have to because of the fact that only one Zephyr passes through daily, which means if I stay, I have to stay 24 hours whether I want to or not. I’m eager to see the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, but especially to get to California after all this gray weather. The good news is that when we enter the Rockies tomorrow morning it will be sunny and mild, about 40 degrees warmer than now. This blast we are getting today is the direct result of a disruption in arctic weather patterns caused by climate change. The cold moves south and they get a bubble of warmth, then it sucks itself back up north, resulting in those big changes in temps. And the coast where I’m headed is momentarily fire calm. I wonder if calamity is the opposite of calm? Because this is a calamity and we won’t see much calm for the rest of foreseeable time. If I had children and grandchildren I’d be angry and very sad that they will never see a world at balance with itself. Even in Chicago people are starting to wear masks, likely against the flu, but outbreaks of disease are also a symptom of this calamitous era.

Lack of sleep is truly debilitating. I may have to medicate myself tomorrow night. I was ready to spring for a sleeper, but none are available, except for one at nearly $400/night. This includes the dining car for three meals but they are truly awful. As far as I can tell they pre-browned my steak last night then microwaved it along with some green beans and a baked potato, none of which were hot. My table companions had even worse luck and one refused to heat her cold salmon. No offer of a replacement was forthcoming. I know they could do better because it would be hard to do worse. I’ll be looking for viable food to bring onboard tomorrow morning but it won’t last me through two days. This is the biggest downside of Amtrak, now that they have gotten better about being on time.

On the positive side, this is a great window into the breadth of this country. And I haven’t even seen the good stuff. That starts tomorrow, with me hopefully well rested from my AirbnB room.

More about this trip:

Taking Trains Around the Country

Speeding Through Ice and Snow Towards Fire

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