I’m going to be on and off trains all through the month of November
And I’ll be writing about it. Right now my dining table has train schedules spread out all over it as I try and figure out routes, where to get off and when to get back on, airBnB, coordinating with friends in other cities, and more. Honestly, it’s more than a bit daunting. But I’ve rearranged my work life so I can travel while working and trains are ideal places to write, even if the longer cross country routes don’t have Internet (California Zephyr for one). There are major cities to stop at whenever I want, so I’ll pick up online time with my phone or in cafes.
Amtrak is a lame duck but it’s our lame duck
Our national passenger service has been crippled for years by congress and their fossil fuel overlords. This in spite of it being by far the most efficient way to move people around the country. So, the food is terrible, dining cars are being removed because snowflakes don’t like sitting with strangers (the best part of the ride!), and being on time is at the mercy of freight lines, despite this being illegal (they don’t enforce the law).
Despite all this, train travel is so hassle-free compared to flying that it’s ridiculous. No removing shoes and waiting in endless TSA lines. You walk into the station and onto the train, your ticket ensconced on your phone or device. It’s not hard to get a seat row to yourself and the seats are better than most first class airline seats. And the window is not a scuffed up porthole, it is huge. You can walk around or go to the cafe car for a coffee or a cocktail anytime you feel like it.
But the best part is the ability to see our country, up close and personal. For example, there is a backyard in Schenectady, NY, that has twenty lawn mowers lined up in a neat grid next to the tracks, presumably for my entertainment as I glide by above the tableau. In his song The Passenger, Iggy Pop wrote about the City’s ‘ripped backsides’ and you see them up close, but only as an endless series of fleeting images.
Mountains, baby, and rivers, and ocean beaches, and deserts, and…
A lot of the cross country train routes predate the highway system and go through remote areas away from civilization (hence the lack of Internet). These are places that are not easy to get to. The long cross country routes are timed so you’re traveling at night through the boring parts (no offense Nebraska, but corn, corn, corn= snooze, snooze, snooze), and during the scenic parts you’re in daylight. Very thoughtful of them.
I’m not doing sleeper cars (very expensive and can be hard to get, though they do include meals in dining cars, where they still exist). With the RailPass option, I can get off in various cities, spend a day or two, and get back on. Each time you get back on a train, it’s called a ‘leg’. The 30 day pass gives you 12 legs and the 15 day pass, eight. That’s plenty of opportunities to stop and hang out. Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, SF, Santa Barbara, LA, Palm Springs- all are options and a lot of smaller stops along the way.
I’m not in a hurry
At all. But I’m not buying ‘the air travel is faster’ thing. From my hometown (Rochester, NY), the flight to LA is at least eight hours in the air. Plus two hours early at the airport by the time you get there, plus layovers, plus weather delays and the uncertainty they bring. And eight hours packed in a cigar tube filled with too many humans in seats that don’t work for obese Americans. I happen to be slender (euphemism for skinny), but I feel for people shoehorning themselves into those torture devices. I had a point in my life when I was flying to LA and back once a month for a year. The glamor of flying fades real fast.
Lugging the luggage
This is a conundrum. I need to bring two bags. One, my main bag with clothes, etc., the second a light bag for days. Laptop, umbrella, water bottle, rain gear, snacks, etc. I have a travel backpack but I can’t wear two packs at once. I also have a roly bag that I use when I go to NYC to solve that problem (pull the main bag, wear the small one). Rolling works ok in cities but isn’t great elsewhere. Still mulling that over. Trying to resolve that little dilemma without buying another bag (I already have too many).
Amtrak isn’t very restrictive about luggage. I’ve seen students carrying an entire semester’s worth of dirty clothes home for mom to wash, which seems like an awful lot of work to avoid using a dorm washing machine. Snowflakes. Some trains even let you bring a bicycle! But I’m only taking what I can reasonably carry for a mile or two. Another reason to have the small bag is to carry valuables with you when you leave your seat to sit in the cafe car or observation car. Your seat is your seat for the duration of your leg, so you stash the bigger stuff in the large overhead (you could sleep up there!).
There’s a simple travel rule about packing: only bring the minimum, remembering that you can buy stuff where you’re going if you need something. On a budget? Thrift stores are everywhere. I’m traveling through at least three seasons, including mountain winter and LA beach/desert, so I’ll start with a parka on my body (it will be cold here when I leave).
Sleeping in train seats
This will be a challenge for me. I’ve never been great at it but there are a few legs where I’d like to sleep on the train. I bought a hi-tech neck pillow and sleep mask so I’m going to try on my first leg between Rochester and Chicago. I get on the train around 11pm and it arrives in Chicago in the early morning. I’m viewing that first night as an experiment. I’ll be in an airBnB the next night so I’ll get a good sleep and a shower then. I have heard stories about some budget tourists who go straight through on the train for the three day trip to SF and get pretty rank. I don’t want to be one of them.
One of the original reasons for this trip was to see friends in different cities, couch crash a night or two and catch up. Unfortunately right now I’ve only got two opportunities, one in SF and one in Palm Springs, the others being in places that don’t fit my itinerary for this one. Can’t do Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc. on this loop. But if I enjoy this trip there will be others to different parts of the country. It’s a big place!
The practical and the reality
So far I’ve written about the practical aspects of a long train trip like this. Sleeping, eating, schedules, etc. But what is the reality behind it? Why do I want to do this? There is a simple yet complex answer. It is about change, a theme anyone reading my stuff here has seen is becoming an obsession with me, in part because my life has become too comfortable, too driven by habits, good and bad. I need a change of scene.
In the psychedelic research community there is an emphasis on set and setting. Set is the mindset the participant and their guide adopt when tripping. Setting is the physical surroundings. Both determine to a great degree what the experience will be. Experiments done before these factors were under consideration, often took place in clinical settings. These often resulted in bad or frightening experiences. So changing my set and setting is one factor in the changes I seek.
The other factor is awe.
Michael Pollan, in his book on psychedelic research*, sees awe as critical to making personal change, because awesome experiences push us out of fixed patterns. They literally rewire neural pathways in the brain that have become fixed over time. Travel can put us into awesome places, and the cross country train will take me through some amazing environments, while helping me experience them more viscerally than if I’d flown to them. I’ll enter these places in the altered state that travel across great distances creates.
I am particularly interested in the sense of crossing this entire country on the ground. I have driven a lot of it but not in one long stretch from coast to coast. I no longer enjoy car travel, finding it can be boring and physically restricting, so driving is not an option. I’d rather be driven, and as I pointed out earlier, trains go places cars cannot.
The lost vision quest
In many societies there was a rite of passage often referred to as a vision quest. You went out into the unknown world to seek a vision that would define who you are and what you might become. Today, the concept of an unknown world is hard to grasp with our instantaneous access to all the world’s knowledge and foolishness. But information is not experience. The unknown is inside of us and can only be understood through experience. I can imagine the reality of a journey and how I might react to unexpected situations but that is only a mental exercise. It does not define who I am or what I might become. I don’t need to beat a metaphor here, but every time I get on a train I feel primed for something new to happen. It may not be something visionary but it is always something transformative, in big, and sometimes little ways, ways I’m not always aware of when I experience them. Those are the goal for this one.
Note: I woke up this morning to some interesting weather reports for this trip. My thoughts on traveling through bad weather.
*How To Change Your Mind, Penguin Press, 2018