Training for Adventure

Jan. 21–23, 2017:

The Train.

Whew!!! Made it. It boggles the mind to consider just how many variables can go into a cross-country train journey — St. Louis to Los Angeles in January. The weather did its usual job of delaying The Southwest Chief, but only by half-an-hour — which is brilliant considering the distance the train covers from Chicago to LA. The “Lincoln” from Alton was waiting at the station when Chrissy dropped me off. An unexpectedly frantic dash to the train got me on and underway two minutes early. It’s a good thing my wife can whip the horses when we need to get somewhere. Amtrak leaving early: not its usual pattern, but I got on the train. Because I needed to. It was right, somehow, that I get on that train to Chicago and be on that schedule. The magic continues.

No great revelations on the Illinois segment of the journey. Sleep deprivation acted as a powerful narcotic and I caught up on napping for five hours until we reached Union Station, Chicago. I didn’t get the memo, so I was caught completely unawares by the protest against President Trump. For my three-hour layover in Chicago, I was treated to protest marchers, interesting signs and a sea of pink pussy-cat hats covering the river from Adams to Jackson. I really never left the station because the streets were crammed with people. Traffic was completely stopped, and the police were redirecting everything away from downtown. Apparently 250,000 protesters — mostly women — showed up to voice their objections to…well…everything Trump. The pictures I took were useless; there is no way to grasp the scale of the march. It stopped being a march, even. There were so many people, and by noon they had congregated into every place downtown, that the phenomenon became a stand-in. People stood in place and waved their signs and took selfies. They also waved at the helicopters that were circling overhead getting footage of the event.

I bet that the Chicago crowd exceeded the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the day before. I’m also betting that this Administration will not go the distance — though it will probably beat the duration of W.H.Harrison. Old Tippecanoe died of pneumonia, thirty days into his presidency, allegedly because he didn’t bundle up for the swearing-in and caught a nasty cold.

With all motion effectively stopped, the protest ran its course, and many of the participants headed to Union Station to get a train back home. People of all ages swarmed through the station. I was enjoying my last Chicago hot dog and Italian beef for the foreseeable future as I watched protesters ages 10–80 pass by. The best signs: “Keep your tiny hands off of my pussy!” “Trump’s Final Days in Office” (He had just taken the Oath of Office the day before.) “Not my President!” “Oh God, Now we’ve got the D.T.s!” “Impeach Trump!”

It finally came time for me to board The Southwest Chief, but I was amazed and pleased by making the scene — even if it was unintentional. I was there, man. I made the scene. I high-fived any protester that had an interesting sign. I wonder if I can get a card for being an Accidental Progressive….

The Chief lived up to all expectations. I had ridden it as recently as last summer (2016) and gone from Chicago to Flagstaff — just in time for the Fourth of July. But this time, I was going to ride it the full length from East to West. At the risk of being a TrainNerd, one of my goals is to ride each named Amtrak route for its entire length in both directions. So far, I have racked up a surprising number of trips. But I’m in no hurry. If Chrissy ever boots me out of the house, I plan to live on the trains with a small suitcase and a series of RailPasses. Don’t think I’m kidding.

Normally, on a long train trip, I buy a Coach seat and spend the nighttime hours in the Café Car talking to random citizens or writing. It worked beautifully last summer when I used up a three-week RailPass and covered a surprising amount of the USA while writing bad poetry, dropping in on family, the Gay Pride Parade in NYC, and the annual “AnthroCon” gathering, which was held that year in Pittsburgh — the same night as the Billy Joel Concert — which George Dalzell was able to attend, but sadly I could not. I consoled myself by photographing and interviewing AnthroCon attendees for four hours at the Hyatt while I waited for my train to Chicago. I discovered that the attendees who were willing to take their heads off and talk to me were a pretty straightforward bunch. This year, they raised a lot of money for the Pittsburgh Zoo. Last year it was the SPCA, I believe. It actually looked like a bit of fun at the dance in the Grand Ballroom, but sadly, I had left my BigDog costume AND my FuzzyGrizzly costume back in Elsah, so I didn’t meet the dress code for admittance. Next time. Maybe. First I’ll need one of those cool costumes.

The Chief did not provide the same level of entertainment on this current trip because it was Winter, and the light disappears more quickly from the landscape in January. But the scenery was spectacular and the weather was beautiful until we hit Flagstaff, AZ around 22:30 on the second night. All the way out, we had great scenery (Kansas was completely dark the first night; I’m inclined to see that as a blessing, but could be convinced otherwise), and I met a number of interesting folks to talk to: Sean, the ex-Green Beret who did six years in Vietnam (awesome stories), Gene and Sandy, a retired couple who travel pretty much full-time in their retirement. Their home is in Moline, IL so really….who can blame them? And Mike, a disabled heavy-machinery operator who was heading out to San Jose for a wedding/reunion. Mike and I talked a lot about guns and fishing. I broached the subject of fishing with guns, but Mike is a purist so we kept it sensible. Sean I could have talked to for days, but he got off the train at Albuquerque and I thanked him for his service and the private workshop on Special Forces operations.

My seat partner was a very interesting woman from Madison, WI. She’s an Anthropologist/Archaeologist, just like my colleague at work, Dr. Andrew Martin. She wanted to hear about Shakespeare more than she wanted to talk about Archaeology, so we discussed Shakespeare in Performance, what it’s like to be a professional actor, and, of course, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I felt that I did a good job of setting her on the correct path about the Authorship Question; you never know when some nutball at U. of W. will try to argue for one of the contenders to the Throne of Shakespeare…..

This is one of the major reasons why I prefer to travel by train. I like to see who is out there. I also like to see what is out there. One has a very different experience of the USA when one rides the rails. I suppose one reason why I like trains so much is that I’ve kind of grown up around them. I had a Lionel Train Set (O-gauge) as a kid — which I later discovered belonged to A. Jon Frere. I recently asked him if he wanted it back, but he said I could keep it. I felt a little sheepish about it because I always thought I was mine. We don’t set it up at Christmas like we used to, but every once in a while I’ll add a car to the collection. Also, I used to hear the train at night in my bedroom when the wind was from the west.

But I suppose the contributing cause to my love of trains is my mother’s fear of flying. My Dad’s work had us travelling around for portions of the year when my sister Val and I were young. On long-distance trips, you could not get my Mom near a plane, so we took the train. We kids loved it. We have many happy memories, and a few pictures, of getting on the train at Penn Station around tea-time with a huge bag of McDonalds (a rare treat and a transparent bribe to make the trip even more fun), and waving good-bye to Dad from the window of our sleeper compartment as we headed to Florida. Dad always ran along the platform as long as he could, waving and smiling. Part of the smile was probably knowing that he’d have at least a few days of peace and quiet as he drove the luggage-laden car down to meet us a couple of days later.

We made that trip a number of times before our school schedules became too complicated, and I was old enough to accompany Dad in the car for the Cat-and-Luggage run.

I spent a lot of the first night’s time on The Chief this trip in the Café Car because, in general, the train was too hot and I couldn’t sleep. Maura got off at Flagstaff, and I grabbed her window seat the second night, so I had at least a little bit of comfort with my face pressed up against the cold glass like a dead fish. When Dr. Maura and I said our goodbyes at Flagstaff, the Conductor announced it would be a short smoking stop, so I got off to see Flagstaff covered in a foot of snow. It was beautiful, and still snowing. I had recently seen it in the summer heat, and it was impressive then. Now it was Winter Wunderlund with the snow plows keeping Route 66 clear and blankets of snow on all the roofs. I can’t decide which setting I like better: Flagstaff in Summer, or storybook Winter.

I always get off the train at the smoke breaks and get some fresh air. One of the funny things I’ve noticed on The Chief is that there are a few stops in Colorado, and the Conductor continually reminds the passengers that even though marijuana is legal in Colorado, smoking it is prohibited on Amtrak trains and in Amtrak stations. Technically, you see, the tracks and stations are Federal Property, and smoking grass on federal property is a no-no. But that never stops weed-enthusiasts who ride the trains for one reason or another. Every time we returned to our cars for the “All Aboard!!” the passageways all smelled like a group of skunks boarded the train with us. That’s fine with me; in general, der WeedenVolk are far more preferable than Boozers on a long train journey.

The heavy snows in Arizona and the rains in California contributed to the 30-minute delay we encountered getting into Union Station in Los Angeles on Monday morning. Good job, Amtrak! I sat glued to the window watching it absolutely pour down buckets of rain on what is usually brown burn-out. Now it was lush and green and the rivers actually flowed with water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen LA like that in my many visits there. Dahhling, it was mahhvelous.