Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Train Home to New York from Oregon

I flew to Eugene Oregon, what feels like months ago, on a last-minute flight, with a cold. My ears were incredibly unhappy with this, and never popped (even now, I can’t hear through my left ear). I visited an emergency room and was told I’d risk a perforated ear drum if I got on a plane, so I needed to make, as they say, "other plans" to get home.

I happened to already be driving a rental car with Idaho plates, so I asked Avis whether they wanted me to do them the favor of returning it to Idaho. "We don’t really care about plates; the cars all just sort of float around in a vast pool," I was told. So I asked about renting a car to be dropped off in NYC, and was told that a $400 extra charge would apply due to the one-directional rental. The agent made these paradoxical statements with no trace of irony or apology. In fact, it was conveyed with relish; "I’m-shamelessly-screwing-you-right-to-your-face" relish.

Car transport agencies contemptuously turned me down, as if I were a meth head looking for a car so I could yank out the wiring and sell the copper. Apparently only very carefully-selected, high-status individuals are allowed to perform this work.

So AMTRAK it was. I’d need to wait three days for an affordable berth, and it’d be a seat rather than a sleeper because while seats cost $240, sleepers run around $1000. But, hey, the seat reclines, so it’d be totally cool! 

Thus began my odyssey on The Empire Builder (Portland to Chicago; 45 hours) and The Lake Shore Limited (Chicago to NY Penn station; 20 hours), followed by a jaunt to JFK to pick up my car from an off-site lot whose courtesy van driver had great trouble accepting that I hadn't actually flown home from Oregon.

I won’t offer a diary, as there are plenty of them on the Internet (like this one). Just some random notes.
Note: photos below.

I’m a fan of the "long way round" dramatic trope, e.g. Ewan McGregor’s world-circling motorcycle trip and my favorite Doctor Who episode, Heaven Sent, where the flippantly time traveling Doctor gets trapped in a situation requiring him to traverse 4.5 billion years the hard way. This framed the trip and made it bearable.

The food is surprisingly good. Which is not to say it’s good. It’s not good, it’s bad. But it’s way better bad food than you’d expect. Honestly artless, rather than brutal.

There were tons and tons of Amish people on both trains. Did you know Amish people can actually take cars, they just can’t drive them? Since they’re not driving the train, this is apparently cool. They’re all speaking the otherwise extinct form of German they’ve time-capsuled, especially when they don’t want the “fancy” people (is that the term? I knew this sort of stuff as a kid) to understand. Sort of like my parents talking Yiddish around the kids, which was, come to think of it, another time-capsule version of earlier German.

Montana is a country. It’s like Texas but without stuff.

The top of the Mississippi River (we crossed it along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border) is nearly as delta-ish as the bottom.

The Lake Shore Limited went from Chicago to NYC via Buffalo/Rochester/Albany rather than through Pennsylvania, an eight hour detour. It did not phase me. On a 65 hour trip, 8 hours is rounding error.

We were also forced to wait for an hour at a dead stop tantalizingly close to Chicago. This was barely enough time for me to sneeze, find my water, and check the weather report. I live in half-days. Minutes shoot by so fast I hardly parse them.

You know things are really messed up when you approach Buffalo - not in a plane - and think "hey, I’m getting close!" I hope I haven't permanently stretched my perception of time.

A highly-experienced AMTRAK passenger from Wisconsin with stage-4 cancer and a hacking cough (he had to tell me about the cancer to relieve my anxiety about the hacking cough) told me that Amish women inevitably wreck the bathrooms. He explained this in slightly greater detail than I’m willing to go into here, but still not enough to make any sense whatsoever. Yet I suspect this bit of random bullshit will forever lodge in my mind: Amish women will take out your bathroom, dude. It’s something to watch out for and to worry about. Add it to the pile.

There was plenty of time to reconstruct some of my previous traveling amnesia, realizing quite clearly that sleep deprivation deeply colors any traveling experience. That’s why traveling always seems slightly blurry in retrospect. In this case, it’s a blessing. Shortened/degraded sleep induces a fugue state fueling the zombification which helps you withstand a 65 hour voyage. Do not attempt this while alert!

One day I found myself in three time zones. How is this “gentler” than jet lag crammed into three hours? It’s still just one day. I don’t understand how it would have lower impact.

Interesting people don’t chatter at strangers.

While nearly everyone talks to strangers in some way at some time, only a few make a habit of it, and those people have a Rap. They're performing this rap for you (which means they're performing it for themselves, with you watching), and it's a narrative they've ceaselessly repeated to themselves, and though it's of absolutely no interest to anyone else, they feel an exhibitionist compulsion to say it out loud to an audience in order to carve out a sense of self-significance, of "having their story heard."

This is not a healthy thing. I think many people sense this, and it's why most people shut down most idle conversation from strangers. It's not unfriendliness, per se. It's just that most idle conversation from strangers is not going to be friendly, it's going to be needy.

I did, however, have a real conversation with someone next to whom I was crammed into a dinner table. We spoke mostly as a survival tactic.

An Idaho native, he’d been an airline pilot, but was let go for lacking the necessary veneer of certainty. As a completely unaffected person, he’d been reported by a fellow officer for curiously asking questions about stuff rather than feigning omniscience.

Like a surprisingly large chunk of the country, he’s resorted, out of desperation, to menial labor in the North Dakota oil fields, where he repeated his mistake of asking questions and confessing ignorance. One of his coworkers scolded him, saying it's important that he pretend to know everything.

I tried to explain about people-who-seem versus people-who-are, but, bright though he is, it was too alien a concept for him. One of the last genuine people is being ground down into dust, and can't understand why. You could see that he was once handsome and hardy, but his shoulders were stooped and brow furrowed as he approached his latest two week unbroken shift of 15 hour days. He has bills to pay, so he, an intelligent man, must feign omniscience among know-nothings to hold on to his $20/hour job.

The photos are so, so much better if you click to expand:

A rural hunter with his wife in knickers (left) chat amiably with an Amish elder (second from right) and a Latino conductor (right) as we wait for more train ("more train"!) to be added on in Spokane. America's still America if you get off Twitter for a minute.

Unhealthy thoughts. The train paused in the middle of  western Montana for some reason and I swear to god the trees were inching toward us.

Whitefish Montana is by far the most tumultuous stop on the whole trip. I can't for the life of me figure out why so many people are trying to get into and out of Whitefish. Guess I missed the memo.

Snow-capped mountain (in July) in the distance. I'm at 3400 feet in Glacier National Park, and, thanks to the miracle of geo tagging, I've determined that this is 7,877 foot Mount Penrose.

The train needs to stop every couple hours to give smokers their moment. A significant percentage of riders seem to be smokers avoiding multi-hour trips without a fix. I walked the length of the train each time, averaging over 2 miles walking per day.

The juxtaposition of momentous travel with utterly banal detail is a big part of the delight. Welcome to our brief stop for leg-stretching and lung cancer in Havre, MT, home of Hammer'n Hank Tweeten's Auto Body. I hope Hank's doing okay.

Crossing the top of the Mississippi River.

Six hour layover in Chicago. No-brainer!


Display Name said...

those trees do look ominous Jim. I remember when I used to scuba dive I had to take allergy meds the night before as being stuffed while scuba diving is bad. The meds made me a little wonky while diving and this made the experience even more surreal.

Anonymous said...

I can spot a Malnatti's pie from Kenosha!

James Leff said...

Damn straight. Malnati’s or shaddup.

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