It was the first day of fall and things were already falling apart. The first Uber driver I called totally ghosted me. That had never happened before. He was within a half mile of my pickup location when the driver rating and tip page suddenly flashed on my phone, as if his mission had been accomplished simply by driving past me. There was still time to call another driver, but if anxiety had already been gnawing at my stomach all morning, it was now devouring it. A trip of the magnitude of the one I was embarking on should’ve been thought out and researched for months. Instead, I was winging it, knowing full well that the price of failure could be disastrous. If you’re going to strand yourself anywhere with a shortage of cash, don’t let it be America.
My vague idea if nothing worked out was to take the Pacific Surfliner down to San Diego, and from there catch the Blue Line to San Ysidro, where I could cross the border into Tijuana, but I’d just come from Mexico and knew there was little escape to be found down there at the moment. What I wanted was to ride trains around the country. It was September. Everyone had wrapped up their vacations. The kids were back in school. The weather would still be decent everywhere, not too cold yet. The trees in the north would still have their leaves, only now beginning to change to yellow, red, and orange. I knew it could be done. I’d traveled on a USA Rail Pass three times in the past and had always gotten my money’s worth. The problem this time is that I hadn’t checked into anything, hadn’t made any inquiries or reservations, and was hoping I could just show up in Santa Ana and be on a train to Chicago within a few hours. Turns out it was going to be a little more complicated than that.
The second driver I contacted showed up in an electric car and quietly whisked me off to Santa Ana without any drama. He told me to reach out to Uber and let them know what had happened. They would take care of the nine-dollar charge that had just appeared on my account for a ride to Lake Park, a distance of about five blocks from where I was supposed to have been picked up. He may have been right, but as he pulled up in front of the Regional Transportation Center and I got out with my bags, which suddenly seemed ten times heavier than when I’d packed them that morning, I was sick with dread.
There was no one at the Amtrak window, but it was immediately evident that things were going haywire there as well. A message kept repeating over and over that the twelve o’clock train I’d been planning to take to Union Station in Los Angeles was running an hour late. They were blaming the delay on vandalism. Someone was out there getting back at the man by messing with the signals. Metrolink was being similarly impacted. There weren’t many passengers waiting, but the unfortunate ones who were there were sunken deep into the benches in dismay.
At one point I spotted some movement in the office, as if someone were hiding in the back room and only peeking to check if it was safe to come out. He had no choice but to come out now, but took his time doing so, with a pained expression on his face, as if I was an intruder tromping mud across the floor, as opposed to a customer looking to do business with the beleaguered railway line he was supposed to be working for.
Would I be able to catch the Southwest Chief to Chicago that evening? No, in fact, it was sold out. How about the Sunset Limited to New Orleans? That only ran three days a week. The Coast Starlight? Not until Saturday. What about a USA Rail Pass? Could I get one of those? It would probably be better to know where I was going first. What about Los Angeles? Could I head up there and figure things out at Union Station? That was possible, but the train was running late. Now an hour and a half late. Fine. I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles for seventeen dollars. That wasn’t going on the Rail Pass. The Rail Pass is good for ten sections. If it isn’t reserved for long-hauls, for example, from Los Angeles to Chicago, or New York City to Miami, it isn’t worth it.
Now I had a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, easily one of the most intimidating and expensive places in the country, with no idea what I’d do when I got there, especially since there seemed to be no availability on any of the outbound trains that day. The anxiety that had been eating up my stomach now extended into my skull and made it tingle in terror. I couldn’t sit still, so went out to pace beside the tracks. There was a high bridge to cross in order to get over to the tracks that run north, so I dragged my bags up the stairs and stood there staring down into the empty haze of the day.
There were a few passengers huddled beneath a shelter that I went over to join, setting my things on one side of it, and sitting down cross-legged in a narrow strip of shade. My idea had been that maybe I could calm myself a little by meditating, or at least counting my breaths, but within a minute I was joined by another man with a little plastic suitcase and lunch-pail, who sat down cross-legged beside me and began to read a book about relativity, while simultaneously speaking into a recorder, as if he were preparing for a debate on the merits of critical-thinking. At first, I thought he was questioning me.
Do you just believe what they want you to believe?
I looked over and saw him staring down into his recorder in victory, as if he’d just delivered a death blow to an unseen rival, which, fortunately, wasn’t me. At least not yet. Just then, a bell began to clang and I was delivered. The Pacific Surfliner was arriving from Irvine, way behind schedule. In only a few weeks, it wouldn’t be running at all, due to the unstable, shifting ground between Los Angeles and San Diego. Perhaps, I was just getting out by the skin of my teeth.
There were a lot of seats open on the train. I put my suitcase and backpack next to the luggage rack and took one that was facing backwards. Soon we were passing Angel Stadium in Anaheim and then making a brief stop at the Fullerton station. Things got industrial as we got closer to Los Angeles. Concrete riverbeds with streams of polluted green wastewater. Warehouses. Enormous freight yards and lots full of shipping containers. Graffiti splashed across the walls that faced the tracks like long, violent animated clips. Perched beneath some of the underpasses were homeless encampments, a mixture of tents and trash, the worst mutation of the camping experience the world has ever seen. We entered into a long tunnel before emerging at Union Station. I got out with my bags, as if my destination were death row, instead of a transportation hub, and made my way to the ticket office. If there wasn’t a train leaving the next day, my plan was to jump back on the Pacific Surfliner and head to Mexico. If there was a train the next day, I still had no idea what I’d do that night.
At the ticket window, I took a moment to gather all the diplomacy I could muster, before asking about the Southwest Chief, hoping to get a different answer than the one I’d gotten in Santa Ana. Actually, there was one seat left on the train I was told. Really? That was fantastic. When I asked about the Rail Pass, however, I was told it didn’t apply to the seat they had available. OK. What about the next day? Yes. There were some seats open the next day. I bought the pass and made the reservation. The train wasn’t leaving until six the following evening. Seeing that it was only two-thirty in the afternoon, that gave me a long time to kill.
Having lived in downtown Los Angeles for a few years, I knew what my options were, and they weren’t good. I knew all the crack hotels on Skid Row from back in the day, and even those aren’t cheap. One in particular, the Cecil, had recently been featured in a Netflix documentary when a tourist went missing and turned up floating in the water tank on the roof. I figured I’d go check it out, and just pay what I had to pay.
It had gotten to the point, where winding up in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil wasn’t the worst thing I could imagine. To be getting old in America, with no job or plan for the future, was way more frightening than that. Riding trains around the county wouldn’t solve anything, but it was all I could think to do. It felt like I was running for my life.