After passing through Glacier National Park in total darkness, the train I was riding on, The Empire Builder, pulled into Whitefish, Montana a little after ten. We had fifteen minutes to stretch our legs and grab a smoke, if so inclined. Beside the platform there was a statue of a mountain goat, and inside the station there was a stuffed bighorn sheep in a glass case. An old upright piano sat in one corner.
Reboarding the train, I was grateful to still have two seats to myself. The long, tall dude next to me was finally off the phone and out cold. I lifted both leg-rests and leaned over on my side, drawing my knees up under my chin. Right away I started to doze off, but then the train began to shake from side to side so violently that I sat up, certain I was back in California in the middle of an earthquake.
At some point I must’ve slept, because when I woke up it was light out. The long, tall dude was back on the phone and I decided to head straight to the café to get a coffee. The observation car, which had housed the café, was no longer there. Now I remembered. At Spokane the train had been split in two. The observation car was on its way to Portland, while those of us going to Seattle had to order from the first two tables in the dining car. I got a coffee and blueberry muffin and sat looking out the window. It seemed like we were traveling through a haze.
Although I’d been looking forward to this section of the ride, traveling through the mountains and green forests of the Pacific Northwest, the view continued to seem hazy, and I heard someone attribute this to a string of wildfires that were burning in the area. The pine trees were still there. The mountains were still there. A river still ran beside the tracks. They were all just swathed in smoke. We passed the little communities I’d once imagined settling in, when I was a young guy traveling around with my guitar. They too were swathed in smoke, but seemed to be doing fine without me.
We crossed over the Columbia River and then stopped at Wenatchee, where a new engineer took over. It was our last chance to get off the train before we reached Seattle. After Leavenworth it was two hours before our next stop in Everett. From there, we traveled along the shore of the Puget Sound for another hour and a half, until suddenly, almost without notice, we arrived at the King Street Station, and it was time to get off the train. I let everyone else get off before me, since it was still too early to check into my hostel, and I didn’t even know how to get there yet.
Entering the King Street Station, and passing through the Compass Room, beneath a glass chandelier, I had the sensation, once again, that I’d been transported back to a more glamorous past. The great clock tower outside the station only added to the effect. But then I began to trudge up 2nd Avenue with my bags and the illusion quickly fell away. One of the first things I saw was the long, tall dude from the train coming out of a liquor store, looking over his shoulder, left and right, then cutting across the street and heading uphill. A homeless guy sat outside the store; his head collapsed onto his lap. Another one passed with vacant eyes and his backpack flapping open on his back.
The last time I’d been in the Northwest, which was 2019, I’d been taken aback by the aggressive strain of homelessness plaguing Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, due largely to meth and the legal opioids that have flooded the streets. Long gone are the days of the harmless old wino, with his hobo stick and harmonica, eating baked beans out of a can before hopping a freight train. The new breed of homeless drug addict is more akin to a zombie from the Walking Dead, a person who’s been robbed of their soul, who will go so to any length to get at what they crave. When I got to Pike Street there was a large crowd of them, smoking fentanyl off aluminum foil, not trying to hide it at all.
The Green Tortoise Hostel was fine, however, in a perfect location, on the corner of 1st and Pike, right across from the Pike Street Market. As I already knew, it was too early to check in, but they let me store my bags and I went and sat down in the common room and called my friend, Diaz, letting him know I was in town. Diaz and I had taught together at two different projects in Saudi Arabia, an oil company and a military base. He’d been out of the country as long as I had, but had recently returned and was looking to stay in the area. We made a plan to hook up later that afternoon.
To kill time, I headed across the street and walked through the market. The last time I’d been in Seattle a bartender had mistaken me for a homeless man and started to shout at me. I don’t know if that said more about the bartender, more about me, or more about the magnitude of the homeless crisis that they have on their hands, but I’d left there deeply rattled, not really caring if I ever came back to Seattle or not. Yet, here I was walking around the Pike Street Market, only two days earlier thinking I’d be in Miami. If you think God works in mysterious ways, you haven’t seen the way I operate.
A few hours later I was standing outside of the Green Tortoise Hostel, waiting for Diaz, who I hadn’t seen in a few years, when a guy who could’ve been Diaz if he’d been smoking crack that entire time, appeared on the opposite side of the street and seemed to be trying to get my attention. No. It wasn’t possible. My mind was playing tricks on me. A minute later, here came Diaz, looking very much like his normal self, still supporting the Dodgers, judging by the jacket he was wearing. We walked over to an Irish Pub and talked about the difficulties of trying to adjust to life in the States again. He was doing better than I was, having already lined up a part-time job with a local school district. Before he left, I gave him a bobblehead of Big Red, or Dustin May, that I’d gotten at the Dodger’s game. I’d never heard of him. Diaz said that was because he’d spent most of his career on injured reserve, but his mom still liked him. He’d give it to her.
Back at the hostel, my room was ready and I was pleased to see that once again I’d gotten a lower bunk, but this time the bed was more of its own little room, with electric outlets, a light, a fan, and a curtain that could be drawn, as opposed to your standard bunk with the metal ladder and squeaky springs. I could’ve climbed inside it and slept for two days, but it was still so early I decided to take another walk instead.
It was only a mile to the Space Needle, but I was dragging so badly it seemed to take a few hours to get there. On the way back, I passed the same bar where the bartender had shouted at me two years earlier. By now that was ancient history. I limped back to Pike Street, passing the same crowd of junkies I’d seen earlier that day, outside of Target on the corner of 2nd Avenue. When I got to the hostel, they were giving away free beer and the common area was packed with revelers. They were young and had everything to celebrate. I went up to the room alone, to enjoy the privacy while it still lasted.