Hurricane Ian was bearing down on the west coast of Florida and was supposed to hit on the very day I was going to be traveling through on a train. Although Miami was expected to be spared from the storm, the tracks pass through Tampa Bay, where sandbagging was already underway. A number of evacuation orders had also been issued. Although no one from Amtrak had contacted me yet, I knew the Silver Star line was going to be cancelled and had to come up with an alternative plan fast.
My first thought had been New Orleans, but when I contacted a representative, she informed me that the City of New Orleans was fully booked that night. What about the Empire Builder to Seattle? Yes. There were some openings. That train left at three. That would mean I was heading straight back to the West Coast, but that was all right with me. At least I’d have a place to stay for the next few days. While I was at it, I went ahead and booked the Coast Starlight down to the Bay Area, the day after I arrived in Seattle, and then the California Zephyr, back to Chicago, the day after that. What I discovered was that a lot of the trains were filling up fast. If I wasn’t fast on my feet, I risked getting stranded.
By now, for the first time, I was getting a vision for this trip, which had originally been me just running for my life. I’d had no intention of spending time in any of the major cities, but now that I’d been in both downtown Los Angeles and Chicago in just a few days, and was on my way towards Seattle and San Francisco, I began to see how I could get an intimate view of some of the other big cities by just showing up on the train like I was doing, and spending one night in a hostel. If I could also hit up New Orleans, New York City, Washington, DC, and eventually Miami, that would be a lot for a little. Could it be done? I didn’t see why not. Would it be comfortable or fun? Did it matter?
About fifteen minutes before checkout, I decided to jump in the shower, then hurried to get dressed, pack, and drag my bags down to the front desk on time. I knew that the hostel was in no way responsible for all the snoring that had gone on the night before, but was grieved when they asked me to pay to store my bags for a few hours, and almost brought it up. There wasn’t much I planned on doing, now that my train left at three, rather than six. I figured I’d just walk down to Lake Michigan and back.
Because of the construction they were doing, I went down to Van Buren Street and headed east, crossing the Chicago River, and then continuing all the way to Grant Park. Once there I walked towards the two large Indians on horseback that act as sentries to the park, and made my way to Buckingham Fountain. It was a warm, sunny day, but I wasn’t there for leisure.
I walked as far north as the aquarium, then turned around and followed the trail that ran along the shoreline of the lake back to Jackson Drive. My feet were badly hurting, but that came as no surprise. Something was always hurting these days. If it wasn’t my feet, it was my back. If it wasn’t my back, then recently it had been my tailbone. In fact, just before leaving on my trip I’d gone to have my tailbone X-rayed. The discomfort it was causing me I could live with, but my concern was that there might be something more sinister going on, like a tumor. I was supposed to be getting a call from the doctor that very afternoon and was hoping that my phone wouldn’t fail me. It had already cut out a few times on the ride from Los Angeles. Now would not be a good time to have that happen.
Walking back towards Union Station, in between the enormous skyscrapers that lined both sides of the street, I felt pitifully small and alone, and what struck me about them was that they were designed for gods or supermen to live in, not ordinary people who need to be close to the earth and part of a community. There were a few homeless people scattered around, in doorways and alleys, but nothing like what I’d just witnessed in Los Angeles. Perhaps they were being contained in a different section of town. The winters are brutally cold in Chicago, and I would’ve hated to even be walking down the streets in a few months, let alone living on them.
By the time I’d retrieved my bags and walked over to Union Station, I was dead on my feet. Passengers were already starting to line up at gate B-19, so I went over and joined them, not wanting to be one of the last ones to board and chance ending up with an aisle seat. There were a big group of Amish folks ahead of me, and when I got on my car three of the men, in their blue shirts and black vests, had gotten seats close to the door. There was a garbage can blocking off most of the seats in back and I sat down in front of it. A few minutes later, the attendant came onboard and angrily accused someone of moving the garbage can. What could I say? It wasn’t me. She still made me move to the front of the coach.
Across from me, some long, tall dude was already stretching out, spreading his limbs and his belongings all over both seats. If anyone needed a seat, he looked like the last person on earth they’d want to ask to slide over. He had his phone on speaker phone and was conducting business on it as if he were in his own living room at home. The tag above his seat showed him going all the way to Seattle, and that pissed me off. I was already full of resentment and we hadn’t even left the station yet.
We were just pulling out of Chicago when my phone rang and I rushed to answer it. It was a doctor from the clinic in California, calling with the results of my recent X-rays. Yes. The X-rays showed that I had fractured my coccyx, or tailbone. They also revealed osteoarthritis in one of my hips. Well, that explained things. Good thing I was going to be sitting on hard seats and sleeping crunched up in a little ball for the next two or three weeks. I didn’t ask the doctor what he thought about that plan.
After an hour and a half, we reached Milwaukee, the ultimate beer town, and passed the Miller Brewery, home of the High Life. On the side of the brewery facing the tracks was a picture of a girl sitting on a crescent moon, raising a toast to the stars.
The train next passed through Columbus and Portage, reaching the Wisconsin Dells around sunset. The Dells is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Midwest, as famous for its theme parks as for the dells, which are the unique rock slabs that line the gorge. Entertainment options include water slides, zip lines, go karts, rollercoasters, and duck boats, amphibious tour buses, capable of floating down river, like something out of a James Bond movie. Only one side of the train had a view of the dells, while the other one faced the station. Everyone on the wrong side of the observation car jumped over to try to take pictures, but it was late, and the light had largely faded.
At a stop in Winona, I got out and talked to the attendant for a few minutes. She hadn’t come out and accused me of moving the garbage can that had been set in the aisle to reserve seats before we left Chicago, but that had been her implication. No worries. It was cold, way too cold for the middle of September, but welcome to life in the Midwest. Having done most of my schooling there, I wasn’t judging it, but if I do have one claim to fame it’s that I haven’t endured a winter now, going on twenty-seven years. The attendant told me her son felt the same way. He’d escaped to California and swore he’d never return, even though the high cost of living there was giving him troubles he’d never dreamed of. Are things tough all over? It would be safe to say so. Are some places worse than others? Pick your poison.