All posts by Haunted Rock

These are songs, poems and images from a life on the road. Enjoy your stay and safe travels.

riding the rails 16

The clocktower at Union Station in Denver has a neon sign that says Travel by Train.  Like the station in Portland with a similar message, it is a telling thing that people should need to be reminded that traveling by train is still an option these days.  A hundred years ago how were you going to get across the country?  In a covered wagon or stage coach?   Not if there was train you could take.

Most people would consider a rail journey if it were pitched as a quaint vacation.  When it comes to needing to get somewhere, however, they’ll either drive or fly.  Trains have been known to run hours behind schedule, and that unreliability factor would be hard to accept for someone on a tight schedule.  Having been unemployed for almost four years now, I didn’t need a sign to tell me to take the train.  As long as I could sleep on it, I didn’t care if we ever got where we were going.

By the time that we arrived in Denver it was dark.  We had a half hour to stretch our legs, so I wandered inside and then had to get in line again when it came time to reboard the train.  Up until the very last second, it looked like I’d get lucky and have a seat to myself for the night, but then a kid who’d been having trouble with his ticket got on late and sat down next to me.  That was all right, but right away he got busy putting up the leg rest, pulling down the tray, getting out his laptop and headphones, making a little cubicle that blocked me from getting to the aisle.  I suggested that he take the window seat, as I’d probably need to get up and down a few times during the night and that was OK was him.  He was going as far as Omaha which was ten hours away.

I stayed in the observation car as late as possible, reading a book of travel stories I’d picked up at another free library in a station along the way.  When I returned to my seat, close to midnight, the kid was still working on his laptop, programming beats that were spilling out of his headphones.  I let it go and turned my back to him, trying to find a position that might work for sleeping.  That wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

We were supposed to arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska at three-thirty, but were running over two hours late.  By the time we left the station the sun was rising.  My father had been from Lincoln and as we passed Cornhusker Stadium it made me think of him and his parents and brother, all of them gone now.  I’d been in Lincoln the year before and had tracked down the house he grew up in.  The house looked largely the same, but the neighborhood had changed.  It was mostly the fast-food restaurants and chain stores you find everywhere in America.  Any ties I’d had to the city had long ago been severed.

When the café car opened, I went up to get a coffee, and upon my return the kid, who hadn’t slept all night, was talkative, perhaps excited about the new jams he’d been composing for nine hours straight.  Since he was getting off in an hour, I was forgiving and willing to listen to his story.  He was a DJ who went by the name of Rad T.  He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten that name.  People in Colorado Springs, where he was from, just started calling him that after he started playing at house parties.  Now he was meeting up with a producer in Omaha who had his own studio.  The idea was to start making music as soon as he got off the train.  The fact that he had no money wasn’t about to stop him.  He’d been stranded in Los Angeles once.  He wasn’t about to let that happen again.  He was sure he was onto something, and I hoped that he was.  No money usually means no chance in hell, but that has just been my experience.

Because I’d hardly slept at all, the anxiety started coming on strong once we got into Iowa.  There wasn’t anything particularly stressful about the farms and small towns we passed, but now the guy in front of me was supplying the beats, not making them, just passed out with his headphones around his neck.  There was a couple behind me with a fidgety baby, and a guy across the aisle who was worried about getting his rental car in Chicago since we were running late and the office would be closed by then.  At first, I wasn’t particularly sympathetic, since he’d used a duffel bag to block the seat next to him and I’d ended up with the DJ. 

Since I couldn’t help listening to all his drama unfold, however, I gradually got interested and then involved.  They weren’t willing to keep the office open an extra half hour for him.  He was supposed to be driving all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, that night to visit his mother.  When he asked about picking up a car at the airport, they quoted him an extra six hundred dollars.  He needed some place to stay, but couldn’t afford a hotel downtown.  At that point I let him know about the hostel I’d stayed in a week earlier.  If he could still pick up the car in the morning that might work best. 

Helping him seemed to help me.  I’d been spiraling into a bad depression, sickened by life and the choices ahead of me, but no matter how late we arrived I’d still have hours to kill in Chicago.  This guy was in a worse situation and I could tell that his mother was worried about him, even though he was older than me and recently retired.

We crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington and by now the guy had decided that the hostel was his best option and had booked a bed there for one night.  If he was immune to snoring, there was a chance it would work out for him.  If not, I’d only been trying to help.  It was clear now that a lot of people would be missing their connections, and they were trying to come up with a plan for them.  A woman I met in the observation car was scheduled to travel on the Capitol Limited to Washington DC, and now only had about five minutes to spare.

Princeton and Naperville were our last stops.  An hour later I was arriving in Chicago for the second time that week, once again with an onward connection to Miami that had been cancelled.  It was the worst kind of déjà vu that can happen, something bad happening in exactly the same way.  To make matters worse, I’d soon be hopping on a train to New York City.  What in God’s name did I want in New York City?   My tailbone was aching and my nervous system was shot.

riding the rails 17

The Lakeshore Limited runs between Chicago and both New York and Boston, splitting into two when it gets to Albany.  Although the idea of a traveling along the Great Lakes is an appealing one, I already knew from an earlier trip to Boston that leaving from Chicago at 9:30 at night makes for an extremely limited lakeshore view.  Most of it takes place in darkness.  I do remember waking up in the middle of the night just outside the stadium where the Cleveland Browns play, and seeing a flashing sign that said, Welcome to the Dog Pound.  I think that’s the year that they lost every game.

There were a few hours to kill when I got to Union Station, so I went upstairs to the food court and got a piece of pizza.  The Rams were playing the 49ers, which would’ve been an interesting matchup, but the bar was closing and all I could see of the game was someone in a back room watching it.  I went down to make sure I knew where the gate was, and found that people were standing in line an hour early.  Half of them seemed to be Amish, which I’d seen many of by now, out riding the rails.  I knew they weren’t Pilgrims, but kept flashing back to the Mayflower every time I ended up in an observation car full of them.  Next stop, Plymouth Rock.

The Lake Shore Limited definitely had an east coast vibe to it compared to the other trains I’d been riding.  My car seemed to be full of Russian teenagers, perhaps on a school outing.  Two of the boys stashed their enormous suitcases in the overhead bin across from me and sat with their knees bumping into each other.  I kept waiting, in extreme agitation, to see who was going to join me, but no one did, which seemed unlikely, seeing how packed the car was.  The Russian boys went to congregate with their friends at the front of the coach until the conductor came through, bellowing that everyone take their seat and have their tickets ready to be scanned.

The café car was a different set up on this train.  It was five cars up, on the same floor as the tables.  You didn’t need to duck down a stairwell to get to it.  There was already a long line when I went up to get a cup of noodles.  Since there was nowhere to sit, I decided to take it back to my seat.  The door of the first car I came to wouldn’t open, so an old woman who was sitting right in front of it jumped up and pulled it open.  Then it wouldn’t close.

It’s going to be a long night, she said.

The whole night passed and no one ever took the seat beside me.  I lay on my side, with both leg rests up and my jacket bunched up on the armrest.  When I woke up, we were just outside of Buffalo, any chance of seeing the Great Lakes thwarted once again.  We had a smoke break there and most of the passengers got out to stand on the platform.  Although the grass in the meridian was still green, the chill in the air was a reminder that winter was just around the corner.  When it hit, it would hit hard in these parts.

In Utica, there was a new kid who got on and sat in the seat behind me, beside a reserved Brit who was finally forced to open up and share a bit about the bicycle tour he was on that had been postponed twice because of the pandemic.  The kid was excited to hear that and eager to share his story as well.  He was leaving his home in upstate New York and going to stay with his girlfriend in South Carolina.  They’d been chatting for six months, but had never met in person.  He was terribly anxious about having a twelve-hour layover in New York City and claimed to have booked a hotel online for thirty dollars.  They hadn’t let him bring his pellet gun onboard, so he’d traded it for an ounce of weed.  At that point, the Brit got quiet again.

Just as we were approaching Albany, a small cloud of smoke came wafting through my seat.  I almost said something to the kid, not because I minded, but because if they caught him, they’d throw him off the train without a refund.  We had a long layover coming up.  All he needed was to wait two minutes and he could find a quiet place to do whatever he wanted.

There was an hour break in Albany because they needed to separate the train.  The 448 would be heading to Boston and the 48 would continue to New York.  To get to the station you had to climb a set of stairs and cross over a walkway.  I bought a New York Times in a store, but had a hard time concentrating when I sat down and tried to read it.  The kid wasn’t the only one antsy about his twelve-hour layover in New York.  My fear is never that I will be killed, rather, it is that something will happen to make my life even worse than it is.  To just show up in Manhattan after dark, following the directions on my phone into some dark corner of the city, seemed like I was practically begging for that to happen.

When we were underway once again, the kid behind me began calling everyone at home, letting them in on the big surprise, that he was gone and wouldn’t be coming back.  I wasn’t so sure about that.  Behind the bluster he was putting on, he sounded scared, and at one point he called a friend to do a wellness check on his dog.

The sky was dark and heavy, muting the colors of the autumn leaves, and just outside of Poughkeepsie it began to rain.  The timing could not have been worse.  For a long while we traveled beside the Hudson River, which should’ve been a scenic highlight, but the water just reflected the steel gray sky and the raindrops on the window cause my anxiety to intensify.  After entering a long tunnel, we arrived at Penn Station, far beneath the ground, and there was no option but to get off the train and face the situation.  I saw the kid with a huge suitcase and couple of other bags.  It looked like he’d packed all of his possessions.  It was hard to know which way the exit was, but I was pretty sure he was going the wrong way.

There were some people waiting for an elevator and I went to get in line behind them.  A baggage handler assisting them told me about an escalator right around the corner, so I went over and began to ascend, soon finding myself in an entirely different world of space and bright light, like a soul entombed in a sepulcher finally being raised to heaven.  Beneath the high ceiling of the Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station were rows of bright flashing screens.  Footsteps on the floor seemed to echo around the complex.  I stepped out the front door and right in front of me was Madison Square Garden.  A block later, there was the Empire State Building.

Now that I was on the street, the directions to the hostel didn’t seem to be that difficult.  The city seemed smaller than I’d imagined it, almost personable.  It had been raining hard earlier, but by now was barely sprinkling.  I followed 8th Avenue down to 20th street and then crossed over to 7th.  The hostel was halfway down the block.

The room I’d been assigned to was long and narrow, with only two beds in it, one in front of the other along the wall.  At first, I chose the one close to the window, but later decided I’d rather be closer to the door and lockers, so switched.  So far, there was no sign that anyone else had checked in, and though I doubted it would stay that way, hoped it would.  To stay in a room with five or six strangers is one thing.  To stay with only one is far more intense.  I wasn’t even sure it should be allowed.

After getting moved in and locking up my things, it was only eight o’clock, so I decided to hit the streets and try to make it to Times Square.  All that trepidation had been for nothing, unless my roommate turned out to a serial killer.  What was more likely was that someone would show up at the last moment and snore me to death. You’ll never see it in any horror movies, but, honestly, it’s the worst way to go.

riding the rails 18

Although I’ve been to New York City a few times, my dislocation is too loosely based in the west to ever approach it as anything but a tourist.  I’ve been there for stays of three to four days, and have probably seen most of the things that tourists go to see, but since I had twelve hours, figured I’d make the most of it.  After leaving the hostel, the first place I wanted to check out was the Chelsea Hotel, which was only a few blocks away.  I’d read about the Chelsea in countless biographies of artists and writers, and though it seemed to be under new management, there was still a lyric from Leonard Cohen on a plaque outside the door. 

I was carrying an umbrella, but the rain stayed at bay.  It was about a mile and a half to Times Square and I followed 8th Avenue to get there.  I passed the Empire State Building again, and then began to see the billboards, one announcing the Kardashians next season, another multi-paneled one promoting the new Duane Johnson superhero movie, Black Adam.  Soon the sides of the streets were covered with flashing screens and advertisements.  I’d arrived at the heart of America, the machine that keeps the dreams of the working class alive.  A lit-up version of the stars and stripes sat above an army recruiting office, right beneath an enormous GAP store and across from the Hard Rock Café.  There were signs for Paramount, Old Navy, and McDonalds.  Like most everyone there, I was hypnotized by the spectacle, but had fallen out of the demographic they were making their pitch to.  At the center of the square, I counted three Minnie Mouses and one Iron Man.

Like all the cities I’d visited, there was a small army of the dispossessed, squatting on the sidewalk, but most people were too busy looking up to notice them.  One man sat with a soggy sign; his head bent down in the light drizzle.  No one would be making a movie about him anytime soon, not unless he jumped up and stated shooting everyone.

When I got back to the hostel, there was still no one in the other bed, which seemed to be miraculous good fortune.  I got in bed and fell asleep reading the Times.  Later I got up and even turned the air-conditioner on, confident by now I had the room to myself.  I was torn about the next morning.  After three days straight on the train, I needed the sleep, but also wanted to see if I could walk to the Statue of Liberty before the Silver Star left for Washington DC at eleven.  It was three miles and probably pushing my luck, but once I got it in my head, couldn’t get it back out, so set the alarm for 7:30 and made sure I could just grab my bags and head straight to the station when I got back.

The directions to the Statue of Liberty were not exactly straight forward, and at one point I strayed from them and ended up on the Hudson River Walk, probably adding another half mile to the trip by getting diverted onto an exercise trail.  The cloud cover was heavy and though the statue wasn’t far, I could only see the faintest outline of it when I finally reached a viewpoint.  Just then, it started to rain, and I should’ve called it quits, instead of fighting my way down to Battery Park, where by now even less of the statue was visible, only a small, nearly shapeless shadow, against a backdrop of gray sky and sea.

It now began raining so hard that my socks were getting wet.  My route back to the hostel took me right past the World Trade Center Memorial, but once I reached it, was already starting to panic about the time.  Two guys were gathering up the white chain stretched around it and told me it was opening in a few minutes, so I waited and then hurried to the edge of one pool, with the names of victims of the 9-11 attack inscribed around it.  The design of the pool made it seem like the water, flowing endlessly into a dark square in the center, would never stop falling into black space.  The other pool, where the south tower had stood, was the identical.  As I was leaving, I noticed a shop where you could buy an American flag that had been flown above the memorial, complete with a certificate of authenticity.

It was still two and a half miles to the hostel, and by now I was practically running, so afraid was I that I might miss my train.  After what seemed like an hour, I finally got back to 8th Avenue, but saw that I was only at 12th Street.  The last eight blocks were like the last eight miles of a marathon, the longest blocks I’d ever traversed, and I still needed to grab my things and get to the station, another thirteen blocks away. 

When I got to the hostel I rushed into the office, just to make sure they didn’t need my sheets or anything, then hurried up the stairs, threw the door to my room open, grabbed everything out of the locker, picked up my bags, and then couldn’t find the keys anywhere.  That was not possible.  I’d just opened the door with them.  I tried to calm myself.  The least productive thing to do in a situation like that is to start to panic.  I started to panic. 

They weren’t in the door.  They weren’t in my pocket.  They weren’t on the bed.  They weren’t in the locker.  Could I have dropped them into one of my bags?  That wasn’t possible.  I yanked the sheet off the bed and flapped it in the air.  I lifted the mattress and shook it, listening for the sound of keys hitting the floor.  I started to shout out loud and rummage through my suitcase.  No.  No.  It couldn’t be.  I dumped out my backpack and almost broke down.  Oh, my God.  I was going to miss the train.

There were some women cleaning the rooms and I became convinced I must’ve left the keys in the door and that one of them, thinking I’d checked out, had taken them.  Grabbing my things, I rushed down to the front desk with this desperate line of logic.  A guest was just checking in.  I couldn’t help but interrupt him.  The keys were gone.  I just had them.  One of the maids must have taken them.  That was all I could think of.  The man behind the desk got on the phone and began to speak Spanish.  He informed me if the keys were truly lost there would be a ten-dollar charge.  That’s all I needed to hear.  I begged him to put it on my card.

Outside it was raining less than it had been, but my train was leaving in thirty minutes, and I was sure I wouldn’t make it.  Hustling down the sidewalk, running every red light I could, dragging my suitcase through puddles of water, I arrived at the station, half-dead, only to find that nobody else was in a hurry.  Not only was no one lining up yet, the gate hadn’t even been announced.  I looked at the hands on the big clock hanging overhead, and it didn’t seem possible.  Not even ten minutes had passed since I’d gone barging out of the hostel.

As soon as we boarded the train, I began a deliberate search for the keys, starting with my backpack.  Within two minutes I found them, nestled up to the keys for my lock in the top pouch.  Unbelievable.  As soon as we’d passed through the North River Tunnel and were approaching New Jersey, I called the hostel to apologize.  I hadn’t been trying to blame any of the maids, just trying to explain the unexplainable.  The guy told me not to worry about it.  He said it happens all the time.  I assured him those keys would never see the light of day.  He told me to toss them in the river.

riding the rails 19

The Silver Star, or Silver Service, as it is sometimes referred to, came into existence as an assortment of early independent routes connecting New York City and Miami.  It travels 1,500 miles and passes through twelve states, and was the only train I really wanted to ride on when I bought my USA Rail Pass, twelve days earlier.  Now because of Hurricane Ian, I’d been all over the country, except for Florida, and was finally aboard the Silver Star, but only traveling as far as Washinton, DC, as the section to Miami had been suspended for repair work. 

What they hadn’t told me when they informed me about the cancellation, however, was that the train still went as far as Jacksonville.  If I would’ve known that, I would’ve kept my reservation and taken a bus the rest of the way.  Now, I was getting off in DC in a few hours, with a connection to New Orleans the next evening, too tired and confused to try to make any more last second changes to my itinerary.  If I could take a bus to Miami from Jacksonville, I could probably take one from New Orleans.  After two cancellations so far, it was like the universe was trying to send me a message, but I refused to listen.

My clothes and shoes were still wet from racing to Penn Station in the rain to catch the train.  After the café car opened, I went up to get a breakfast sandwich and coffee, and returned to my seat shivering as we passed stations in New Brunswick and Princeton Junction, New Jersey.  After a stop in Trenton, we next arrived in Philadelphia, which surprised me, not knowing how close it was to New York.  I’d gotten off the train there on a previous trip, but that had been from Boston.  If you ever want to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Ben Franklin’s grave in less than two hours, let me tell you, it can be done.

With the two sections of the Rail Pass that I’d lost crossing the Bay Bridge, and the reservations I’d made on the Crescent to New Orleans and Sunset Limited, I was now technically out of rides, unless I made some sudden changes to my itinerary or received mercy from an unexpected quarter.  I decided to try to speak to someone in customer relations, since what had happened in San Francisco really didn’t seem fair, now, or then.  I was on hold for a long time and during that time the train began to violently shake.  It shook so hard, derailing seemed like a real possibility.  Simultaneously, a high-pitched shriek started coming from the PA.  By the time a woman from customer relations repeated to me that nothing could be done, I’d been shaken into a state of acute agitation.  The whistle blew, like a demon’s trumpet, and I looked out the window and seethed.

The last time I’d been at Washington Union Station, I’d been charged nearly a hundred dollars to store my bag for a day.  By booking a room in a hostel, I was actually saving money.  Once we arrived in DC, I took my time making my way through the terminal, which is Amtrak’s actual headquarters.  An exhibit in the hallway celebrates fifty years of their existence.  There are also commemorative statues and plaques scattered around, like the one honoring all the employees who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty.  The central hall, with its statues of Greek gods and centurions, resembles nothing less than a temple. 

Like all of the classic train stations I’d passed through so far, what I saw outside the door told a different story.  Beneath the statue of Columbus out front sat a homeless woman with plastic bags all around her.  On another side of the monument was an abandoned pile of filthy blankets.  Under one of the stone lions someone had written, Think of how much you all have stolen from me, and dated it June 6, 1971.  Just across the road, you could see the United States Capitol.

The hostel I’d booked was only a mile and a half away, but seemed to take two hours to get to.  The person at the desk asked that I remove my shoes, then showed me how the code for the front door worked.  I was in the basement, in a room with six bunks, down in a lower bed, jammed between two others.  Someone on the other side had hung blankets and made a tent out of their bed.  They appeared to be inside, possibly sleeping.  I thought about calling Amtrak to see if I could switch my ticket to Jacksonville the next day, but then realized I was too spent to function.  I’d just have to hop on the Crescent the next day and see what happened between Washington and New Orleans.   Since that was going to be the situation, I went ahead and booked a hostel in the French Quarter.

It was still early, so I went out and started walking in the direction of the National Mall.  If all of the buildings in the area appeared to be fortresses, perhaps it was because I was staying less than a half mile from the White House.  I followed 10h Street past the Federal Triangle and the IRS headquarters, then crossed Constitution Avenue, walked west for a few blocks, and there was the Washington Monument.  In the other direction was the Capitol.  I decided to walk towards the Lincoln Memorial, and then visit the Capitol and a few Smithsonian Museums the next day, since my train didn’t leave until six in the evening.

It was a beautiful fall day as I approached the Washington Monument, circled by flags.  It is always a strange thing to see anything so iconic, that you’ve only been exposed to in media and print images, in person, because suddenly, there it is, right in front of you, sometimes larger than life, other times, much smaller than expected.  The Washington Monument is exactly like you think it will be.  There were not many other tourists out and about.  On the grass, right past the monument, a group of young people, perhaps up and comers in the world of politics, were playing a game of kickball.  Just then a large helicopter, perhaps Marine One, passed overhead.  It’s the President, someone shouted, and they all began to wave.

Across from the World War II Memorial, I got an ice cream cone from a food truck and sat down at the base of a flag to eat it.  Beyond the pillars, arches, and fountain of the war memorial, there stretched the reflecting pool, and at the far end of it the Lincoln Memorial.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting long shadows, the last few rays of sunlight illuminating the Washington Monument with an almost greenish glow.

Walking towards the Lincoln Memorial, besides the reflecting pool, I followed a family straight into the last few pulsations of the sun.  By the time we reached the long, stone stairway, it had set.  Up the temple steps, there sat Lincoln on his throne.  For all his virtues, it was hard to say how much anyone there knew about him, outside of the fact that he’d once been president and was very famous. It is fame that has become the measuring stick of success these days.  How it is achieved does not seem to matter as much.  While Lincoln is still remembered for his honesty, these days the truth is often regarded as relative, reliant on the interpreter and how it best suits their agenda.  He is also admired for helping to heal the nation after the Civil War, but the divisions in recent years haven’t been based on ideology, and the best way to go forward as a country, as much as sheer hatred of the other.  There was only one boy I noticed reading the inscriptions above his head and on the walls, while everyone else stood with their backs to him, taking group pictures and selfies.

It was nearly dark as I walked through the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the expressions on the faces of the nineteen soldiers represented so lifelike that you actually feel like you are out on patrol with them. By the time I made it over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and walked past the wall listing the names of the over fifty thousand Americans who’d lost their lives in that war, it was night.  I sat on a bench next to a pond in the Constitution Gardens, and saw both the lit-up Washington Monument, and nearly full moon, reflected in the black water. 

Once I got up and started back to the hostel, I immediately had to use the bathroom, badly.  It must’ve been the ice cream from the food truck.  Block after excruciating block, not only were there no bathrooms, but it would’ve been a federal offense of the most egregious nature to try to improvise one.  What do you do in a situation like that?  I’d reached the point of wild desperation by the time I spotted a McDonalds and walked into to it, almost on my tiptoes.  Both relief and perspiration washed over me as I sat down in a stall and contemplated the disaster that would’ve befallen me if I hadn’t had enough money to buy a Big Mac.  When I returned to the dining room to eat it, I noticed three homeless men nursing their own small purchases, just to be able to sit at a table inside for a few minutes.

Taking a different street back to the hostel, I just happened to pass the White House, which was all lit-up, as well.  On a bench in Lafayette Square, facing the White House, sat a homeless man on a bench, a blue jacket pulled up over his head.  I walked up to the gate where a handful of visitors were taking photos, and talked to a protestor in a shack, picket signs and declamations stacked up all around him.  He and his only company, yet another homeless man, said they were waging their own war against capitalism.  Good luck with that, I told them.

riding the rails 20

When I got back to the hostel, there were two or three guys in bed already.  A Chinese guy looked up very startled when I passed him, but went immediately back to his social media account.  In the lower bunk that someone had converted into a tent, I could hear the low, persistent rumble of snoring.  There was not enough energy left in me to even react.  I lay down on the bed and reached for the copy of the New York Times I still hadn’t finished.  A few hours later I awoke, still on top of the sheet, wearing my reading glasses.  It was a long, painful haul getting upstairs to the bathroom.

The next morning, I decided to hang out until checkout time.  There was a free breakfast in the dining area, pancakes and coffee.  Later, I sat in the common room with a woman who’d been staying in DC for a month, hopping from hostel to hostel.  There was even time to go lie down again, but by now a big, bearded guy in the top bunk was making the kind of noises usually only associated with exorcisms.  It was impossible to be in the same room.  I packed my things, put my bags in the storage room, and headed off in the direction of the National Mall again.

The first thing I came to was the Natural History Museum.  Walking through the front doors, I was immediately met by a Moai stone head from Easter Island, a half-ton pink quartz crystal, and a charging African elephant.  I headed straight towards the wing that houses the mammals, and encountered a tusked walrus, leaping tiger, and resting rhino.  In a glass case, two lionesses were attacking a water buffalo.  In another, a hippo was yawning for all the world to see.  There was not enough time to focus on any one thing, so I walked quickly through the oceans section, and ended up in a hall dedicated to the origins of man. 

Here all the early ancestors were on display.  Until you get to Homo Erectus, most of them just look like common apes.  There were a few sculptures of cavemen, squatting on the ground, scraping at the earth with stones for sustenance.  They could’ve been any of the homeless folks I’d seen on the trip so far, sleeping on the street and digging through trash cans.  The hard, cold brutality of life hasn’t changed at all.  Though we’ve developed our technology, we’ve failed to elevate our compassion.  If it’s all of us scratching out an existence, that’s one thing.  If we let a handful fall through the cracks, however, while others are flying into space for sport, that’s just cruel.

Fortunately, the National Gallery of Art was closed for renovations, as I was already pushing my time and attention span.  I headed straight to the Capitol and got in line for the tour.  You needed to have a reservation, but there weren’t many visitors and someone explained to me how to sign up online.  Fortunately, there were some immediate openings available. 

After a short film about the history of the Capitol, the tour got underway.  There were about thirty of us in the group, and we were each given headsets to follow what the guide was saying.  After passing through the Crypt, and shorts stops at the Vestibule and Old Supreme Court Chamber, we arrived at the Rotunda, perhaps the very center of American history, in the same way Times Square is the center of its reality.  Here all the figures from famous bygone ages are present; Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower, Truman, even Reagan.  All the momentous dates are accounted for; the discovery by Columbus, the arrival of the Pilgrims, critical moments from the Revolution, the expansion into the West. The fresco at the center of the dome, The Apotheosis of Washington, shows George Washington ascending into the clouds like Christ.  He is surrounded by two virtuous ladies, Liberty and Victory, along with thirteen maidens representing the colonies, and a pantheon of lesser gods assembled beneath him.  What the painting represents, more than anything else, perhaps, is the moment the United States became a nation unto itself, the final word on everything under sun.

Although there were still four hours before my train left, I was exhausted and depressed by the hard choices in front of me.  The decisions I made in the next twenty-four hours would be shaping my future immeasurably, and I was in no condition to be making them.  Although I’d been all over the country in two weeks, and had seen enough to fill a few bucket lists, at the end of the day I was still basically running for my life.  The walls were falling down all around me.  I knew I had to get out of the country, but to where?  If I got on my last train, the Sunset Limited, I’d probably hop off at El Paso and cross into Mexico at Juarez.  If I found a bus to Miami, there were a few more options.  Maybe I’d look into Columbia.  I needed to get some place cheap enough to buy time to find my next job.  What that was, I didn’t care anymore.  Anyplace that wanted me could have me.

After leaving the Capitol, I was basically done, but still had a few hours to kill.  From a food truck. I got a questionable gyro and sat on a wall in the shade.  When I stood up, I discovered that I was right at the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, the one museum I probably still would’ve walked to see.  There was an exhibit going on called Indians Everywhere, about the prevalence of Native Americans in advertising and the media.  The pictures and artifacts showed Indians being used to sell everything, from sports teams, to movies, to train rides, to tobacco, to suntan lotion, to Pepsi.  The list went on and on, and the suggestion was that we’d like to remember them, not so much as victims, but as former adversaries who’d become our teachers, a brand you could trust. 

It was still pretty early but it was going to take a lot of effort to get back to the hostel and then over to the station, so I commenced, walking as slowly as possible.  It felt like something really bad was about to happen, but maybe it wouldn’t.  I’d just been smack dab in the middle of six major cities and was on my way to another one tonight.  Maybe a miracle would suddenly occur.  Even if it didn’t, I was going to Miami.  That suddenly became clear to me.  Anything after that, I couldn’t guarantee.  Making it to Miami, I could.

riding the rails 21

Once known as The New York and New Orleans Limited, and having passed through many incarnations before and since that time, the train now known as the Crescent does just that, travels between New York and New Orleans on a daily basis.  If it is not my favorite train in the world, the reason is this.  I’ve ridden it three times and have seen virtually nothing of North or South Carolina while doing so.  Meanwhile, I’ve seen enough of Alabama and Mississippi, from those particular set of tracks, to last me a lifetime.  The only reason that I was even on the Crescent once again is because my train to Miami, the Silver Star, had been cancelled two times due to Hurricane Ian.  I may have given up on taking the train to Miami, but hadn’t given up on getting there.  Time was moving quickly, however, so I’d have to move fast to make that happen.

When the train boarded at Washington Union Station in DC, there was a young guy sitting next to me, traveling back to see his girlfriend in Manassas.  He’d recently graduated from college and had gotten a job and apartment in DC.  As we talked, he suddenly got nervous, and began searching his pockets and the paperback book he was carrying for his ticket.  He couldn’t find it anywhere and was taking it hard.  It seemed to me they’d scanned our tickets when we got on the train.  I thought he’d probably be fine.  Then I grabbed my backpack and retrieved the keys I’d inadvertently lifted from a hostel back in New York.  See, I showed him.  It happens to the best of us.

After he got out, I had a long time, hours really, to listen to the old man in front of me, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Scatman Crothers, in both appearance and voice, regale his seatmate with tales about his conquests in sports, both as a student and later as a coach.  The seatmate led him on, sharing a few of his own stories about playing high school football, but eventually couldn’t get a word in, and became the living definition of a captive audience.  All at once I grabbed my phone, found the site for Greyhound, and bought a one-way ticket from New Orleans to Miami, leaving the day after my arrival.  There, that was settled.  Now all I needed to do was to cancel my reservation on the Sunset Limited and see if I could still use that last section of the Rail Pass at a later time.

I’d just gotten a hold of a representative, when the train stopped in Lynchburg, Virginia.  The agent couldn’t seem to handle a simple cancellation and had transferred me to one of her superiors.  Just as the woman got on the phone, a guy showed up to claim the seat next to me, totally wasted.  I tried to make room for him, but he waved me off and went looking for beer.  It took a long time, but finally the woman, who complained that she should not have been contacted for such a trivial matter, admitted that there was a glitch in the system that wasn’t allowing them to cancel the reservation.  She said that instead, I’d be issued a voucher that I could redeem at a later time, as long as the travel was completed before the 22nd.

When my new seatmate got back from the café, he was wanting to bump fists all night long, letting me know he was cool like that.  He’d been visiting his father in Virginia and was on his way back home to Fort Lauderdale.  For some reason he was taking the train to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then getting off and flying the rest of the way.  When he heard I was heading to Miami, he got out his phone and tried to show me some of the best bars in Fort Lauderdale, like the Elbow Room and Hard Rock Café.  At one point he got up to use the bathroom, and I leaned back and pretended to be sleeping.  It took some effort, but was easier than keeping up with him.  My feeling was that he was looking for any reason to get offended, and things would escalate quickly once he found it.

It was a relief when we arrived in Charlotte and he finally got off the train.  No one else got on, so for a few hours I was able to bend over and sleep on both seats, a technique I’d nearly mastered by now, even with a fractured tailbone.

When the morning arrived, Scatman Crothers went from snoring, straight back to reminiscing, and his seatmate, who by now I’d learned was a pastor, continued to egg him on with exaggerated gasps of wonder and mild-mannered chuckles.  We passed through Gainesville, Georgia, with the coach rambling on about the speech he’d given at some hall of fame event, where the players had been urging him to wrap it up. That was probably the sentiment shared by anyone on the train who’d been sitting within three rows of him.

When we got to Atlanta, there was a half-hour layover.  The coach and pastor were both getting off, and the pastor asked if maybe they could pose for a picture together.  I’m assuming that it happened.  In the meantime, the crew got ready preparing the train for the next set of passengers.  There was a good chance that this would be the last leg of my big train trip.  Even with the voucher they’d just given me, there was nowhere I could get to from Miami.  Chances were, I’d be flying to my next destination.  Colombia kept popping into my mind.  I did a quick search on Expedia and found a number of cheap flights from Miami to Medellin.  Now, there was a thought.

The guy who got on in Atlanta and sat next to me got out knitting needles right away, and then groaned in exasperation when a baby began to fuss.  He asked the conductor if there were any window seats open, but was told that the train was full.  By chance, however, he happened to know a guy with a backwards baseball hat and sparkly jacket who was sitting two seats behind us.  It turns out that they’d graduated from the same school, only a few years apart.  Having someone to talk to cheered him up considerably.  At one point a group of them went back to the café car and when I walked through later, saw the guy in the sparkly jacket with four empty cans of White Claw in front of him.

When my seatmate returned, he was glowing, possibly because he’d had such a social time so far.  The guy in the sparkly jacket got off in Anniston.  Either he was drunk or was just in the habit of hugging strangers.  My seatmate explained how they’d both escaped from the same small town in Alabama, him to Atlanta, the other guy to Colorado.  When the church he’d grown up in had found out about his lifestyle he’d been excommunicated.  Recalling it, even now, seemed to choke him up.  He was just traveling to New Orleans for one day of work, and was hoping his boss wouldn’t be mad that he was taking two travel days to get there and back.

The train we were on seemed determined to blow its whistle all the way to New Orleans.  We passed through the Talladega National Forest, where vultures hung above the pine trees.  Every small town seemed to have a water tower, a red-brick church with a white steeple, and a Dollar General Store.  As we approached Birmingham, I noticed two characters had tagged their names on the side of an underpass, East Coast Mike and Biker Joe.  Don’t say we don’t have the best outlaws.

It seemed it took half a lifetime to get through Mississippi.  I’d been to Meridian before, the home of the Singing Brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers.  From there we passed through Laurel and Hattiesburg.  I was trying to control my mounting anxiety by meditating, which had never really worked, but counting my breaths at least helped pass the time.  We wouldn’t be arriving in New Orleans until after nine o’clock, and now I was worried about that, not sure how late the streetcar would be running.  The walk from the station to the hostel looked pretty dodgy on google maps.

Sometime close to dark we arrived in Picayune, and a short while later were crossing Lake Pontchartrain.  I looked for a hopeful sign outside, but only saw black water.  About a half hour later the conductor came down the aisle and it was like a scene from a movie.

Slidell, she shouted.  Slidell.  Coming into Slidell.

riding the rails 22

Everything I’d feared so far, had mostly not come true.  In only two weeks I’d ridden trains from Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco back to Chicago, Chicago to New York, New York to Washington DC, and DC to New Orleans, all for five hundred dollars.  In every city I’d arrived in, except for Los Angeles, where I’d started from, I’d found a hostel for around fifty dollars, meaning I hadn’t spent more than a thousand dollars to see a huge portion of the country and some of its most famous cities. 

Still, I’d spent most of the trip worrying, often paralyzed with terror.  Small things, like my trains to Miami getting cancelled, or losing two sections of my Rail Pass, had upset me greatly, causing me to curse my life.  Yet here I was in New Orleans, I’d just bought a bus ticket to Miami, so I was going there anyway, and the UPT streetcar was sitting right outside the station door and could drop me two blocks away from my hostel.  I went to get on it and the few people waiting on it seemed friendly.  In a few minutes the driver jumped on and we went lurching down Loyola Avenue.

In my early twenties, I’d spent about eight months in New Orleans, thinking I was there to make music, but mostly drinking and lying in bed depressed.  At one point, desperate for a job, I’d gone to bartending school and gotten a job in the French Quarter, at a famous restaurant called Antoine’s.  The place that I was staying was just two blocks from Bourbon Street, so as soon as I checked in and got my things put away, I headed over to the Quarter.  Back then, it had easily been the most exotic and intimidating place I’d ever been to.  By now, it was just another place.  A mobile DJ had parked a party bus on Canal Street and was leading a line of women through a booty-shaking dance.  Right past him a guy was selling gold balloons and bunny ears.

I walked past the Bourbon House and the Cigar Factory.  Two guys were playing chess on the sidewalk.  Some group had hired a brass band for a private party and were dancing in the middle of street, lifting white umbrellas and scarves, as a man on stilts, in a top hat, looked down and waved his hands.  There was Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and Voodoo Blues.  A kid playing a plastic pail with two drumsticks berated me for taking a picture, and then just glared when I only dropped loose change into his can.  I saw Big Daddy’s Topless, still in business after all these years.  Then, there it was, just down Saint Louis Street.  I walked half a block and stopped outside of Antoine’s.

We never know what will make a good memory or story.  Back in the day, the job had been just another grind.  I’d been making five dollars an hour, with no tips, mixing drinks for the waiters in the kitchen, but how many times had I brought up working there since.  I’d worn my small apprenticeship in the city like a badge of honor for over thirty years.  Now the evening shift was ending, and the employees came streaming out the side door.  A lot of them were just kids, about the same age I’d been when I worked there.  I waited to take a photo of the sign above the door, but two couples had posted up there, and seemed to have no place better to go.  Neither did I, so I just waited.

After finally getting my picture, I headed up Royal Street, behind the cathedral, home of the famous Touchdown Jesus, then walked around to the front of Jackson Square.  A few fortune tellers were still doing business, but outside of the homeless rolled up outside the church in their makeshift beds, it was empty. It wasn’t late by New Orleans standards, but it was late for me.  I walked as far as Armstrong Park, and then started back up Bourbon Street. 

A woman on a balcony had some beads she was looking to unload.  I walked up right beneath her, and she shouted down to lift up my shirt.  I did, but only went so far as to flash one nipple.  That was good enough, apparently.  She tossed down a necklace of gold beads, and I put it on and continued into the night.