One of the most enduring images to come out of the Great Depression is that of the hobo hopping a freight train to get from one end of the country to the other. Even though many of those who did so had been driven to it by economic desperation, for many young travelers the idea of hopping a train remains the ultimate symbol of breaking free. I doubt they’d much enjoy it.
For one, back during the Depression there was a sense of solidarity between the dispossessed that is sorely lacking now. Two, the men and women riding those trains were often heading towards the promise of employment, so there was some measure of hope in their hard travels. Where can you hop off a train and find opportunity now? Nowhere. Third, they were doing it out of necessity, not as an adventurous stunt. Jump on a train and cling to it all night long, only to be arrested in the morning. It might make for a good story, but is no way to live.
All night long I tossed and turned, groaning aloud every time I thought about the hurricane heading for Florida. We approached Kansas City right as the sun was rising, but only had a few minutes to stretch our legs on the platform once we arrived. The women behind me were getting off there. By now I’d determined that I wasn’t sick, sick with depression, yes, but not sick with a cold or COVID, at least not yet.
A whole bunch of riders were getting on in Kansas City. From here on out the train would be full all the way to Chicago. A family coming from a wedding occupied the seats all around me, and the adult son who was taking charge of everyone’s seat assignments and luggage sat down next to me. We rode for twenty minutes without talking, but when I asked to get by him to get to the café car, he was extremely courteous, almost leaping up to let me pass.
In the observation car, with a cup of coffee in my hand, I looked out at the passing farmland, the cornfields, barns, and grain silos, that were familiar to me, having spent most of my upbringing in the Midwest. The way the sun was splashing through the window led me to try meditating, thinking it might have a calming effect on the anxiety that was surging through me. Instead, the yellow light just flashed across my eyelids, and I could almost sense the size and shape of objects the train was passing, as if by radar.
The guitar player from Pasadena, Mark, sat down a few seats away without his guitar, complaining of the rough night he’d had. As we passed through the small farm towns, he talked about another dream he had, that of investing in some property in the country and working the land. Even though he didn’t strike me as the outdoorsy type, that seemed more reasonable than spending all his money to make a record. If I’d done the same at least I’d have a place to live, as opposed to boxes of unsold CDs that had just ended up in a landfill.
Back in my seat, I got to talking to the guy who was coming from the wedding with his family. Turns out he actually worked for Amtrak as a mechanic. Both of us had noticed that the conductor who’d gotten on the train in Kansas City had started off that morning with a full British accent, but that it was gradually slipping away as the day wore on. By the time he got to us to ask us for our tickets there was no trace of it. The mechanic confirmed it, saying yep, he’s a Chicago guy. My thought was that if he wasn’t auditioning for a part in Murder on the Orient Express at his local repertory theater then what was up with that?
When we reached Fort Madison, Iowa, we passed a replica of the fort that was one of the first established in the Upper Mississippi, and later abandoned and burned to the ground by the troops after a siege by the Sauk Indian leader, Black Hawk, during the War of 1812. It was here we crossed the Mississippi River and reached Illinois on the opposite banks.
A few hours later, the conductor, his British accent now only a distant memory, announced that we were arriving in Mendota, and not long after we were approaching the outskirts of Chicago. The mechanic sitting next to me pointed out the neighborhood where he grew up, the street where he went to high school, and even the garage where he worked, once we got into the railyards. The skyline was one I knew well, made prominent by the Sears Tower, which for a while was the tallest building in the world, and now, according to the mechanic is known as the Willis Tower.
At Union Station, we pulled into the subterranean platform area and the Southwest Chief came to a quiet halt. The first leg of my journey was up, and what lay ahead looked to be chaos, thanks to a hurricane that had formed in the Caribbean and was making its way towards my next destination, which was supposed to be Miami. At least I’d booked a place to stay for the night. When I got there, I’d try to figure out what to do next. There are always options, even if you don’t like any of them. Sometimes you need to decide what the least terrible thing is and just go for that.
Chicago is the hub of the Amtrak network, so if you can’t find a long-haul train leaving from there on short notice, you probably can’t find one anywhere. As I dragged my suitcase towards the Great Hall, passing the various gates with their prerecorded arrival and departure times all playing at the same time, like an unsynchronized symphony of androids, my sense of dislocation was only heightened. It was hard to know which street to exit to in order to reach the hostel I’d booked the day before. Climbing up a staircase and walking out the first door I came to, I discovered that the sky was overcast and it was beginning to drizzle.
Until very recently, I’d had no experience with google maps, but by now I had a hard time living without it. It began directing me towards my hostel, but was difficult to make out as I needed to clutch the phone to my chest in order to protect it from the cold rain. The street it wanted to take me down was closed due to construction, so I was detoured a block north, and then over the 91 freeway. The area I found myself in was a Greek section of town.
Check-in was fairly simple, but the room I was assigned to wouldn’t open at first. I went back down to ask about it at the desk and was told to push harder. When I did, I was met with a blast of hot, stale air, perhaps the same that greeted the workmen that blasted Al Capone’s vault open thirty-five years earlier during a televised special that Geraldo Rivera had hyped as equal in importance to the excavation of King Tut’s tomb. Outside of the stale air, all they’d discovered was dirt, rubble, and two empty bottles. The only way Geraldo could’ve justified his extravagant hoax at that point would’ve been comparing it to the American Dream, mostly hype and empty promises.
The room I was staying in had twelve beds in it. Fortunately, there was a bottom one open. There were also lockers available, but I’d need to provide my own lock, so I took a walk to a Walgreen’s on the corner to pick one up. It had stopped raining, but was still cloudy and cold. After locking up my things, I walked back in the direction of Union Station and found a pizza place that was showing the Monday Night Football game between the Packers and Buccaneers, a highly anticipated match-up between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, which came down to the last second and justified my buying a second piece of pizza so I could sit there until it was over.
Back at the hostel, I sat in the stuffy common area for a few hours, watching back-to-back episodes of NCIS, nothing I would’ve considered under different circumstances. Most of the odd characters I observed charging their phones and checking their facebook accounts ended up in the same dorm room as me. By the time I went up there at ten o’clock, half the beds were full and two guys on top bunks by the window were already snoring. I lay down, but was never going to sleep. The snoring was beyond intrusive. One old guy with a white beard was lying flat on his back, like a corpse come back to life, trying to blow the lid off his coffin. A younger, bearded apprentice in the bed next to him sounded like he was releasing the air from a whoopie cushion, one rattling blast at a time. Between the two of them, they’d been tasked with gathering all the stagnant winds of the universe and releasing them into the already putrid air of the crypt we were in.
After a few hours I was rigid with fury. A few times I leapt to my feet and shook their beds in frustration. They would rearrange themselves, it would get quiet for a moment, and then as soon as I lay back down it would start up again. One guy got up with his blanket and pillow and disappeared. A short while later I went down to the common room and found him sprawled out on the couch.
As soon as daylight appeared at the window, a chorus of alarms began ringing like the chirping of birds. The two snorers were the first ones up, now wanting to smile and wish everyone a good morning. Good morning. How did you sleep? My anxiety was at peak levels. I’d hadn’t slept at all and in ten hours was scheduled to be on a train heading towards Miami. All signs now indicated that Hurricane Ian was going to be a real thing, perhaps the most destructive storm to hit Florida in years.
I knew something needed to be done, but wasn’t sure what. I’d have to figure it out fast. Maybe New Orleans. That might be a good place to lay low for a few days. Jumping out of bed, I snatched my computer and travel documents out of the locker and hurried down to the common room to see what I could do.
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.
The Empire Builder goes all the way back to 1929, when it was owned and operated by the Great Northern Railway, and later the Burlington Northern Railroad. It runs from Chicago and then splits in two at Spokane, continuing on to either Seattle or Portland. Much of the route parallels the Canadian border.
I’d taken the Empire Builder once before and will never forget it. We were crossing from Minnesota to North Dakota, out in the wide-open country, and you could see a dust cloud being tossed up on a dirt road as a guy in a pickup truck tried to beat the train across the tracks. He failed and struck the rear of the engine, disconnecting it and sending it flying down the line solo while the rest of us shuddered to a halt. It took them seven or eight hours to remedy the situation, and in the meantime no air was circulating and the toilets wouldn’t flush. Not long after we got moving again, the train once again came to a sudden halt and a crew change took place, way out in the middle of nowhere. To compensate us for the inconvenience we were all given a six-inch Subway sandwich, a bag of chips, and a soda.
No mishap of that magnitude had occurred on this morning, but the long, tall dude next to me was back on his phone, almost shouting into it from two feet away as he sprawled across both seats. He didn’t care that everyone could hear his conversation. No one else existed, as far as he was concerned, even the other person on the phone, who was just a sounding board for his ego. I had to look around for hidden cameras. Maybe he was the star of some reality show I didn’t know about.
Now that I’d talked to the doctor and found out that my tailbone was fractured, it did seem to hurt more. The arthritis in the hip too. I got up, almost limping, and headed to the café car to get a cup of coffee. We were passing by Devil’s Lake, an intriguing name which I discovered to be a flimsy translation of a Native American name, which referred to the high salinity of the water and the bad spirits they blamed for it.
The observation car was full of Amish people. The reason so many of them take the train is that they are not allowed to drive cars, and when forced to travel are required to take the lowest form of transportation. The men were wearing black coats, pants, and boots. Some wore felt hats while others donned straw ones. Those who could grow facial hair had beards, but no moustaches. Their hair looked like the bangs had been cut straight across with a pair of hedge clippers. The women wore dark dresses, and their bonnets were either black or white. Sitting in a car full of them made me feel like I’d traveled back in time four hundred years and was in the hull of a wooden ship, sailing across the Atlantic in search of religious freedom.
We had a half-hour layover in Minot and I approached one of the younger Amish men, who was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and had a sly grin on his face. I asked if he was Amish and he admitted he was, but didn’t elaborate. I then wandered from one end of the train to the other, loitering at the edge of Amish conversations, unable to understand one word of the Old-World language they were speaking.
Once we got back on the train it occurred to me that I better track down hostels in Seattle and San Franciso, and was glad I did because there were only a few spaces available. My first choice in Seattle ended up being sold-out so I went with the Green Tortoise Hostel near Pike Street. In San Francisco, I booked a bed in a place that said it was also the San Francico Music Hall of Fame. It was a good thing I made the reservations when I did, because shortly thereafter my phone service dropped off and from then on only worked intermittently until we were just outside Seattle.
There was an old couple I’d seen earlier. The man had been wearing a Dodgers hat and I’d commented on the team. Now he was sitting beside me in the observation car, without the hat, but with a head full of memories about his life in the world of baseball, first as a player, then as a coach. He talked about Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson being some of the first black players in the league, and how Ronnie Lott, who later played football for the 49ers, had been one of the most talented athletes he’d ever had the pleasure of coaching. His memories were all over the place, something he apologized for, but I had nowhere to go. He recalled an incident from his wild youth where he’d gone to a bar to hear some music with some buddies, and on a dare at intermission had hidden the accordion player’s accordion. He wouldn’t do the same thing now. He’d given his life to Jesus after a close call he’d had a few years ago during a heart valve operation. He might’ve talked into the night, and that would’ve been OK, if his wife hadn’t come looking for him. They had reservations in the dining car and it was time for them to eat.
After hearing the old man talk about his satisfying career, successful kids, and how they’d just come from visiting their grandkids, I became overwhelmingly unhappy, thinking about my own life. I returned to my seat, where the long, tall dude was calling every woman he knew and talking at length about what they could be doing better and who they shouldn’t trust anymore. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes, trying to mediate my way out of a bad depression. Instead, I was consumed by it.
Late in the afternoon, the train stopped in Havre, Montana for twenty minutes. Two curiosities they had on display in the yard were an antique steam engine and a statue called Hands Across the Border, featuring a Canadian Mounty and US Border Patrol Agent, shaking hands over their commitment to protecting the border. A few hours later we stopped again, this time in Shelby, and I wandered into the station and found a book of Louis L’Amour stories in a small library of free books. Louis L’Amour is the best-selling Western novelist of all time, and the cover featured a man in classic cowboy garb, raising a pistol, and ready to defend the law, however he saw fit.
To distract my tortured mind, I began reading the book as soon as we got back on the train. The protagonist was the classic drifter, with the mysterious past and growing reputation. He wandered from town to town, sticking up for those who showed him kindness and gunning down those who didn’t. He was impervious to the things that would destroy most normal men, long days in the saddle, cold nights in the canyons, rattlesnake bites, treacherous women. It reminded me of an article I’d once read about the disparity between the myth of the drifter and the reality. To highlight this, the photo they used beneath the headline was that of a homeless man sleeping on a bench.
We were going to be passing Glacier National Park right after sunset, which was unfortunate timing. There was just a little light left when we reached the East Glacier Park Station, but in the few minutes we sat there, the night fell quickly. As we journeyed on, I could just make out the dark outline of mountains and trees, and couldn’t avoid my own reflection, lit up in the midst of them, that of a true desperado if there ever was one. Would I shoot up a saloon or rob a stagecoach anytime soon? Probably not. What I was about to do with a credit card, however, wasn’t for the faint of heart.
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.
The Coast Starlight wasn’t leaving until 9:50, so that gave me time to take a shower and eat breakfast. It wouldn’t take long to get to the station, but I didn’t want to get there too late and get stuck with an aisle seat. The whole point of taking the trip was to see the country, and I didn’t want to have to look over someone’s head to do so.
By the time I got to King Street Station, people were already standing in line to board the train. I ended up in seat 33, which was the window seat I wanted. Behind me was a German couple, who’d already unpacked their bedding and reclined their seats all the way back. An old hippie that I’d seen checking out of the hostel that morning came up the stairs and headed for the rear of the train.
The Coast Starlight has been in operation since Amtrak consolidated most of the independent railway lines in 1971, and is named for two trains that had previously been run by the Southern Pacific, the Coast Daylight and the Starlight. It covers almost the entire length of the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle, and many points in between. I’d probably taken the train three or four times and like it because it passes through a lot of my old stomping grounds. On this particular train I could tell I was back with the West Coast freak crowd. One bemused old-timer who was having a hard time finding his seat let all of us know that riding the train wasn’t just a job, it was an adventure.
With my primitive grasp of technology and innovations like cloud storage for safeguarding data, I have been relying on an external drive for years. I will take pictures on my phone, then transfer them to my laptop and back them up on the drive. This has some serious drawbacks, such as someone potentially robbing me and getting away with my phone, laptop, and drive all at once, but so far, I’ve avoided that happening. There was an episode on a night bus in Jakarta once where a thief got away with my camera and laptop, but I had the external drive strapped to my body, in the same way that a spy packs a pistol. Thank God for that. I’d just spent a month in India, one in Sri Lanka, and a third in Indonesia, and all that documentation would’ve been lost forever if I hadn’t been so paranoid.
Now I was about to do something stupid that never would have been an issue if I’d switched over to the cloud by now. The memory on my phone was nearly full and I wanted to start off on the Coast Starlight with a blank slate. I got out my laptop and started downloading the pictures on my phone, but it was taking longer than usual and the train pulled out of the station. There were images I didn’t want to miss, so I picked up my camera and took a few pictures while the transfer process was still going on. When it finally finished, there were twice as many pictures in the folder and some were out of order and not the right size anymore. I became so stressed trying to remedy the situation that the next time I looked up we were just outside Tacoma. Eventually, I found that the pictures were there. The miniatures were just replicas that had been shuffled into the sequence out of order. It would take a long time to go through them all, but at least I hadn’t destroyed all the pictures I’d taken between Kansas City and Seattle, which would’ve been devastating.
It was overcast outside and cold on the train. The attendant was having problems keeping people in their assigned seats. There were too many anarchists aboard. There were brief stops in Olympia and Centralia. Then we came to Kelso. The dining car was running late. The twelve-thirty seating time had been moved back fifteen minutes. Only those who were traveling in the sleepers were allowed to eat in the dining car. At twenty-five dollars for lunch and forty-five dollars for dinner, they were the only ones who could afford it anyway. By now I’d eaten four or five of the microwaveable cheeseburgers, which came out like bags of hot glue, but were strangely tasty once you got used to them. Before they closed for the night, I always made sure to grab a bag of pretzels and a bottle of water. The water onboard was allegedly potable, but had come out cloudy and tasted like coolant the one time I filled an empty bottle to save money.
At Vancouver we crossed over the Columbia River and soon arrived in Portland, where we had a thirty-minute layover. There wasn’t time to wander far, so I just walked through the station and stepped out in front for a few minutes. The Union Station in Portland is memorable because of the big clock tower that says GO BY TRAIN. People didn’t always need this prompt. Between 1900 and 1940, the Golden Age of railroads, most travel was done by train, but following the Second World War, the competition from airlines and the auto industry caused ridership to plummet. These days almost no one takes the train, unless it’s to work. When they do talk about taking a trip on the train, it is generally regard as a novelty, something they wouldn’t ordinarily consider, but hey, why not? That could be fun.
There were a lot of passengers getting on at Portland and when I reboarded there was a teenaged girl in the seat next to mine, wearing Doc Marten boots and writing in a journal. I headed straight to the observation car. Eugene was coming up and I wanted to see what it looked like, even though I’d been there a few years earlier, as well. I’d lived a short time there after college and still have a lot of affection for the place, even though it didn’t work out all that well for me in the end. We passed Salem and Albany, but I wasn’t paying much attention. It was Eugene I was interested in. As we reached the outskirts and I began to recognize some of the landmarks, I became dizzy with nostalgia. There was Willamette Park. There was Skinner’s Butte. I could almost see myself up there as a twenty-three-year-old, with a guitar strung around my neck, watching the train come in. I wondered how everyone was doing up at the old High Street Brewery? Would there be a blues band playing tonight at Taylor’s?
We had about ten minutes to get out and stretch. The crowd milling around the platform was the same counterculture stalwarts I associated with Eugene. There was the Jesus guy with his round sunglasses and sandals. There was the yoga girl, with her mat under one arm and a guitar under the other. There was the fake gangster. He was actually from Chico. A couple guys in backwards baseball hats were kneeling down by the Eugene sign packing bowls.
Right when we were ready to depart, a young woman appeared on the tracks, shouting for us to wait, she was coming. It wasn’t possible for her to run, but she still tired herself out to the point that she fell to her knees just outside the door and it took half of the crew to get her onboard. For the next twenty minutes she squatted on the floor, hyperventilating and trying to explain about her asthma. Finally, she was OK, and very apologetic to everybody. She wanted everyone to know it was her asthma that made her almost miss the train.
I’d been monitoring the situation in Florida every chance I could get, but only now received confirmation that I’d made the right decision, when I saw that Amtrack had suspended their Silver Star service to Miami, at least until the end of the week. Hurricane Ian had made landfall in Fort Myers the day before. The damage was said to be catastrophic. Now it was making its way towards the Carolinas. No one could say when, if ever, things would be getting back to normal.
The girl in the Doc Martens had left the train and another one had taken her place. I saw her suitcase on the floor, but not her. She was up in the observation car reading a book, but I wouldn’t make that connection until later. I was up there myself when a Goodwill cowboy came in. He’d gotten on the train in Klamath Falls, and had the hat, boots, corduroy coat, and all, but they were mismatched. The brim on the hat was too small, with a strap under the chin, like something an Australian would wear to a rodeo. I thought about the hero in the Louis L’Amour story I’d just read. He wouldn’t be caught dead in something like that. All of his outfits had to be color-coded, right down to the bandana he chose. The guy was looking to rustle up some grub, but the café car was closed for another half hour. When he found that out, he sighed and sauntered back down the aisle.
Returning to my seat, I found the girl next to me had finally set up camp. She’d decided to keep her suitcase on the ground in front of her, so getting around her during the night was going to be a challenge. In a sense I’d been lucky. Out of five nights riding the train, this is the first time I’d needed to share the seat with someone else. It would be interesting to see how that was going to affect my tailbone, which now seemed to be hurting all the time.
Sometime during the night, I passed out and collapsed into the crack between the seat and window. When I woke up it was pitch black and my neck and right arm were almost paralyzed. I sat munching on a bag of pretzels, one by one, and waited for the sun to rise. We were still two hours outside of Sacramento.
A big guy with plug earrings had been hanging around the bathrooms all night, giving the attendant a hard time, pretending he couldn’t remember where his seat was at. When we got to Sacramento, he was one of the first ones out on the platform, complaining about how rude they’d been to him. The sun was only now rising so he didn’t have much of an audience. Walking up to the observation car to get a coffee and back, it looked like a bomb had been tossed into the coach section. Limbs were jutting in every direction. Heads were tilted at grotesque angles, the mouths drooped open in agony. Blankets and articles of clothing were scattered everywhere.
Originally, I was going to hop right on the California Zephyr when we got to Emeryville, but had gotten cold feet when I saw there was only forty minutes to make the connection. If I missed it, I couldn’t even be sure there’d be a seat open the next day, so had decided to play it safe and book a hostel in San Francisco for one night. Now I could see that we were going to be on time, however, and was second-guessing myself, since not only was it going to cost money to rent a bed, but there was also a bus that needed to be caught to get to the other side of the Bay and I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out.
The night before, a woman had come up behind me in the observation car, saying, I need to get by, just that, not excuse me, or anything. I’d waited until she was about ten yards away and just replied, yes, you do. She’d turned around, took five steps, then turned around again. Now she was sitting next to me and I’m glad the situation hadn’t escalated, as we ended up having a decent conversation. She was from Oakland, and had been visiting a friend up north, staying in a cabin that had been besieged by wasps and flies. We got to talking about the Rail Pass. I told her it’s a good deal, but you have to know how to use it, like a chess player, constantly studying your next move. You have thirty days, but only ten sections to ride. You don’t want to waste them on short trips when you can get halfway across the country on one. Ironic, here I was playing the Chess Master, about to fall into a trap and lose two of my sections before the day was done.
When we got to Emeryville, the bus to San Franciso was sitting right beside the tracks, and a line began to form outside it. I’d taken the bus before, but couldn’t remember if it was a free shuttle or not. Most people who get off the train there aren’t looking to spend the night in Emeryville. It seemed to me that some of the passengers had tickets in their hands that said SFC. I decided to ask the driver, who didn’t really understand my question and asked to see my ticket. She scanned it and said that I was good. That didn’t sit right, but I was too tired to think straight. As we were crossing the Bay Bridge, however, I realized that she’d just charged the twenty-minute ride to my Rail Pass. When we were let off on Mission Street, I asked about buying a ticket to get back to Emeryville and she said there was no way to do that. That news sat like an anvil in my stomach.
I googled the hostel I was staying at and navigated my way through a labyrinth of skyscrapers to get over to Bush Street. It was a long walk, mostly uphill, dragging my suitcase behind me, brooding over what had just happened with the bus. Though it was way too early to check in, they let me store my bags in the office, and I went down to the common room with my computer and phone, hoping to straighten things out with Amtrak. If it came down to it, I was willing to accept that I’d just lost one of the sections, but I had my credit card in hand, hoping that I could just pay for it, as well as the return the next day, and have the ride restored to my pass.
There was a man in the common room with glasses, a checkered short-sleeve dress shirt and a tie. He was either working on a pyramid scheme or for a cult, and was making cold calls off a list he had in front of him, calling everybody Mister, and trying to ingratiate himself by talking in the most general terms about topics such as the weather, the benefits of a four-day work week, and the complexities of daily-savings time. Isn’t that a game changer? I was on hold with Amtrak and was hoping he’d take a break before long, since he was making his presentations as if he were addressing a packed assembly hall. Finally, an agent answered, but I couldn’t hear her, so had to go out in the hall which was full of ear-splitting psychedelic music. It was the San Francisco Music Hall of Fame, after all.
The agent claimed to understand my problem, but then had to put me on hold for a half hour to talk to a technician. When she finally got back to me, she said not only could I not pay for the ride I’d just taken and get the section back, I’d also have to use another section to travel across the bridge the next day. There was no way to just buy a ticket for the bus. I was stung and let her know, if that was the case then and nothing could be done about it, they just might be losing their biggest fan. Didn’t she know I’d been traveling across the country, plugging the Rail Pass to everyone I met? She apologized, but offered nothing more.
I was too tired and upset to think straight, and realized I better go for a long walk if I didn’t want to have an embarrassing meltdown. What I really wanted to do was grab the cult salesman by the tie and bounce his head off the table. I’d seen much of downtown not that long ago, and could only think to head towards Haight-Ashbury, an area I hadn’t been in since my youth. Google maps had me take a left on Polk Street, where I passed the Great American Music Hall, and later the Civic Center.
After getting out of school, I’d bought a used pickup and hit the road, my plan being to live out of the back of it. My first stop had been San Francisco, which I only associated with the Summer of Love and the bands that had come out of it during that time. As an aspiring hippie myself, I thought it would be the perfect fit for the acoustic songs I’d just started to write. I had a friend living there I’d met in Oxford, and without a phone number or address, in the days before the internet, had tracked him down simply by driving around his campus once and running into a mutual friend. What I’d discovered was that the Haight had become a war zone of drugs and homelessness, and that the Bay Area was the last place on the planet I could afford to live.
Now google maps had brought me back to the Lower Haight, and it was mostly uphill for the next mile. I passed some murals and a sculpture of a grimacing skull looking out of a bunny costume. There were the famous Victorian Mansions that bands like the Grateful Dead had teamed up to live and practice in.
By the Buena Vista Park there was a coyote warning as well as a group of gutter punk street kids, with their tattoos, packs, and dogs. If anyone has adopted the hobo legacy and fitted it out to express the modern age it is them, congregating in packs, defying authority, scraping up change, and squatting wherever they can. It might’ve been one of them who’d scrawled Capitalism Ruins Everything outside of an anarchist bookstore, which may be true, but has also kept the legend of the Haight flourishing. It is both a monument to the 60s counterculture and a giant shopping mall. All the stores selling clothes, records, Tibetan artifacts, meditation workshops, cannabis and shrooms, what have you, are done up in the same psychedelic regalia, like a vibrant acid trip, but as one young guy leaning up beneath a Hendrix mural complained to me, it’s been gentrified to the point where no real hippie can afford to live there anymore. He longed for the old days, when you could still feel the love on the street.
I hadn’t felt much love on the streets thirty-three years ago, and wasn’t feeling it now. It was just another cold American city, where if you’re doing OK then things are fine, but if you aren’t, God help you. I wanted to take a different route back to the hostel, so made my way over to the panhandle, then took Fell Street up to McAllister. There’d never been a Summer of Love in my lifetime, and the music that was popular now was all electronic beats and shouted boasts. I’d been too young for the action the first time around, and was too old for it now.
When I got back to the hostel, they let me check into my room. There were only two bunks in it, and I’d been assigned one of the top beds, which was unfortunate. I climbed up in it and tried to figure out what to do next. Hurricane Ian had destroyed Fort Myers, but largely spared Tampa. Both Orlando and Jacksonville were dealing with flood waters, and it was difficult to measure how long it would take them to recover. I figured New Orleans might be a good place to lay low for a few days, but when I called Amtrak, the City of New Orleans was once again booked the day I’d be arriving back in Chicago. I ended up making a reservation on the Lake Shore Limited, bound for New York City, and then the Silver Star, which was heading to Washington DC the next day. According to the agent, they were scheduled to begin making the run to Miami on the 7th, so I went ahead and booked that, remaining skeptical, however, that it wouldn’t fall through.
That night I was lying down when the guy beneath me arrived, slamming the door three or four times, before getting in bed, and right away beginning to breathe heavily and grunt. A short while later, the guy in the opposite bed showed up and went into the closet for a long time, which was strange. When he came out, he got into bed and began to cough and clear his nose.
I climbed down the ladder and went into the common room, where a French woman was speaking to an older local one. The French woman was planning a trip down to Los Angeles and looking for recommendations. A Ukrainian woman who was sharing a room with them came in, upset about the conflict going on in her country. Then a few young guys showed up with a pizza, and one of them began to dominate the conversation, speaking as if he knew more about the situation in Ukraine than anyone, including the woman who was from there.
When I went back to my room, both of the guys in the lower bunks were snoring, as if it were a competition. I knew I wasn’t getting any sleep that night. Out in the halls were framed pictures of famous bands from San Francisco; the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly Stone, the Steve Miller Band, as well as some of the lesser-known bands that were important in their own way; Moby Grape, Commander Cody, the Beau Brummels, Camper Van Beethoven. I stayed in the hall most of the night, reading the biographies that were featured beside the photos.
By three in the morning, the snoring contest had been won by the guy in the opposite bunk, who sounded like he should’ve been on a respirator. I had to be up at five to make the connection back over the bridge to Emeryville. Now I worried that if I did manage to fall asleep, I’d miss my alarm and the bus. There was nothing to do but grind it out. Homicide was another alternative, but I wasn’t going there yet.