riding the rails 14

It was still dark as I made my way down Bush Street to the pickup point for the bus back over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville.  People used to warn me about going out after dark or walking through certain sections of town.  Now I fear those who did the cautioning, more than the ones I was warned about, who ninety-eight percent of the time are just victims, who’ve been left out in the cold.  If you have nothing, you technically should have nothing to lose, although you can still be fined for sitting down on the sidewalk and if you need to go to the hospital, may never pay back what you owe.  Walking through the financial district, between the dark skyscrapers, there were figures sprawled out in nearly every doorway, often with nothing but a newspaper for a sheet.

Even though I was using google maps, things still got a little confusing when I was a few blocks from the pickup point.  There was no street sign on a pedestrian path I was being directed down and I began to panic.  It didn’t look like the same area I’d been dropped off in the day before.  But, no, there it was, the multi-colored statue, human figures standing on top of each other, or something to that effect.  With some relief I noticed a handful of other people waiting with luggage.  I was still nervous about getting to the train on time.  As far as the two sections of the Rail Pass that I’d lost, I figured I’d just try to get ahold of customer service at a later time and explain what had happened. 

There was some confusion when ten minutes before the pickup time a bus rolled up.  The driver claimed to be there for an earlier pickup time, however, and most of us still had to wait for a second bus.  There was a woman in a handicapped scooter that I’d noticed when she arrived in a taxi.  The man she’d been with had been on crutches.  They’d got into a big argument, and she’d blown her top at him, her shouts echoing through the streets and getting everyone’s attention.  Now he hopped on the first bus, and she sat facing a wall.

After all that fretting, when the bus arrived it only took twenty minutes to cross the Bay to Emeryville, and I ended up with two hours to kill.

The California Zephyr runs between the Bay Area and Chicago, a distance of some 2,438 miles.  It has a reputation of being one of the most scenic routes in the nation, crossing both the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, and passes through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa, and Illinois.  For the third time in just over a week, I’d be traveling between the West Coast and Chicago, but as long as I was going somewhere and didn’t need to get off the train anytime soon, that was fine by me.  The trip was scheduled to take 52 hours.

At 8:30, the Coast Starlight arrived, right on time, just as it had the day before, and I kicked myself for changing my ticket and losing those two sections in the process.  On the other hand, I had another big city under my belt, and was scheduled for New York, DC, and Miami, so there’d been some experience gained, even though much of it had been hellish enough to rival Dante’s tour of the Inferno.  Possibly worse, in that he’d had a guide who knew his way around, while I was just out winging it, falling into every pitfall and trap along the way.

About ten minutes before the Zephyr arrived, they had us go out on the platform and gather in groups.  All those riding coach were supposed to form a line at gate C.  When it did pull in, however, the line got jumbled as the passengers jostled to get close to the door.  When I got to the bearded conductor, he scanned my ticket three times and it didn’t go through, which gave me a surge of anxiety, even after he nodded for me to get on anyway.  It seemed to me there’d been a lot of glitches with my reservations so far, and now I worried that the connections I’d lined up in Chicago, New York, and DC, wouldn’t go through.  What was I thinking heading to New York City anyway?  The very idea of just showing up at Penn Station after dark made me worried sick.

We started off traveling in the same direction the Coast Starlight had traveled the day before, past Martinez and Davis, with a stop in Sacramento.  From there we headed east, however, towards Nevada.  Some guy, a modern-day meth hobo, of sorts, had gotten on the train with a skateboard, guitar, hooded sweatshirt, wearing, for some reason, a COVID mask.  He was very vocal in his appreciation of them letting him take the train instead of the bus, very vocal, in general, and when a girl came wandering down the aisle, looking like she didn’t know where her seat was, he shouted and motioned to her that there was room next to him.  Then the train whistle blew, and we were off.

There was no time to get comfortable.  A few minutes later I received an automated call from Amtrak, letting me know that my train to Miami had been cancelled once again.  That didn’t come as a surprise, but was too much information to process.  At this point the only option would be to take the Crescent to New Orleans, if I didn’t wish to get stranded in DC for two nights, but that was very much like trips I’d taken in the past.  If Amtrak wasn’t going to Florida, perhaps Greyhound was.  I’d have to look it up later.

As we got into the foothills of the Sierras, things began to look interesting so I went up to the observation car to get a better look.  The meth hobo had tromped up there a while ago, with his guitar in one arm and skateboard in the crook of his elbow, and now I discovered him, totally collapsed in one of the seats, his mask pulled down under his chin, offering his guide services to an elderly couple too polite to just ignore him.  He knew something about everything.  The geothermal activity in the region.  The Gold Rush.  The Donner Party.  When they showed interest in hearing more about the Donner Party, he made a joke about us becoming the next Donner Party.  That was finally enough to send them back to their seats, while he just looked over at me and shrugged.

We were north of King’s Canyon by now, and the views of the pine-covered mountains were spectacular, what you would take a train trip hoping to see, pristine wilderness.  It was like this for the next two hours, from Colfax to Truckee.  A couple next to me in matching National Park T-shirts and Tivas, went from one side of the car to the other, pushing their phones right up against the window, while a local guy with a professional camera had hedged his bets on the left side of the train and didn’t budge.  He’d been right.  As we approached Lake Tahoe, a string of small lakes appeared in the valley far below that made everyone who hadn’t been sitting on that side get up and try to squeeze in.

The California Zephyr passes through twenty-nine tunnels, and we passed our third or fourth while I was on hold to speak with an Amtrack agent, trying to get back to them about the cancelled train to Miami.  After ten seconds in the darkness, the phone went dead.  I’d have to wait until we got out of the mountains. 

Soon after passing through Truckee, the eastern slopes of the Sierras give way to the high desert of Nevada, and a sudden and shocking change of scenery takes place.  It now looked like we were traveling through a gravel parking lot.  A lot of people were getting out in Reno, the meth hobo for one, who’d been kicked out of the observation car and taken his guide services back to coach. 

The platform in Reno looked like a concrete bunker.  There was nothing to see, so I took the opportunity to get back on the phone with Amtrack, confirming that the Silver Star to Miami on the 6th had indeed been cancelled, and that the other reservations I’d made were still good.  Needing to come up with a backup plan, with no time to think it over, I went ahead and booked the Crescent from DC to New Orleans on the same day I’d been scheduled to travel to Miami.  I then booked passage on the Sunset Limited, traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles the day after that.  It felt like a mistake, but I figured if worse came to worse, I could go with my original backup plan and take the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego and then head to Mexico from there.  As soon as I got back on the train, however, I read that service on the Surfliner had just been suspended indefinitely, as well.  It felt like things were falling apart all over.

riding the rails 15

A group of five chatty Mexican businessmen had gotten on the train in Winnemucca, and were traveling to Salt Lake City.  They were in high spirits and seated all around me.  Fortunately, there was no one next to me, so I laid my head down as soon as it got dark, and tried to escape my situation by shutting my eyes.  After passing through Elko, there were no scheduled stops for the next four hours.  Gradually, thing began to quiet down.

When I awoke to the gray light of day, we were just outside of Green River.  We went around a curve and I could see the locomotive and other cars bending into the purplish, low clouds on the horizon.  The trip had been full of discomfort, but also full of scenes of rare beauty.  If it had mostly been a disaster so far, it had also been a strangely, photogenic one.

The couple with the matching National Park T-shirts were in the observation car when I went up to get a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich.  We’d run into each other enough that if we were going to talk it would’ve happened by now.  My impression was that he’d served as some kind of mentor in the past and that a relationship had developed from there, since he was considerably older, but that could’ve been way off and was none of my business.  He was showing her once again, how if you press your phone right up against the window, you can avoid the glare.

I went back to my seat to study the train schedules.  I was not happy at all with my itinerary, now that the Silver Star to Miami was out of the picture.  I was scheduled for one night in New York City, one night in Washington DC, and one night in New Orleans, before heading back west on the Sunset Limited.  That was no good at all, especially since the Pacific Surfliner had just been suspended, and it had been my backup plan to take it to San Diego, then head to Mexico. It did occur to me that I might be able to hop off the Sunset Limited in El Paso and cross over into Juarez from there.  Seeing that the train stopped in El Paso in the early afternoon it was possible, but I’d been in that area a few years earlier, so the idea didn’t excite me.

On Hostelworld, I found a place in New York that was only about a mile from Penn Station, then another in DC that was about the same distance from Union station.  They weren’t cheap for shared accommodations, but way better than I could do otherwise.  Being unemployed for years now, with my financial situation what it was, the last thing I needed to be doing was taking a tour of big cities in America, yet, lo and behold, on the circus rolled.

A woman sitting in the aisle seat, two seats ahead on the other side, had been helping people with information since she’d gotten on the train.  We got to talking and I found out she was traveling on a Rail Pass as well.  So far, she’d done some of the regional routes in the Northeast and was returning from a trip on the Empire Builder, very similar to the one I’d just undertaken.  She’d been a free spirit most of her life, a retired educator who’d spent a few years working for Americorps in Alaska, and was now just traveling across the country, visiting friends. 

After we were done talking, another woman who was sitting a few seats back and had overheard us talking, came up and wanted to ask me a few questions about my lifestyle.  I said I wouldn’t recommend it.  It was something she’d been dreaming of doing her whole life, however.  Now she was married and her and her husband had a small business that had been impacted by the pandemic.  She’d just been visiting in relatives in Utah and was on her way to Colorado where they were hoping to make a new start.  Still, she’d always felt like a bit of a gypsy and wondered what it was like to be riding around the country with nothing to tie you down.

First of all, I assured her that I wish I did have something to tie me down.  It was true that I’d been seduced by the nomadic lifestyle at an early age, but there are pros and cons to every situation in life.  I’d always imagined that I’d find that magical place, fall into the right community, meet the right girl, and have kids and settle down, just like everyone else.  The trouble is that I’d never found that magical place or any kind of community.  Perhaps, I’d been sabotaged by romantic ideas about what life could be, but mostly everywhere I went the things I was asked to do were unimaginative and repetitive, and I’d done them mostly in isolation.  The songs I’d written and albums I’d recorded hadn’t reached anyone.  Living as an artist might have worked for others, but it hadn’t worked for me.  So, I’d burned everything to the ground and become a wandering spirit.  It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but was within my control, and, yes, I still did get a kick out of it after all these years.  It was a terrible way to live, but the best I could do under the circumstances.

She thanked me for my honest response and took the business card I handed her, the first, and last, I would be handing out on this trip.  If a traveler doesn’t have someone to tell their story to, then what do they have?  I should have thanked her for listening.

The conductor passed through, announcing that our next stop would be in Glenwood Springs and that eighty people would be getting onboard there.  He asked us to clear the seats next to us if we were traveling alone.  The train would be full until we got to Denver.

Glenwood Springs is a popular weekend trip from Denver, with hot springs, caves, and adventure parks, so that made sense.  It was the perfect time of year for a weekend getaway.  When we arrived at the station there was a large crowd, ready to board the train.  The side of the observation car I happened to be sitting on had a phenomenal view of the Colorado River and the high mountain bluffs that tower over it.  The leaves on the trees had started changing to yellow and red.  Enclosed in glass, there was something to see from every window.  It felt a bit like traveling through a dream, that for a short while wasn’t a nightmare. 

A half hour later, the view had switched to the other side, which was good timing as I’d just returned to my seat, finding I still had it to myself.  The conductor had warned us that this stretch of the river was known as Moon River, and we found out why when the first white-water rafters we passed stood with their backs to the train, dropped their shorts, and grabbed their knees, drawing chuckles and squeals of surprise from those who were now in on the joke.

Although I have family and friends in Denver, I’d recently seen most of them, and since our stop in Denver was only going to be a half-hour, I hadn’t bothered telling anyone I’d be passing through.  Coming out of the Moffat Tunnel into the foothills, however, with the lights of the city glittering below us, I decided to call my old friend Riley and just say hey.  Back in the day a half hour layover would’ve meant trying to coordinate a quick joint and a beer, but he was living on the outskirts of the city and that was no longer the order at hand.  He’d always been sensible and had done well for himself, managing the house, wife, kids, and career, while still playing in a band, while I, on the other hand, had played the fool and was having a hard time putting on a brave face these days. 

It was good to talk to him anyway.  I brought up the time we’d tried to score some pot in Oregon and the guy had ended up tossing him a brown paper bag with a pair of binoculars in them.  I said he’d tried to justify it later by claiming to have gotten some good use out of them on a camping trip.  He denied that ever happened.  That didn’t stop either one of us from laughing even harder.

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.