Chicago

My wife and I take the train to Chicago every couple of years.  It’s a three hour trip from Grand Rapids that affords beautiful views of Lake Michigan.  Train travel is one of my favorite methods of getting from point A to point B.  I like it because train routes tend to bypass major highways and thoroughfares.  They more often wander through open wilderness.  They stop in towns in the midsection of the country that most road trips skip.  You can hop on a lumbering Amtrak train in a big city like New York or Boston, jump off in the middle of Glacier National Park in Montana, and after a few days of camping continue on to the Pacific Coast.  Trains cheer me up.

Chicago Birds

Chicago 2

Chicago 4

Chicago 3

Chicago 8

Chicago 9

I invite you to read about a train trip I took from Boston to Seattle and back a number of years ago:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Minneapolis–City Within a City

Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

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This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

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So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Trains nowadays are so quiet that you can barely hear the famous clickety-clack of the wheels gliding on the tracks.  You hear only the conductor’s whistle, the squeak of the joints between cars, the squeal of brakes. The train rocks you; you’re in its care and it babies you, soothes you, makes you feel safe.

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The beauty of the train is that where it doesn’t skirt a major highway, there are no gas stations or novelty shops or McDonald’s to obstruct your view of open farmland and grassland. Of course you’ll see cattle, fences here and there, farm houses and grain silos spaced miles apart, but these accouterments of humanity don’t clutter the landscape. They’ve been here for a long time and so seem as natural on the North Dakota prairies as the immense skies that hang over them.

The land opens up like a book and the railroad runs down its crease. From here you can read the text of the country inscribed in curly-q creeks, parenthetical folding hills, ruler-drawn wheat rows and farm houses that dot the landscape like periods. Moving westward through Montana, distant mountains thrust upward to punctuate a geological narrative written across thousands of miles.

The wind here deafens, though it’s only a gentle breeze. The creeks thunder, though they’re mere trickles. Here everything quiet becomes loud. Sounds blossom out of the silence and thereby reveal their full shape and texture.

I like North Dakota because here nobody screams at you. With whom can you be angry when you’re all alone? What is there to hate when you’re surrounded by grassland and bald hills? Hating this place would be like hating a shoebox: childish and useless. The landscape is what it is, but then people are who they are, too, and we hate them even so.

I like North Dakota because here people speak softly, especially when they speak out of conviction. A North Dakotan named Larry raised the possibility of busing homeless people to abandoned military bases where they could make a life. He felt strongly about this idea, however impractical it may be, but he voiced it with such a calm and mild manner that I never dreamed of entering into a heated debate over it.

Elsewhere in the country, on cable news, in magazines, on blogs, Americans are shouting and spitting at one another, whereas here the people whisper to each other across the prairie, knowing that voices carry far in this quiet land, and there’s no need to yell.

This is a hasty impression based on a few conversations and grounded in naive romanticism. I know that, but allow me my fantasies!

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Minneapolis–City Within a City

In the fall of 2009 I traveled by train from Boston to Seattle and back.  Below and in succeeding posts I share thoughts and experiences from the journey.
 
Minneapolis: City Within a City
Minneapolis in November is a busy city.  Men and women sprint to and from work dressed in suits and ties, business skirts and high heels that knock knock knock on the pavement. Mothers push children in strollers. Toddlers frolic in parks and stick their hands in fountains that fall from the sky. Here, a homeless man ambles along with hands outstretched. There, an elderly gentleman relaxes on a bench and peruses the newspaper without really reading it. The city is alive with music and laughter. Minneapolis in November is electric–inside.

Outside, the city is quiet. Still the homeless and the destitute limp along the streets, though out here more of them do so with the aid of a walker or a cane, or else they swing one leg around as if it were a burdensome piece of luggage. Poverty looks more brutal in the northern latitudes.

Outside, in the cool of fall, dried leaves tinkle to the ground and leap about like a horde of camouflaged yellow-red toads. The sun filters through a translucent layer of clouds and rains silver on the city’s gleaming skyscrapers. The city is beautiful with its metallic sky, its steel buildings and the aluminum Mississippi River flowing through it. But it’s mostly quiet out here.

Minneapolis’s convoluted system of sky-walks enables this inside/outside dichotomy. These closed walkways zig and zag through downtown from one block to another, bridging the same streets over and over again. Without setting foot outdoors, you can pass through a Barnes and Noble, a serene park, a food court, a Wells Fargo, a gigantic Target, a university, the lobby of a Hyatt, the base of an office tower, a Macy’s, and probably any other place of business that might come to mind. And you may cover eight miles en route and cross a dozen streets multiple times.

Because the sky-walks are the primary means of getting from one place to another, you’re likely to see an odd mix of people commingling. Passing through a Neiman Marcus you may see people who (like me) would never buy something at a Neiman Marcus (for want of money). Young men fresh from the gym, sporting sweat-stained T-shirts and shorts, may hurry by you in an elegant hotel lobby. And then there’s that elderly homeless man, wearing a weathered jacket and a weathered face. He’s just leaving Macy’s.

What Just Happened?

The decision to leave Texas, change careers and go back to school was, and sometimes remains, wrenching, but this voluntary submission to upheaval and uncertainty (or possibility, to look at it in the better light) has brought opportunities whose significance will only grow with time. In the netherworld between my time teaching and the beginning of graduate school I’ve gotten to know the U.S. in ways deep and varied. In the process I’ve enriched my understanding of everything from the quirks and charms of this country’s people to the paradoxical intimacy and indifference of the American landscape. I’ve become what I always most wanted to be: a student of places, put in his place by the complexity of a nation.

There are many ways to know a “place” (a term that is awfully vague), and they don’t all involve traveling. I’ve seen the U.S. in a variety of ways, beginning with family road trips when I was a kid, but for the first time I’ve been able to combine in a four-month period ten-thousand-mile road trips with short and cheap regional excursions by bus; flights from northeast to southwest with plodding three-day rail journeys from the Atlantic to the Pacific; solo travel with family and group travel; planned itineraries with figure-it-out-as-you-go jaunts; long stays in one city with quick dips into many. In this time I’ve gone through thirty-three states, run into more than a dozen nationalities, encountered essentially all four seasons in a matter of days, and talked politics with people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. I’ve seen, for the first time, our largest metropolis, New York, and, for the second time, our largest natural feature, the Grand Canyon and the emptiness that emanates from it into five states (thinking conservatively).

I highlight all of this only because the compression of so many experiences into so tight a temporal space provides a rare opportunity for contemplation and comparison. Why? Because I don’t think I’ll ever again have so many different and ostensibly contradictory experiences in working memory at the same time. I’m bewildered by the unending nuance and vast extension of a place that claims me as a citizen. Such confusion might militate against productive thought, but then maybe confusion is the most honest starting point for understanding something that is relentlessly complicated and slippery. So to end on an anticlimactic note, I’m effing confused, but the confusion I feel is of the type that enthralls for being so obviously inevitable. It’s no wonder we Americans can seem so loony. Or maybe that’s just me.