Yesterday’s post reminded me of my last long train journey. Always wanted to go on a cross-country trip via Amtrak, and write about it when it was over. The last time I visited my mother in New York, I took the opportunity to visit a friend in Seattle.
This is how I got there…
New York – Chicago – Seattle, 2006
The door rattles like there’s someone on the other side, mocking me. My stomach does the weird flip thing and my mouth does the weird gag thing and I pop sweets three, four at a time. Sour ones, because they’re worth something.
I’m pissed that she tipped the dude and I’m pissed that she’s nervous. But I’m glad she’s gone. The rooms claustrophobic enough and she’s been dragging on my air too much already.
Someone uses my name and punches my ticket and I feel like it’s real. I break out my notebooks and my camera and feel more like myself, my adventuresome self.
I make a note to bring a travel mascot next time, to feature in photos. I just take window shots and one picture of me in the mirror on the rattling door. And a really bad self shot of me in my University sweatshirt, because I ‘look like a student going cross-country’. Well.
The windows are divided and the first ‘real’ photo is of an official looking building in Albany. I should officially know what it is, but I don’t. The sun has set and the dude brings me chicken and rice, I’ve also ordered Key Lime pie, because it was my Grandmother’s favourite. I’m not surprised it’s on the menu of this journey. There are cloth napkins, but plastic cups, and this amuses me.
I read and I think and I snap ‘Do Not Sit On Table’ because this amuses me, too.
I over-hear an anorak asking the dude about the different engines on the train, I silently thank him and smile.
The dude knocks and comes in to turn down the bed that I have been sitting on. He watches me move and says I ‘move pretty good’. Nod and smile. He tells me about a passenger way back in the 70’s. ‘He had no legs and walked on his elbows. He moved good, too.’ Nod and smile.
I read and I think and I look and I listen and I write and I read. I turn off the light and in the darkened roomette it is 1940-something. I smile and fall asleep to the heart-beat of the train.
I awake when the train lurches and my glasses and my bottled water (with fluoride) slides across the room. I stick one eye and a nose between blue felt curtains. It’s dark but for the street lights that glow the same orange as home.
I smile and I listen and I drift back to sleep.
There’s a newspaper under the door, and a cup of coffee comes through it. Surprisingly good, this is. But I put it on the toilet seat and it spills when the train lurches again. Oh, well. At least I was crafty enough not to spill it on myself.
There’s snow just before Chicago. I haven’t changed the time on my watch and I think we’re late. We are, but not as late as I thought.
Chicago can’t do bagels. It did however furnish me with a kindred writing spirit and citizen of the world, whom I’m glad to have met, someone from whom I think I could learn a lot.
I check in with my reservation and sit in the Lounge. Families and older people and businessmen. I’m wearing a big coat, carrying my backpack, and I’ve draped my handbag around my neck and perched it on top of the backpack, quite happily closed and balanced and working with me. Someone says: you look like you’ve done this before.
This pleases me.
A blue rinse pipes up: She shouldn’t be on her own! A short while later she boards a train bound for California, and I’m thinking: Lady, how about you go back to wherever it is you came from, and I’ll just do my thing?
I take a people carrier to the platform, and get on the next train. My room in this one is only slightly bigger than the last one.
I’m settling in and someone comes in to take my dinner order. I say I’ll just go to the car, because I don’t expect to be sitting alone from Wednesday to Friday, thank you.
People in wheelchairs don’t go to the dining car.
Look me in the eye and say that again.
After playing yourwebsitesays, it was decided that I would go to the Lounge car the next day. Getting off the train during a cigarette stop, to go in the Lounge car door from the outside. The dining car itself I couldn’t get to.
Later, there’s a knock.
A minister and his wife wants to come and sit with you, whispers the dude(tte).
Thanks, but no.
I have chicken again, but this time I have the chocolate cake. I read and I write and I listen and I try not to feel trapped.
I actually feel more settled, because this was a longer haul, more conversations to listen to. I write and I read and I listen. Pop more sweets. The bed gets pulled out, I yank at the sheets so they’re not short, and I fall asleep.
The first breakfast is announced at half six. There’s more coffee and another paper. We’re stopping and starting again, and again. Again. Someone’s birthday is announced.
I only move when the train is stopped. There’s bracing and holding onto edges, and life is good. My door is open so my room is not mistaken for a thruway or a bathroom. I’m described as ‘the world traveler at the end of the hall’
I use an outlet to plug in my phone charger, and I get on the floor to reach it. I’m dressed, and my arse isn’t that big, and the halls are quiet, so the door stays open.
I’m on the floor, and someone says: can I help you? I swivel, and there’s someone standing in the doorway. Turns out to be the minister from the night before, but I don’t figure that out until later.
I get up and sit in the window seat, and we’re talking and he’s Canadian and like the fact I live in Scotland (I love Canadians, honestly), and he and he’s wife would like to have lunch with me. OK. I figure he’s not the patronizing type, so they bring sandwiches from the diner, and I sit in my chair so they both have a place to sit that’s not the toilet.
They say grace and I go with it. The wife admires my necklace, and I say the pendant is the Maori symbol for new beginnings. Moving swiftly on.
As we sit, they are on their way back from Katrina relief, by way of a Harley Davidson meet. They have 18 bikes and one RV and two kids. Recently retired, they are looking forward to Scuba Diving, more often. Well.
Lovely people who made a long journey not a weary one.
They leave me somewhere in North Dakota. I’m taking pictures until the scenery makes me weep, and then I stop with the camera because I want to see what I’m seeing with my eyes.
I go to the Lounge car and the sun sets. I write post-cards and read local papers and watch Walk the Line for a third time. I talk to people on their way to Portland and another attendant who reminds me of the Howard guy from those Bank adverts.
Another cigarette break sees me back in my room. I write and I read and I think and I sleep through Portland.
I’m not too late for breakfast so I have another transit meal, a newspaper, a coffee.
The Harley couple makes their way into my room and stays until their stop. They bring with them someone they met at breakfast. We somehow don’t avoid politics and I like my Canadian friends so much that I almost regret saying:
Yes, but the monarchy doesn’t do anything, really.
They were quite shocked.
We say goodbye, and they reach their stop.
The last hour turns to two, I snap the Puget Sound, we get stuck between freight trains. Wait and wait.
My friend looks everywhere but in my window. I’m the last one off the train.
I get on solid ground and I actually do feel thousands of miles from where I’ve been.
Every single one of them.