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trip blog: an exercise in banality

August 1, 2011

Thursday July 28, 2011 (8:30-9pm): Sitting on the ‘empire builder,’ travelling much the same path as Lewis and Clark did on their journey towards the Pacific, I have nothing but time—time to think, to listen to old Megadeth albums and to enjoy the beauty of the Columbia Gorge in the light of the setting sun. Sitting here alone, Cryptic Writings blasting through my headphones and one of the most majestic rivers I’ve ever seen outside my window, I can’t help feeling a little badass, as if I there’s nothing I couldn’t do or be.

I’m glad I decided to take the train, even if I do end up getting stranded in Chicago. I don’t mind. This unadulterated time is more precious to me than getting somewhere ‘on time.’ In our fast-paced, 21st century world, it often seems to me like we never have enough ‘time’—like we’re always moving, from one task to the next, like a shark that’ll die if it stops swimming or something. But at least for tonight, I feel like I have all the time in the world. I don’t really have anywhere I have to be, or any time that I have to be there (although there’s a time I’d definitely like to be somewhere).

P.S. Happy Birthday, Mom. See you soon.

Friday July 29, 2011 (7am): Woke up to the sunrise over some anonymous mountain range, then had breakfast with some random family before retiring to the lounge car. Although slightly overpriced, the breakfast wasn’t half bad. They even had grits. (A seriously underrated breakfast item, if you ask me.) There’s nothing better than enjoying some eggs, grits and a hot cup of coffee while whizzing through mountainous farmland. Now I’m just sipping on my third cup of coffee and taking in the sights from the lounge. I have no idea where we are (somewhere between Idaho and Montana I’m guessing), but we’re travelling through a valley alongside a beautiful green river surrounded by even greener forested hills. Pretty awesome.

(8am): Coming up to Libby, MT. Not sure if we’ve made up any of the time we lost leaving so late last night, but I find myself hoping so. I retract what I said yesterday when I said that I feel as if I there’s nothing I couldn’t do or be and that I don’t mind if I get stranded in Chicago. A combination of hunger, weariness from lack of sleep and a vague feeling of anxiety were sufficient enough to remind me of my fragile humanity. I don’t feel bad per se; but I certainly don’t feel invincible, either. A few daytime cocktails might take care of that, however. I’m still glad I took the train, but I can’t wait to get where I’m going. Then again, I wonder if I’ll feel the same once I get there. Heh.

I’m listening to Sunnypsyop by ohGr as I write this. I really love this album. I’m glad Zach reintroduced me to ohGr/Skinny Puppy. I’d moved away from industrial over the years, listening more to black metal and electronic dance music than anything else; but recently (especially after seeing that industrial show at the Fez), ohGr, Dead When I Found Her and Zeromancer have been my constant companions (although Lady Gaga still makes an appearance every now and then, as well). Reminds me of the mid-to-late 90s, when I was really into bands like KMFDM, Ministry and shit like that. God, I suddenly feel so old. Where did the past decade+ go? Time is like a thief in the night—robbing you blind while you sleep through it all. Sneaky bastard.

Apparently, the elk population outnumbers the human population of Montana. That’s how it should be.

(Noon): Finally got around to reading some more of Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. What a great book. Hell, what a great writer. My words could never do either of them justice.

(1pm): A lot more people boarded the train earlier today at Whitefish, MT. Met one of them in the dining car during lunch from Rochester, NY. Can’t remember his name (if he even told me), but he’s an architect who has his own firm, employing approximately 16 people, and has spent the past few weeks (months?) camping and riding his bike from Washington (Seattle?) to Whitefish, MT, covering about 800 miles in all. It sounds absolutely brutal, but it’s easy to see why the crazy bastard would do it; we’re passing through Glacier Park and the scenery is incredible. I also just realized that I need to listen better and stop being so self-absorbed.

For lunch, I ended up going for the salad (lettuce with orange slices, sugar beets and feta cheese), followed by bread pudding and a cup of coffee.

(1:30pm): Looks like we might be passing through the Rockies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if we’ve made up any of the time we lost due our late start yet, but the view alone almost makes up for it. A little Cut Copy seems like an appropriate choice here for some reason.

(2pm): And back to ohGr (undeveloped). Just can’t get enough. We’re in Blackfeet territory now.

(2:30pm): Arriving at East Glacier. The park is said to be a “hiker’s paradise” with over 700 miles of trails. Picking up another large group of travelers, it seems.

(3pm): I feel happy. I guess that seems noteworthy to me since I have nothing but time to explore what happiness itself actually feels like.

Listening to Gary Numan and eating beef jerky as we pass fields of grazing cattle. Is that a twinge of guilt I feel? Whatever the case, it goes really well with the dried mangoes.

(3:30pm): Passing through Cut Bank, an area noted for “the coldest midwinter temperatures in the country.” It seems pretty desolate. I feel sorry for the people who live out here.

(4pm): Windmills and cows as far as the eye can see. Sigh. If only life could always be this carefree.

(5:30pm): Dozed off for a bit after Shelby, another dull looking town that was (a) the host of the 1923 championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons and (b) 1 of only 3 locations in the US that has an antipode (which happens to be the Kerguelen Islands). Not even windmills or cows to look at now; mostly just parched-looking farm and grassland, although an occasional mountain or two can be seen in the distance. I’m kind of pissed that I may get screwed out of dinner, though. Apparently, unlike breakfast and lunch, which is first come first serve, they go by taking reservations for dinner, and they totally skipped me. I heard one lady behind me say that dinner is fully booked up and they’re on a waiting list. They probably took one look at me and thought, “Fuck that guy. He ain’t eatin’ shit for dinner.” And I was really looking forward to the pasta, too. I guess I’ll settle for a microwaved vegan burger from the lounge, which my stomach will then hate me for. Fuckers.

Listening to Bizaar by ICP. Haven’t heard this album in forever. Shit still cracks me up.

(6pm): Stopped at a place with rolling hills called Havre. I’m official tired of sitting.

(6:30pm): All the attendants seem to be pretty worn out at this point. Questions especially get on their nerves, and they seemed skeptical about not getting asked about dinner reservations. The good news is, I asked about dinner and got myself put on the waiting list. I’ll be eating around 9pm if I’m lucky. (I may have eaten that vegan burger in vain.) The bad news is that we’re being held back again, this time due to having to “water the train.” It seems the station in North Dakota they usually do this at is closed due to all the flooding, and a westbound train just beat us to the filling area. I’m all but guaranteed to miss my second train now. Options include spending the night in Chicago and waiting for the next train to Michigan or getting bused there if there are enough people who are stranded with me to warrant chartering one. Nobody I’ve talked to yet is going that way, however, so I doubt the latter will happen. I thought trains were supposed to be all efficient and shit. Fuck. Hopefully this Corona will help subdue the enormous amount of irritation that’s building up inside of me.

(7pm): For some reason, the Border Patrol is making rounds on the train. Our tax dollars at worker, right? Pfft. I mean, seriously. What in the hell could they possibly be looking for? It’s not like we’re coming from Ciudad Juarez or anything.

On a lighter note, I saw an Amish lady sporting a fresh-ass pair of Filas. You know it’s sad when the Amish have better kicks than you.

(10pm): Made it to dinner. They ran out of the pasta, though. I ended up going with the children’s mac & cheese and tiramisu for dessert. Ate with a really nice older couple and a young girl who was studying to be an entrepreneur (and who I just discovered is sitting right behind me when she told me the ETA to Chicago is now at least 3 hours past schedule with floss hanging out of my mouth) even though her family just gave her their old business in Washington while they pursued some other opportunity back in North Dakota. Must be nice. I feel like the only unemployed asshole on this train. Sigh. I guess I’ll try to sleep since there’s not much else to do. Good night, cruel, beautiful world.

Saturday July 30, 2011 (4:45am): Managed to sleep a little. Finally ran into some bad weather. The sky is filled with heat lightning. The girl sitting behind me got off in Rugby, ND, the geographical centre of North America. I felt a little sad. Funny how things like that happen. Just because she showed me an ounce of kindness by looking up the ETA in Chicago on her smart phone for me, I was emotionally invested enough in her as a person to almost give a shit that she was gone, while I could seemingly care less about the hundreds of other passengers who are probably equally worth a moment of my fleeting attention.

(7am): Passed through Devils Lake, the site of a “mammoth struggle between thunderbirds and water monsters.” Had eggs and grits again for breakfast. Less enjoyable this time, though. Everyone’s tired and pissed off, especially because were so behind schedule. I don’t know what I’m going to do in Chicago. I hope the station is still open when we arrive; otherwise I’m sleeping on the streets of the Windy City with damn near half of everything I own. It doesn’t help that I’ve already spent what little money I had on food, either. Damn my insatiable gluttony.

(8am): Listening to Portrait of an American Family and wishing I was 18 again. Almost to Grand Forks, ND—yet another prime piece of real estate important to Native Americans ‘settled’ by the White Man. They don’t call it the ‘empire builder route’ for nothing.

(11am): Just left Fargo, ND, 9 hours behind schedule. Not sure how I’m going to get from Chicago to Detroit now, let alone what time or even day. I probably won’t know anything until I get to Union Station in Chicago. Starting to wish I’d flown.

Passed a couple of hours after breakfast talking to a scruffy looking nerf herder who sounds like he’s got tuberculosis that got on the train at Rugby, ND. I think his name is Tim. I think he might be a vet, too. The train was 5 hours late getting to Rugby, so the poor guy had to sleep outside in the rain. He seems used to it, though. He showed me some pictures he took on his cell phone of all the flood damage near the place he was staying in ND. I offered to buy him a coffee, but he said no and later ate some instant coffee straight out of the jar. Pretty hardcore.

(1pm): We stopped at Detroit Lake, MN, right around noon. What a tease. They must have named it that just to taunt me.

Had lunch with a nice bloke from Chicago and a gentleman from North Carolina. The former was a history major while the latter was in the restaurant business (and who mentioned that he lives in the same home his family has lived in since before the Revolutionary War). I’m starting to get the feeling that most of the people on this train have the time and money to just travel. As for myself, out of the $140 I brought with me, I have $35 left. I’m trying to take the attitude of ‘Whatever happens, happens,’ but I’m such a control freak that the not-knowing is threatening to cause me a fair amount of anxiety. My sanity hinges entirely on what happens after I get to Chicago, so I guess I can relax until then.

(4:15pm): Arrived at St. Paul-Minneapolis’ Midway Station, which is not only midway between the two cities, but the Equator and North Pole as well. Still 9-10 hours behind schedule. An announcement made a little before we arrived said that we wouldn’t have to spend the night at Chicago’s Union Station unless we wanted to, but didn’t provide any more information than that. I assume it means putting us up in a cheap room for the night or throwing us on a bus depending on where we’re going. Connection information may or may not be provided by the time we reach Milwaukie. Sooo informative. Tim got off here. He came up with a good idea for a Twilight Zone episode where a guy is on a train and each stop is the same town no matter how long or how far they travel. That’s kind of how it feels to me right now, like I’m never going to reach my destination. He was good company. I just hope I don’t end up getting TB.

(5:30pm): They announced that since we’re so behind schedule, they’re offering a complimentary dinner to all the passengers, starting with the sleeping cars first and then working their way through coach. I’m not sure what I’ll end up getting, though, since I’m in the last car and they tend to run out of things fairly quickly. But I should look at the bright side; at least I’ll be full while I’m stranded in Chicago.

Speaking of dinner, since I’ve been eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, I’ve gotten fairly acquainted with the dining room staff. One lady, Joyce, is really nice. I like it when I’m put at one of her tables. Rudy, on the other, is a complete dick that’s apparently hard of hearing and acts like it’s your fault he can’t hear what you’re saying. It doesn’t help that he stands as far away as possible when taking your order, either. The main host, Magan, is relatively nice, as well; although she’s running on empty at this point and chugging Red Bull just to keep going. I feel bad for them since it’s the same four people working each food service, which usually starts at 6am for breakfast and ends about 10ish for dinner, and with only a couple of hours rest in between.

One interesting aspect of this trip has been observing the conflicting range of emotions and thoughts that have continually arisen, as well as the interplay between external circumstances outside my control and my reactions to them. I began this trip full of high hopes and feeling invincible; now I’m just hoping for a shower and a change of clothes. It’s been a good test of character in a way, seeing how I really act when push comes to shove and I’m confronted with less than ideal circumstances. (I’ve failed some, and passed others.) It’s also been a good opportunity to practice patience. (I just hope I don’t use all my patience up surviving this train ride and then act like a total prick once I finally make it to Michigan.) It’s funny how a simple train ride has become an exploration of what it means to be human, from my social interactions with other people on an emotional level to seeing just how much care this physical body of mine needs.

(6:30pm): I’m starting to get hungry. Yeah, I’d totally resort to cannibalism if I ever had too. Just saying.

(8:30pm): Got lucky. They decided to start with our car, the last, and work their way towards the dining car. Dinner consisted of mashed potatoes covered in some kind of stew (beef?) and a roll. Not bad considered it was free. Ate with a lady from Chicago and a couple from Florida heading to Virginia. They all seemed pleasant enough. On my way out, I said hi to Joyce, who told me to come back in about an hour and she’d hook me up with a free coffee since she knows that I like it. Going back to what I was thinking about earlier, particularly my social interactions with other people, this just goes to show that even small acts of kindness – a ‘Hello’ here and ‘How are you holding up’ there — can and does make a difference (and, for people who need some kind of incentive to be nice, they can pay off too).

Relaxing with some Varttina.

(9:40pm): Just as I was on my way to get my coffee, they announced that everyone with a connection in Chicago will be put up for the night since we’re 10 hours late and everyone will have missed their trains. Not sure where, yet, but I could really use a shower. Finally got some cell phone reception, and according to Annie, it looks like there are 3 trains that run from Chicago to Detroit/Royal Oak tomorrow: one at 7:30am, one at 12:16pm and one at 6pm.

On a completely unrelated note, I like how they point out in the “Empire Builder Route Guide” that, “Milwaukee is the only major city in the U.S. to have elected three socialist mayors.” Hellz Yeah.

Sunday July 31, 2011 (10am): Thankfully, I ended up being one of the first off the train and to customer service at Union Station last night. There was huge line of stranded passengers behind me. Ran into one of them I ate with on the train, a civil engineer on vacation. Amtrak gave us all a room at the Hyatt Regency and $36 for food and cab fare. I went straight the hotel, watched a bit of TV and then went to sleep. I woke up at 9:15am, took a shower and am currently drinking coffee and watching RT News. I plan on heading back to the station in a few minutes to catch my lunch-time train to Royal Oak. If all goes well, I’ll be arriving at my intended destination a little past 7pm (although I wouldn’t be surprised if we got in a lot later than that).

(6:36pm): Sitting in Jackson, MI, getting an additional 30mins behind schedule waiting for a freight train to pass that has ‘priority’ (commodities over people), and that’s on top of leaving Chicago late and at least an additional hour delay due to speed restrictions placed on Amtrak by Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks between Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti. After everything that happened on the Empire Builder, I’m no longer surprised or pissed off, but resigned to the fact that travelling by train is my punishment for whatever I did to offend the universe. Bumping some Twiztid on my way to the D.

(10:30pm): Destination reached. It was definitely an interesting trip – 2 trains, 10 states and 65hrs of actual travel time – but I’m glad it’s over. I was starting to think I wouldn’t make it.

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