train tracks: a personal essay on a train tip across america

It’s not uncommon for Americans to go over to Europe and ride the rails all over but most haven’t ridden this nation’s rails extensively.

From September 7 to 10, 2003, for three and a half days I rode trains from Boston to Emeryville, changing trains once, in Chicago. I moved to California on those trains. I had known Boston as home for four years and Pittsburgh before that. Three thousand miles away, the Bay Area was almost a complete unknown. It was to be a time of new friends, new living arrangements, new streets, a new school, new supermarkets, and a new barber. I left half a day after a friend’s wedding and leaving that wedding was sort of like my farewell moment for most of the people I counted as friends there. I got on board with an ipod with only a few hours of battery life, my laptop with even less, two suitcases, a guitar and a backpack.

I didn’t have a cell phone and the train rarely stopped for long enough to have meaningful contact with people outside the train. I was very isolated for those few days.

I wrote down some thoughts at the time, when I was on the train. A few distinctive names and details have been changed to protect the innocent and I edited some small sections to make it easier to read. The rest appears as typed at the time.

Vernon L Sutphin – Lost Train Blues (mp3)

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9.7.03

7:22pm
Dido- “Thank you” (ha!)
my shoulder hurts like the dickens. I strained it getting my 75 lb. bag into the rack above my seat. I just remembered that I have vanishing scent ben-gay and I applied some. I hope it helps because right now I can’t move my right arm without it hurting. this happened in san torini too.

been reading some of naked by david sedaris. the first three or four pages are so amazingly annoying but then he settles into a style that is acceptable. he has these ticks that sound similar to those that the narrator has in motherless brooklyn. maybe he’s tourrettic.

they sell beer on trains. how about that? it’s also like $4.50. maybe I’ll get some in chicago and bring it onboard. I wonder if that’s allowed.

it’s remarkably quiet here. it’s so much quieter than a plane and it’s probably a bit quieter than a car. I have my headphones set to a level a little louder than I would in [my old room] 42 with a bunch of computers. the vibration isolation is not so hot though. walking toward the cafe car I basically fell into the wall because of some side-to-side shake.

Deer Tick – These Old Shoes (mp3)

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I got out in Albany because they gassed up and added cars there so it was a half an hour stop. I should tell Am I’ve been to Albany. there’s this strangely shaped church tower right outside the train station. it reminds me of a rocket ship.

9.8.03

9:30 am (CST)
Bob Dylan – “When the Ship comes In”

we should be in Chicago, but we’re not. I don’t think we’re in South Bend yet either. oh well. I’ll have a couple less hours in Chicago. I’m going to try to hit the Art Institute of Chicago, get a pizza and check my email using someone else’s wireless.

the Impressions – People Get Ready (mp3)

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there are some interesting characters on this train. oh boy are there ever. the guy across the aisle was talking about the details of his personal life within an hour of getting on board in Rochester. from the sounds of things he and his wife separated five months ago because she’s a johovah’s witness and he’s not (though he is some other sort of christian). his wife called him up and told him that she’s completely in love with him and that she wants him back and that she told her parents these things. So he borrowed some money to take the train across the country to Oakland to be reunited with his wife and live with her parents for a while (though they might boot them after the wife told the parents off).

the guy that he was talking to about this earlier in the ride was practicing his rap (mouthing the words, including the f), has tattoos and gets off at a bunch of stations to smoke. meanwhile he’s talking about relationships with this squirrelly guy with greasy hair and a sweater that looks about a size (or two) too big.

the Magnetic Fields – Fear of Trains (mp3)

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9.9.03
11:45am (MT)
“Gigantic” by the Pixies

We got into Chicago about 2 hours late, so I had significantly less time than I originally thought. I put my luggage into a giant (and as it turned out, expensive) luggage locker and rushed off to the Art Institute of Chicago. Score! they had a student option so I took that and ran off to look at all the artwork that I could in about an hour. I stopped for a couple minutes at George Somebodyorother’s Sunday in the La Somethingfrench. You know, that famous impressionistic work of people in this park relaxing. Yeah, that one. But other than that one, I didn’t stop too long at too many. Some nice Monets and Renoirs and whatnot there. Huge collection. Oh and a pretty sweet Thomas Struth that I saw accidentally when I ran off to the bathroom when my hour of looking at pretty stuff was up.

Belleville A Capella Choir – Gospel Train (mp3)

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I then ran off to find some good pizza but didn’t have time to get the deep dish so I got the thin stuff (hawaiian, or “tropical” as they called it) and while it was cooking I went in search of free wireless which I was a failure at. I even got something (a vanilla creamer) at a Starbucks…but [they] wouldn’t give me my internet!

I took the pizza with me on the train, so I was carrying a guitar and a pizza in one hand, a really heavy suitcase in the other and my backpack on my back. I must’ve looked really ridiculous.

The Shangri-Las – the Train from Kansas City (mp3)

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Most people had already boarded by the time I got there, so I went on. Double decker cars. I was smart and put my really heavy case in the luggage storage by the door downstairs. I figure it’s too damn heavy for anyone to want too steal it. They’ll say “ooh this one looks good” and then try to pick it up and say “ow! that one gives me a hernia!” and leave it alone. yup. that’s what’ll happen. I just switched from starting sentences with capital letters to lower case ones (except ‘I’ which needs to capitalized to show My Importance).

this train doesn’t have plugs for laptops. it pisses me off a bit.

Ed Lewis – John Henry (mp3)

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so I’m on the upper level of this coach car and it’s pretty quiet but the mail cars behinds us aren’t so I can hear them pretty well. there’s also a lounge car, where you can eat a snack or sit in these swivelly chairs and look out the windows or watch a movie. it was XMen2 yesterday. I like how I didn’t put any spaces in XMen2 up there. you like?

so I met this girl that’s sitting pretty close to me right before the movie. Alex. she’s a bit older (not sure how much), though she looks my age. it’s nice to have someone to talk to.

and she introduced me to Frid from Berlin, who’s also sitting close to us. He actually was raised in Tuebingen which is pretty close to Stuttgart. He doesn’t speak Schwaebisch. I talked German to him for a while. it was fun. he’s studying gender studies and cultural anthropology at Humbolt (?) in Berlin.

Hobart Smith – Railroad Bill (mp3)

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when we got to Denver, suddenly a trillion people got on the train. it looked like I was going to have to sit with someone anyway, so I volunteered to sit with Frid (pronounced freed by the way), so a father and daughter could sit together. I write this, of course, to let anyone who ends up reading this know what a good person I am and so when I get the emails and letters and phone calls saying “you’re such a good person. you inspire me to be good” I can say knowingly but without a hint of condescension “I know. You too can be good like me if you just try.”

wow that was annoying.

So my battery is draining quite fast, so I think I’ll stop typing for a bit.

Chad VanGaalen – Echo Train (mp3)

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oh and I almost forgot to mention that it’s really freaking cold on the train. it’s like a plane but way colder. I was woken a couple times in the night by coldness. should’ve brought a blanket. frid lent me a long sleeve shirt. I hope I don’t make it smell too much like B.O.

oh and frid thinks it’s funny when we go like 5 mph for half an hour. and he also thinks it’s funny that the top speed is 80 mph. that’s what the Bummelbahn [slow, regional train] does in Germany!

Gladys Knight & the Pips – Midnight Train to Georgia (mp3)

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9:35pm
“Hands” by Four Tet

I forgot to mention earlier about how I ate half my pizza when it was hot and then ate half of it when it was cold, sitting out for hours without being refrigerated. Did I mention this pizza had ham on it? man, I’m dumb. I felt kind of funny in the stomach in the middle of the night, but I haven’t been sick, so that’s good.

the Notwist – Off the Rail (mp3)

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I just watched The Core in the lounge car. It was horrendous and I wouldn’t recommend watching it unless you are stuck on a train with not much you can do for hours and days at a time.

I finished Naked by David Sedaris. It was pretty good. I thought it fell too much into the trap of many memoirs. It tried to put greater importance on things because if it didn’t then it wouldn’t be an exciting story.

I started You shall know our velocity! by david eggers. He’s the guy that wrote A heartbreaking work of staggering genius. It’s a novel. It’s pretty good so far. He doesn’t continue the pretentious yet endearing style he had in A.H.W.O.S.G. I sort of hoped he would. We’ll see how it goes. I still have about 18 or 20 hours on this train so I might yet make a big dent in it.

I found a plug in the smoking car, so I brought my bag of goodies here and I’m recharging everything (laptop and ipod). I’m also going to work on my protools stuff for a bit. I feel like I should do something with the harp stuff I recorded on friday but I don’t have anything in mind yet.

Explosions in the Sky – Lonely Train (mp3)

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We’re supposed to have about 40 minutes in salt lake city around midnight. I’m hoping to jump out and grab some food, such as but not limited to: a box of cereal, dinner (for tonight–haven’t eaten yet, not sure if I will), food for lunch tomorrow. Fred (as he calls himself in America) and Alex and I might have either breakfast or lunch in the dinning car. It’s expensive but not too much worse than various restaurants in Boston would be for breakfast or lunch.

I don’t live in Boston anymore. That’s weird.

I wrote code this summer that did something. Also weird.

I should call Andy when I get out to Cali. Haven’t talk to him in a while.

Oh and I also read a comic book today. Like an adult comic book. No, not that type of adult comic book, but a comic book that’s not written for children. It’s by Ariel something. It’s call Evolution maybe? I forget. It wasn’t bad at all. I sort of want to read Ghost World after having seen the movie a couple weeks ago (I did return that, right? yeah, I did). [it's Potential, unit six: ecology by Ariel Schrag]

(I wrote an email saying bye and stuff and I cried a few times while writing that. So while I didn’t cry when I left [my old house] or at the train station when I said goodbye to mike and jesse (bless them for taking me), the mushy sentimentality was there.)

Jason Molina – Long Desert Train (mp3)

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(And another thought. I thought I was going to mull over leaving and whatnot for the first day of this trip but my shoulder hurt so much (see above) that the pain was all I could think about for a while. ha! so much for sentimentality.)

9.10.03
2:05pm (about an hour behind schedule)
Bonaparte’s Retreat as played by WM Stepp (did you know a large section of
Appalachian Spring (I think) is based on this setting of bonaparte’s retreat?)

When I was leaving the wedding, I went at around saying my goodbyes and I got quiet. Like if they didn’t hear me say goodbye it wasn’t goodbye. teri and I hugged for a while. I didn’t know what to say to some people. like Elissa. “Are you going now?” “yeah. . . have. . .fun. . . ” It probably doesn’t matter because she probably didn’t hear me.

Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet – Take the ‘A’ Train (mp3)

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walking on trains is sort of like being tipsy. you don’t know exactly where your next footstep will land. if you just walk fast enough your momentum will keep you mostly on track.

I was fiddling around with ProTools stuff yesterday and this guy stopped and asked what I was doing. turns out he’s a musician and is going to San Fran to try out for a band. I played him a song I am working on and he was impressed. He played me some of the stuff he’s done and I wasn’t impressed. well good luck to him anyhow.

I had lunch in the dining car (sit down meal) with Alex and Fred. There was also a fourth person at our table (they make sure there are four at a table) no matter what. how stupid). Anyway, this fourth person was this older women coming home to San Fran from Memphis where she went to a funeral of a nephew. she was pretty nice. I had a hamburger and when it came she was like “are you
sure that’s a hamburger?” I have to admit it didn’t much look like a hamburger, but it was alright. Definitely not worth $7.25. Not even considering the fact that it was my first sit down meal since the wedding and it was my first real meal since Chicago.

Wilco – Venus Stop the Train (mp3)

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I’m about a hundred and fifty pages into You shall know our velocity by this point. It’s pretty good. A lot of the time I read just because I have nothing else to do and now I just don’t want to read any more so it doesn’t work out too well with the reading and all.

I’m counting the time left in hours now. Though at our current rate (which I swear I could easily surpass running), it seems like we might never get there. I hope R calls ahead and finds out if the trains going to be late.

otherwise, he’ll have to wait for an hour and a bit. oh well. he’ll live, I think.

R did live and I did get there a couple hours late, but he was there to pick me up.

Looking back it seems ridiculous that I rode a train for so long, for a mind-numbingly long period of time, and perhaps more ridiculous that I appreciated it at all, but I did: it gave me some necessary space between the two end points of that journey. Reading through this journal again, there is one other thing that really strikes me: I was so young and scared. Barely out of college and unsure of everything to come other than that I was going to be on a train for a few days.

There’s something so majestic about train travel. The rhythmic rattle of wheels on the tracks. The time to see the surroundings. The reasonably fast but not unleisurely pace. It’s easy to imagine men, women and children making the same journey 150 years ago, doing what I was doing: moving west to start a new part of their life.



8 Responses to “train tracks: a personal essay on a train tip across america”

  1. Erica AP says:

    Wow… That was a great post. So honest. :)

  2. scott says:

    loved that brief section when you describe saying goodbye to folks at the wedding, stumbling through one and then dismissing it because she probably didn’t hear you; a funny, poignant moment, that. and an excellent post.

  3. Dave T. says:

    my favorite post so far….

  4. This is such an awesome post. Way to be diligent about writing that stuff down… it’s hard sometimes to keep that stuff up on the road. Very well written, too.

  5. amazing post. I was trying to do the same thing on my trip around SE asia but i quit after about…the first week. so PROPS!
    excellent work.
    -tamara

  6. adrian says:

    Thanks, all. I appreciate the positive feedback.

  7. Gail Ray says:

    I had the wonderful opportunity to reunite w/ my girl friend from 3rd grade. I pick her up @ the Emeryville Train Station…after 30plus years.I had one of the best weekends ever w/ her. She was very relaxed and to pick her up was very convenient. I was able to leave home 15 minutes prior to her arrival.
    People get ready cause the train is coming!

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