Trip 2010 – The Train Ride

Scott, Julia & I finished our walk through China Town and I packed up my things and headed to Penn Station. A few weeks prior I purchased a one-way train ticket from New York to Portland, OR. The first leg, the Lake Shore Limited, rolls across NY state, touches Pennsylvania and goes along the northern border of Ohio following the edge of Lake Eerie with stops in Buffalo & Cleveland then follows the northern border of Indiana through Gary to Chicago and mostly at night. The sun set as we were climbing through the Adirondacks and I made conversation with a couple of college boys who were on their way back to their mid-west colleges after seeing their favorite band in Manhattan. Normally I keep to myself, but this 3 day train trip was my challenge to be more social. My other challenge (and significant worry) was whether I would be able to climb a tree every day as I traveled across the country. Train tickets stipulate that travelers may NOT get on and off at stops as they please. Riders must only exit at their ticketed destination. But, lucky for me and all the smokers aboard, they made plenty of stops along the way with breaks to stretch our legs just outside the cars. It was hopeful but not entirely certain that we would stop in a place with ample trees.

The morning came and I awoke to gray skies. We rumbled slowly through Gary, IN in what seemed an endless procession of industrial loading tracks and piles of steel and containers. I was listening to Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of this Country album whose mood seemed to fit perfectly with the scenery. We entered the Chicago station and I exited the car with all my belongings with a 6 hour lay-over ahead of me. I decided to take a walk.


A coffee at Dunkin Donuts, then a stroll towards Lake MI and Grant Park. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was downtown but I know my way well enough once I hit the parks. After spending some time at the (what I call) Married With Children fountain, I climbed a tree. Thankfully it was still very cold and no one seemed to be out in the park.

Then I headed to Millennium Park and walked over Gehry’s winding bridge, across the amphitheater, and over to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, or the big bean mirror.

After the outdoor art sculptures I was in the mood to see the Art Institute’s Museum. I walked into the building and stopped first in the gift shop. I had on my coat, my large backpack plus a messenger bag, and with my beard I must have looked like a homeless traveler because I was asked to leave. I had money and all I wanted to do was spend it there to view the art…but no. So I walked around outside a little while longer before heading back slowly, stopping in shops on the way back to the station to pick up some post cards and lunch.

After a long boring wait at Union Station, I finally boarded the Empire Builder train bound for Portland. Traveling on a budget, my ticket did not include a sleeping compartment. I had to establish a home on a seat and pack my bag with non-perishable food items.

There was a snack/viewing car and a dining car but the meals where all over $15 and the snacks also expensive for their quality. I picked my seat and spread out hoping to have both seats to sprawl out on during the fitful slumber. The constant moan and gentle rumble of the train rolling on the tracks is actually quite relaxing. The problem is the constant jerky, squeaking stops in small towns where all the smokers brush past my feet then return reeking of smoke.

The light dimmed through Wisconsin and I slept through most of Minnesota. I woke early and went to the snack car to get a coffee and watch the flat grassy fields zoom by. It is really amazing to see the country by train. I’ve driven from Louisville, KY to Seattle, WA via Interstate 90 but the view from the road seems so much more mundane than the rails. We passed right through small town main streets, behind farms and along lakes and streams. The impact of rails on the landscape is far less than the miles of concrete highways. I would sometimes go down to the first level of the train car to where the bathrooms and sleeper compartments were to stare out the door window. So much closer to the ground, the tan and brown sleeping farms with patches of snow swept by so much faster. I couldn’t tell you the speed of the train but the rushing scenery with the struggle to stand balanced without support was an enjoyable and thrilling ride. But all this I couldn’t really enjoy till I found a stop to climb.

In Minot, ND, we had a 45 minute smoke stop. I ran out of the car and went over near the small station.


I was so nervous I was going to be spotted and questioned I tried to pick a tree out of site. I picked in haste and found myself shimmying up the trunk of a smallish tree to the first branch, grabbed my camera out of my pocket and snapped just a few shots in a rush before sliding back down and feeling relieved the pressure of the loss of my streak was over, but disappointed in the caliber of my climb.

Around lunch I was back in the snack car looking out the large windows scanning the people looking for friendly faces to accomplish my next challenge. I saw two women around my age playing cards a few tables away. It took me about 30 minutes to build my courage before I walked over, slowly, nervous, heart pounding to say my rehearsed lines, “hey, can I join you?” I had gone through many other versions that included my name as an introduction and I debated whether “hi” or “hey” was a more relaxed opener. I paused awkwardly and swallowed in the middle of one of my words, but they smiled and said “of course!” We proceeded to get to know one another as I beat them handily at Phase 10. From that moment on, I would see them often back in our car or for snacks in the viewing car. One of them even bought a couple pairs of my crane earrings. They introduced me to a couple other people they had met. One guy lives in Portland and works for Trader Joe’s, and he explained why Kentucky probably would never get a store due to our outdated liquor laws. And I met a graffiti artist who has been traveling by train selling his works on paper for years. Challenge accomplished!

The sun started to set just as we were moving through Glacier Park. I spent most of the time in the viewing car listening to Sigur Ros trying to ignore the woman and man sitting next to me argue about the most inane things. The guy was drinking cans of Coors Light arguing that camping would be great out in the mountains passing by because you would be so secluded. She stated that it wasn’t her kind of camping, but he insisted that she was wrong and proceeded to make some argument about watching the History Channel and knowing no man had ever set foot on the particular mountain we happened to be passing. Despite the distraction, it was a beautiful way to end the day.

The night was long and a man ended up sitting down next to me right before I fell asleep forcing me to sit straight making it difficult to stay asleep for more than 30 minutes at a time. Luckily he got off in Spokane and I got a few more restful and sprawling hours of slumber before waking just before dawn to sit in the snack car alone with my cup of coffee to watch the sun rise over the Columbia River. This was by far the most amazing view and few hours of the entire trip. As the bright sun rose the lush green landscape was brilliant with colorful orchards and craggy and mossy cliffs. The two women I met the day before came and joined me for a while and we all had a very honest conversation about out lives. There is nothing like a long train ride to get to know strangers really well really fast.

Soon we were crossing the Columbia River from Vancouver, WA into Portland, OR. The trip was over but my West Coast adventure was just about to begin.