A photo series riding the Amtrak Empire Builder train through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.Read More
Another day on the cold steel road, more lessons. The third day of my Amtrak train adventure across America taught me about life in a timeline, and why you should take advantage of every moment.
It was through hazy grey-blue eyes that I felt as though I could travel through most of the history of the United States.
Marge, with those time traveling cloud-like eyes which matched the color of her knit sweater, told in her sweet yet lively voice of days long past.
Long past and disappearing. She smiled, possibly reminiscing about a love of her life once upon a time. Or maybe some trip she had taken in her reckless youth that stoked up a small fire in memory.
Like the trip I was on.
“Everything is disappearing so fast. But I do remember some things. The important things. The things that matter the most. It’s never the moments of everyday life you remember when your 80”
After she revealed that she had just turned 80 a week prior, I marveled at her sprightliness.
Though the wrinkles in her skin could trace through a long-lived and storied life, her energy was young and her voice was strong.
“That’s what it’s about. Doing things worth remembering.” I said.
Over matching spinach omelets we talked. A young lad who has lived through cartoons about infinity and beyond and the fall of human interaction was sharing stories with a young soul who had lived through a World War which brought a nation together, and NASA actually reaching infinity and beyond.
“My mother and father were born in the late 1800’s. As a little girl they told me about horse and buggies. About the First World War and the second one. I lived through us reaching the moon and the invention of the television.”
“You know you’ve truly lived when you think about all of that stuff.”
“It’s a shame the nation stopped dreaming big.” I said.
“Yes, there are so many values we have forgotten in time, so many things that brought us to amazing heights as a people.” She said.
So many things we have forgotten.
Our waiter Kevin, mid 40’s with a white buzz haircut and a helluva’ cheeky personality, came by the table and interrupted our meaning of life ponderings.
“So what do you think those brown cows think about this while BLACK Angus beef craze?!“
The dining car erupted in laughter. This guy was one of the big reasons I love train travel. Because the love it. But I was also thinking now about how far away that steak I might eat at a restaurant comes, and how much work the people out here whom we never think about do.
I never expected to be uncovering lost values of a nation, or discovering things I have forgotten over time, or take for granted each day.
The night before I had left my window shades open in that space capsule like sleeper purposely to be woken up at sunrise. And just as I had hoped, the sights outside my window were worth waking to slithering through North Dakota. Reminiscent of 1960’s upholstery, the United States was dressed in green, orange, and yellow brush as far as the eye could see.
Though, as I mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t be only different views visually that would captivate me.
It was good to be outside again, though it was much colder than the last time I was off that train. The train hissed and chugged while cigarettes of desperate smokers lit up quick.
“I don’t have much time left on this earth, but from what I see in this country is a damn shame.”
I overheard an older white-haired man talking with the Amtrak attendant while on a rest stop in Milot.
He looked down at the ground with somber glassy eyes shaking his head.
“Every other first world country out there has a few main focuses. Transportation, mainly rail. Education. Healthcare. They know that those are the backbone of the country. That it matters for the people who live there.”
He had flicked each finger up fiercely to exaggerate each of the three points.
“In the US, we’ve been trained to embrace speed and noise. We miss out on everything now. We miss out on the journey in life. We are racing toward death. We fly to get from place to place as fast as possible while being treated like sacks of potatoes on airlines.”
He bent over to rub his aged knees, most likely from the brisk North Dakota air.
“Just speed and noise, the enemy of life.”
The Amtrak attendant shook his head agreeing with the statements made.
“And this is why I work for Amtrak…”
Later in the afternoon I sat writing all of the days conversations in my journal.
As the ink swirled in cursive along the paper, those conversations set in deep.
The sun hung at 3 O’clock in the sky with the Empire Builder pushing deeper into the plains of North Dakota. Silver pools polka-dotted reed marshes outside the window reflecting cotton ball clouds.
In moments like these, it is hard to decipher what is upside down and what is right side up. Reality becomes obscured. But in moments where the sky and the clouds blur together with the earth and the water into an infinite symmetry, does it matter?
I was on an adventure, and even though I was nervous and feeling a tad bit turned upside down myself, I was leaving the speed and noise behind. I was listening to the people and sopping up Mother Natures juicy sights like a sponge.
It felt like I was doing something important.
A couple of hours after we had left Milot through the golden plans, silver pools, and puffy clouds, I attended my first ever wine tasting.
And of course I expected it to be pretentious.
Tons of people I know love to go to wine tastings. They love to dress up, sit down, be served a puny amount of wine. They love to swirl it around, snort the aroma into their nostrils as they sip loudly bit by bit. And then they spit it out into a bucket like a California rancher with chewing tobacco.
The only time I’d go through that much effort to try something would be for whiskey. But I’ve been to whiskey tastings. They give me a full shot, and they never ask me to spit it out…
The dining cart filled up with what would later be described by a lady much older than myself as the geriatric herd. I laughed awkwardly, but it did feel as though I was the youngest in the room by 40 years at least. And it was amusing to me about all of the stares I got from said geriatric herb wondering why a young buck was crashing their wine tasting.
Jim and Dorothy entered the dining car, commanding attention of the eager sniffers and sippers with wine bottles from around the region. And even though wine would normally be a bore, the extensive knowledge each knew about the wine itself and their enthusiasm was surprisingly captivating.
They poured each wine and told us all of the fun tidbits and unique traits of each, but I was there for a buzz and the cheese.
I freakin’ love cheese.
And as everyone tasted each, I heard no snorting or slipping. As I tried each, I was shamefully enjoying the whole experience. You can be damn sure I was the first to dive into the cheeses too since everyone else was too polite to make the first move.
For the chardonnay, one was floral and crisp and you could smell the rose. The other, dangerously buttery and smooth. For the pinot noir, one had sweet cherry and chocolate flavor, with the other having more of a light sip and after bite.
And I cannot believe I just described my wine to you…but I had unexpectedly enjoyed the whole experience. Jim toward the end auctioned off nearly 10 bottles of wine. With their years, those wine tasting older whipper-snappers beat me in trivia knowledge as well.
Another small ignorance shattered.
And meet me at a pub quiz sometime for round two!
The sun sank sadder into the horizon giving the landscape a stark melancholy feel. Bare and gnarled skeleton trees clawed at the white-washed sky. We were passing through the badlands. The wind-swept monochrome plains were broken up by scars in the ground sprouting out armies for the same twisted trees and I fell asleep staring as it all passed by.
When I awoke in the twilight before pitch night, my disorientation took off to new heights after looking at my clock and not understanding how it was the same exact time as when I had fallen asleep.
The clocks had set back an hour since daylight savings ended, and the clocks traveled further back two hours passing through North Dakota.
As I gazed out my window when we pulled into an unknown station, a small spot illuminated by a dim street light shown a foot of snow on a lonely bench. The feeling was dreamlike and surreal, as if I was traveling through different earthly planes.
The large snowflakes fell slowly, dancing in the lap light like a waltz as they descended and I imagined the song of a wind up music box would be fitting.
Lights and glimpses of snow flashed by as we passed through small blanketed towns. It was slow-moving and quiet. I was away from the speed and the noise. I was alone but didn’t feel lonely.
I was pondering life, and all of those conversations I listened to during the day again.
I was doing something I’d remember when I’m 80, something that might make me smile in my later fleeting years. I was traveling through the forgotten lands of the United States on the forgotten yet romantic way of travel. The train.
I was experiencing different ways of life all the while on the path to change my own. I was seeing reality through cloud-like eyes, and glassy somber eyes, and the eyes of the passionate train conductors.
I was on a journey uncovering the world and my hidden self.
I was on my way.
Like this story? Get caught up on all of the other days on this gnarly train adventure across the United States!
READ – DAY 1: Closure.
READ – DAY 2: Discovery.
READ – Ginos East vs. Giordanos: A Deep Dish Love Affair
**DISCLOSURE** I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a free trip courtesy of Amtrak Blog for review purposes. The opinions, photos, videos, and use of the word “gnarly” are completely my own based on my experience.
Your life can change in an instant, or with one simple choice — like one I made to take an Amtrak train across America. After a year stateside working and saving up money, the pull of my nomadic soul began again. I needed to travel. So, on a whim, I booked a flight to Thailand from California. I just had to get there. And what better way to see the United States than by rail.
Today began just like every other day.
I woke up at the shriek of my alarm clock.
I peeled myself off of the couch that I’ve been sleeping on for the past 3 months.
I brushed my teeth.
And then I looked in the mirror. I smiled.
I smiled at myself because today wasn’t just any other day. Today, looking in that mirror, I knew was a day that was extra ordinary.
Today I was not having to rush into work and serve other people for their own pleasure. Today I wasn’t having to fit myself like a gear into the massive money machine construct that is our dear capitalistic nation.
Today was profound.
Today meant I was doing something great.
Today I would do something abnormal. Abstract. Odd. Unexpected.
Today was the day I take a step that will unravel an adventure spanning thousands of miles and multiple time zones.
Today I would begin spanning different landscapes, environments, and cities. Spanning multiple countries and cultures.
Most of all, today marked the start of a journey spanning the far reaches of my dream. This time, that dream wasn’t clouded in a haze of depression and self-doubt. This day, today, I knew I was embarking on a trip of transformation and discovery.
Today, looking in that mirror, I truly felt alive.
Outside, November was throwing one helluva fit. She wailed and cried, hissed and spit. I woke up early, even though I had a late train, for the sole purpose of visiting my parents at the cemetery to say my goodbyes.
For a lad without a car and carrying a massive backpack filled with his entire life, it was quite a far way. I was determined to continue my ritual of leaving a pair of my worn and torn chucks at their graves before I left.
It always represented me leaving my past behind. By leaving my chucks which were falling apart at the seams, I saw it as myself leaving my tattered heart and soul behind to start anew.
But November it seemed, would not break her chaotic emotions, and by the time the weather lightened up, it was too late to visit them.
I took a deep breath and accepted this unfortunate scenario. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe, just as this trip was vastly different emotionally for me than all before, it was time to give up the ritual.
No more was I trying to leave my past behind and forget it. I wasn’t trying to ditch my tattered heart and soul with my dead parents in hopes to find something new. I’ve come to terms with my past and faced my demons as of late. This was a trip to build my self in its entirety into something great.
I’ve accepted my past and I’ve finally found closure.
I finished packing the last of my belongings into my light blue REI pack. Embarrassing fact — it’s a girls backpack, and the only one that fit me.
Another funny thing you realize when you pack your entire life into a backpack is that you see just exactly what belongs. That’s the difference between belongings and possessions people rarely see.
I hauled the hefty pack on and proceeded to do that chicken dance you have to just so you can tighten the straps in the proper fashion.
Hip straps pulled tight. Top straps over the shoulder pulled forward. Bent over, shoulder straps pulled backwards tight. Wiggle until comfortable.
Once situated, I plopped my even heavier tech bag on the front of my body. Every type of electronic you can imagine lives in that, and I know you might think they are all possessions, but they all totally belong in my life. Tech junky.
After a once over of the apartment so not to forget anything (which I would discover later that I did forget something important) I said my goodbyes to a best friend, and started my way to Union Station looking like an awkward human RV.
I soon found myself within the low-lit vaulted ceilings of Union Station in Washington DC. All of my great adventures have started here, and being around all of the travelers scurrying about like busy ants gives you that feeling of perpetual movement.
Yet, most people in this ebb and flow of bodies were there for business, cycling through endlessly each day, whereas I felt like a stationary being trapped in a timelapse. Everyone was in such a rush and all avoiding eye contact with anybody else.
Some people waited at the timetable boards staring as if their mental complaints about it not showing their arrival time yet would have any effect on the screen. I had no need to rush around anymore. And I had no need to wait around for things to change.
My train, the Amtrak 29 Capital Limited to Chicago, arrived on time and we all shuffled forth to board. We were down a platform between two polished silver Amtrak superliners painted American red and blue, and my eye widened with marvel as we passed by these great hissing steel beasts.
The benefit of these long distance trains is the massive amount of leg space provided, easily beating out airlines for comfort.
And to my delight, it seems as though these older trains had been freshersized a tad bit. No more tacky rainbow-colored confetti print that gives you a headache to look at. Ya’ know, that décor that looks like a kiddo with a crayon got a hold of a Rorschach graphic. Now, at least for this train, they’ve dressed it in the dark Amtrak blue that is much easier on the eyes.
Immediately after departure, I took to the viewing car to kick my chucks back and enjoy the views. The storm had passed giving way to a clear blue sky.
Then we were off.
With a screech and a clunk and a hiss and a few other noises, the train pulled out of Union Station. And thus my gnarly American train adventure began!
From floor to ceiling in the panoramic viewing car I watched ivy covered oaks and sycamores flash by in the blur of orange, crimson, and gold of autumn.
Sunlight flecked through one side of the train dancing shadows across my leather-bound journal as I jotted down details.
We passed through a pitch dark tunnel and emerged on the other side of the mountain to cross a rusted steel bridge into Harpers Ferry. A civil war town that I’ve always loved visiting, everybody in the viewing car gathered to the one side to marvel at the old stone houses lining the tree brushed hills of the Shenandoah Valley.
I was already in the infancy of Lewis and Clark’s journey through the wilds of America, and my next train would take me deep into the rugged north still along their path. Here though was where Thomas Jefferson stood and said, “insert awe-inspiring quote here that I forgot.”
Okay, just kidding, Thomas Jefferson stood upon the rock now named after him and declared, “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Can ya blame me for loving this little historic town?
Minutes later we were on our way again. It would be a long distance before we saw much else that resembled a town, so I grabbed a Sierra Nevada and sipped a beer as the trees strobed sunlight through the viewing car like a disco ball. Just the train floating over sprawling golden farmland.
I hadn’t had much interactions with other passengers thus far, but I did spark up a conversation with Melissa who was sitting beside me, fascinated by my selfie recordings via my GoPro.
“Oh no, I was just staring because it thought it was so cool you could see it on your phone too!”
She was an older woman with blonde hair and a quick smile, and she seemed genuinely happy to be on the train.
“I’m headed to Cleveland to see the Browns be beaten by the Ravens with my brother.”
“Oh, so you are from Baltimore?”
“Oh no, from Indiana, I love them too. But I don’t mess with those…Redskins.”
You could hear the distaste of a die-hard fan. I told her about my road trip that I took across the United States when I was 20, and stopping off in Chicago and Cleveland.
“And when I was in Chicago, I took the wrong exit and ended up in Cabrini Green. I suddenly realized I had seen that apartment complex on Gangland and America’s Most Dangerous Places.”
“Talk about a wrong turn” she said, and got up to grab another beer.
When she returned and cracked open a Miller Light, I could hear the similar sound of her heart breaking.
“They were out of Corona”
I felt sad for her, because it seemed like a dire situation for she was suddenly in, and because of the fact that we had just departed and already run out of her favorite nectar. I always thought it tasted like piss.
Oh the woes of a traveler.
The sun sank below the horizon turning the sky into the color of a melted creamsicle. As the daylight died, the viewing car livened. Cracking beer tops rang out and half the car erupted into song and dance.
One group was blaring their music through speakers they had brought, while two older gentleman bragged about who would be better in a dance off. Soon enough, they were awkwardly moon walking down the aisle as Michael Jackson wooed and yeeheed from the speakers.
Though I was tempted to let loose the dance demon inside and show them how to shake it, I was in a particular mood. And I also didn’t want to show up ever white boy in existence with my divinely bestowed dance skills.
It wasn’t that I was bored or over it. I wasn’t even bothered by the noise. More like I was completely content. I felt a calm over myself being on this journey.
After a couple of hours the music died and the people returned to their seats to sleep. The darkness outside a train window in the middle of nowhere is a fascinating thing. It is like staring into polished black marble, with the faint silhouettes of trees like the veins in the stone.
The rocking of the train and the light hum of the wind lullabies you instantly to sleep. I was startled awake at one point when a train on the opposite tracked whizzed by. It sounded like low and high-pitched howling by spirits, and was as mesmerizing as it was bone chilling.
When we pulled out of the white speckled skyline of Pittsburgh after midnight, a monstrous yawn signaled it was time for sleep. Tomorrow was Chicago, and I needed the energy to hunt down my deep dish pizza fix on a 4hr layover.
To get caught up with my story of triumph from depression to transformation, read Memoirs of a Lost Boy.
Like this story? Get caught up on all of the other days on this gnarly train adventure across the United States!
READ – DAY 2: Discovery
READ – DAY 3: Seeing Clearly
READ – Ginos East vs. Giordanos: A Deep Dish Love Affair
**DISCLOSURE** I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a free trip courtesy of Amtrak for review purposes. The opinions, photos, videos, and use of the word “gnarly” are completely my own based on my experience.