Pictures from the Train
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October 29, 2000 to
November 22, 2000

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My friend and boss Kalinda invited me to an IISA conference in Miami for Nov 8. That's about as far away as you can get from Seattle without leaving the country. I hate to fly, and the thought of winging it all that way for just one day of meetings was fairly nauseating, so I decided to use the trip as an excuse for my third annual transcontinental train pilgrimmage. Amtrak was running its periodic Explore America special--$429 for 45 days of travel anywhere in the U.S.A. The catch is you can't cross the same tracks twice, so you have to make a loop, which I took as an opportunity to visit friends and family all around the country.

People have a lot of different reasons for riding the rails. For Amish farmers it's religious conviction. Hardcore nicotine addicts can smoke without having to disable lavatory smoke detectors. European tourists and the elderly see it as a familiar mode of travel. Me, I try to avoid any activity that gets me praying again to the God-with-a-big-G of my childhood. I also love the sound and motion of inching across the continent at 90 miles per hour, the clickety-clack of the railroad tracks and hearing that lonesome whistle (ah-ooh-whee). It's the most romantic way to travel, favored by blues musicians, the stars of Hollywood's golden era, and scores of literature's greatest lovers, suicides, and murderers.

Flying from place to place is about as edifying as riding an elevator. Travelling overland you get a feel for the size of the country, the shape of its shifting textures, the flavor of its people's dialects and ways of getting by. It takes more time, but it's time well-spent. You meet Vietnam vets wrestling nightmares across Ohio and share cigarettes with a colorful cast of smoking car rowdies. You glimpse otherwise secret backyards that tell their tales exclusively to train travellers. You see stranded boats with broken hulls miles from the nearest water, poisoned rivers steaming in frosty dawns, city freight yards with forgotten gondolas of grain sprouting green shoots over the top, gator meat for sale in Louisiana, ostrich burgers advertised on barns in Montana, and a thousand other sights you'd never see from barren interstates or trapped in airplane seats.

Spending 48 - 72 hours at a stretch in coach isn't all glamour and romance, of course. You need to learn to embrace, or at least tolerate, the smell of other people's farts, the crying of babies, and the incessant preaching of holy rollers with a Bible quote for every contingency. But all that doesn't happen too frequently (except for the farting), and in the process of dealing with others' bodily functions, family problems, and religious inanities, you learn that the booze with the most bang for your buck in the lounge car arethe little canned margaritas. By far.

Please pass the salt.

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