Amtrak Resident: Jennifer Boylan
Day 0: The Love Train
Greetings, culture lovers (as Mr. Know-It-All used to say). I’ll be departing this Saturday, November 1, from Portland, Maine, for 17 days as the second of Amtrak’s “Writers in Residence.”
The first resident was the lovely Bill Willingham, who travelled from Redwing, Minnesota to Seattle and back on the “Empire Builder” in mid October. He kept an ongoing blog of the residency’s maiden voyage, which you can read here. He also provided a helpful list of suggestions for those of us who follow in his shoes, including,Get a plug for all your electronic devices, and Bring slippers.
Bill and I are Thing One and Thing Two of this still-experimental program, which was actually accidentally christened by writer Alexander Chee last spring in an interview with PEN; his lament, “I wish Amtrak had a residency for writers” has blossomed into this new program. Jessica Gross re-tweeted his comment, and Amtrak, in what I must say was a moment of tremendous agility, basically said, “Make it so, Number One.” (Jessica’s piece, “Writing the Lakeshore Limited” appeared in the Paris Review here.)
Amtrak then formalized the program, and sent out the call: writers were asked to send in a story to apply, and just like that, 16,000 of us had put our hats in. (Which, as I have said elsewhere, ought to be a seen as a small measure of exactly how eager American writers are to get out of the house.) Inexplicably, I was one of the 24 winners. The full roster is here. It’s a diverse list in many ways– equal numbers women and men. I believe I’m the only transgender writer among the bunch, although who knows? The night is young.
I think my journey is likely to be the longest of the group, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m starting out in my home state of Maine. I’m bound for Chicago on the Lakeshore Limited; and from there (after a short stop in Indiana, about which more below), then to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. I’m going to hole up in Big Sur for a few days before heading north: Salinas to Seattle on the Coast Starlight. I’m giving a talk at a college in Seattle, and then it’s back on the Empire Builder– from Seattle, through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and down to Chicago; from there I’ll hop onto the Lakeshore Limited once more, and back to Boston. And finally, getting on the Downeaster for the journey home, from Boston to Freeport, Maine.
It’s seventeen days. My best estimate is that it’s 7,298 miles. Say this in the voice of Jeff Probst: ”One transgender American. Nine trains. Twenty-one states. One— Survivor!”
I’ve had a couple very, very distinct reactions to the news of my residency. One group– a smaller number, admittedly– says, “Why on earth would you do this?” A smaller subgroup says, “You know they won’t have an exercise room. And the wifi service is spotty. And there will be big stretches out west where there’s no cell service at all.”
To which I kind of want to say, “Oh god, I hope not.” (Although my own experience with Amtrak’s wifi service is that it’s fairly dependable, if not exactly lightning fast, while also being, oh yeah: FREE. This is in the beloved Northeast Corridor, which is a whole different kettle of fish.)
The other group of people, in hearing of my residency, have given me a dreamy sigh, and simply said, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Well, I’ve always wanted to do it too. The last time I went coast to coast in something that had wheels on the ground was 1982, when my friend Peter Frumkin and I drove from New York to Portland OR. That was the first time I saw the Rockies emerging out of the plains. I have never forgotten that sight. I can’t wait to see it again.
Another thing I visited on that 1982 trip was the Museum of Retired Ventriloquists’ Dummies, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, about which more need not be spoken at this time, although I am not too proud to post a photograph of a much younger, and differently gendered me, looking out through the dummies.
Like our Patron Saint, Alexander Chee, I have always loved writing on trains, although most of the writing I’ve done on Amtrak has been grading papers. And reading, too. There is something about time on a train that brings out the dreamer in me. And dreaming, for writers, is kind of our version of batting practice.
I have two projects I’ll be working on during the residency. One is the final four chapters of a novel I’ve been working on for about two or three years now; if I actually finish and publish this, it will be my first time publishing adult fiction as a woman (since 2001, and the whole presto-change-o I have published exclusively nonfiction, with the exception of the novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About,” which came out earlier this year from She-books.). The other piece I’m working on is the long delayed third book in my young adult series, “Falcon Quinn.” I’m on about page 75 of that– I was hoping to hold FQ 3 to under 125 pages, but it keeps growing.
As a writer, I have always had plenty of other projects taking up my time; I’m the co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, which is a very big commitment. I’m also the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times. You add those things together, plus– oh yeah, having a family: my wife Deirdre and raising our two sons (now safely launched to college), and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to stare out the window the last few years. Plus we are in the heart of building a new house, and selling the old one: don’t even ask.
One more thing I’m doing during this trip is stopping in Indiana on Day 3 to attend a Board of Trustees meeting of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Kinsey has just this week announced its new president, and this– along with the museum debut of the Institutes collection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe– means that I’ll have plenty to consider during my days in Indiana. I was thinking, in fact, of calling this journey “The Sex Train,” but I suspect that my sponsors at Amtrak might not be thrilled. So let’s call it “The Love Train.”
I’m looking forward to the writing. I’m looking forward to the work I’ll be able to do. I’m looking forward to that indescribably romantic sound: clackity clack, clackity clack.
Most mostly I’m looking forward to looking out the window at this country. And seeing the mountains emerge from the plains.
Here’s the itinerary:
Day 1: The Downeaster from Maine to North Station Boston. (ME –>NH –> MA) Subway to South Staions Boston. Board the Lake Shore Limited. (MA –> NY –> PA –>
Day 2: PA –> OH –> IN Arrive in Waterloo, IN. Car to Bloomington IN for Kinsey and Mapplethorpe show.
Day 3: Bloomington IN. Kinsey Institute Board of Trustees Meeting.
Day 4: Car service Bloomington to Indianapolis. IN –> IL Board the Hoosier State, Indy to Chicago. Board the California Zephyr. IL –> IA –> NE
Day 5: On board the California Zephyr NE –> CO –> UT
Day 6: UT –> NV –> CA Arrive San Francisco, CA (A night in a hotel in SF).
Day 7: South on the Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Salinas, CA. A night at Big Sur.
Day 8: Another night at Big Sur.
Day 9: Another night at Big Sur.
Day 10: Depart Salinas on the Coast Starlight, heading north.
Day 11:On the Coast Starlight: CA –> OR–> WA. Arrive Seattle. A night in Seattle.
Day 12: Teaching a class at a Seattle college. Then, boarding the Empire Builder. WA –> ID –>
Day 13: On the Empire Builder: ID -> MT –> ND
Day 14: On the Empire Builder: ND –> MN –> WI –> IL Arrive Chicago. A night in Chicago.
Day 15: Departing Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. IL –> IN–>OH–>
Day 16: On the Lake Shore Limited OH–>PA–>NY–> MA. Arrive Boston. A night in Boston.
Day 17: The Downeaster, Boston to Freeport, ME. And home.
I’ll be posting (much shorter) updates on my website, www.jenniferboylan.net, which I believe will be cross posted on the amtrak blog, as the journey unfolds. I do fear that many of my observations will be along the lines of, “Wrote for a few hours. Looked out the window, man.” But I suspect there will be more to say. I have a knack for trouble, mostly of the good kind.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
30 October 2014
Day 1: Mystery Train
Greetings from Albany, New York. It’s just after 6 PM, and we’re pausing here while the Boston train joins up with the New York one, in a kind of locomotive version of Let’s Form Voltron Force!
Last night went to a Halloween jam in the barn of some friends. Sat in with the Blues Prophets, playing piano for two songs– one of which was “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and one of which wasn’t. Home by 10:30, in bed for the last time for 17 days with my wife and the Stupid Dog©. AT 3:15 AM the alarm went off, and the dog raised her head as if to say, “What are you doing?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
By 4 AM I was in the car driving from our house in rural Maine to the Amtrak station in Portland ME for the first leg of the Amtrak Residency, the journey that will take me the next 17 days and cover 7298 miles, coast to coast. It was a dark and stormy night. Rain slashed against my wipers. Dead leaves blew past.
Arrived in Portland a little after 5 in time to step on the Downeaster at 5;30. This has got to be the most adorable train in the Amtrak fleet, and by adorable, I mean there are volunteers on the train who want to make sure you’re “okay”– handing out maps, explaining history. Train guys. We pulled into Boston a little late, and I took the subway from North Station to South Station, where I stowed my bags and walked over for dim sum in Boston’s Chinatown. I ate a whole bunch of things I could not identify, sparked up with chili sauce, and drank a whole pot of tea.
By 11 AM I was in the sleeper train/first class lounge of South Station, which looked a little like the Diogenes Club. I looked around for Mycroft Holmes. Then the redcap helped me on board the 12 noon Lake Shore Limited, where I was met by the sleeper car czarina, Lashawnda Jones. She is very proud of “wearing the blue” (as she put it), and has been taking good care of all of us. Right on schedule we pulled out of Boston, and I sat down to write.
Or, I would have, Ma, except that having to get up at 3:15 AM had me so knackered that I struggled to stay awake. But I fought off the Z’s and got to work. Wrote 1200 words– about my average for a single sitting– part of the climax of the book I hope to finish on this adventure. After that, I strolled down to the cafe car, where I made the acquaintance of one Claudia Butler, the manager of the Lake Shore Limited. She’s been around trains all her life– her father worked for the railroad too. She was excited to have an Amtrak Writer in Residence on Board, and spoke with pride of her OBS crew (that’s on-board service).
I can say that the “roomette” is small; there is barely enough room for my ego.
I looked out the window and watched Massachusetts and New York go by. It’s a very Edgar Allen Poe November out there; leaves blowing, rain streaking against the windowpane. I wrote and I thought and I read a little of Maxine Hong Kinsgston’s “The Woman Warrior,” which I’m teaching at Barnard this spring.
Somewhere around 1 AM tonight–we’ll be just outside Dayton, Ohio– the train will come to a halt for an hour. This is on account of the reversion to Eastern Standard Time. I’d heard that trains do this– if they just chugged ahead, we’d all wind up at our destination an hour ahead of the schedule, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum. It’s like what Steven Wright used to say about: ”I put instant coffee in the microwave and went back in time.”
I’ll be up at dawn tomorrow (plus an hour) to have an early breakfast, in time to step off the Lake Shore Limited about 7:30 in the morning in Waterloo, Indiana. Where, with any luck, a nice black limo will be waiting to drive me the three + hours to Bloomington, Indiana, and the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, where I’ll be attending an exhibition of the Institute’s Mapplethorpe prints tomorrow night, and a Board of Trustees meeting all day Monday. Tuesday, it’s back on the train, and on to California!
Thanks for riding with me.
“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.”
Amtrak Writer in Residence
01 November 2014
Day 2: At a Siding, (I.)
Day 2 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana, where I am at mile 1190 of this 7298 mile voyage.
Today we are “at a siding,” by which I mean that I have stepped off of the train for a day or so as I attend to business.
The Lake Shore Limited pulled into Waterloo IN this morning right on time at 7:33 AM, where a limo was waiting to drive me to Bloomington and the IU campus. I’m here for 36 hours or so, attending a meeting of the Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. I know many of my readers are more familiar with my work in the NY Times, or with GLAAD, but my more-quiet relationship with Kinsey is something I’m immensely proud of. At tomorrow’s Trustees meeting we’ll celebrate the arrival of Sue Carter, our newly hired new CEO, and a pioneer in the field of neuroendocrinology.
Tonight, though, the Trustees celebrate the extensive collections of the Institute with a special showing of the prints of Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m really looking forward to looking at and thinking about that work. I can also tell you that my own favorite Mapplethorpe photograph is the one just below here. Patti Smith has a wonderful description of how they took that photo; all these years later I still find it haunting.
I think about the world that Mapplethorpe lived in, and the one in which I do my own work, and it’s kind of amazing how far we’ve travelled. This morning at breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited, I dined with a woman about my age who writes about hip-hop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. She was reading the NY Times Magazine article about “Men at Wellesley” and asked me what I thought about it. I said, kind of shyly, Well, I think transgender people are very brave. And she said, So do I! My daughter has dated three trans men! And so we talked about trans identities, and I talked about my wife, and it struck me what a changed and remarkable world we live in, in which two strangers on a train in Ohio could talk about trans lives and lesbian relationships and it was all pretty much pleasant, normal breakfast conversation. At the end of breakfast, I said, Look, I might as well tell you. (pointing at the magazine cover) I’m like that too.And my seat mate looked uncertain and she said, “And then– you went back to being a woman?”
No, I said, not exactly.
I slept all warm and cozy in my “womb-ette” bed last night. Out the window I saw the dark fields of New York, the shores of Lake Erie. The train rocked me from side to side. I thought about my family. And all the while I kept hearing that whistle. Go on, click here and you can hear it too. A loyal reader sent me a wonderful link to a site that talks all about the classic 5-tone railroad engine whistle. And I learned the answer to a lifelong question: what’s that chord?
Why, it’s a B major 6th. The notes are: D#, F#, G# B, and D#.
It is surely the sound of dreams.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
02 November 2014
Day 3: At a Siding (II.)
Day 3 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana, where I am, again, at mile 1190 of this 7298 mile voyage. You can read about my time “at a siding” here.
I am at last safely aboard the California Zephyr, which departed from Union Station, Chicago at 2 PM. Before that, I rode the “Hoosier State” from Indianapolis to Chicago, which I can affirm was not a fast mode of transportation. Before that I was in a limo being picked up at 4:15 AM in Bloomington, taking my leave of the IU campus and my days at the Kinsey Institute.
Today I have seen a field of windmills. I saw the sun set behind a bank of clouds over a brown, exhausted soybean field. I saw an Amish family with spectacular beards and bonnets. I saw a grain elevator filling up a long semi with corn seed. I saw a place on the tracks where somehow a hundred potatoes had spilled. I have heard the sound of the whistle as we cut through small towns with barriers lowered, red lights blinking, at the one intersection in town. I looked out for an hour or so at places where there didn’t seem to be any towns at all. I saw a man standing alone at the edge of a fallow field.
Superliner roomette (on the Zephyr) is, in my opinion, not quite as roomy as the roomette on the Viewliner (Lake Shore Limited). Haven’t tried the bed yet. But there’s no window on the upper berth. To make up for this, there is a fabulous dining car, where i’ll unfold my napkin in about an hour, and a bar car with an upstairs observation deck. My wife and I enjoyed a similar car going from Fairbanks to Anchorage on our honeymoon. I still remember the couple we met on that train ride: as a result of two different strains of cancer, the husband couldn’t talk, and the wife could not hear. Deedie and I have long joked that we have based our marriage on the model of this couple.
Here in Galesburg, Carl Sandburg was born in 1878. In his home town he drove a milk wagon, worked as a porter for a hotel, as a laborer on a farm, before going back to driving the milk wagon. Later, he won three Pulitzer Prizes, and published the “American Songbag,” a collection that attempted to do for this country, in the early 20th century what Sir Francis Childe had done with Irish and Scottish and English music 300 years earlier: create an archive of traditional folk songs.
Among the songs collected by Sandburg is “The Railroad Cars are Comin’,” part of which goes like this:
The prairie dogs in dogtown
Will wag each little tail,
They’ll think that something’s coming,
Just flying down the rail.
Amid the purple sagebrush,
The antelope will stand
While railroad cars are coming, humming,
Through the prairie land,
The railroad cars are coming, humming,
Through the prairie land.
I wrote 1300 words between Chicago and Galesburg. I don’t know if it’s any good, won’t know for months, probably. But here I am on the edge of the prairie, grateful that I live in this country. It’s Election Day, and I admit I’ve been kind of paying less attention than I might were i at home. At the same time I can tell you that the very last thing I did before leaving Maine was to vote by absentee ballot. I’ll go to sleep tonight content that the country, as always, will sort things out. Something is coming.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
04 November 2014
I awoke in my cozy roomette at 4:30 AM Mountain time, which I admit is too early, but I’m still on Eastern time, and I’m an early riser anyway. So instead of resisting, I got up, got a cup of coffee, sat down in the observation car with my computer and started to write a scene. This whole voyage west I’m working on the final chapters of a novel I’ve been writing for two years. I got a lot closer this morning. With the sun rising before me, and the sound of the rails and the whistle, and some dude lying on the floor all asleep, how could I NOT write well?
And then, friends, the sun came up. It began, as always, as just a sly hint of grey in an otherwise black sky, but at 6:30 the sun burst over the plains of eastern Colorado. The morning shift complete, I headed to the dining car, where I had breakfast with a clinical psychologist who was reading the biography of William James, whom, my companion claimed, anticipated everything.
Settled into the observation car as we climbed the Rockies. I can only say it is every bit as breathtaking as you dream. We passed beneath the Continental Divide via the Moffet Tunnel and arrived at 8500+ feet as we stopped in Fraser, CO. Snow on the mountains. Air crisp. I didn’t find the altitude daunting at all, even though we were warned not to exert ourselves. Then we began our long descent into the canyons.
I wrote another 1500 words in the afternoon. For a while I was hoping to write 8500+ words, one for every foot of elevation, but that’s way out of my range now. I declared victory at about 3000. Then I returned to the observation car and watched the sun set and drank a Sierra Nevada.
It’s the day after election day, but I haven’t heard much talk of politics on the train. As a Democrat, it’s a sad day for me, especially as I’ve caught up with news from Maine. But yeah, looking at the sun illuminating Red Rocks Canyon in western Colorado lifted my spirits.
I’ll sleep through much of Utah and Nevada, arise in Pacific Time and California. We are supposed to arrive in Emeryville–near SF– around 4 o’clock PM, where supposedly a friend is scooping me up, taking me to my hotel to settle in, and then it’s off to an author reception and book party in the evening. I’ll begin the next leg of the trip Friday morning as I head down to Salinas and Big Sur for a few days of quiet, meditation, writing, and hiking.
It will be hard to top today, not just this month, but for the rest of my life. What a precious gift this journey has been.
In Denver (where the photo of me genuflecting before the California Zephyr’s engine was taken), I asked the train manager if it might be possible for me to visit the engine. I had fantasies of blowing the horn. She looked at me just like I thought she would, gave me the same look I give my son when he asks, Is it okay if I spend the night at my girlfriend’s house? So that didn’t happen. But I tried, and in my mind I blew the whistle TWICE.
My sleeper’s manager is a delightful Irishman named Dennis Byrne. We were talking this afternoon, and by way of summing things up, he said the following: “Each trip is a micro sociological experiment in its own right in that a host of disparate elements are tossed together in one sense, against their will.”
I said, Yes. You are right.
He smiled, and added, “It’s phantasmagorical.”
Amtrak Writer in Residence
05 November 2014
Once more I woke before dawn; we had just pulled into Winnemucca, Nevada. I had spent the night safe and warm in my California Zephyr roomette. I have had curious, but strangely comforting dreams on the train, perhaps the result of the effect of being gently rocked all night long. I got myself to the observation car where for the second day in a row I watched the sun rise, this time over the desert of western Nevada. I wrote a good 1300 words this morning, and when I finished, the dawn came up like thunder. The woman next to me began to sing, “Here Comes the Sun,” and for a few seconds all of us were singing there in the observation car in the intense morning light.
I had breakfast with a woman who designs video games, and a librarian from Provo, Utah. We spoke about “Gamergate” and children’s books, and the world of fantasy.
After breakfast–”Railroad French Toast” with bacon, yow! — I engaged with the Amtrak shower, and I can report that the water was HOT and the pressure was GOOD and that I was surprisingly refreshed. Again, if you go: remember to bring your own shampoo and conditioner. No, there’s not a blow dryer. Please.
I settled into the observation car as we ascended the Donner Pass. Crossing the Sierra Nevadas was almost as spectacular as the Rockies the day before. Although, gazing down at Donner Lake, it did make me think about the settlers of this country. It’s a miracle to me than anyone survived. It’s impossible to imagine pioneers spending five, six, seven months crossing the plains, and then the Rockies, and then the Sierras. How on earth are any of us here?
After lunch, I wrote another 1200 words. I’m so close to finishing the climax of this novel. The extended time alone has enabled me to do this kind of sustained work– such a precious gift. The only obstacle to the work– and I say this for the writers who will follow me– is that you really want to spend your time looking out the window. Every second there is something new to see.
We are crossing the Cartinez Straights, and out the window to my left I can see big ships– oceangoing tankers out on Suisun Bay, and evidence, if any more were needed, that we are drawing near the end of the western leg of the trip. Tonight, an SF hotel for me, and an author book signing and party.
Tomorrow morning I’ll board the Coast Starlight south, bound for Salinas., and then Big Sur, where I will hole up for the weekend: hiking, writing, meditating, thinking. I’ll be “On a Siding” for a few days, but I’ll try to connect back up before departing on the next leg of the trip– the northern leg from Salinas to Seattle, which begins on Monday the 10th.
In a way I am very sorry to be leaving the Zephyr. What can I tell you: you should do this, if you can swing it. As my sleeping car manager Dennis said yesterday, “It’s phantasmagorical.”
Amtrak Writer in Residence
06 November 2014
Day 7: At a Siding (III.)
Day 7 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur where I am now at mile 4005 of this voyage. You can read more about my time “At a Siding” here.
Day 8: At a Siding (IV.)
Day 8 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur where I am now at mile 4005 of this voyage. You can read more about my time “At a Siding” here.
Days 9 & 10: At a Siding (V. & VI.)
Days 9 & 10 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur where I am pausing at mile 4005 of this voyage. You can read more about my time “At a Siding” here.
Day 11: Slow Train Coming
Day 11 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Salem, OR where I am at mile 4843 of this voyage.
I awoke on the Coast Starlight this morning just shy of Dunsmuir, CA to find our train stopped dead. Tunnel construction on the mountains near Shasta Lake had us sitting unmoving for hours, as one giant freight after another occupied the tunnel before us. At last we found ourselves underway once more, but by the time that came to pass, we were five hours behind schedule.
(This is a good moment to note that passenger rail service in this country usually takes place upon tracks that are leased, not owned, by Amtrak, meaning that trains carrying actual human beings are put in the queue all behind ones carrying pig iron. Our rail system would be much more efficient, and be able to serve a much larger number of people, and with more efficiency, if Amtrak’s budget were larger, and if we, American taxpayers, ACTUALLY OWNED THE RAILS WE TRAVEL UPON.)
Interestingly, no one seemed too terribly disturbed by this. For one thing, the sidetrack enabled us to see by daylight what normally we’d pass by under dark of night– namely, Mt. Shasta for one (and, for the ladies, Mt. Shastina!), and Shasta Lake– the latter shockingly low as the drought years in California take their toll. I had breakfast with a couple from Texas who described the small roomettes (which I call our “coffinettes”) this way: “They’re so small you couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of ‘em without getting fur in your mouth.” And yet: they– and, really, everyone I’ve met, LOVES BEING ON THE TRAIN. Yes, we’d have been happier if we weren’t stuck behind all those freights. But this is the reality of train travel in this country, and it’s clear the Starlight, like the Zephyr before it, is full of people who feel that making this journey is one of the great adventures of their lives. Including the people who do it all the time.
I spent the day revising the work I’d sort-of finished yesterday at Big Sur. No fatal flaws yet, but lots of little stupidies. I sat in the “parlor car” in the afternoon– these 50+ year old cars have been refurbished, and exist only on the Starlight line– cushy seats, a bar, polished wood paneling, really like something from a more elegant era. I started talking with folks in that car at 3 PM and stayed until the “wine tasting” began at 4. And then I had dinner in the parlor car with the same group of people. Delightful. Someone asked me if I was the Amtrak Writer in Residence, and I admitted to it, and they were all over me– they’d read about the program, they’d read the blog, and so on. As a result of this program, they’d decided to do a month of business travel BY TRAIN. It all made me very happy: the conversation, the amazing vistas, the short ribs for dinner. This life is very tasty.
We’ll be arriving in Seattle too late tonight for me to see my friends, alas; I’ll scurry to the hotel and hunker down for a few hours before visiting North Seattle Community College tomorrow and teaching a class (!) Then my friend from college, Johnny C., will get me to King Street station, where I’ll step onto the Empire Builder tomorrow for the trip that leads across Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and home.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
12 November 2014
Days 12 & 13: Glory Train
I woke in the fabulous “Author Suite” of the Alexis Hotel in Seattle yesterday morning– my absolute favorite place to stay in the world. They buy your book when you’re a guest, and you sign it and it becomes part of the library in that huge room. Once, I picked a book by David Sedaris off of the shelf, and found that it had been signed: ”I stayed in the same bed as Toni Morrison. And she kept stealing all the covers.”
I had dinner last night with a woman who taught music theory at a college in North Dakota. This morning, I had breakfast with an Amish couple who said they don’t approve of music. We were something of an odd threesome, but I was delighted to break bread with them. The man, with his abundant beard, noted, “We have 77 grandchildren!” His wife, in her bonnet and plain dress, nodded. She seemed tired.
Having fought my way to a rough draft of my novel before I left Big Sur, today I began the revisions. I cut 10,000 words, and yes, that’s a lot, although no one should be surprised that occasionally I use 10,000 words when zero will do just as well. In the afternoon today, I turned my attention to a commissioned project for a new anthology, and I cranked out 4000 not terrible words before declaring it time for a beer.
I settled into the observation car and looked out at the plains and drank a Sierra Nevada and listened to Beethoven’s Third on headphones. That morning, I’d seen the sun come up over the Rockies, watched the sun glimmer off the crystalline moonscape peaks of Glacier National Park. By noon, though, we’d come down into the plains, where everything was white and frosty and empty. I had never quite gotten my mind around the vast emptiness of the plains, but I got my mind around it now. The horizon goes on to infinity.
I had dinner with an Irishman from Indiana and a young woman who appeared to be on her way home for Thanksgiving after seven years away from her family. ”They sent me a train ticket,” she said. ”They wanted me to come home.” The Irishman and I tenderly tried to note how much parents love their children, and how glad they will be to have her home once more. We noted that neither of regretted anything about our twenties except the worry. ”I would do it all again the same way,” said the Irishman, “just this time I wouldn’t worry about the future.”
Amtrak Writer in Residence
13 November 2014
Awoke in Fargo ND, after another strangely soothing night in the sleeper. It really is an odd way of sleeping– rocking back and forth, waking to roll over, but I can tell you I am addicted to it and sleeping in a bed that is not moving is going to be one of the things I will most miss. It’s kind of like “Magic Fingers” for the unconscious. For the first day I did NOT arise before sunrise, which perhaps just means we’re back in Central Time. Or perhaps it means I finished the draft of my novel, and did not feel the same urgency.
We rolled across Minnesota and Wisconsin today, the land more populous than the high plains of the day before. We travelled along the western banks of the Mississippi for much of the afternoon, which gave this east coast girl quite a thrill. I thought about Mark Twain. At sunset we crossed the river at La Crosse, WI. It was all very beautiful.
The views from the Empire Builder are decidedly more somber and meditative than the fireworks of the California Zephyr. I’d choose the Zephyr’s route from Denver to Sacramento for sheer jaw-dropping scenery. But the Empire Builder is good for working.
I received word this morning that the editor who read the piece I wrote the first draft of yesterday likes it a lot– great news, and rare for me: I almost never get it right the first time any more. Part of that piece concerns the adventures of the Amtrak Residency, so it’s funny to see a piece lined up for publication that addresses a thing that is still, in fact, happening.
Also spent many hours today writing and polishing up syllabi and agenda for spring courses at Barnard– my class on “Gendered Memoir,” and the “Advanced Studies in Prose.” I had the general sketch already done, but now I have the week-by-week road map of the courses, no small accomplishment, and kind of a great thing to do while the northern plains roll by, all dusted with snow.
I arrive in Chicago tonight. I am looking forward to a martini and a thick steak. Tomorrow a friend is taking me to a David Bowie show at a contemporary art museum, and I’ll eat deep dish pizza with another friend, before boarding the Lake Shore Limited tomorrow night for the final ride to the east coast. Boston by Sunday night.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
14 November 2014
Day 15: At a Siding (VII.) Hunky Dory
Day 15 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Chicago, where I am now at mile 7224 of this voyage. You can read more about my time at a “siding” here.
Slept, once more, like a baby on the Lake Shore Limited. Awoke on the late side to find us east of Cleveland, west of Erie. Had scrambled eggs in the dining car and for the first time in two weeks my breakfast companion was someone plugged into a device, watching a movie over her French toast who did not wish to have a conversation or engage in any way. I couldn’t decide to be hurt by this (having had so many interesting and unexpected talks in the dining car) or relieved (remembering my breakfast with the Amish who did not approve of music).
Spent much of the day doing office work– wrote recommendations for students applying to grad school. Then read the 100 pages of Falcon Quinn 3, my young adult series in progress; I am about two-thirds of the way through that story. I didn’t do any work on it today, but I did re-read what I’ve done till now, and tried to think about what will like ahead in the rest of the story, which I hope to write this winter and spring.
I’m holing up in a Boston hotel tonight before my final ride home tomorrow on Maine’s “Downeaster.” As we approach the end of this voyage, here are a few tips for other travelers who do long distance train rides in the USA, and my other Amtrak Writers in Residence in Particular.
• Do bring a pair of slippers. In the western trains, the bathroom is down the corridor, and you really want to have something on your feet for that journey. They won’t let you leave the car in your socks. I know: one morning, headed to breakfast, I was sent back to my room for shoes. You can only imagine my mortification.
• Do bring a power strip. There’s usually only one outlet per roomette, and it sits not flush to the wall, but inside a strangely shaped indentation. You want the kind of power strip that will plug in, and then give you three or four outlets on the other end; ideally some of these would be USB ports.
• There’s no wifi on the trains. For vast stretches in the west, there is no cell service either. The station master in San Francisco announced this happily, “So you will have to TALK to each other. Or READ A BOOK.” A mifi device or cell service will work a lot of the time, but not in the mountains, or in the tunnels. And especially not in tunnels in the mountains.
• I brought a terry cloth robe for wearing over my pajamas in the morning. I liked getting up very early out west, going into the observation car to write for an hour or two before sunrise. The robe occupied a large chunk of my duffle bag, but I think it was worth it. So were the pajamas. Mine were covered with little yellow stars, giving my friend Johnny in Seattle the chance to mock them as my “wizard pajamas” but I think he was just jealous he didn’t have any of his own.
• I brought two bags: a small suitcase I kept in the roomette with me, which I then refreshed and re-supplied from a huge duffle when I was off the train. On the western trains, I kept the big duffle downstairs in the sleeper’s storage area; (not the baggage car); on the eastern trains, there’s an area in the top of the berth where you can shove a dufflebag–it’s just about that big.
• In Boston and Chicago, to name two, there are special lounges for the first class/sleeper car passengers, and this was really a lifesaver– especially in Chicago. Folks doing the sleeper should take full advantage of these swanky chambers.
• The eastern trains are “Viewliners” and have single-decker sleepers with an upper berth that raises and lowers. There are both high and low windows int he Viewliners that give the roomettes more light. The “Superliners” are out west, and there is an upper level and a lower. The upper level rooms have a slightly better view. The Viewliners have a commode right in the roomette with you as well as a sink. Some people will like the convenience of this; I kind of liked going down the hall to the powder room, and there was something a bit over-the-top about a commode right next to my easy chair. (Or maybe it’s under-the-bottom.) The Western trains have the observation cars, and why not: there’s more to observe. The Coast Starlight has the coolest cars of all– the “parlor” cars, with swivel easy chairs, a bar, and a movie theatre downstairs.
• But look, these rooms are really small. There are larger ones, and riders will have to decide whether the extra money is worth it. A couple would have to be really in love to enjoy the roomette, but then, lots of couples are. How small are the rooms? A fellow from Texas said to me, “You couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of them things without getting fur in your mouth.”
• My own desire was to get a ton of work done, and I did just that. I finished the last couple chapters of the first draft of a novel; wrote a 4000 word essay for an anthology; wrote a syllabus for a new course at Barnard; did paperwork, and read Falcon Quinn 3. I feel lucky and grateful. Trains really are great places for writers.
• The main challenge to all of this, though, is the great desire to stare out the window going Duh. The best views on the routes, I think, are: crossing the Rockies on the California Zephyr; crossing the Sierras via the Donner Pass on the Zephyr; the view of Mt. Shasta from the Starlight; traversing Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder. The Lake Shore Limited is a more efficient train, but the views are not quite as shockingly beautiful– or maybe it’s just that I’m from the east, and I’m familiar with the terrain.
• The Amtrak staff is kind of amazing. From Lashawna on the Lake Shore going west, to Dennis on the Zephyr, to Alfreda ad Al on the Lake Shore east, the people working on the railroad are enthusiastic and professional and truly seem eager to help. I was grateful for the way they made my voyage easier. I’m also grateful to Julia Quinn at Amtrak HQ for masterminding this whole project.
• You will encounter lots of people doing the sleeper route if you do this journey, but one thing they almost all seem to have in common is, THEY LOVE TRAINS. They will talk your ear off about how great this all is, as if you have joined a very select group of lucky people. Which you have.
• This kind of voyage is not for everyone. The quarters are small. In some ways it will remind you of really elegant camping. This is not the luxury train ride you are imagining from those movies in the 1940s, or perhaps even from trains in Europe. The trains get delayed, routinely, especially out west; if you go the full route expect to be delayed, 2, 4, even 6 hours. The only thing it is better than is any form of air travel whatsoever, and in comparison to that nightmare, it is like staying at the Waldorf. You have an AC outlet, really good food, your own private room, and a window onto some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. There are literally places in this country you will never see if you do not take the train. Would I do this again? In a heartbeat. And yes, next time, my family is coming with me.
This train is bound for glory.
Amtrak Writer in Residence
16 November 2014