Amtrak Resident: Marianne Kirby

Amtrak Resident: Marianne Kirby

Marianne KirbyDay Zero
There is no train service between Orlando and New Orleans. I am on a bus between the two cities, in part because it was the most economical option but also because it seemed like a fitting way to start a transportation adventure.

My ticket takes me from New Orleans to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited and then from Los Angeles to Seattle on the Coast Starlight. But before all of that there is this bus and the 12 hours of transitional time.

I’ve been following Bill and Jennifer’s travels, of course I have. So I’ve packed lightly and I’m prepared with light layers that should suit the temperature of the train cars. I have no idea how I’ll survive Seattle temperatures, though — I’m a delicate tropical flower at the best of times and it’s November. I hear that’s winter for most places.

There’s still a certain amount of surreality to this trip, a lingering doubt that I am actually going on it. I’m not generally so dour but it’s been a rough year; the #AmtrakResidency introduced a little bit of magic when it was announced earlier this year and I think the overwhelming response speaks to how many people, how many writers, have needed that.

I know I need it.

The bus isn’t bad., mostly because it isn’t crowded. The rocking is soothing and the view from upstairs is interesting if only because it puts us up above so many vehicles. We stop for lunch and dinner at truck stops that are virtually identical despite being, I think, in different states. I have no idea what time it really is (because the time changes somewhere in the Panhandle before you leave Florida) or where we are and I start to get comfortable with that.

The miles aren’t all the same; it’s easy to watch it all pass and realize that I don’t have to figure everything out (dinner and work and my second job and the dog and birthdays and and and). There’s spotty cell signal so I check my email more than I should for someone who is supposed to be on some sort of retreat or vacation but also I read. I jot notes in a notebook that I’ve carried with me for a year.

I start the long process of giving up control to the road.

In keeping with that, I haven’t planned ahead for where to stay in New Orleans. When I’m deposited at the bus stop in New Orleans, I use the Hotel Tonight app to find a room and then walk around in search of some dinner. The app works better than the meal plan: I get a last-minute room at the New Orleans Guest House but no dinner. My train leaves early in the morning so I’m more interested in sleep than anything else anyway — an unromantic statement if ever there was one but also true.

The giant flamingo in the courtyard by my room seems to keep watch and make promises: tomorrow, the real magic begins.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day One
The giant flamingo is just as weird and wonderful first thing in the morning. It’s cold and there’s no one else in the Via Marianne Kirby Instagramcourtyard where I take my continental breakfast. It’s just me and the mist, which is the kind of atmospheric event that would be a bad omen if this were a movie. In person, it just underscores how unreal everything continues to feel.

I’m hoping that fades — though it’s very tempting to give in to a little Hero’s Journey self-indulgence. That’s probably a danger of letting yourself get overtired and burnt out.

The New Orleans train station is smaller than expected; it’s efficient and welcoming. I get a few curious “So, you’re doing a writing thing?” questions, but mostly people are readying the train for a long trip and I’m content to stay out of their way once I’ve found my home for the next couple of days  — it’s November 12th and I won’t reach Los Angeles until the early morning hours of November 14th.

We haven’t even left the station and I’m already fielding questions because I’ve been Instagramming pictures. How do I think the train is for fat people? How comfortable is it? How long can I get off the train at the various stops?

But all I want to do is settle in and figure out where things are. Decide where I’m going to stash my laptop and shoes. I do check out the bathrooms, both upstairs and downstairs. The bathrooms are my only fat person concern — but I’m optimistic about how they’ll work out. I keep wandering, and, when the train departs, I learn an elbows-out way of walking down the narrow hallways of the sleeper cars so the train movement doesn’t throw me. (Spoiler alert: the bathrooms work out just fine for fat people.)

I don’t write anything.

Don’t get me wrong, I open my computer and stare at the pages of novel that I’m editing. But then I close it because wasting the battery is absurd when there is such a view outside my window. I thought the bus was hypnotic; there’s something happening as I look out the train window — from Louisiana bayou to Texas sunset. I realize Amtrak’s secret agenda: there’s not going to be any way to write a novel while riding a train without writing a train into my novel.

It’s going to make sense and it’s going to work — and I’m excited to write it.

Via Marianne Kirby InstagramMy only interruptions are for food: lunch and dinner are delivered to me by the sleeping car attendant because I am savoring the quiet intensity of sitting and thinking. The thinking is interrupted by napping and the napping is full of dreaming. I wake up and take more pictures, because there are stories in those images, until it’s too dark to see anything anymore. There are old power poles around New Iberia, LA. I’m a little obsessed with them.

The attendant converts my roomette for sleeping and I go to bed early; we haven’t even reached San Antonio, TX. My blanket throws sparks in the darkness.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Two
Bill and Jennifer talk about being early risers — that isn’t me, even with the time changes that keep sneaking up on me. I linger in bed watching the sky get lighter. We’re deeper intp Texas now, though I have no idea where we are when I wake up, and the landscape is single-handedly proving to me the value of train travel.

There are so many small towns. It’s easy to forget when you live in an urban area of any size, but there is just so much open space, so many places where people do not live.

Via Marianne Kirby InstagramWhat do you do in a town that only has 200 people in it? I entertain a brief fantasy of how much time I’d have for writing if I lived in a town that small without any cell signal — because while coverage was spotty on Day One, it’s nonexistent on Day Two.

I’ve read a hundred articles about how multitasking and constant cellphone usage is destroying our attention spans. And I mostly don’t believe it. What I do believe is that all of the sleep and peace and dreaming from the day before makes it easier to open up my laptop again, with Texas rushing by outside the window, and focus on the edits I’m doing.

The idea of train time as found time resonates with me all day. If I were at home, I’d be at work. And then I’d be home after work, doing more work on freelance projects. The dog would need walking, errands would need running, and I’d desperately want to get out and see my friends. My brain would not have any energy for words.

In a lot of ways, it’s the economics of the thing: everyone has bills to pay and if you can write, it makes sense to pay the bills with writing. And so I’ve built myself this trap of giving my words away to everyone else and keeping none for my own projects. It’s an uncomfortable realization.

There’s so much Texas; we approach the US-Mexico border. The train follows along the literal fence that separates our two nations very briefly, El Paso, TX, on the right and Juarez, Mexico on the left.

We also wind up stopping, several times, for freight trains. We pass (very slowly) through an enormous and almost finished Union Pacific freight yard where everything is bright and clean and brand new. We’re on borrowed lines but we’re on schedule.

In the morning, at 6am, I’ll get off the train in Los Angeles, promised land of wifi where I’ll check in and upload blog entries. I have about four and a half hours between trains and I’ll take the opportunity to walk around and use a regular size restroom. It already feels strange to think about being off the train.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Three (Part One)
6am always comes so early. Los Angeles is warmer than most of the other stops where I got off the train to stretchVia Marianne Kirby Instagram my legs and look around. There’s a tunnel and a lounge and the wifi that I was looking forward to.

It’s kind of a dash of cold water in the face. I recognize some of these people from the train but no one is talking to each other — we’re all talking on our phones and checking in with people who aren’t here. Train time is a whole other world, apparently.

This morning I’ll climb on the Coast Starlight and head from Los Angeles, CA, to Seattle, WA. I’ve been to the airport in Seattle, once a long time ago, but the West Coast is largely a mystery to me, even more than all of that Southwestern landscape.

I can’t wait to see it.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Three (Part Two)
The Coast Starlight is going to carry me from Los Angeles, California all the way up to Seattle, Washington. I enjoyed my bit of a layover in LA, just a  couple of hours in the Metropolitan Lounge, because I took advantage of the redcap service and caught an extended golf cart to my train car, but now that I’m settled, I’m ready to get moving again, to feel all of that forward momentum.

This time I’m sitting downstairs, and there’s a baby in the large room at the end of the car. Ten weeks old and tiny and super sweet. I try to be chill about babies on airplanes and so I am even more relaxed about a baby on a train. (This instinct is correct, by the way, because there aren’t the same kind of issues as on planes.)

By now I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit of the rhythm down so I go ahead and pull out my laptop. I’ve got writing to do and I aim to do it.

The problem is that we come around a corner and there is the Pacific Ocean, glinting not that far in the distance. Coast Starlight via Marianne KirbyAnd even though I have been to California before and not loved it, in that moment I fall completely head over heels for it. I’m glued to the window as we trek along the coast, watching surfers and parasurfers (that’s what it looked like they were doing anyway) and the waves always washing up onto the sand.

I live in Florida and we have great beaches. But the Pacific is a great OCEAN, which is an entirely different matter. As we trek along, I try to figure out how to manage a move to the California ocean, at just about any point along the coastline. It’s complete fantasy, but it’s the kind of thing that seems possible from the window of a train.

Even once we move back inland, I feel restless. So I head to the Parlour Car when they announce a wine tasting. When am I ever going to have the chance to go to a wine tasting on a train again? And they’re also showing Muppets Most Wanted on the lower level — wine and Muppets, this train really gets me.

I manage not to stay for the movie but I do spend a little time talking to other passengers. And I see a deer, a doe watching the train rush by. It’s sunset in the mountains as we curve around switchback after switchback.

There are also the tunnels. I ask a man I started talking to in the train car and he confirms that they’re the same tunnels dug by Chinese immigrants in the days of the Old West. It’s a good reminder (as was that glint of the Pacific) of the high cost of the rails we’re riding in such comfort.

When it gets dark, it gets very dark and my manuscript is waiting for me. I head back to it and fall nearly asleep over it, listening to the harsh sound of the wheels on the track.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Four
Klamath Falls via Marianne KirbyI wake up near Klamath Falls, which is in Oregon. It apparently calls itself the City of Sunshine, but it looks grey and damp from my roomette window. Rather than take a fresh air break, I order breakfast and keep working.

It feels good to be working, to be down deep in the words of things. I feel like I have got the trick of typing on the train now and also something like a deadline — the midpoint of my trip is coming and it feels momentous.

Maybe that focus is why I am so shocked to look up and realize that it’s snowing.

And with that, my mind is temporarily blown — this is one of the reasons I applied to the #AmtrakResidency in the first place, this chance to see places so incredibly different from what I take for granted in Florida every day. The snow is more in the air than anything else for a while and then the ground outside turns white with it, bare rock and rooftops and the tops of stubborn trees.

It’s literally one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and it’s also terrifying. I have no idea how to survive in snow. The tension of the landscape keeps me writing, keeps me profoundly uncomfortable even as I’m warm and cozy with an extra blanket. (The Snowpiercer jokes want to write themselves, especially with the Parlour Car so nearby but I mostly manage to behave myself.)

By the time we get to Seattle (the station is beautiful), the snow is behind me at higher elevations and I am smack in the middle of the last chapter of this novel. It’s pretty evident that I’ve made a terrible wardrobe mistake the minute I get off the train, at least on the lower half, but I’ve got a jacket and a ride to the hotel I’ve found for the night.

It’s already been four days of being blown away by the scenery, but we round a corner and the Space Needle is right there and it’s just another one of those incomparable moments. I want everyone to see the Space Needle at night after they’ve taken a long train journey; I want everyone to have that freedom to move around the country and really see not only how much of it there is but also how much of it is open spaces and farm land and small towns and terrifying snow-filled forest at higher elevations.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Five (Journey On Hold)
I am in Seattle for a single day. I had dinner the night before with local friends but today is spent playing semi-tourist with friends who drove up from PDX. They were going to take the train themselves but, painful irony, it wasn’t quite convenient enough.

We hit the market because there’s way too much there that’s awesome. I drag us all to the Fluevog store as well because I want to check it out. We eat and we drink and it’s not a siding in the traditional sense (or in the Jennifer Boylan sense) but it works for me.

Everyone wants to know about the train when they find out where I’m from and what I’m doing. There is nothing but enthusiasm because trains are, as everyone knows, completely awesome.

Some local friends and I end the night in a speakeasy. And we meet four urbanists from Florida (I’ve met so many fellow Floridians on this trip) who are in town to study public transportation. We talk about trains and the consequences when people can’t get to one place from another — for the people but also for the place.

It seems like a fitting conversation to have on the night before I begin my return journey.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Six
Parlour Car via Marianne KirbIt’s not that I’m tired of being on the train. It’s that the rocking of the train and the amount of food and drink I had in Seattle were not, perhaps, in optimum balance.

The Parlour Car is the closest thing to me in my new roomette, so I stumble to it and find a seat in front of the observation windows. It feels like fresh air and it has the same general effect; my stomach settles and it’s easy to get involved in conversation with everyone else there.

There are a lot of stories that have to get passed around, a lot of handshakes and hellos as people move in and out and folks make connections. One woman tells me about her first train journey and the mother with a baby that she met on that trip; they kept in touch for ten years after that.

Among others, I meet Charlie and Nancy Harness, of Hawk Proof Rooster. I don’t have a chance to wonder if I should make the Snowpiercer jokes with them because Nancy references it first. I ask them about the ukuleles Charlie mentioned they were carrying — and I learn a lot about old time music and how big it’s gotten in the Pacific Northwest. We trade business cards, and I get excited to look up their website when I have the chance.

It’s time to ask Jaime, the sleeping car attendant, to convert my bed in ridiculously short order; it gets dark so early and I’ve lost all track of days and time and don’t think this is any way of living in the long term but for now it’s still pretty wonderful to lack a sense of time and measure the pace of my day by word count and how many people I’ve talked to.

For the record, the word count is low but the “people I’ve talked to” number is high so I figure it balances it out and go to bed with a clean work-ethic-related conscious. But I can’t really sleep; my story is whirling in my head because it’s so close to being finished and the demands of a new project are shoving their way into the mental space I use to figure the details of narrative stuff out. It’s exciting stuff, and I keep my windows open so that I can watch as we pull through different stations, as we pull through different towns. I don’t know where those lights belong and I don’t have to know but maybe I can use them.

There’s also some anticipation of being home. That won’t happen still for a while — today’s November 17th and I won’t make it back to New Orleans until the 21st. But even though I’m warm and comfortable, snug and protected feeling, I can’t help but miss my husband and our ridiculous pets. And maybe also our memory foam mattress. I definitely miss the mattress.

I can’t stay awake, though; the soothing qualities  of a train in motion will not be denied. I’d laugh about how it wasn’t at that soothing this morning if I weren’t already asleep.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence

Day Seven  
Maybe I’m finally adapting to West Coast time; I manage to not only sleep in but also laze around for a bit and read. There’s no urgency. The train won’t arrive in Los Angeles until nearly 9pm.

Reading on a train is probably not for anyone who has motion sickness issues. One of my best friends says that she is forced into watching the scenery go by (which is very relaxing) because she’ll puke if she tries to focus on text. I spare a few minutes to be grateful this isn’t anything I have a problem with and, instead, read The Glass Magician. Just for pleasure, just because I want to.

It’s not a work of great literature, though those can also be enjoyable for relaxation. But it’s exactly what I need and I finish it in locations throughout the train: the Parlour Car, the cafe, the Observation Car. I read it and I keep one ear on a conversation happening behind me — there’s a man who is an actual gold prospector and he’s explaining the process.

I put my book down and listen, watch as he pulls little vials of gold from his bag and explains about black sand and magnets.

Reading seems, to me, to be a fundamental part of writing. I think it’s important to read to kids but I think it’s important to read to just about anyone; I think stories themselves teach us how to craft worlds and hold the attention of an audience more effectively than just about anything else. People who tell stories for a living, versus people who writer those stories down, are also fantastic teachers — and harder and harder to find in a country with a mainstream culture that doesn’t seem to value the skill.

And so I read before I finish my own story, just to hold on to the feeling of a story arc coming to crisis point and Sunset on the Coast Starlightresolving exactly where it should. There are other books loaded on my Kindle, more academic books on the subject. But it’s far more fun on this trip to stick with the fiction and poetry that I love, to let it nudge me in the right direction.

It feels selfish, in some ways, to wallow around in the words of other people, but at this point I have enough literal distance between me and my obligations that I can shrug off some of the guilt I would usually feel about not working on things. I am working, I tell myself — this is what work sometimes looks like when you are writing. I have at least a few days to convince myself of this before I return to the pace and demands of my regular daily life and I want the lesson to stick so I start another book and watch some more scenery and remember why I love not only writing but stories in the first place.

Marianne Kirby
Amtrak Writer in Residence