Amtrak Resident: Jeffrey Stanley

Jeffrey StanleyDay 1

Today I set out to ride the rails and write.  Philly to DC to board the Capitol Limited overnight to Chicago, then the California Zephyr to San Francisco and back. I’m presently cruising along the Potomac as night falls.   Mainly I’ll be working on a polish of a screenplay, working title LITTLE ROCK, a bio pic of artist Vernon “Copy” Berg, the first officer to legally challenge the US military for anti-gay discrimination in 1975.  It’s adapted from the memoir Get Off My Ship: Ensign Berg v. the US Navy written by E. Lawrence Gibson, Berg’s partner at the time.

I applied for this award because my wife Bidisha told me about it and knows of my love of trains. In particular she learned about it not long after my second of three Washington Post “On Faith” section pieces came out in 2013 about a crazy, funny, spiritual experience I’d had aboard a commuter train– .  Also, when we first made the move to Philly from NYC for Bidisha’s career needs I was dreading the commute I’d have to make a few times a week only to find out it was a blessing in disguise. I get tons more writing done than I ever did before. I now actually look forward to my commutes two or three times a week, and I genuinely miss them between semesters when I’m not teaching part-time at my alma mater NYU Tisch School of the Arts (I also teach part time at Drexel University Westphal College of Media Arts & Design).  I have also enjoyed writers retreats in the past including Yaddo, which is haunted in more way than one.  So, applying for a writers residency where I could hole up and write for a week while feeling the rocking of a train beneath my feet was a joy for me.  I am the only dramatist among the 24 writers, so to all of you playwrights and screenwriters out there–I’m representin’.

I chose the California Zephyr because I wanted to pick a part of the country with which I’m least familiar.  The California Zephyr and the Southwest Chief became my first and second choices.  A ride through the Sierra Nevadas won out.

I was thrilled to learn that I the private berth action starts as soon as I pull out of DC on the Capitol Limited which runs the route of the former B&O Railroad. It’s an historic route and it goes through Harpers Ferry, WV (formerly Virginia, my home state), a town I have visited often due to my love of history.  Many’s the time I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal that was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and I’m sure you know were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee, who hadn’t yet joined another armed insurrection called the Confederacy.  In 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves.

Years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications.  I don’t think it was ever used by the Corps of Discovery during their expedition (someone will surely confirm or correct me on this) but Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the train line. He  met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West.  I’ll be thinking of this as I roll up through western PA.

Inevitably during my many strolls around this hilly town I’ve watched the trains pass just a stone’s throw from the arsenal and wished I could hop aboard one of them and head off into the forest.  I’m thrilled that this small moment, a whistle stop in Harpers Ferry, got to be part of my rolling retreat at about 5:15pm this evening.

If only it were darker I’d also have my eyes peeled for Screaming Jenny, the flaming ghost said to haunt the tracks near Harpers Ferry.  According to legend she died in 1850 when her dress caught on fire while cooking and she ran screaming down the tracks in a panic.  Today she’s occasionally spotted by train personnel–so it’s claimed (rest assured I intend to query them)–as a screaming, burning woman running through the night who vanishes just as the train approaches her. I’ll report back with any updates.

ps – At dinner tonight I wound up sitting across from one Simon Tarr, a South Carolina-based independent filmmaker who was riding the Capitol Ltd. to get footage for an experimental film he’s making about his grandfather who grew up in western Pennsylvania and who was killed in World War II.  Good luck, Simon.

Thanks also to Capitol Limited staff Larry Picard and Kima for their kindness and help.

Day 2

I visited the most haunted place in the US and bumped into a witch. The witch bumped into a crazy writer.

I got up before dawn to sit in the observatory car and work on LITTLE ROCK while watching twilight brighten gray flat farmland becoming suburbs as we pulled into Waterloo, Indiana.  Later I moved to the cafe car for breakfast and wound up sitting across from fellow passenger Mark Wyatt, a grass roots activist who runs the 2000-member strong Iowa Bicycle Coalition, on a return trip from DC where he was “lobbying Congress.”  Why didn’t he just fly there?  “I don’t enjoy flying and I’ve come to enjoy train travel. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and I can write three grants along the way.”  He and his organization have come up with some novel ways of increasing bicycle appreciation and awareness in Iowa, including the annual bacon ride, where cyclists make stops along the way to enjoy BLTs, bacon chocolate sundaes and bacon everything.  Good luck, Mark.

After arriving in Chicago at around 10:30am I walked directly from Union Station to a nearby Zipcar I had reserved in advance, threw my luggage into the back and drove 40 minutes outside of town visit historic Bachelors Grove Cemetery, supposedly the most haunted place in America. As a taphophile my visit was partly out of curiosity and a love of funerary art, and partly reconnaissance to consider the feasibility of performing my solo theatrical show Boneyards outdoors there sometime in the future.  Bachelors Grove, aside from being supposedly haunted, spent years being neglected, desecrated and repeatedly vandalized by drunk teenagers. Bodies were exhumed and abused for sport.   Sometimes occult rituals occurred there.  Fortunately today a group of concerned citizens helps maintain and protect it although many of the damaged and overturned tombstones still need restoration.

I found the Rubio Woods parking area with no problem but wasn’t sure where to find the cemetery path.  Supposedly it’s not just the cemetery that’s haunted but the woods around it.  Over the years people have reported strange occurrences there, like seeing and hearing old timey ghost cars from a bygone era moving slowly along the dirt roads at night. Witnesses have also reported floating blue lights, misty figures, the ghost of a farmer killed in a nearby swamp, the “Madonna of Bachelors Grove” who walks the trails.  Suffice it to say I was a bit apprehensive as I stood outside my car zipping up my jacket and feeling for my pepper spray and Swiss army knife. What if I vanish into the cemetery and no one hears from me again?  What if I encounter  a coven of cloaked, bedaggered devil worshippers who stalk me and sacrifice me to their dark overlord?

Just then a sweet-faced, morbidly obese woman with dyed platinum hair and a baggy black dress sauntered past me and I thought, witch.  I knew where she was headed.  So I followed her at a safe distance, crossing the busy highway, walking down the shoulder and finally cutting onto the path.  I then walked less than a quarter-mile into the soggy, mushy, slushy woods.  The only terror I felt was the strong possibility of sliding up and busting my ass.  As my sneakers got caked with mud on this thawing March day I realized why the witch had wisely opted for flip-flops.

Sure enough she led me to the jackpot. The cemetery is smaller than I thought and enclosed by an indecorous chain link fence. The witch and I were the only two there and we kept a respectful distance from each other as we separately wandered in silence.   I walked around snapping lots of photos but sadly no apparitions showed up in any of them. See for yourself.  My full Bachelors Grove Cemetery slideshow is here.

At one point I looked up and saw my witch sitting on a tree stump holding two dowsing rods in her hands attempting to suss out any unseen presences with yes or no questions.  It would have made a great photo. I trotted over to her.  “Excuse me. Do you mind if I get a shot of you holding the dowsing rods?”

“No! Do not take a picture of me here!” She must have been playing hooky from work.

“No problem, sorry, good luck,” I said and scurried back to my half of the graveyard.  Some people are just crazy.  Next I decided to contact the dead.  I fired up my trusty P-SB7 spirit box to see if I could record any ghost voices.  I recorded the 3-minute session but haven’t had time to play it back to see if I picked up anything decent.  It’s always the first test of whether a place is Boneyards-worthy.  It needs to be not just haunted but haunted by ghosts who are hams who want to be a part of the show.  I’ll report back as soon as I get around to analyzing the audio.

I was back in Chicago by 12:30 and spent the day writing in my hotel room before heading out to see a play. Before showtime I had a quick scotch at Ceres’ Table.  After the show I quickly cabbed it back to my room to read my 4-year-old son a bedtime story on Skype (his idea; he had shoved 6 of his books into my luggage the morning I left along with one of his stuffed animals for me to sleep with), and then strolled out for a late dinner, and, what the heck, one more scotch, at Miller’s Pub.

Day 3
The Ides of March

It was many, many years ago that I began my career as a Dramatic Author; and a hard and bitter-fought beginning I can well remember that it was. I was inexperienced, shy, and foolish; without money, without influence. I knew not a single soul connected even in the most distant way with the theatrical world. I knew no one to advise me or give me a hint. For years I danced in impotent frenzy around the high strong walls that guard the city of Dramatic Art. I ran my head against the stones, I tore myself against the spiky gates, I soused myself in the dirty moat, I screamed and cursed, and blubbed. At last, I climbed over and got in… I enumerate the difficulties that beset me only to show to the struggling young besiegers of today how, with the aid of pig-headed obstinacy, sublime conceit, thick skin, and a genius for nagging and boring and worrying human people’s lives out of them, it is possible to force even so strongly guarded a portal as the stage door of the present century.
– Jerome K. Jerome, British satirical playwright, 1888

Today’s a traveling day.  I got up early and wrote for awhile, then spent the remainder of this brisk, sunny morning running 10 miles along Chicago‘s Lake Shore Drive and beautiful Lake Michigan before heading to Union Station and hopping the main draw of my trip, the California Zephyr. We rolled out at 2pm.  A couple of hours later we crossed the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa. They alerted us to keep an eye out on the Iowa side of the river for bald eagles nesting in the treetops and sure enough I saw one but was unable to get a decent pic of it.

I’ve been mostly holed up in my room writing, reading, watching the farmlands and freight trains roll by.  Once we passed a train with a whopping 110 tank cars — only tank cars — carrying some kind of fuel oil.  Later we passed a train pulling 130 hopper cars all full of coal.  There’s a whole helluva lot of stuff moving back and forth on these tracks 24 hours a day that we Americans ravenously consume.  Despite Arlo Guthrie’s musical prophecy I don’t think railroads are dying away anytime soon.

Small world. At dinner I was seated with a father-son pair of fellow Philadelphians traveling to San Francisco (the same as me ultimately) to check out colleges, and with a Russian woman who lives in Brooklyn and also had lived in Philly for 5 years, on her way to go skiing in Colorado.  I told her she must come to Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum and check out Boneyards the next time I perform it there. Many thanks to our waiter, Mr. B., for taking such good care of us.

We’ve just crossed into Nebraska and Mountain Time which means I’ve gained an hour.  I hop off tomorrow afternoon at Glenwood Springs, CO.

Nighty night.

 Each year, thousands of tired businessmen and work-weary housewives find sublimation for their restlessness and frustration in playwriting. 
Next to watching professional baseball it’s America’s greatest pastime, indoors or out.  And please don’t get me wrong.
 I have no intention of making any belittling remarks or sounds of derision.  It’s a healthy sign, I think, and every
 so often it actually turns up someone who, by all the rules and regulations, should know nothing at all about
the snide intricacies of the theatre.

– a Broadway producer in an article offering advice to playwrights, 1940s,
as quoted in the classic playwriting book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

Amtrak Residency
Day 4

I woke up about 6:30am to see a brilliant quarter moon hanging over dark Denver so close you wanted to eat it. I jumped down from my upper berth and commenced to working more on revisions to Little Rock.  By the time we pulled out of Denver the sun was up, and from here on out was where the finest viewing on the California Zephyr began.

The observation car was absolutely packed, a standing room only crowd, so I went downstairs to the snack lounge to visit my new friend (ever since I bought out all of his little bottles of Dewar’s last night) Rod Pasko who runs it. Rod took a screenwriting class years ago in college, is an avid Dungeons & Dragons player and is currently writing a fantasy novel that started as a character sketch for one of his gaming characters.  Good luck, Ron.

He also makes a mean Bloody Mary, and he hipped me to the fact that I could sit right there at one of his neglected dining tables that offer just as good a view on both sides of the train as the observation car upstairs, so I planted myself to write and inevitably snap a few pix.

A mellow hour and another Bloody Mary later the Warren-Powell family tramped into this Paradise and took over a table across the aisle from me.  They are two grandparents and four grandchildren, the eldest being 18 and wearing a Fallen Angel t-shirt.  They had gotten on last night in Osceola, IA and spent the night aboard the Zephyr like me. They were also getting off in Glenwood Springs to enjoy the “vapor caves” and outdoor hot springs pool the same as me, and they were doing it over spring break the same as me.  “Where you staying?” I asked.

“The Hot Springs Lodge.”

“I’m staying at the Hotel Colorado.”

“That place is haunted,” said Grandma Warren.

I sat up, air-fived her across the aisle and told her I had hoped it would be given its age and allure (presidents and Al Capone made it a regular stop in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Doc Holliday died in this town and is buried right up the road) and that I planned to try out my spirit box while I was there.  I was just about to launch into my rote explanation of a spirit box and that I’m past caring whether the voices are “real” or not and view it as a kind of art form, when, without missing a beat the eldest child says, “I really want to get a P-SB7.”  My jaw dropped. Not only did I not have to explain it to them, but they were all as into this stuff as I am. Synchronicity, baby.

Right away we began making plans to hold a Ouija session in my room during one of the two nights I’m here. We swapped many a spooky yarn while being awestruck by the views, all of us snapping away on our various devices in our own little corner of the Zephyr for the next two hours while Granddad Warren and I had Rod keep the Bloody Marys comin’. At one point we went through a 6 and half mile tunnel, inside of a mountain, mind you, for a full 10 minutes, during which time we crossed the Continental Divide. I came out the other side feeling reborn, renewed, in a new place. You’ll probably accuse me of making a Freudian joke but sometimes a tunnel is just a tunnel.

When I hopped off in unseasonably warm and stunningly beautiful Glenwood Springs, CO I got picked up by the guy from Enterprise to take me to my rental car. I told him I was staying at the grand old Hotel Colorado and he had a similar reaction as the Warren-Powell clan. “It’s haunted.”

“Perfect. Which rooms?” I asked eagerly.  He looked a little surprised, named one and I thanked him for the tip.  Upon check-in I took the direct approach with the clerk. “I hear the place is haunted. What’s your take?”  She hesitated, unsure, I think, which answer I wanted to hear.  I’m sure the last thing she wanted to do was have me switch hotels so I put her at ease. “Because if there’s a haunted room can I have it?”

She checked the system while explaining to me that there are, “if you believe in that stuff,” two haunted rooms. Sadly both are booked so she put me in a room next door to one of them.  Maybe I’ll get some bleed-through.  I’m already in e-touch with the Warren-Powell families staying in the Hot Springs Lodge next door and I hope to hold them to our plan.

Meanwhile I walked across the street to the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, the world’s largest hot springs pool, which is fed with natural, hot mineral water. These springs were originally considered sacred healing places by the natives. The experience was amazing. To my eyes it was like a giant, slow motion hot tub. Tiny tots and codgers alike all crept about in the soothing waters dazed with pleasure, half-smiles on all our faces.

I did try actual swimming a bit but it just wasn’t the scene for that. Even a backstroke felt out of place. Instead, people just bobbed slowly in place or stood on the sides going “aaaah,” if they said anything at all.  In my hotel room there’s a photo of Teddy Roosevelt digging the hot springs many decades ago and looking as shameless and egoless as the bathers I saw today, his hair and trademark mustache matted down such that he looked comical and almost unrecognizable.

I’m now in the courtyard of the Hotel Colorado writing and having a scotch while a jazz band plays softly in the grand lobby beside me.

Amtrak Residency
Day 5
St. Patrick’s Day

Today I was up writing by 6:30am. I never heard from my enthusiastic train buddies from about an evening seance last night. I slept well and am sorry to report no supernatural activity. (I did hear from them later about doing the seance tonight. More below).  I stopped writing around 8:30am to go for a 10-mile run “up canyon” as they say in these here parts, into the White River National Forest.  I concluded by running directly to Glenwood Springs’ famed Yampah Vapor Caves, a natural steamy sauna in a small series of cavernous rooms just beneath street level. These are the only known natural vapor caves in North America; the rest are manmade.

The Utes were aware of these caves for hundreds of years before whitey showed up, and used them to heat their nearby above-ground sweat lodges. They even cut a hole into a hillside so that sick people could be lowered down into the caves to experience their healing powers. The experience of lying in a hot, dark, silent, steamy cave staring up at a cavernous ceiling with a faint smell of rotten eggs (that would be the sulfur content of the vapor) was surreal but soothing, especially after a long run.

Next I drove a short distance from the hotel and hiked a half-mile uphill to visit Lynwood Cemetery, final resting place of gunslingers Doc Holliday and Kid Curry, before holing up in my room to write awhile before dinner.

It was then that I heard from the Warren-Powell family (Tammy, Rick, “Fallen Angel” Cody, Cameron, Madison and Claire). We met up for dinner at the Fiesta Guadalajara restaurant for Mexican food, which I now know goes great with scotch. We swapped more ghost stories (I swear this is the most haunted family I have ever encountered, even the youngest — and they love it).  The grandparents and I wrapped up dinner with a shot of Cuervo (hey, it was their idea so it would have been rude of me to decline) and drifted back to my place.

As soon as we entered my room the family all fanned out, whipped out tablets and smartphones and began snapping away at every square inch of the place. I told them not to bother as I had already done that and seen nothing unusual. The words were barely out of my mouth when Cameron interrupted. “You’ve got a little boy in the bathroom.”

Huh?  Sure enough on the pic he had just snapped we could make out what seemed to be the shadow of a small figure leaning halfway in the bathroom doorway, right where we were standing, yet it wasn’t anything visible to the naked eye.  Are you getting chills yet? I was. As soon as I get their photos I’ll add them here.

I pulled a small, round table, which seemed made for a seance, away from the wall. I sat down and made a homemade Ouija board hearkening back to my teenage days simply by writing the letters, numbers, and yes and no on a blank sheet of paper. For a planchette I used a credit card turned upside down. The raised letters give it a very small surface area. One corner of the credit card we designated the pointer. Cody and I sat down together first and didn’t have much luck. I stepped out and let Cameron take my place.   The planchette still wouldn’t budge, so then it was Cameron and me. That combination of partners got it moving.

We spoke to someone who referred to him/herself with initials A T who said he/she was a U T E (the original inhabitants of this area) aged 8 0.  I asked if it lived in the hotel and it said N O.  So what brought it here tonight?  Y O U.  Oh, so you heard my call at the top of the session to speak to someone friendly who felt like chatting? Y E S.  Where were you before that?  It tried spelling something but we couldn’t make out the answer.  Did we annoy you, are you angry that we summoned you?  N O.  Would you like to speak with us electrically?  Y E S.

I ran over and fired up the P-SB7 spirit box and aimed my camera at it to record the audio, just like the audience and I do at every conclusion of Boneyards while Madison took over for me at the Ouija board.  Moments later we all heard the spirit box shout “CHILD” just as A T handed the board over to a new presence.  I A M  LEE.   Your name is Lee?  Y E S.

Naturally the only conclusion we could draw is that this was the same little boy whom Cameron had photographed in the bathroom. At one point we asked where he was standing and he said B E H I N D  M A D I S O N, which would indeed put him in the bathroom doorway and next to me.  We asked Lee why he was in the hotel and he spelled out F A I L but we couldn’t get him to elaborate.

Meanwhile the P-SB7 was really cooking. As soon as I’ve analyzed the raw video I’ll post it but for now I can tell you we also heard it shout out  “CAMERON” and “I’M HERE.”

The mood overall was positive. AT and Lee turned out to be cool, and as curious and eager as we were to communicate.  After we concluded the session Cameron snapped another photo and found in the mirror’s reflection the image of small boy hiding in the corner right near my bed peeking out at us from around the chest of drawers.  Great, I thought.  I have to sleep here tonight.

Cameron and Cody snapped a few other pix in my room and up and down the hallway. I told them to email all of them to me but that I wouldn’t look at them until after I was safely on the train tomorrow.

I’ll admit I was a little wide-eyed and my hair stood on end for the next two hours after they left but it was nothing a little late night TV, especially South Park, didn’t cure. The ghosts must have enjoyed the shows, too, because they settled down and all was quiet for the night.  Nice folks, that Lee and AT. Ditto the Warren-Powell family.

Amtrak Residency
Days 6 and 7
3/18 and 3/19/15
After the Gold Rush

Yesterday and today were mainly traveling days.  Up refreshed by 7:30am yesterday despite the previous night’s ghostly shenanigans, I worked on LITTLE ROCK for awhile before heading to the Hot Springs Pool for one last dip before skipping town.  I had lunch at Polanka, a hole in the wall run by two Polish women. The combo platter (pierogis, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage) and apple blintz for dessert put me right back in the East Village in Manhattan.  The train was delayed but it gave me time to explore the small railroad museum at the historic Glennwood Springs, CO train depot.  Who should surprise me at the train station but the Warren-Powells who knocked off early from their day of swimming to see me off.

Continuing westward on the California Zephyr, everyone in the observation car and I stood in slackjawed wonder as a bald eagle (my 2nd sighting this trip) flew alongside us just over the Colorado River. What a sendoff.  Next we snaked through De Beque Canyon, followed by Ruby Canyon which takes its name from the red sandstone cliffs lining the canyon walls. As the sun set and Ruby Canyon turned black we crossed into Utah. I holed up in my room writing until bedtime.

Up this morning at 6:30am (now Pacific time) to write and we were in the middle of Nevada headed southwest to Reno. After Reno we made our last stop in Nevada, the town of Verdi, site of the first train robbery in the West in 1870.  In California we soon passed Donner Lake, named after the Donner Party, who were stranded during the winter of 1846-47. They resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Only 48 of the 87 members lived to tell about it.  At midday came Auburn, CA and Sutter’s Mill, the locus of the 1840s gold rush that swept the whole region. The San Francisco 49ers are called that for a reason.

The day was spent writing, writing, writing. Got off in Emeryville (San Francisco), CA around 5:30pm, the final stop on the California Zephyr. Touchdown! I’ve come all the way across the country.  I’m spending the night with my old friend Nat and his family. We watched his son play a baseball game, had dinner at Padrecito and called it a night.  This wasn’t my first time in Frisco and it’s a good thing because there’ll be no time for sightseeing or show-going. I must be back on the Zephyr headed eastward at 9:10am tomorrow morning.

Amtrak Residency
Day 8

Please Look After This Bear

I have slingshotted around San Francisco and am now hurtling back toward the East Coast, back on the California Zephyr at 9:10am this morning to cross through now-familiar terrain but staying on the opposite side of the train as much as possible to take in a different view.  At lunchtime I enjoyed chatting with Zachary Knighton, a northern California glass artist (Zookeeper Glass Wurx, Instagram: @zookeeperglass).  We had a high-flying conversation about my recent stay in Colorado.

We were soon joined by Bart, a former long distance runner from South Jersey who’d trained to be a Olympian long distance runner some 30 years ago, came to San Jose State University, never left, and was now a contented, retired realtor in his 60s who gave us a quick lesson on the housing market (The bank doesn’t own your house; a nameless investor in Saudi Arabia owns it. When you fall behind in your mortgage payments the bank doesn’t want to work with you because they can write off the value of your house as a business loss.  Truth? Conspiracy theory? You tell me).

When we stopped in Reno I quickly hopped off to shoot a man just to watch him die, heard the whistle blowing, hung my head and cried, got back on the train and rolled on eastward.

During the intervening hours I wrote, read, wrote, read and wrote. At dinner I had an intense conversation with a guy named Cory, a self-described “bean counter” from Chicago who set me straight on the true story of Marie Antoinette, not the satirical Marie Antoinette I’m going to see at the Steppenwolf Theatre when I get to Chicago. We also discussed William Powell, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, EM Forster and Graham Greene. By the time we cleared out I’m sure the waitress was more than ready for us to shut up and leave.

Next time I come this way it’ll definitely be with the family plus our camping and fishing gear. I’m glad I chose this route. My purpose was to select the part of the country with which I’m least familiar, and I’m so happy I did that.  My 4-year-old son slipped one of his stuffed animals in my luggage so I wouldn’t have to sleep alone at night. Paddington Bear has become my mascot and helps me find my room as they all look identical. Appropriate that my son chose a bear known for traveling.

Pitch black bedtime and
crossing through Nevada some-
where west of Elko.

Amtrak Residency
Day 9

Haven’t I been here before? Woke up this morning shooting across Utah and worked on LITTLE ROCK for a couple of hours before finally succumbing to the call of hot breakfast and coffee wafting from the dining car. There I met a high school senior named Kira who’s interested in pursuing an acting or singing career, and also Jane, returning home from a yoga retreat.

In Glenwood Springs, CO the Warren-Powell family boarded my train on their way back home to Iowa and I spent a good chunk of the afternoon and part of the evening playing trivia with them and talking ghosts.

At lunchtime I chatted with Mark, a trucker and entrepreneur with a fascinating family history including a father who fought in WW II, Korea and Vietnam, before hiding in my room to write again for a few hours.

Later in the day we again passed through the Moffat Tunnel at 9239 feet above sea level, the highest elevation of any Amtrak train. To refresh your memory, it’s a 10-minute ride through a mountain which crosses the Continental Divide. I went through it a few days ago on my way west.  I’m now back on the eastern side of it and hurtling toward home and my wife and son whom I miss dearly.

This will have been my longest single stretch on the train (2 nights, 3 days from San Francisco to Chicago) so when we made an extended stop in Denver early this evening I seized the opportunity to hop off and walk around Union Station for half an hour to keep my muscles from atrophying.

At dinner I chanced to share a table with one Jason Walsmith and his two adorable kids. Jason’s in a well-known Iowa folk and rock quintet called The Nadas who’ve played my home bases of Philly, New York City and a slew of other cities across the country. He gave me two of their CDs which I look forward to hearing when I’m back home in a few days. The Warren-Powells, also Iowans, were well aware of The Nadas and impressed that I’d dined with one of the lead singers.

Many thanks to the awesome Amtrak crew for keeping us all moving, fed and lubricated.

More writing, then snoozing.

Amtrak Residency
Day 10

Chicago Blues

Got up with the rooster crow — or in Amtrakspeak the ear-blasting 6am breakfast call — to see off the Warren-Powells who hopped off in Osceola, IA at 7:40am. I then wrote until an early lunchtime (the last meal aboard my beloved California Zephyr before it concluded its run in Chicago) during which I met a pair of retired micro-brewers, Wendy and Don Littlefield. The better half is completing her first novel, a murder mystery that I look forward to reading.  They also hipped me to Philly Inquirer food writer Craig LaBan, whom I should have known about as I’m now a Philadelphian, but I didn’t. Now I do.

I spent my final few hours aboard the Zephyr writing while passing through mile after mile of moist, flat, cloudy, Illinois corn stubble to arrive in a brisk Chicago.

Aside from the morbidly obese, self-important, selfish fellow passenger who rudely bulldozed through me in the narrow sleeper car hallway with a Sense of Entitlement like I’ve never seen as I disembarked in Chicago, only to then stand around on the platform in no particular hurry with no apparent place to rush off to while waiting for his own luggage to brought to him by a redcap,  this has been an incredible trip, and one for which I’m grateful to Amtrak and Zephyr staff members like MarkKaren and Joyce.

A week ago it was unseasonably warm in the mid-60s in Chi-town but not so today. The sky threatened snow and the forecast called for 1 to 3 inches. It didn’t deter me from seeing David Adji’s Marie Antoinette at the Steppenwolf, a must-go theatre every time I’m in Chicago.

I concluded the evening with a repeat visit to Miller’s Pub on the corner of West Adams and Lake Shore Drive near my hotel. Try the pastrami Rueben with a Dewar’s on the rocks. Heaven.

The California Zephyr leg of my journey is now complete, but I’m not quite home to my South Philly loved ones just yet. Two more days of writing time to go.


Amtrak Residency
Day 11
One More Day to Gravy

Kali gnashed her teeth
Scraping across the sky
We scattered in her sweat
Leaped across its rivers
Looking for hard cover
Relishing the dance
Wiping out


A chilly, snowy, slushy day in the Windy City. Awoke to falling snow and a forecast that had increased to 3 to 6 inches.

Another 10-mile run along Lake Michigan was out of the question so I ran 10 miles on a treadmill in my hotel’s fitness room. That might seem like a desperate act but after a 2 and half days of being sedentary on a train I had to sweat out some toxins and burn off the crazy.  I then had a scrumptious lunch at the nearby Berghoff Restaurant, a local landmark that’s been serving German-American cuisine since 1898. I particularly dug the beet salad and homemade potato chips with my chicken cutlet sandwich and their own signature root beer to wash it all down.

Later I stayed cozy in my hotel lounge writing all afternoon and keeping an eye on’s train status map. Would the Capitol Limited leave on time at 6:40 pm on this wintry spring day or would I be checking in for another night?  Great news, it was on time. I’ll be in DC tomorrow afternoon, then home to Philly.

Many thanks to Amtrak staff Carlos Aguilar, Myles, Greg and Carl for ensuring a delicious dinner and smooth ride. My dining partners were a Harvard-bound young man from South Sudan, raised in Israel, here studying international law (“Freedom is expensive. You have to fight for it.” His casual remark rang in my ears the rest of the night.), and Cara, a retiree on her way to Florida to pick up a Winnegabo and drive it back to Michigan. She’s also working on a children’s book about a haunted house. Ghosts and hauntings abounded on this trip, but also I’m flabbergasted by the number of writers I’ve met. The Amtrak rails are lousy with us. Even in the 21st century it still clearly holds a romantic, literary appeal.

Stanley_JTo top off my evening, my always inventive 4-year-old son back in Philly changed into his alter-ego, “Gravy,” who graces us with his presence sometimes, complete with sunglasses and a plastic whistle shaped like a mouth that he keeps clenched in his front teeth, usually recounting that he’s just flown in from a trip to England.  #futureactor #futureprivateye #nexteltonjohn

Speaking of alter-egos, a free bonus: me singing and playing the ultimate train song 7 or 8 years ago under an assumed name (that of my great-grandfather). Hope you like it.  #howmuchilovetrains #caseyjones #mississippijohnhurt

Thank you, Amtrak, for a once in a lifetime experience. I am grateful to be among the 24.