Amtrak Resident: Ksenia Anske
March 16: Adventure! Adventure! I’m going on an adventure! I was so excited to leave on my Amtrak Residency trip that instead of taking ample time to sleep in (and that is after two weeks of running on no sleep to finish a book), I woke up at 6 a.m. I hugged the pillow for another hour and a half and then finally gave up. Sleep truly is something that may perhaps grace me with its presence when I’m dead. Anyway. The adventure started close to 9 a.m. You see, my train was not to leave till 4:40 p.m., but around 9 I got a call from Amtrak. “The service has been affected by a schedule change. You will now be traveling on alternate transportation over part or all of your trip. To speak to any Amtrak representative about alternate travel options…” At this point I think I dropped the phone. “Oh my God, I’m not going anywhere! It’s the end of the world! I want to die!!!” A fit of conniptions followed. Well, almost. After I got myself to breathe I called Amtrak and talked to a very nice lady who nicely told that I have nothing to worry about. I only have to take a bus from Seattle to Everett, and there I will get on the train. Whew. My life has soared back to heaven. After hours of frantic running around and doing laundry and packing I have finally made to the King Station, from where a lovely bus driver with an excellent sense of humor (“In case of landing on water, use your seats as flotation devices, which won’t help you, by the way.”) ferried us rather quickly to Everett. Apparently, the rain god or whoever it is who makes rain up there in the clouds has overdone the norm and all that water moved a bunch of soil (I would hope with curious artifacts like bones in it) and caused a mudslide. 20 miles of train tracks got covered in debris. The train, I hear from the conductor, slowly made its way through and in the next 40 minutes finally appeared out of the blue ether. I clambered onto the second floor into this cute little wall pocket called “roomette” with two navy seats opposite each other and a window onto the trees and sunset running away (we started moving by then). For the next 10 minutes I stared around instead of unpacking and settling, because I still couldn’t believe I was on a train. On the second floor. All on my own. Oh, to write a new book! To read! To—
Dinner time. It was announced over the intercom, and it was a “first come, first serve” kind of arrangement. My stomach reminded me that it’s rather hollow (with all this running around I forgot to eat). Delicious steak made it’s way to my plate quickly (fantastic service), and I inhaled it, while talking to Sylvia and Victor, a charming retired couple who sat at my table. It’s a thing on Amtrak, you share tables when eating. What a great way to make new friends. Which I did. We ended up talking through dinner and then in their room and then they bought my books (I didn’t even try to sell them, I swear, it just happened). Should I mention that Louis, the attendant in my train car, is a fantastic photographer whose pictures are on display right by his coffee stand? He unfolded the bed for me with a practiced move: you pull the seats and flip down the backs, and they dovetail into each other, making a cozy shelf-bed. Mind you, all of this was happening against the background of gorgeous views blurring past the window, so my ADD was going “SQUIRREL!!!” at the speed unbeknownst to me before (at home my writing table faces the wall). After sitting on this bed, anticipating a sweet long night of reading The Exorcist (it’s this adorable bedtime story) and finally forcing myself to unpack, I managed to brush my teeth over a tiny sink without spilling much of the frothy goo anywhere (are you proud of me?) and changed into my pajamas, and then realized I was dead. Dead tired. And internet connection got dead tired too. As I am typing this, at this precise moment, the train is passing through the woods that are so black (it’s night) that I can’t see my hands. It’s a paradise for a writer, this lack of Wi-Fi, and this pitch-black darkness, only I have no juice left. The last of it was spend on typing up today’s story, which did’t include so many other stories I wanted to tell, of so many people I have spoken to. Louis likes to ride motorcycles and take pictures. Sylvia is a retired teacher who wants to write children’s books. Victor is a pilot and a ballroom dancer. And—oh, there are too many stories. The thrill of it, the thrill of becoming close neighbors for a a day or two, is only possible on trains. Can you do this on the airplane? On a bus? Nope, trains is it.
And now I shall try to sleep. The lull of the movement, the rhythm, the muffled heartbeat of the wheels—this is my lullaby. Good night.
March 17: I could live on a train. The constant swaying and creaking and vibrating and ta-tam-ta-tam staccato of the wheels have gotten under my skin. At one stop, when I got out, I missed it and started swinging involuntarily. I’m not kidding.
The first night I slept in fits, waking up at 4 a.m., then at 5:30 a.m., and at 6 a.m. Finally at 7 a.m. I gave up and started staring out the window. Snow. Miles of snow. Flat expanses of ground and rocky screes and then knolls and hills and mountains and flats again. It looked white. It looked dusty. It looked like the middle of nowhere. I learned later that we were passing Montana.
Breakfast livened me up a bit, and I spent it chatting with familiar friends Sylvia and Victor who are getting off tonight at 2 a.m. in Fargo. I don’t know how I moved around until I had enough coffee to wake myself up. And then I holed up in my roomette, and opened up my laptop, and got scared.
I always get scared before starting to write a new book. And I always overcome it. But this was different. This wasn’t home. This was on the move. This was constant interruptions. The voice over the intercome announcing stations. The lovely train attendant asking what I would like for lunch. The neighbors stopping by to chat. In the end I succumbed to closing the curtains and wearing headphones, blasting Tchaikovsky and staring at the screen.
“Okay, this is it,” I thought. And I started writing. It was surprisingly easy. The monotone flatness and austerity of the landscape almost put me into a sort of a trance, together with the soothing lull and the music. It was moody, precisely the way I wanted to feel. You see, I’m writing a novel about a train eating ballerinas, so that requires a certain mood, wouldn’t you say?
Someone asked me on Twitter if writing on the train is inspiring or distracting. And I answered, both. I wrote as if I was there, on the train, and I WAS there. I am. It was like describing an immediate sensation. Everywhere I looked, I saw (imagined) clues to future scenes. The perspiration dripping from the metal doors. The face looking in through the window, upside down (brrr, this made my skin erupt in goose pimples), the incoherent static of the intercom while it was supposed to be off but kept transmuting unsettling noises. The gloom of a machine that could be carnivorous was palpable. It might be only specifically applicable to me and to the subject of my book, but I felt it. I FELT IT. And I wrote 2K words in maybe a couple hours or so together with the interruptions and the stops and the lunch and everything in between.
And then I read. You know what pleasure it is to read on the train? It’s like trains were made for reading. I swallowed half a book, I think. And I saw sights and elk and burning gas and cabins so remote, I wondered what would happen if the inhabitants contracted cabin fever, and outlandish dales and valleys that seemed to come from some other reality, and you’re like a tourist behind the thick glass walls, passing though, gawking.
And even now, typing this, I feel as if I’m in a moving tomb that is alive and rushing me through darkness. The sense of speed permeates my bones. It’s different from that in a car. It makes you trace the irregularities of the ground. You’re passing through places where there are no roads, no lights, no other signs of life, and at times it appears as though it’s not of this planet.
I think I just got a new idea for a new book, writing this. You see what this trip does to me? Yeah. Delirious delicious insomnia.
March 18: Sleep and trains just don’t belong. Maybe they do, if you’re on a trip for leisure. But if you’re a writer running on adrenaline fumes, it’s impossible to close your eyes. So many things are happening, so many sights are passing the windows, I kept my eyes peeled until I couldn’t keep them peeled anymore. Not to mention, I was reading THE EXORCIST again, and, naturally, that only added to the excitement. This day though, upon waking, I was startled by the color.
Everything was beige. Yesterday everything was white and snowy, and today everything was fawn and tawny and burnt sienna and bricks. Dusted. As if cut out of sand. The trees, brown. The sky, ochre. The water, muddy. As if a skin of color has been stripped to some crumbling bones. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was no water, that every living thing has somehow desiccated, and yet it was beautiful in its own fashion. Creamy. Custardy. I wanted to taste it. I was mesmerized by this change in scenery, quickly swallowed breakfast, and started to write.
In the breaks between writing my roomette became a book gift shop. By now the staff of the whole train (or most of it) knew that I’m a resident writer, and I have successfully harassed them (mind you, with smiles and niceties) to buy my books. All these books I took with me just in case by the end of this way were gone! And I was served lunch in my roomette, again. And I wrote 2K words, again. And I have gotten used to this routine of writing to the movement. Whenever I felt stuck, I simply looked out the window and in the next few minutes I would be unstuck. The view always changed. And it was soothing, this change. Languid, not jarring, almost like a balm.
And I ate like a pig. I don’t know what it is about train rides. Maybe all my writing and non-sleeping was burning something, but I scarfed breakfast, and not three hours later ate one lunch, thought a little bit, and ate another lunch, to the astounded face of my train attendant.
“But you already ate!”
“Yeah, I know, I’m a pig. I’m hungry again!”
After I got done writing, I wandered around taking pictures of the train and compartments and such, as part of the research of my book. I touched things. I smiled at things. I almost talked to things, like the seats and the curtains and the doors. If anyone saw me, they would’ve probably thought I was crazy. And one train attendant did, but he knew I was a writer and a crazy one at that, so he understood.
And then, bam! In no time we were in Chicago already! I just settled in to read and had to pack and leave the train. It felt like leaving a small family of people whom I just started to get to know, and it was sad, and I touched the train, holding on to it before letting go.
A lovely couple, Jacquelyn and Kristina, have picked me up from the Union Station on their maroon Ford and whisked me away to a quaint street that reminded me of quiet neighborhoods in Boston, populated with old brick rowhouses fronted with classic porches and steep stairs that run down onto the street. I squealed. I really did. I get to stay in their home for two days, write in the company of their adorable doggy, and on the 20th I’m boarding my next Amtrak train, Texas Eagle, to ride from Chicago all the way through Texas and arrive in LA to visit my daughter who, as you know, studies graphic design in Orange and makes the covers for all my books.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I get to sleep in a huge inflatable bed, and my head is still swaying from being in the train for so long. I will imagine the chugging of the wheels as my lullaby.
March 19:First I thought my feet were stuck in the mouth of a snow monster. Yes, I know, don’t ask. Then I thought I somehow managed to stick a foot out of the train window, and the horror of this idea is what woke me up. No, my feet were okay, there were just very cold. I’m staying in an old haunted (it totally is haunted, just look at it) rowhouse, and the insulation is something that is of short supply here. I sat up, reeling. Then I thought, no, I’m not reeling, it’s my brain. It’s sloshing around in my skull after it got used to the train and its constant motion.
So, just as I was, in pajamas, I got up, got my coffee (thanks Jacquelyn Delcamp and Kristina Castro, you wonderful hosts!), and started writing. The room was cold, and that was good, it kept me awake. The adorable little pooch by the name of Jazz sat on my lap and kept me warm. I had a hard time starting. You know why? I missed the scenery flashing by the window. There came with it a sense of timelessness, a perpetual movement, and it had a soothing effect and a purpose. Sitting idle didn’t feel like procrastinating, it felt like doing something useful.
And suddenly writing didn’t seem scary anymore. I don’t know if it’s because I belonged to a bigger purpose (a train getting passengers to a destination) or if it’s because the decadent romance of gazing out the window did inspire me, but I found that writing was easy. Easier than when I wrote today, in a room, stationary.
When I got done writing my daily chapter, Sean Dennison, one of my readers, picked me up to have tea at Russian Tea Time, where we drank a barrel of vodka, swam in borscht, and then climbed on the roof of the building and—okay, no, we didn’t do that, but you can blame this sentence on my imagination. We ate, we had a good time (thank you, Sean, I’m still stuffed as I’m writing this!), and then I went to Art Institute of Chicago and got blown out of my socks by the abundance of art that nearly made me cry. Seriously.
I stood in front of one of Monet’s grainstacks paintings and thought, “Here is an artist who took time to show people the beauty of what he saw by painstakingly repeating the same motif over and over again to get it right.” And then I thought, “Writing is the same thing. It’s why we writers write. We feel beauty and we want to share it, but we obsess over every word because we want people to read it just right.”
After this I was unable to do anything else but to make it back to the haunted house, thinking about the train ride tomorrow (I rode the metro train and realized how much I missed it). It will be a longer voyage this time. I’m hopping on Texas Eagle and going from Chicago to Los Angeles, traversing St. Louis, Dallas, and San Antonio on the way. I will be on the train for 65 hours, that’s four days and three nights! Adventure continues. Get ready for more pictures and stories.
March 21: The morning was crazy, and lovely, and crazy again. I don’t remember how I fell asleep (face-first into THE EXORCIST on the Kindle, probably) but I do remember how I woke up. From a dog lick in the face and a frantic escape of paws scraping on the wooden floor. Then more dogs arrived. It was the dog-sitting day at my darling hosts’ house, and they were: Piper, a chocolate lab (at least I think it’s lab, I’m most likely wrong); Fuzz, a tawny hairy poodle; Leo, a terrier (I think); and the lady of the house Jazz (although it’s short from Jasmine, so maybe it’s Jas).
Jacquelyn and Kristina had to leave for work and I have tried to concentrate on writing. It went like this.
Who can be louder? Leo missed his mama very much and has emitted a volley of noises I didn’t think dogs were capable of. It was whining and howling and yapping and clucking (like a chicken) and yowling mixed together. Add scraping at the door. Add frantic gamboling and skipping in circles. Add periodic squeals of frustration at my stoic indifference.
I grew up with four dogs, so I have learned my lesson well. I blissfully ignored this brouhaha (in addition to the poodle and the lab deciding to play catch-my-tail-no-catch-yours-can-I-bite-your-ears game), blasted on high volume Dvorák’s Symphony 9 and started writing.
There was a curious pause. The dogs stared at me quietly. Then Leo decided to show me that he didn’t think I won. He proceeded barking at every beat of the drum. It was quite entertaining.
I think at some point I found myself typing, one dog on one side of my lap, another on another, and two more sleeping at my feet.
Then Jacquelyn came and drove me over to the Union Station and all of a sudden it was time to board the train! I think I have realized I’m leaving after I saw the jaggedy outline of Chicago through the train window, but I was exhilarated. I was back on the train, in my favorite nook! I’ve managed to write 1.5K words with the doggies, and then set up a writing station in my roomette and banged out 500 more, finishing the chapter.
Then I stared out the window. You can never get tired of staring out of a train’s window. I read a bit of THE EXORCIST and went to dinner, where I sat at the table with Alan and Vivian who recently celebrated their 50 years of marriage and were traveling from Portland after visiting Vivian’s 94-year-old (!!!) father to go on a cruise. They are British but live in France in Bordeaux, so naturally I told them I’m coming over since after eating dinner together we’re practically family. Ryan from Texas joined us. He is returning home to his wife of 43 years after having seen his sister in Portland. We had the most fascinating conversation about everything from Roald Dahl to difficult teenagers to the origins of faith to literature to marriage to chocolate versus cheesecake.
It was the best dinner I have had so far onboard of Amtrak. My new sport is to meet as many new people at meal times as possible to hear their stories. This is rich soil for new novels.
And now I’m staring out the window (again, because you do that a lot when on a train) into a black nothing, comfy in my pajamas and looking forward to waking up to some new vista tomorrow and, of course, more writing.
March 22: “Always look on the bright side of life.” Ta-dam. Ta-dam, ta-dam, ta-dam. This Monty Python song percolates around in my head because it’s been over 5 hours that we’ve been standing in Fort Worth, Texas, waiting to be rerouted. Ahead of us a train carrying methanol (nasty stuff) has derailed. 12 cars overturned. Chemicals spilled everywhere. 10 houses evacuated. Don’t worry, nobody was injured!
But, I’m jumping ahead. Let me start this day’s adventures from the beginning.
Red is the first color I see after plastering my face over the window and staring outside in the morning. It was green in Seattle, white in Montana, beige closer to Chicago, and now on our way to Texas the soil and the carpet of fallen pine needles and even old crinkly leaves are red, russet, that deep rusty hue iron gives to everything it touches. I hear there is a lot of it here. Where there are furs growing, it makes it red and green, like Christmas. It’s lovely.
There has been an unusual amount of rain lately, and it’s raining as we’re trundling along. The mud is pinkish, the puddles orange. It’s a feast to the eye, soggy and colorful. And there are tons of cemeteries we’re passing, always a cheery sight reminding you to do what you want with your life before it’s too late.
But that’s about it, in terms of sights. There hasn’t been much variety to see, mostly city backyards with their usual warehouses and water towers and industrial alleys and such. Flat. It has been like this since Hope, AR, or at least since I woke up, all the way till our unexpected stop.
I have met wonderful people at breakfast and dinner. 10-year-old Owen who said he will read my book Rosehead (although I told him it’s a terrible story about a rose garden that eats people), his mom, a mustached Home Depot contractor, a couple from Australia (he originally from Japan, a geophysicist, she originally from Holland) going to a conference, a college geography professor whose parents died within two weeks of each other and who was returning home after celebrating their lives with his family. We had fantastic conversations, especially about comparing train commuting in Japan and Russia.
Lunch I ate alone, in my roomette, while writing. My spirits were lowish because of the drab scenery and it was going slow. Also, the turkey meatballs I had for lunch didn’t help. They were so good, and I felt so warm, I wanted to nap. So I did. And sat up with a start 30 minutes later, because I saw a dream. You see, I was stuck, not knowing what to write next, and then in a dream the scraping of the wheels on the track turned into an acapella sung by male voices, and that was what I wrote next. It freaked me out, but it was also perfect.
Oh, as I’m typing this, we have started moving!!! We were already behind a bit, but the spilled methanol has put us over 11 hours behind schedule. I’m learning that train travel comes with a natural expectation of the railway being obstructed by one thing or another. First mudslide, then methanol. I wonder what comes next. Bears protesting lack of squirrels? Not that bears eat squirrels, but maybe it’s their new diet and they feel upset. And trains are a convenient target for some reason according to furry bear logic.
The down side of this is, I will spend less time with my daughter in LA. The upside is, I get more time to write on the train and I’m in the middle of a crazy adventure! This will make its way into my book one way or another. And Amtrak gave me a snack pack to compensate for my distress, and it had two cookies there, and I already ate them. Can I have more cookies, please? Thank you!
We have stopped again. Behind the window is rain, darkness, and Texas. Adventure continues.
We have been trundling along Texas, and upon waking today in the first twenty minutes of staring out the window I saw deer, and donkeys (or maybe those were mules), and squirrels, and turkey vultures, and clumps of cactuses that grow everywhere like weed and that brought me to some kind of an ecstatic excitement as I’ve never seen them grow like that.
Perhaps because it was so warm and sunny, perhaps because the scenery was so lush and green and unusual, I did my writing in a couple hours and spent the rest of the day partaking in mischief.
At around noon or so our train was parted into separate carriages, and rearranged and attached to a new engine with other carriages that were headed to LA and waited for us for close to 11 hours due to delay. Now, on the other side of our sleeper car we got hooked to a one story green car that we failed to identify and I filmed it until I was reprimanded by the railway workers to close the door (I was looking down from the second floor of our carriage). I know, I know.
After the big train disbandment and rearrangement there were few people left onboard. Lunch I spent talking with a retired interstate truck driver who also used to be an engineer and explained to me what it felt like to be electrocuted—first you see darkness, then a point of light that grows, and then reality out of that. He said he felt no pain and thought that his wife would be sad at his funeral, and he couldn’t possibly have that happen. So he made it back and that’s when he felt like he had 10,000 coffee cups at once. Lesson to you: don’t try this at home.
We have rolled over a bridge crossing the Pesco River and collectively—I mean, the entire dining car—gazed at the unfolding prairie and later at the gorgeous golden sunset that burnished our faces pink in the observation car, a sort of an aquarium on wheels, all glass, so you can soak up the vistas and sigh and seep your tea and feel content (which I did). I also started reading Anna Karenina, which made me feel even more content, and someone on Instagram suggested (after I posted a picture of it) to have a copy of Anna Karenina in every carriage. What do you think about this, Amtrak? A library for passengers? I think it’s an excellent idea.
After all the food and conversations and sun and sights I got so happy, I napped. Woke up. Read some more. Stared some more at the sunset. And now I’m writing this, about to drop to sleep.
Tomorrow, New Mexico! Arizona! California! I will see my daughter in LA, stay a couple days, and hop back on the train to go all the way to Seattle via Chicago. I can’t believe that half of my adventure is gone. I want it to last longer.
March 24: Sun! Sky! Palms! Cactuses! Waking up to this made me jump out of bed and hit my head on the bed above. So don’t get too excited when you’re on the train.
I was wired all day, thrilled to finally arrive in LA and see my daughter. Adventures started at breakfast. I sat with Jud and Ruth who are both almost 70 years old, both have Parkinson’s and have just met. During breakfast they told me how horrible it is to be afflicted with this disease when your brain feels perfectly fine but your body stops obeying you.
“You just freeze. You leg freezes and you fall.” (Jud.)
“I don’t wear a bra anymore because I can’t take it off! The last time I wore it, I cut it off with scissors!” (Ruth.)
“My tongue mumbles up the words.” (Jud.)
“My hands shake and I can’t use my phone properly!” (Ruth.)
We had a fantastic conversation about the importance of doing things you want to do while your body obeys you. (You hear this? Write that book already!)
I did my writing surprisingly fast again, perhaps frightened by the prospect of getting old and frail, and then just as I got into reading Anna Karenina, the ground behind the window changed from red dirt to sand. We have arrived in Palm Springs. It was a short stop, perhaps 5 minutes total, but it looked so different, so alien, and so warm, that I couldn’t resist to get out.
And that is where the adventure got apocalyptic. Or alien. Or something. There was a huge wind farm across the station. The rotating blades kicked up so much dust that it looked like white robots slashing through haze of some other planet. The sloping mountains in the background only added to the effect. And when we started moving again, I forgot all about Anna Karenina, staring out the window (my new favorite hobby) and contemplating new book ideas.
Then things got creepier. We have stopped at a depot, or at a shunting station (is there such a thing?) with endless rows of tracks and countless freight trains standing parked and—here comes the creepy part—several carriages moving on their own. They really did. They weren’t rolling down the hill. They moved with the purpose of a thing that knows where it’s going. I later found out from a train attendant that they were remote controlled. But the idea was planted in my head. I will write this into my book.
Finally, my daughter picked me up in Pomona (she couldn’t wait to see me and LA meant another hour of waiting), and now I’m sitting on the couch and typing this blog post after having met her friends at a BBQ and having played beer pong (with water—yes, I’m boring) and barely keeping my eyes open.
Tomorrow she said we’re going to the beach (so much for hoping to write another chapter), and the day after, Wednesday, I’m getting back on the train in LA to go to Chicago and then back to Seattle.
And you know what else? I’m happy to sleep in a big nice bed, but I miss the lull of the train, the coziness of my little roomette. There is something ethereal about it, something that makes you want to create.
March 25: I didn’t write today. At all. I mean, I’m writing this blog post, but I didn’t write a single word of my novel, and by the end of the day a nagging anxiety has started getting under my skin. “What if I will lose the sense of the story?” “What if I won’t be able to pick it up where I stopped?” “What if…?” There are a million of those questions.
Since morning my daughter whisked me away to see places and eat things and see more places and eat more things, and talk, and laugh, and indulge in doing absolutely nothing. I was fretting all day about not being able to fully relax and enjoy the time off. It wasn’t until the evening that it hit me. I’ll get back on the train and I’ll get back into the groove. It’s okay. The world will not end. This book was born on the train, and so it will continue being written on the train. Even typing this out made me feel better. Whew.
As to the day.
I was fed a breakfast of a super healthy smoothie with berries and nuts and driven to the beach, where I stepped into the ocean water, thinking all the while about how a week ago I was passing snowy plains and mountains in Montana and North Dakota. I seem to have touched all types of weather on this trip, from the rain in Seattle to the cold in Chicago to the hot wind in Texas and now to the sun and warmth in California. When you travel by plane, you don’t get to see or feel any of it. By car you don’t usually travel fast or far enough to span so many climactic zones. But by train—you get to speed through all of them and step out at stations and feel it. When we stopped in Palm Springs, I thought we landed on another planet. It was eerie. And today, touching hot sand with my bare feet felt bizarre. It couldn’t be. Jacquelyn from Chicago just let me know that it snowed there, and here I am on the beach. It boggles my mind.
After the beach we went walking around the Balboa Island, marveling at vacation houses and boats and more boats and flowers and frozen bananas (I ate my first one today), and sand castles, and throughout this whole time I held in my head the place where I stopped writing my book. Like a movie still, on pause. The train, curled and waiting. The snow. The ballet dancers probing the snow with their shoes. This image would pop into my head and nag me, like a movie that needs to be finished.
In the evening we went out to eat ice cream with my daughter’s friends, and got to talking about books. I was blown away at how well-read these kids were. We proceeded talking into the night about topics such as white privilege, religion, politics, sexism, feminism, rape culture, philosophy, and art, and it was only because I said I was tired that we stopped. I was fascinated. The energy, the eagerness to contribute to the good in life was boiling in them, and it left me smiling. I told them to do what they wanted, now, without waiting for “someday” like I did, to make beautiful things even if no one cares, to give love, and I felt renewed. Usually conversations with people drain me. But this one…this was something different. I love young people, I love them so much. They don’t have the constrains of our generation, they are open to anything, and they believe they can do anything, and that is wonderful.
So ended my day. Tomorrow I’m being dragged to LA to do more sight seeing (and eating), and then at 10pm I’m getting back on the train heading for Chicago, 4 days and 3 nights of writing, and reading, and staring out the window (of course).
March 26: In the evening she took me to downtown LA for a surprise. I didn’t know where we were going until the last minute. It was the coolest bookstore I’ve ever been in—The Last Bookstore—where books formed walls and desks and were arranged by color and by genre, and there was an art gallery upstairs, and reading rooms, and even an art installation with a writing desk and an old typewriter and a long ribbon of paper running from it to the ceiling like an endless story. Of course I started browsing books and chatting with the friendly staff. And of course they asked me how come they don’t have any of my books. And of course as soon as I’m back home, I will be sending them a few signed copies. What can I say? I love bookstores and people who work there.
In the end we had to leave, it was time for me to get to the station (I miss you, Anna, so much, I wish I could stay longer!), and there after the initial confusion—Texas Eagle train’s departing platform wasn’t listed on a tableau as it was part of the Sunset Limited train because in San Antonio our sleeping car will be separated from this train and attached to another one—I have boarded the carriage and found my roomette and immediatelly felt like settling in and writing. It bacame a home on wheels. Well then, now I will attempt to sleep so tomorrow I can dive back into writing TUBE, that cute charming story about a train eating ballerinas. Let’s see how many nightmares I will have about this tonight.
March 27: Haunted trains! Have you ever heard of haunted trains? I did today, from one of the very own Amtrak train attendants. But let me start from the beginning. Get ready for haunted stories and some rather unsightly life stuff concerning neglected children.
At breakfast, as you already know, I always meet new people since seating is limited and you get placed at a table with three other passengers, and the mix of people today couldn’t be more interesting. Bobby and Kathy, both from New Orleans, celebrated their 50th anniversary by traveling to San Francisco. Bobby worked at Holiday Inn in the French quarter for 40 years and he said he’s seen things “you wouldn’t believe.” He said he once came across a house that was haunted and whose owner rented out its rooms like in a small hotel. Each room had letters in it written by previous guests, letters about their ghost experiences. He said mostly the ghosts tickled people’s toes. Brrrr…
Opposite Bobby and Kathy sat Marion, about the same age as them. She referred to herself as a “desert rat,” and she lives in Phelan, CA. She once rented a house where the legend said a family lived with a young beautiful girl who rode her white stallion to the lake every day. But when the worker who worked on the house paid too much attention to the girl, her parents killed him. Marion said the doors in that house were misbehaving, falling off hinges and dropping on you me head. She also said that in addition to raising her own two sons, she once came across a family (her neighbors) who had a little boy contained in a room where the parents sawed off the top part of his door and simply threw in food and toys. She took him with her and kept him for 6 months. This was before child protection services, she said. Another one was a neighbor whom she found drunk, a mother, and her baby was crawling around the room chewing on her cigarettes. This baby Marion kept for 1 year. I warned you about heavy life stuff, didn’t I? Marion was very animated, telling these stories, her hands wrinkled and gnarly from yard work. She said she is a yard artist.
This made me very inspired to keep writing my possessed train book, but after a 2-day-break of not writing in LA it was, as I anticipated, like pulling teeth. Scenery behind the window helped, especially staring out the back door of my sleeping car—a new experience. This time around the carriage I’m in is the last one and if you stand there, you get to see the tracks running away from you into infinity. I was mesmerized. I could stare at it for hours.
Then I read Anna Karenina and came upon a trippy passage about Anna daydreaming while on the train of a man who started gnawing on a wall, a woman whose legs stretched the entire length of the carriage and filled it with a black cloud, strange banging and screeching noises as if someone was being torn apart, after which Anna felt like falling through the floor. And there you thought things like that happened only in Wonderland.
But the best conversation has happened after dinner. Michael, the train attendant who takes care of our carriage, has told me an Amtrak ghost story. There is a train onboard which someone has committed suicide in one of the rooms. All train attendants know that this train is haunted. Michael worked a shift on that train and told me that he hasn’t seen anything, but it felt creepy, and every time the train shut off electricity and he had to go through it in complete darkness, he would always run, scared out of his mind.
As you can imagine, these stories will probably make it into my book, one way or another. I’m typing this post on my phone. Behind the window is pitch-black darkness, and in my book I have marked the first ballerina to die. I don’t know yet how she will die and how the train will do it, but I don’t think I’m sleeping tonight. Nope, not at all. I’ll go read some more Anna Karenina.
More stories tomorrow.
March 27: I can’t believe my residency is coming to an end. It feels like it only started, and yet tomorrow I will be in Chicago and after a couple days there will get back on the Empire Builder train and head home, to my beloved rainy Seattle. The plan was to write the whole first draft of TUBE, my new novel, while on this trip, but I will probably write only a third. It is impossible to ignore the views, the sights, the people, the excitement of travel, and so I was writing only for about 4 hours each day, reserving the rest of the time for gathering new stories.
Today’s breakfast, contrary to every other breakfast, was unusual in that my three retired companions quickly found out that I’m a writer and spent the whole time asking me about the process of writing, my books, the number of drafts I do, and I happily chatted their ears of. One of them I just saw on his way out, and he informed me that he downloaded the first Siren Suicides book and will start reading it right away.
After eating (and Amtrak is feeding me so well, I’m afraid soon I won’t fit through the door) I holed up in my roomette, as usual, and then the doubt settled in. Some heavy pains have come up in the story, and I was afraid to dive in, procrastinating instead, which is fantastically easy to do on a train. All I had to do was stare out the window. Especially in Temple, TX, where an old steam locomotive stood on display, a full set of rusted carriages trailing behind it. This, coupled with reading Anna Karenina, made me want to go back in time and ride it. Curiously, after we got back onboard, my doubts vanished. I imagined writing my novel by hand, felt guilty for procrastinating (guilt is a good motivator), and promptly typed out 2.5K words, being fed lunch in the middle of it which the train attendant always brings to my roomette, making me feel like a queen.
Right after I got done writing, we stopped in Dallas, TX, and an amazing thing occurred, thanks to social media. One of my readers, Joe, or an evil cyclist according to his Instagram name, followed my adventure via Instagram, and because it just so happened that today was his day off, he came to see me at the train station! We chatted only for a few minutes, and I had to get back onboard, and yet it felt surreal. We got to meet, in real life, and it only made my trip that more exciting. I wish I could see more people and there was more time to stop in each town we pass. Oh well. Next time!
The whole day today we were crossing Texas. There wasn’t much new to see in terms of vistas except the speed with which the trees and shrubs I was passing on my way to LA have burst into flowers. And as I’m typing this, it’s already dark, and tomorrow we will arrive in the city where it just snowed, and I still feel the sting on my face where I burned it on the beach in California.
Something I haven’t mentioned much of is the food, and though the menu choices are few, the food has been excellent. (I now understand why so many travel books describe food at length—that’s all you do, really, see things and eat things.) At dinner I happened to sit with a couple doctors who were on a date gateway heading for Chicago and a semi-retired contractor who restores historical houses and travels for work—and they turned out to be food connoisseurs. We talked pizza in Italy, and breakfast in Reykjavik, and best tacos and Mexican cuisine, and Russian borscht and three-course dinners with vodka, and the terrible things wheat does to your body, from which we switched to talking about a book called Wheat Belly, and from there to my books. I think we were the loudest table in the diner and got lovingly reprimanded for “having too much fun” by our server.
Then it struck me. Of all the people I saw on the train, everyone seemed to have fun. Either because they were on the train for the first time, or because they didn’t have to drive, or because they met new people. It occurred to me that even on the long flights from Seattle to Moscow I have never met so many people so intimately. It has something to do with sharing space. We bump into each other in the narrow corridor and joke about who is the thinnest and will yield first. We use the same restroom and joke about brushing teeth in that tiny sink. We consult on whether or not we’re lazy to take a shower or if it’s okay to stay a bit “fragrant,” we share dinner tables. I will miss this.
Riding the train felt like touching people’s lives. Not just running past and scanning someone’s face, but having meaningful conversations, sometimes hysterical, sometimes serious, but always real.
Look at me, getting all soppy. You see what you did to me with this residency, Amtrak? I loved it so much, I want to do it again.
March 29: I’m back in Chicago! And it’s freezing here, with snow patches sitting in every shadow and cold wind nipping on your ears and your hands getting numb if you don’t wear gloves or mittens. This, this weather after the hot sand and the succulent palms and the tanned people of California? The contrast is palpable. If I was flying on a plane, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by it. I’d feel the striking difference, yes, but I wouldn’t have witnessed the gradual change that was happening behind the window. It made me think of travel centuries ago, when it took weeks and months to cover distances we now speed through in hours.
Trains have a special place in my heart because they seem so out of time, preserved in the way we used to travel. Yes, they are faster than they used to be, but they are slow enough to let you soak in the scenery (I’m not talking about super fast trains in Europe) and they cut though wilderness that we don’t see on the roads anymore. Roads are populated with people; it’s hard to find such remote roads where there is no presence of human life. Trains go through places that look untouched, virgin, and at times it did feel eerie to look out the window. It seemed like time was irrelevant.
Today was a short day and I mostly hid in my roomette to write. I pondered about what would happen if the train got stuck in one of those remote places with no cell phone reception and no houses or habitation of any kind within miles. The idea was so frightening that I wrote it into my book. I didn’t sleep well this night because one scary scenario after another would present itself to me, and I would think it over and tremble and think again and tremble some more and…well, eventually I did fall asleep somehow and woke up to the sun mercilessly shining in my face. It was a sunrise over Mississippi River, and it was gorgeous, and I will miss views like that when I’m back home.
My host Jacquelyn met me at the Union Station and wined me and dined me at Max’s where her girlfriend Kristina works, and then we had ice cream, and now I’m sitting here in their home, typing in silence, imagining tomorrow, the plains and snowy fields of North Dakota and Montana, the location of my book.
This trip became my dream come true. I always want to research locations as if I’m shooting a movie and not writing a book. I was able to do so with Siren Suicides as it happens in Seatte. I used my memory of Berlin and its outskirts for Rosehead. I grew up in Moscow so it was easy to describe the settings in Irkadura, but the duck pond in The Badlings was imagined. So I’m thrilled that for TUBE I got to experience almost exactly the same journey that my characters experience. And you know what was the most memorable image for me out of this whole trip? This one. The white snowy nothing. I will remember it for a long time.
March 30: It was a bitter-sweet departure from Chicago. A bitter-sweet welcome onboard the Empire Builder. A bitter-sweet glance out the train window. The last leg of my Amtrak Residency adventure has commenced today. I’m going home, I’m going back to Seattle. Two more nights and one more day, and on the morning of March 31st it will be over. Why did it end so fast? Good things have a knack for flying by before you can blink.
This morning Jacquelyn, my lovely Chicago host, walked me to a local neighborhood coffee shop where we had coffee and breakfast, and then she personally delivered me to the train station three hours early (she had to work today), where I went to a lounge place thingy, this big room with wi-fi (YES!!!) where early birds like me can hang out and watch TV or read or have snacks or talk. I wrote. I thought, this traveling life is something that I’ll have to face in the future as I’ll be going to more conventions or readings or whatever, and I have to learn to write on the go no matter the place or time of day or mood or the amount of hours I slept.
And so I wrote some, then it was time to board the train already, and in my roomette I had a sense of home, home on wheels. I got so used to it by now that within minutes I plugged in the extension cord (take one with you as there is only one outlet per one roomette), plugged in my laptop, phone, headphones, started music, and sat down to write.
The sights were beautiful, frigid and cold, but beautiful. So was the sunset. I wrote, then read a bit of Anna Karenina (hey, it’s 800+ pages, so it’s taking me a while), then went to dinner with high hopes, high hopes to meet new people and hear new stories. I’m becoming an addict to those.
Meet Jacob, a walking encyclopedia who seemed to know everything from Amtrak’s history to doing insulation yourself to making quilts with Egyptian hieroglyphs on them (I’m not kidding). Elisabeth who has been renovating a bathroom in her home and has learned everything there is to learn about shower heads and faucets, particularly those that are supposed to operate by someone waving a hand 4 inches away (it didn’t work, of course). Frank the truck driver on his way to retrieve his truck. We had one of those conversations about all the things that made us laugh and were impossible to recall later. What is it that we talked about? It doesn’t matter. We had fun. And then of course I have demanded that they all read my books. Or else. You know me. They ran out of the dining car, screaming.
One interesting thing I noticed though is this. Everyone I talked to, everyone whom I told I’m a writer, has said to me the same thing in different words: “I always wanted to be an artist too.” Everyone recalled that dream of painting, or doing photography, or writing stories, or acting, and never having done it. Come to think of it, I haven’t met another full-time artist on this whole trip. It made me sad. I tried telling people how if I can do it, they can do it too, and saw shrugging shoulders and disbelieving faces. Although in a few instances I think I fired people up. I hope they will do it. I hope they will pursue their dream, whatever it might be, and paint or draw or write of photograph or dance or act or sing. There was hidden disappointment in their eyes, and then a flicker of hope. It broke my heart.
We need more artists, more people making beautiful things, to make our lives more beautiful. I think what Amtrak did by putting 24 writers on its trains is a wonderful thing. I think we have touched hearts. I’m sure of it. I think it will create waves, like circles from a stone thrown into a lake. They will travel far and touch more people. And these journeys touched us, writers. I know it touched me. I will remember all the beautiful sunrises and sunsets I saw, all the vistas and forests and rivers and towns. It was an unforgettable experience.
But enough of this moping. I have a whole another day tomorrow, my last full day on a train. I’m sure it will be a good one. Good night.
March 31: And so it came to an end. It flew by like a blur, like this picture of the passing Amtrak train you see above. Today was the last day I wrote on the train, the last day I got to spend gazing out the window and thinking and reading and thinking again and listening to people’s stories. As I’m typing this, it’s dusk, violet dusk in the snowy mountains that we’re rumbling through. There is no phone service, no signs of life save for train tracks and occasional service lights. It’s been an amazing journey, but let me start from the beginning before I get carried away into the thicket of emotional farewell.
For the first time this morning since I got on the train 2 weeks ago I sat to breakfast with two young people, by young I mean my age (usually it would be retired couples or singles). Tanya was an ex-Amazon employee who does business consulting now and who was coming back to Seattle with her service greyhound. Gary was taking a trip for pleasure and because he loves train travel (he works for an airline). We talked trains, of all topics. We marveled at how many interesting people we got to meet, how American trains are slow compared to European speed trains, how it is cheaper to travel by train but also more unpredictable, with possible delays due to the risk of obstacles on the tracks, or the freezing of the pipes because they are too close to the ground, or a fridge catching on fire and the whole train having to wait for it to be replaced, or waiting for private carriages that anyone can hitch to an Amtrak train provided it’s self-sufficient and you pay $1 per mile (I haven’t researched how accurate this is). We also talked about Maglev train in Shanghai that levitates above a single track by way of magnetic force and reaches the speed of 430 km/h. I did not know any of this so I was listening with my mouth open.
Naturally, when breakfast was over, I wrote another chapter and ate lunch in my roomette (brought by Kevin, our wonderful train attendant). We came upon a short stop. I ran out of cash to give for tips in the restaurant and wanted to go to the station to use an ATM but was cautioned that we’re only here for 10-15 minutes and I might get left behind. I asked Kevin if people get left behind a lot. He said, all the time. Once a family with two children saw a McDonalds not too far off and went to get some food (they left the carriage where they were not supposed to). The father made it back first and hung onto the door of the train to delay its departure while his wife and kids made it in the nick of time. They were lucky. Kevin says others weren’t. He had an old gentleman leave his laptop and camera and everything and never make it back. Gary joined our chat and said that when he was on California Zephyr, lots of people would run off to a casino in Reno, Nevada, and not return on time. I suppose they were hoping to win a fortune in 2 minutes flat. Some people have amazing aspirations.
In the evening we reached the mountains of Montana and I kept running from window to window to try and take a good picture until Kevin reminded me that there is an observation car where I can see it much better. I got so sucked into my writing, I have completely forgotten about it! So I went there and stared at the mountains, and at the snow, and at the pines and furs and other tress the names of which I don’t know. The observation car was full of people. Everyone tried to snatch a picture or a video. Next to me a boy took pictures with his phone non-stop. I don’t think he had time to actually look out the window. I brought the heavy tome of Anna Karenina with me, thinking I would read. I didn’t. Couldn’t. There was too much to see, too much to reminisce about.
At the end of the car sat a group of teenagers (or maybe they were on the cusp of turning 20) dressed in their typical baggy jeans and sneakers. They loudly talked about something and I didn’t pay much attention to them, until one of them walked up to another and they started taking right over my ear in amazed radiant voices. I don’t remember what the first kid said, but the other answered: “I was crying earlier, it was so beautiful. I swear I was crying.”
And I nearly cried myself at his words, because this beautiful journey is over. My Amtrak Residency is over. Thank you, Amtrak, for this unforgettable experience. I’ll forever remember it, and I’ll try to write as much of this beauty (and nightly creepiness of pitch-black darkness behind the windows) into my book as I can.