Amtrak Resident: Lindsay Moran

Amtrak Resident: Lindsay Moran

Final Entry: Sunset Limited Los Angeles to New Orleans

Lindsay MoranAt 3AM, after an epic passage from Seattle-to-Los Angeles (see earlier entry re: life aboard the Coast Starlight), The Georgian – a sky blue art deco hotel facing the ocean in Santa Monica couldn’t have been a more welcoming sight. I’ve been doing hotels during layovers; after days on the train, I really need the sleep, and the shower. Established in 1933, the Georgian’s old world charm gave me the sense of being a “Hollywood screenwriter” from a different era. (Admittedly, I’d later sit and stare at my laptop a la Barton Fink, resisting the urge to check out what everyone was up to on Facebook.)

In the morning – well, four hours later – I was desperate for a run. Problem was, I’d so overdone running – on concrete and in those minimalist/barefoot shoes – along the Seattle waterfront that each of my ten toes was host to a painful blister. I walked barefoot as long as I could along the beach, and then headed back to the Georgian where the gentleman at the front desk proffered bandages; even the tin canister first aid kit at The Georgian was retro-cool.

No matter how much the blisters hurt, I was determined to walk to Venice Beach since soon I’d be riding the rails again – for the final, 48-hour minimum, leg of my journey – from L.A. to New Orleans. En route to Venice Beach, I met a homeless dog trainer and his highly intelligent pair of cattle dogs; the dogs could understand and respond to commands like “Speak,” “Okay, now whisper,” or “Play dead!” in five different languages, including German. (I have, I now realize, an only moderately intelligent cattle dog at home.)

Along the Venice boardwalk, I set up shop at Larry’s where the friendly bartender who had just spent time in New Orleans for his bachelor party provided recommendations of places to eat, drink and listen to live music. I know what you’re thinking: probably the NOLA establishments that a Venice Beach bartender frequented for his bachelor party are the last places a middle-aged married mom traveling by herself could/should/would want to go. (I couldn’t help recalling the scene from Knocked Up where a club bouncer turns away the Leslie Mann character, saying, “Lady you old as DIRT!”) But aside from a “clothing optional” brunch joint, most of the bartender’s ideas seemed legit.

I moved onward the next day to Beverly Hills, into the equally as charming and also art deco style Crescent Hotel, built in 1927, originally as lodging for MCA contract starlets! The Crescent had a shaded outdoor porch with comfortable wicker couches – perfect for writing . . . or drinking. (Or perhaps both.)

James at the front desk told me a great Amtrak story when I checked in: his grandparents – African Americans from Georgia – had trained across the country decades ago when they moved to California. They became so close with the woman who sat across the aisle from them that they found a duplex together, and remained neighbors for the rest of their lives.

James also had an excellent suggestion for a Beverly Hills café where I could get some writing done. (Readers of earlier blog entries will recall that maintaining focus on the train for working on my novel had proved a challenge at best.) So I headed over to the Coupa Café with my laptop and, per James’ recommendation, ordered the Spicy Maya Hot Chocolate – cayenne peppers, pasilla, cinnamon and Venezuelan chocolate. Delish. I sat there for several hours – kind of writing, but mostly people-watching and, yes, maybe waiting for Colin Farrell to make an appearance, inquire about my Amtrak Residency, and invite me to a party. Unfortunately, James – who had seemed to know everything – was at a loss as to where I might find a “cheap pair of running shoes” – screw the barefoot sneakers – somewhere around Rodeo Drive.

Just as in Chicago and Seattle, I got my fill of fine food and friendship in L.A., and thus braced myself for the long journey. Friday night, the Sunset Limited left Union Station right on time at 8 pm, and I had my bed made up almost straightaway.

By 645 am, we’d arrived in Tucson – our first scheduled service stop. The conductor said we were welcome to hop off, warning however that the next train didn’t come through until Monday morning. It was Saturday. No time to shop for turquoise obviously, but I did peruse the insanely well-stocked wine shop attached to Tucson’s charming historic train depot.

Once underway again, there was an announcement about “free food” available to sleeping car passengers; I needed more food at that point like a hole in the head. Then Brian, the dining car manager, came around to get our lunch reservations. He’d heard that I was the “resident,” but according to Brian, the scuttlebutt among the dining/sleeping car staff was that the “resident” was some kind of Amtrak manager – on board to observe/make sure everything ran smoothly. I wasn’t about to disabuse anyone of that notion since I figured it would afford me even better treatment. After the free food announcement, there was another announcement reminding people to wear shoes in the dining car. (Which was kind of gross to think about.)

I headed to the observation car to get some writing done and immediately faced the ultimate contemporary writer’s dilemma: you want/need to research “undetectable means of killing someone,” but that seems like the kind of thing you should never plug into a Google search. (And yes, I know some might be surprised that, given my background, I don’t already know . . .)

I decided to cleverly preempt suspicion by posting the question on Facebook; this resulted in a delightfully diversion-filled stretch of my journey during which all and sundry friends weighed in with creative ways to imperceptibly off people. Here were some of my favorites: insulin overdose; ice shard knife, knife melts, murder weapon is gone; just wait long enough, and the bastard will die; life insurance actuary quietly creates high risks at his home to kill wife. And for the win, from my friend and fellow writer Taylor Beattie: Death by nagging… slow, horrible, undetectable. My husband was notably silent until it seemed every other yahoo and his brother had contributed; then he added to the long line of comments, “If anything happens to me, start here.”

The café car announcer had a booming voice like a game show host and piped in all along the way with meaningful observations like: We are now passing along the border with Juarez, Mexico. That truck you see patrolling the fence is the U.S. Border Control. The U.S. Border Control performs such functions as . . . controlling the border! Beat. And ladies and gentlemen, if you happen to see anyone hopping the fence, puh-leeeze let us know!

The squalid scenery along the Mexican border, while not lovely to look at, was definitely some of the most interesting. And it really gave one pause to observe the remnants of tunnels – blown up by border patrol – that otherwise would pass all the way into Mexico . . . and to reflect on the lengths to which desperate men, women and children go to in order to make it to this country.

Some time after Juarez, the Pat-Sajak-esque café guy announced: If you look out to the left and right sides of the train, you may notice that everything is BIGGER. Well, welcome to Texas . . . where everything IS bigger.

Just outside El Paso, the woman next to me commenced speakerphone face-timing her daughter, who proceeded to give all of us in the observation car a real-time description of changing a baby’s diaper. Which was weird. And annoying.

Ironically, this leg of my journey, which I’d not expected to afford much by way of scenery – nobody was bragging about Sunset Limited vistas the way they had on the Empire Builder or Coast Starlight – was ungodly beautiful. At dinner, a storm brewed in the distance; the setting sun cast rocky outcrops in a gorgeous light; and an astounding rainbow arched over both sides of the train.

Disconcertingly, during the night I received a text message from ATT instructing me on how to call the U.S. – hmm, had we somehow gotten drastically off track? – as well as at least two flashflood alerts. At each of these interruptions, it didn’t seem like I could do much from the confines of my compartment, so I just rolled over and went back to sleep.

I awoke at 540 am to the conductor’s long-winded explanation as to what was “going on.” I could see that we were at standstill so I at least knew what was not going on; we were not moving. The previous night’s lightning storm, in addition to providing a gorgeous spectacle to watch from one’s compartment, also evidently had “knocked out all the signals” along the track. I had no idea what that meant precisely, but in my admittedly uninformed opinion “signals” sounded like something critical. He and the other conductor had been forced to stop and get out of the train throughout the night, and amid the multiple flash-flood warnings, and “do the signals by hand.”

What the . . . ?!

By dawn, the conductors had exceeded their 12-hour maximum shift time; so we were awaiting a patch crew to relieve them, which “could take a while.” But the good news was: since we were going to be there indefinitely, we were welcome to get off the train . . . and explore Del Rio, Texas. At 6 am. In the dark.

I decided to take advantage of the standstill by indulging in my first onboard shower, which had seemed problematic when the train was in motion and shaking side-to-side. The plastic-lined shower, attached to the restroom, wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was warm enough and it did the trick.

When I got back to my compartment – door open, curtain drawn – I began groping around inside only to discover, to my alarm, a lump that was unmistakably the form of another human being. Obviously at the wrong compartment, I quickly ducked into mine before any accusations could be lobbed. Note about my compartment: I’d noticed that everyone else kept his neat and tidy, while mine looked like it was being shared by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. (Guess I’m a slob at heart.) After my shower, I took a stroll around the Del Rio Amtrak station parking lot in which some more motivated travelers were jogging in circles or practicing Tai Chi.

Once moving again, I reoccupied my spot in the observation car. At the six-hours-late mark, I noted that the African American Baptist Church group from San Antonio was engaged in a lively/hilarious conversation, while all the white passengers sat morosely staring at cellphones/complaining to one another about the delay. I felt a pang of what I call black envy.

At lunch, I met a couple who both had been long distance train travel aficionados before they met; so much so that they were wed aboard The Cardinal from Chicago-to-D.C. The conductor officiated, Amtrak relaxed its no-outside booze policy to accommodate their champagne, and they borrowed a boom box from a teenager in the observation car for dance music. Now that’s true love. (Of trains at least.)

One thing I learned that I had not known prior to my “residency”: Amtrak operates on Union Pacific freight tracks, and so is at the mercy of their dispatcher. Every time a freight train needs to use the tracks, Amtrak passenger trains are forced to stop and wait – sometimes for a looooong time.

You know how sometimes someone mentions something you’ve never heard of, and then suddenly you start hearing other references to that previously unknown something? Well, when I was in Seattle, a friend had told me about “Contra Dancing,” something I definitely had never heard of; and – being former-CIA – immediately formed an erroneous idea of what Contra Dancing could be. Turns out, it’s kind of like square dancing but to less grating music. My third night aboard the Sunset Limited, my dinner companions were a woman from Australia and her male traveling companion who told me they’d been in the states for weeks “chasing down Contra Dancing.” To be clear, she had – the man was notably quiet and when I asked, he admitted he was not so much into Contra Dancing himself. But anyway, she showed me multiple videos – she’d come all the way from Australia where the “Contra Dancing scene is meager” – and she apprised me of several Contra Dancing events around the states. We exchanged information and got a photo together. I knew I was not going to make it to New Orleans that night – we were at 12 hour delay by then – but I didn’t care: another delightfully random connection had been made.

I have to admit, when I woke up to the train moving backwards, I felt a pit in my stomach. But during the night we finally made it out of Texas and I woke to a swampy but stunning Louisiana sunrise.

While my Amtrak Residency wasn’t quite the Eat, Pray, Love genre of self-discovery and productiveness I might have imagined – my journey might be more accurately titled Eat, Drink, Sit-on-Your-Arse – I have to say it was a life-changing experience. Weeks out of the routine and responsibilities of being a mom, and my multiple other “jobs,” did enable me to finally put some words down on an idea that’s been brewing in my head for a long time. In short, I feel like I got my writer-ly groove back; so much so that I’m thinking about making one long-distance train trip an annual solo event. Hopefully, by the time I board again, I will have taken the inspiration and discipline I found on the train and done something with it, and will have not only my toothbrush but actual pages in hand.

Friday, June 12, 2015
I’ll admit to being loathe to leave Seattle, where in addition to eating (even more so than Chicago) – Dungeness crabs benedict, regional wild river salmon, fish and chips – and drinking kickass coffee of course, I’d been afforded a rare opportunity to reconnect with friends from all different facets and eras of my life; great conversations and lots of laughs against the backdrop of a spectacular city.

I didn’t know what I was looking forward to less – boarding a train for the 36-hour journey down to LA, or donning, once again, my traveling ensemble: Jimi Hendrix t-shirt that no matter my washing it in the hotel sink was starting to look like I’d been wearing it since the 1970s, and jeans that are now practically worn-through at the butt from sitting on a train.

But no sooner had the Coast Starlight pulled out of Seattle’s King Street Station (935 am) than the day got a whole lot brighter; it was announced there would be “wine-tasting in the Parlour Car” at 330 pm! Turns out, the Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak train to possess an exclusive lounge for First Class and Sleeping Car passengers. Built over 50 years ago, the Parlour Car is equipped with a full bar, tables, lounge-y swivel chairs, and a movie theatre downstairs; it’s every bit as enticing as it sounds. I also learned that it was featured in the 2003 film Italian Job. Only problem: autocorrect butchered several text messages home in exaltation over the Parlour Car, changing it to the Parkour Car, and causing significant confusion among my kids.

Less than five minutes after the 330 wine-tasting announcement, Jennifer – the Parlour Car attendant – informed us that Bloody Marys and mimosas were available . . . now. Something told me I’d be spending quite a bit of time in the Parlour Car. Indeed, I planted myself there early and only sporadically headed back to my compartment, which I’d been somewhat disappointed to discover was on the eastern (less scenic for this journey) side of the train.

No matter; Joy – the sleeping car attendant, who proved to be every bit as attentive as his predecessor – making up my bed; ensuring at every possible turn that I was well hydrated, fed, and comfortable – promised that he’d try to move me to the western side before the truly spectacular water vistas emerged. (Note to singleton readers: when looking for a prospective mate, consider an Amtrak sleeping car attendant. They are the most accommodating people I’ve ever met.)

The Parlour Car, as comfy as it was, didn’t prove conducive to getting writing done, but it did have Wi-Fi, so I ended up “researching” most of the initial part of the trip. Somewhere just before Albany, Oregon, we came to a standstill, and an announcement was made that a “Union Pacific freight train” had just hit a trespasser walking on the tracks – Amtrak was quick, I noted, to throw Union Pacific under the bus, or the train as the case may be. We’d be waiting indefinitely for first responders to arrive on the scene. One old-timer sitting in the Parlour Car shouted, “Just run him over!!!”

I couldn’t really pass judgment on his impropriety, since I was suppressing my own admittedly sick inner glee that this incident – provided it didn’t end tragically –would afford me something to blog about. When reports surfaced that the accident wasn’t fatal – in the form of an announcement that we’d soon be on our way because “These sorts of situations tend to clean up a lot faster than fatalities” – I wasted no time in posting about it on Facebook. Having shared the last leg of my trip with another Amtrak Resident, I couldn’t be entirely sure that one wasn’t aboard the Coast Starlight, and might beat me to the punch. One friend aptly responded to my post, “Who gets hit by a freight train and doesn’t die?!” Later, the victim was described as having been “clipped” by the freight train, which is, I guess, no big deal?

I’d pretty much settled into the Parlour Car for good when several announcements were made that “public intoxication” would not be tolerated. There was also more than one reminder that this was a “family train,” and we should refrain from “using inappropriate language” and also be “mindful of the content of conversations.” I was surrounded by octogenarians mainly swapping stories about their grandkids so I could hardly imagine what sort of debauchery must be taking place back in coach.

My favorite passenger duo on this leg of the journey was a couple who seemed to have been misinformed as to the nature of their trip; both wore full safari regalia including an authentic pith helmet on the man.

At 2:22 am – just shy of Weed, California – I was awoken by an earsplittingly high-pitched alarm. It was unclear if it was being broadcast throughout train, or just in my compartment. It finally stopped, but started again at 4 am. The next morning, Joy informed us that this was the fire alarm, signifying that some passenger had been smoking inside the train – a major violation of the rules.

Between the fire alarms going off, I didn’t sleep well that night. Although the compartment affords ample room for someone my size, I felt like Yoko Ono in that iconic photo where a naked John Lennon has her fully clothed and pinned horizontal with his leg. Some people view that picture as the epitome of a couple in love, but I equate it with a feeling of being stuck; stuck in that way that makes you feel like you’ve got a naked Brit with bad teeth hanging all over you.

I posted on Facebook about this feeling, but something got lost in translation, and there were multiple questions as to who exactly was the naked Brit with bad teeth that I was sharing my compartment with?! I then had to publicly reassure my husband that he had nothing to worry about: all the male passengers were men well beyond a certain age; and those that were not were without exception . . . traveling with their mothers.

Just like Manhattan or San Francisco, there was a wait to be seated for breakfast in the diner the next morning. I opted instead to eat in the Parlour Car, which had begun to feel like my home away from home. Somewhere outside Salinas, we got stuck in Steinbeck country waiting for our “sister train” – each train seems to have at least one sibling.

Indeed I’d been trying to channel my inner John Steinbeck but so far seemed to be leaning more toward Hemingway in his most well-oiled but least productive state. And at already three hours behind schedule, I figured by the time we got to LA, I’d be in full-on Bukowski mode.

I had a 610 pm dinner reservation and by 5 pm, I was frequently checking the time. Not that I was at all hungry. But like someone in an assisted living facility, my life’s sole diversion had been reduced to the promise and expectation of mealtimes.

My lamb shank dinner (LAmtrak, as it were?) was remarkably delicious. I later Googled “lamb shanks and Amtrak” and discovered not only the recipe, but that Amtrak’s lamb shanks were created by a Seattle chef – part of their “culinary advisory team.” Go figure.

After dinner, Jennifer announced that – due to the delay (4 hours now) – they would be showing the movie Unbroken, which I gathered was a subtle hint that we all should keep some perspective about the trials of our long-distance train travel. At least none of us was lost at sea for weeks without food or water, forced to consider eating fellow passengers.

At some point, I came to the conclusion that the train is a great way to travel – if you don’t have any place you have to be. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way. The sooner you accept that the journey is the destination, or vice versa, the better off you’ll be.

Which was easier said than done when, at midnight, we had yet to reach LA. At some point, I fell asleep in fetal position in my seat, my forehead pressed against the window. I woke to someone breathing heavily behind the curtain/outside the open door of my compartment. It could have been one of the old people, but then again it could have been a pervert. Or a homicidal maniac. I was too tired to care.

And then the ridiculous happened. We had just pulled into Burbank, a mere 19 minutes north of Los Angeles’ Union Station when we were told we could not continue until a “matter requiring police intervention was resolved.” Since the train was stopped indefinitely, we all filed out onto the platform where Joy gave us the scoop. Evidently, during the mandatory mechanical stop in Goleta, a drunk commuter boarded (seemed to have accidentally wandered on, in fact) the Coast Starlight; between there and Burbank, he tried to pull emergency handle and jump off train – while it was moving! When the conductor attempted to stop him, the man physically assaulted the conductor. Amtrak could not legally or responsibly just evict the man from the train; he was extremely inebriated and might have wandered onto the tracks. So the police had been called, and no less than five Burbank cop cars were soon on the scene. It took several of them to restrain the man – who no matter that he appeared to be in his 60s or 70s and wearing a business suit – was both physically and verbally abusive. We all watched as he was frog-marched off the platform by several uniformed police officers.

What was worse, this incident pushed the latest set of conductor/engineers JUST over their 10-hour work limit and we had to await a “patch crew” to arrive to relieve them.

But here’s the thing: if I were traveling alone, my morale might have been seriously waning. And yes, technically, I was traveling alone.

But outside on the platform, with all the other sleeper car passengers – some of whom I’d gotten to know quite a bit about – and Joy and Jennifer who by this time felt like old friends, we were all bonding – as people do when they share any kind of experience – exhilarating, traumatizing, or just plain tiresome. So while our collective energy may have been low, our camaraderie and spirit were high. And at that particular moment in time, I couldn’t think of any place I’d really rather be.

Sunday, June 7, 2015
After eating my way through Chicago with two girlfriends – a Louis C.K. style “bang-bang” that included The Purple Pig and Girl and the Goat – the second leg of my Amtrak Residency began at Union Station’s Metropolitan Lounge, somewhat less exalted than it sounds.

I’d envisioned something like the Ambassadors Club, where I might nibble from a nut bowl while sipping bourbon. In fact, it was a cramped waiting stable in which travelers in varying degrees of weariness slumped on a haphazard array of worn-out chairs. Beverages were in the form of fountain sodas, water or coffee with non-dairy creamer. When I approached one of the lounge attendants and inquired about “pretzels or chips,” she said she’d already given out all that had been allotted for that day. But then she disappeared behind a curtain and came back with two bags of Lays. I have to say: from Amtrak ticketing agents to Red Caps to conductors, everyone along the way has been inordinately kind and helpful, even those who have no idea that I’m one of the esteemed “Amtrak residents.”

Chips in hand, I headed back to the bullpen where a scraggly ginger-haired backpacker was regaling the rest of the (primarily elderly and/or Amish) travelers with a white-knuckle tale about a bar fight that had ensued between two drunk passengers in the cafe car of his last train. I found myself more than a little bit envious – since clearly that would have been an excellent topic to write about.

At 130, I settled into the 2nd of my cozy roomettes, this time on the Empire Builder, bracing myself for a two-night, two-day journey ahead to Seattle. Incidentally, the question I’ve fielded most frequently from “off-the-rails” friends is the condition of the train bathrooms; I can say that without exception Amtrak sleeper car bathrooms are far cleaner than mine at home.

No sooner had we gotten underway then we were informed our “first designated smoking stop” would be for “an hour and a half in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.” I thought I may have to take up smoking just to have something to look forward to/do. As it was, I’d equipped my chamber with a box of Chardonnay and the pilfered potato chips; all I really needed was a pack of menthols to entirely fill myself with self-loathing, which is of course integral to the writing process. And just as I was licking my fingers clean from the last of the Lays, the sleeping car attendant Gul – these guys must attend whatever the Harvard of hospitality schools is – arrived with a tray of cookies.

The beauty of social media is such that when you mention on Facebook that you’ll be arriving in any given place – like Milwaukee – for an hour and a half on a random Thursday afternoon, friends who happen to be in the vicinity start popping out of the cyber-woodwork. No less than two FB friends piped in to say that that they were in Milwaukee at that very moment. Ben, visiting his parents, suggested that we had “just enough time to hit Usinger’s Sausage.” Turns out, however, I’d misheard about Milwaukee being a 1.5 hour stop – which did seem an inordinately long time for a smoke. The conductor meant we’d be stopping there IN 1.5 hours, not FOR. How embarrassing would it have been if the “resident” missed her trip because she was on a sausage run?

After Milwaukee, I wrote for a solid . . . well, hour . . . all the way to Wisconsin Dells, a town that sorta made me wanna break into song from The Music Man. After that exhausting bout of productivity, I spent several hours staring out the window – listening to some favorite artists on my iPhone and watching this big beautiful country roll by. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent that amount of time – any amount of time really – just doing nothing. I’ve never been one to stop and smell the roses, but perhaps staring out the window of a moving train is one version of that?

I’d just settled in for the night when I received troubling news via text from home – our beagle had escaped the security perimeter and by midnight east coast time, had yet to return. Since my husband wouldn’t much care if the dog never came back, I roused myself, fired up the Internet hotspot, and began posting frantic messages to the community listserv. Brewster eventually came home, and only then could I fall into a fitful slumber. During the night, well according to my friend Ben, I likely slept through the Minnesotan town of Fertile from which his mother hails (when she met his father in college, her name tag said Fertile!) as well as the neighboring town of Climax. (Full disclosure: I have NO idea if we actually passed through those towns, but I just love the knowledge that they exist.)

I am also loving the communal seating in the dining car – breakfast with a set of parents from Kentucky and their curious and engaging 5th grader who, without a doubt, none of us is smarter than. The only cruise I’ve ever been on, I dreaded mealtimes when we would have to make conversation with prescribed tablemates. But on the train, you never know who you’ll be matched up with, and for whatever reason, train travelers seem like a far more interesting breed.

It didn’t take long after breakfast for writer’s block to set in so I retired to the “scenic lounge” where I spent a good bit of time resisting the urge to drink before noon. To make matters worse, as I was deliberating, we passed into Mountain Time and it suddenly became even earlier.

Truly the most exciting event of my day/journey-so-far/possibly life was when I confirmed that the familiar-looking-guy in the opposite roomette was indeed fellow Amtrak Resident and baseball writer Craig Calcaterra. We managed to kill some time talking about writer’s block, and planned to get together to further discuss over dinner.

Before our 730-dinner reservation – yes the dining car does take reservations – I headed over to the scenic lounge where the Trails & Rails guys (who look like ancient boy scouts; same uniform) were just getting their onboard infotainment underway. Amtrak partners with the National Park Service to provide historical presentations “so that passengers can connect to public lands/engage in a better understanding of the need to preserve and protect special natural and cultural resources.” Which is totally righteous. Except that I was so caught up in the scenery, I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the ongoing commentary until Rudyard, Montana – when a guy standing on a rooftop outside unzipped his pants and flashed us. And that’s the only reason I now know that the town was named after Rudyard Kipling.

The next day, while intermittently working on my manuscript, I also followed Craig – who has a mere 26.3 K more followers than I on Twitter – on social media from across the corridor, and was a tad resentful when every waterfall, geologic circque, granite cliff, historic train depot, etc. seemed to be viewable from his side of the train. Craig graciously offered me to visit his compartment anytime something noteworthy came into view – truth be told, I think we were both suffering from chronic writer’s block at that point, and happy for the company. I opted instead to travel one car down and sightsee with other right-sided passengers who’d emerged from their compartments as well. Long-distance train travel is proving without a doubt the best way to make new friends.

By the time Puget Sound came into view (my side of the train for once), we’d been onboard a solid 48-hours. Outside I could see sailboats, fishermen, frolicking dogs, barefooted kids collecting rocks on the shore. Yes, it had been a long journey but now Seattle was in sight. And even though I’d gotten a shamefully scant amount of writing done, I felt like I’d accomplished something nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015
The warm-up to my Amtrak residency was a short Northeast Corridor stretch from Boston – where I’d been for the weekend – to New York City. Having gone to college in Massachusetts, I had traveled this route many times home to Maryland for holidays, so I was not tremendously excited about covering ground that I’d covered so many times in the albeit distant past.

I could hardly believe my good fortune, however, when I boarded the Acela – which among all the well-healed businessmen and women always gives me a sense of having important work to do, even if I don’t – and immediately overheard one conductor say to another: “We have an identity theft situation going on here …”

Well, that was exactly the sort of intrigue I was hoping for on my residency! And we hadn’t even pulled outta South Station yet. In the end, it proved too difficult to channel my inner Hercule Poirot from the Quiet Car . . . and as far as I know, the case of stolen identity aboard yesterday’s morning Acela from Beantown remains unsolved.

I have to say I had forgotten how lovely the scenery from Boston-to-New York is; in New England, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something quaint, and much of that charm is visible from the train.

During my three-hour planned layover in Manhattan, I was treated to a lovely lunch by a couple with whom I attended college. My friend Mark walked me back to Penn Station, lugging my ginormous suitcase for me; we were so engrossed in our conversation that I neglected to retrieve my pajamas and toiletries before I checked the bag. Which was a bummer once I realized what I’d done.

While it looked like I may have to wear only a smile during the overnight Lakeshore Limited to Chicago, I was relieved when we stopped for a respite in Albany and I was able to run into the train station and purchase an XXL Albany New York t-shirt to sleep in . . . as well as a small bottle of white wine, with a screw-off cap.

Now anyone who knows me knows that – seasoned world traveler/woman of international intrigue though I am – an underlying anxiety on any mode of transport is always the proximity and availability of a toilet. So I was pleasantly surprised to find my roomette equipped with my own personal “facility,” and a folding sink, in which I would have brushed my teeth, had I not left my toiletries in the checked bag.

Mitch Ramsay, manager of the train, came by to introduce himself, and endowed me with a sense of purpose and importance – almost as much as the wine.

I attended dinner in the dining car – a full-house at 8 pm. By the looks of the patronage, I was by far the least eccentric person – my personal favorite passenger sleeper car duo consisting of either an extremely devoted son and his elderly mother, or Harold & Maude.

At 930 pm, Kirk – the delightfully engaging sleeping car attendant – upon request, made up my bed for me, after a small amount of light-hearted ribbing about how early I was turning in. I was asleep by 11, and awake again at 545 am – to a flattened but still somehow majestic Midwestern landscape.

The best line overheard this morning was a baffled middle-aged woman, trolling the corridor and admitting, “I can’t for the life of me remember where I slept.”

I must have slept well though because at breakfast – where I shared a table with British retiree grandparents “on holiday” in the States, they told me we’d made several stops during the night. Evidently, I slept through them all.

The biggest challenge – aside from the writing – is going to be maintaining my weight for the next two weeks, what with three solid (surprisingly tasty) meals (and dessert) a day, while probably burning the caloric value of a single grape.

Well almost to Chicago so I’d better sign off for now . . .