The second day of my gnarly American train adventure gave rise to more discovery. Unexpectedly, one of self belief, and the other of forgotten values of America through interactions with people I probably wouldn’t speak to in every day life.
I woke in a slight mental haze around 8:00am. Confusion. Bewilderment. Maybe it was just sleeping on a train that did it to me. Or maybe it has been the lack of sleep I’ve had leading up to this trip.
One might assume I’d be used to sleeping on trains by now. After all, I did cross the United States once before on a more direct route. Add trips to New Orleans and Montreal and expert contortionist could be a skill on my résumé.
Well, you can never quite get used to some things. It wasn’t the seat. They are spacious and comfortable with that marvelous leg rest that pops up to allow you to sprawl out. You can tell I’m a fan.
No, it was the behemoth beside me that probably kept me from a marvelous rest.
It always seems that on every one of my train adventures I am sat with the largest man on the train. Vertical or horizontal.
I mean, I am a small dude, yet the sound of a jet turbine escaping his mouth paired with his constant elbowing often throughout the night could not be defended against.
And in a red-eyed panic I realized I couldn’t find my precious headphones. I must have offended the travel gods in some way. But I did sleep. Kind of.
Dawn cracked, and the egg yolk finally began rising over the horizon, sunny side up.
The fact that I was associating the sunrise with an egg proved just how hungry I was. I had forgotten one of the most important things to pack for a long distance train trip. Snacks.
I was ravenous.
It was in the bathroom as I was brushing my teeth that I realized exactly what I had forgotten at home. My electric shaver. Dammit.
My face was sprouting like a Chia Pet.
After this train trip my inadvertent backpacker beard should be well on its way to grizzly. But what the hell, it’s Movember right?
We were welcomed into the Windy City by the bellowing white smoke escaping the landscape of refineries.
8:45 am, which gave me 5 or so hours to quell my ravenous hunger for Chicago Deep dish. I heaved my packs on, and even though I weighed about 50lbs more than normal , it seems as though I am nimbler than 80.75% of the passengers on the train. We shuffled along the dark and narrow platform, like a cattle in a pen. For a fast walker this is vein bursting.
When the dip, dive, and dodge failed to break through the hordes of luggage wheelers blocking my path, a luggage cart came pressing its way past. I dipped my shoulder and followed it like my lead blocker.
The cold Chicago air bit at my lungs, but it was refreshing. I’ve been in Chicago numerous times, once before on a train, and once on a road trip across the United States, but never long enough to get to know her.
My impression has always been the same. Cold, tall, and covered in sheen. What a woman!
Since the train to Chicago didn’t have wifi and I was aching to gush about my first day on the train, I went to a Corner Bakery for a bite and to warm up.
Creating the legendary Chicago deep dish seems like a secret art form, and with curiosity and hunger driving me, I cold called around to all of the most iconic pizzerias.
I was dying to see just how they create these massive land-mines of flavor, and would have loved to show you the process. But alas, the offices were closed on weekends, so I gave up the futile attempt.
Begging didn’t help…
I chose Giordano’s because it was recommended highly by some Twits (that’s what we call ourselves on Twitter right?) but the biggest reason was that it was only a 10 minute waddle from the station for me.
Away from the glass skyscrapers nipping at the clouds, Giordano’s was tucked away in a small hotel across the canal which surprised me at first. Odd I thought for such a well known entity.
Without going into too much detail since I will share an in depth post on it, I will tantalize you with a teaser.
Massive. Smoldering. Flaky. Cheesy. Molten. Meaty. Bombdiggty.
After a shameful attempt to nom-nom-dominate my meatball stuffed deep dish foe, I succumbed to defeat only after 2 slices.
Time was ticking and it was near departure time, so I headed back to Union Station 2lbs heavier and 10 times happier.
The boarding area to the Empire Builder was tight and smothering, swarming with bodies like an overcrowded kennel. When I stepped up to present my ticket to the attendant, he looked slightly shocked and said, “Oh wow, a room huh?”
“Yep” I said, slightly smiling at his surprise. I proceeded down the platform and was welcomed in by Jim, the roomette attendant, and shown to my room.
My first impression were as follows: Large double window. Two massive seats. Complimentary bottled water and necessities.
Pretty nifty little flat I might say so. It was a little Cold War era feeling, with grey metal and wood paneling. Design aesthetics like bulbous night lights and brushed steel oval touch controls reminiscent of black and white sci fi movies adorned the head rests.
Not bad things by far, but it definitely gives you the feel of the last golden age of Amtrak after the government began focusing on other things.
Given the anti-modern appearance, being in that large room all by yourself with ample space to stretch out made me extremely giddy. And it beats out any other transport in that sense.
The roomettes around me were empty. It felt as though I had the whole car to myself, yet I wouldn’t have to go far for any company.
That swell chap Jim who had greeted me poked his head in with a complimentary bottle of bubbly.
“Hell yes” I said. I kicked back while sipping from the bottle in my unclassy fashion, and watched the grassy yellow plains drift by after departing Chicago.
Between departure and darkness, there wasn’t much to see. In the viewing car spotted a girl sitting alone whom I had bumped into on the previous train and in line to get on the Empire Builder, so I decided to say hello.
It’s strange what travel does to you. For most of my life living in the Washington DC area, we are bred to be like automatons. If you are using public transport you must sit still, shut up, not smile, put on sun glasses, don’t make eye contact, and put in headphones so no weirdos talk to you. That’s just how it is. Travel seems to disrupt that. If you let it.
So, accepting the laws of attraction, I approached her. She had what looked like a handmade scarf and a hoodie that was proudly labeled with a farms name.
It isn’t physical attraction, but a realization that sometimes people and personalities are magnetic and the world brings you together in positive or negative pairings. Be it guy or girl, the world seems to bring you to people you need to meet, at least I’ve encountered that when I’m in a positive mindset.
Mary, it turns out, would be quite contrary. At first conversation flowed very easily just making small talk about our trip and our lives. She was moving to Pittsburgh, but it seemed like her heart lived in Wisconsin. She didn’t watch TV, or gossip, or complain the whole conversation.
“What is your passion?” I asked.
With a soft gentle voice and a smile like she was imagining home, she said, “My raspberries.”
Mary, 28, knew everything about farming and crop rotation. Her favorite thing was a Louis Vouton bag, it was something she created.
“I just love them so much. My apples. My blackberries. My raspberries. I like being in my garden.”
And after a little more small talk, I would then see why the world brought us together for a conversation.
Somehow she had sensed even without me mentioning it that both my parents had passed away. After talking briefly about my revelations and reconciling with my brother, she began questioning about my parents.
“And I’m guessing your mother didn’t die naturally?”
I was taken aback by how much she could guess when I felt like I hadn’t given up any clues. I told her almost everything that had happened in the past five years, something I don’t verbally communicate to many people. She listened intently. I kept talking. And then she posed a question that was hard to answer.
“Do you think you’ll ever see your mother and father again?”
“I don’t know. I’d hope so”
Mary looked as if she would cry.
Now, I am not one to discuss religion, and I don’t particularly enjoy discussing it, but that was why Mary was quite contrary. She was a contrast of myself. The opposite of my non-belief. She didn’t push religion, or Catholicism, into my face like those mass produced bread of Christ wafers, though her faith was very apparent. When she did begin to preach, she would check herself.
Out of respect for other peoples beliefs, I will not talk about how I feel about religion. But let’s just say Mary and I were having a friendly debate.
What Mary did though was she got me to begin talking about my own belief and being. She got me to challenge my mind. And I am open to expanding it these days.
In that conversation I realized just how far I had come leading up to this trip.
There I was, talking about how closed off emotionally I used to be and how it finally feels good to express compassion to others with someone I didn’t know. That hadn’t even happened with family until a week prior.
“It just breaks my heart to hear you don’t believe yet that you will see your mother or father in whatever eternity it may be.”
“Well, honestly, I just don’t know. I didn’t believe in anything at all for the past 5 years. I finally, for the first time, believe in myself.”
And there was the answer to why this trip is a transformational one.
I could take a plane, train, or car anywhere I want, but I’d always be running. At least I had been.
Now, on this Empire Builder train across America, I believed in myself and I was open to the endless possibilities of the world. I had faith in my dream. And I was realizing through interactions with people all over the world, they will challenge me to discover new things.
Mary left when we pulled into Lacrosse, Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin people are hard people.”
It seemed so to live on a landmass with nothing in sight, and from the girl who loved her raspberries more than the world loves Kardashians.
Another perk about having a roomette was that all of the meals on the train are included, and you could be damn sure I wouldn’t miss a single meal,
The dining rooms are communal, and I feel like if you are open to meeting strangers, this is the best part of taking the train. They sit you with another random passenger if there are 3 or less people. And I’ll tell ya’ from experience, you meet some wild characters. And some equally fascinating people.
Sat across from me was Zach, a burly gent headed to North Dakota for a hunting trip. He had the beard and hat to match the intent.
Be it by law of attraction again, or just by coincidence, but talking to strangers on the train makes you realize just how many similarities people have with each other.
People are so intertwined, it’s human nature to interact. In this day and age it is a dying thing.
“I think it’s awesome you just travel to travel. I have a friend who was an up and coming bio-chemist who decided to ditch that and move to New Zealand to study wine making.”
“Ha, that’s wicked. I was in New Zealand for a year myself.”
“That’s what it’s all about I guess. Doing what makes you happy.” He said.
Our waiter for the dinner was an example of that. I will call him Matt. Matt, a gentleman most likely in his 50’s with a grey crew cut and a soft spoken finesse, has worked for Amtrak for 35 years. He was polite, and I knew just by talking to him that he loved his job.
“I’ve done it all on Amtrak. Chef. Bartender. Waiter. Office work. I’ve seen all of the change. And I’ve seen what has stayed the same.”
Passion. It oozes from the employees for Amtrak and its history. In his face shown the disappointment of how the United States treats train travel.
“It’s subsidized, sure, but not the way you think. They might cover 15% of the costs. If that. The other 85% is us. And it just breaks even. The US government just wants everyone to buy gasoline. Drive cars. Buy cars.”
This conversation was sparked when I inclined about the lack of outlets and wifi. Obviously as a blogger, wifi is one of your top priorities. The complete lack of it on long haul train routes across the United States shocked and appalled many customers. And I won’t lie. I was a tad bit offended until discovering the root of it all.
“I see some change coming to these long distance sleepers. Hopefully soon. President Bush wanted to abandon us completely, but Obama hasn’t decided to.”
The forgotten backbone of America.
The splintered wood and cold steel road that connecting thousands of miles of unexplored terrain.
Once upon a time it conjured the spirit of adventure, of expansion, of innovation.
I was on the Empire Builder, deserving of its name as I began to enter into states it connected just as forgotten as Amtrak for their importance.
Like a zipper, the train pulled the fabric of America together. The deeper I go into the north-west, the more it is apparent that Amtrak wasn’t the only thing that was forgotten. It was the values of America that America forgot. I was moving into the cold, hard, desolate lands.
Staring out through the passing darkness listening to the click-clack of the tracks, one has a lot of time to think. For someone who grew up in the capital of the United States, I am guilty of forgetting as well.
Distractions and possessions are an intimate part of your life in that element, but once you break out, you find knowledge in every passing mile and every person.
I tapped the oval touch button in my space capsule, AKA roomette (which I was hoping would be accompanied with a “bloop bleep”) and the lights dimmed. A purple sleep light came on. There was such nerdy delight found in that.
With a stretch accompanied by a roar, I plopped into my sleeper so very content to not have a man-turbine beside me as the big spoon.
Tomorrow, more miles and more unknown.
Like this story? Get caught up on all of the other days on this gnarly train adventure across the United States!
READ – Day 1: Closure.
READ – Day 3: Discovery.
READ – Ginos East vs. Giordanos: A Deep Dish Love Affair
**DISCLOSURE** I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a free trip courtesy of Amtrak Blog for review purposes. The opinions, photos, videos, and use of the word “gnarly” are completely my own based on my experience.