Train trip to Seattle

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It’s Jan 1, 2007, and I’m in the Amtrak train station in Emeryville, California, outside Oakland, waiting for the 10:15 pm overnight train to Seattle. It’s a 20 hour train ride, my first overnight train trip anywhere. Apparently, the train is running late. And I’ve gotta say, from appearances of the train station, train travel is far less interesting here than it is in Europe.

I’m kinda worried about someone lifting my computer or camera equipment or Ipod while I sleep on the train. So I’m sitting here writing this and watching ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ on my computer. Strange, unique little flick.

One of the characters in the film, the boy in the dysfunctional family, has taken a vow of silence until he gets into the Air Force Academy. He’s apparently gotten this idea from the readings of Fredrick Nietzsche, who he reads constantly. As I’ve never read any Nietzsche, and more shockingly given my book addiction don’t even own any, I have no idea whether this vow of silence idea is somehow grounded in one of his books or not. And in one of the amusing sidelights of travel, across from me in the train station is a guy currently reading Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil.’

I love travel. Shit like that never happens in your hometown. Then again maybe it does, but you are so oblivious to the world when you are humming along in your regular routine that you don’t bother to look up and see the things in front of your face. Travel has a unique way of just putting you off your usual rhythms enough to provide you with the opportunity to break out of normalcy and see with a different sight.

Spell-check is a wonderful and simultaneously annoying feature of our modern, computer driven world (I’m sorry, but my mind works like this – multiple thoughts at the same time – branching out and back – makes sense to me, but must frustrate the fuck out of my friends, because I cannot tell a story worth a shit in my scatterbrained fashion). I can’t spell at all.

My mother is a wonderful speller, or at least so she says. Its not often you get to verify that particular boast from a parent – not often I edit her writing and its pretty easy to spell most everything you are ever going to get in a greeting card. Nonetheless, I’ll give her credit for it (like her claim that she’s never gotten a speeding ticket) and move on. I’m not one to begrudge someone from a little occasional boasting.

I no doubt have disappointed her in a variety of ways, not providing her grandchildren yet being one that manages to come up with exasperating frequency, but I think the fact that I can’t spell at all is much higher up on her list than any other reasonable person would put it.

She blames it on my kindergarten and first grade schooling in Milwaukee, where apparently I went to some new, cutting edge, public school where they were using different teaching methods and didn’t teach us to spell phonetically. How do I know this fault of mine, and the cause she attributes it to, is on her list of lifetime disappointments? Because I think I’ve heard the story of the non-phonetic teaching from her about twenty-five times or so in my life.

Ahhh, back to spell-check, a true love/hate relationship. Since I can’t spell, I have to say that spell-check is a godsend. Without it my disjointed prose would be both disjointed and not in the English language, thereby doubling the annoyance of anyone happening to read it. That’s the love part of my literary affair with spell-check, but as sometimes happens, true love also gives rise to a occasional spot of hatred, in this case my absolute dread of seeing the word-processing program underline a misspelled word.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve become so dependant on spell-check that I barely make an effort – often just typing in a very rough approximation of the word I am trying to use and just letting spell-check offer me suggestions on demand – and so, in fact, I actually encourage these underlined words. But I just can’t let them sit there, underlined, without immediately using spell-check to correct the spelling. Right then. Not when I’m done with the paragraph, or frankly even the sentence. If I get one of those underlined words as I’m typing, I have to stop – have to – and crank up the spell check to see how to spell it.

And because of the ease of spell-check, I also have no incentive to actually learn how to spell these words that I routinely misspell. I think it’s likely that I’ll go to the grave without ever spelling restaurant correctly. Yea, I know. I might need some therapy.

And I’m wrong again. My impression of US train travel from seeing the station is going has been quickly disabused. The seats on this train are big. There is lots of room to stretch out and there are also nice footrests on these chairs. I think it’s going to be exceedingly easy to sleep. I’m also less concerned about my shit getting stolen than I was before I got on – now watch when I wake up, something will be gone.

I really do like the herky-jerky movement of a train and the feeling you get of actually chewing up miles when its moving, sort of why I like driving. Plane travel is necessary, but you lose a lot of the experience of getting places by just flying over them, instead of driving or training along on the surface.

Before I boarded the train, I had a familiar knot in my stomach. It happens at the beginning of every solo trip I take. When I was in the terminal in Atlanta or Chicago, or wherever I was, before I was to board my first solo flight to Europe, I felt the same way, but more pronounced.

I’d never taken a solo trip and I was going to a place where I didn’t speak any of the native languages – 5 years of German study aside in high school and college. I had no plan, no itinerary. I had a plane ticket into Munich, back from Lyon, a reservation for a rental car, a hotel reservation for the first night in Munich, and a Lonely Planet guidebook for Western Europe.

Hard to describe the feeling. Not fear, per se. More a trepidation of the unknown. And I liked it. I vividly remember saying to myself “ok, you booked it – let’s fucking do this” and striding forward as if I was some 17th century explorer about to seek an unknown continent.

Makes me laugh a little bit looking back, and if you haven’t done any solo travel it might seem laughable, but there is a totally different feeling of exploration when you are embarking on a solo trip verses one with friends or family.

So, as I sat in the Emeryville train station and heard the announcement over the loudspeaker that the 10:15 train to Sacramento, Portland and finally ending up in Seattle was pulling up, I packed up my stuff and walked outside to the platform.

As the train stopped, I got that feeling – that anticipation of the unknown in the pit of my stomach – and it was like an old friend reminding me of why I love to travel. And as I sit on this train around midnight typing this, looking out the windows as the lights of houses and small towns very slowly move by in the window, and listening to my Ipod (the single most indispensable travel aid yet created), I have my usual follow-up to the anticipation feeling – the smile of contentment from a journey begun.

Next day —  First impressions are not always lasting impressions. Indeed, I slept well on the train and woke up round dawn as the train crawled through the snowy, hilly terrain of Northern California.

I am a fan of US train travel as much as the European version. Grandfather and granddaughter across the aisle from me. He put the granddaughter in the inside chair, protecting her from whatever may come. Her first train trip also?

Klamath Falls, Oregon. The train stopped here for five minutes to board new passengers and allow those on the train to get off to stretch your legs or take a quick smoke break, since the entire train is no smoking. I hopped off the train to see if I could take any good pictures in this industrial looking spot.

No great luck on the picture front, but as usual something unexpected on the road – the strong smell of someone getting high, so strong I knew it couldn’t be too far from where I stood. Sure enough, I turn to my right and among the scattering of smokers was a middle aged bearded man wearing a skullcap and his female companion taking deep drags off a joint.

About 10 feet away stood the train conductor assigning seat numbers to those passengers newly embarking at the stop. Tolerance in the Northwest or merely total olfactory oblivion on that part of that conductor?

And the long, slow rhythm of the train as it chewed up the miles all the way up the coast. Cars driving on the roads next to us. The tracks cutting through evergreen forests with snowcapped trees. As I plow through a couple books, occasionally taking time out to write, look out the windows, and observe my fellow passengers.

One of my best friends on the planet, Ken Kendrick, picked me up at the train station in Seattle. As I walked up to say hello, he greeted me back with, “Good to see you Hod. Why the fuck did you take the train?”

“For so many good reasons.”

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.