55 Hours to Michigan

Tuesday, April 14th 10:00 AM

Beauty, it seems to me, is enhanced in the unfamiliar. Take these canyon walls, for instance, with their majestic, soaring spires sandstone jutting into the azure sky. Carved over millions of years by the Colorado River, living up to its name as the Red River — although it seems more brown, to me.  I haven’t been here before, seen this valley before, and it’s rugged beauty is enhanced by its newness. Of course, it is simply beautiful. The varied greens of scrub-brush and trees, turned emerald by their contrast with the rusty red canyon walls are beautiful. The rushing water, slowly carving it’s way down into the rock is beautiful.

We share these views with a few boaters scattered along the river’s edge, some rafts with oars and some with motors, all inflatables that I’ve seen so far. I actually dreamt of rafting for a brief time last night, perhaps the motion of the train translating into rough and tumble of a trip on the river– although it turned out to be an IMAX with water wetting us patrons to “enhance the experience.” I also dreamt of my friends Maykel and Paloma, somehow being on the train with me, Paloma leading a yoga class, and Maykel casting spells I had written (he’s a Shaman).

I slept last night–if you can call it that–on the floor of the Observation Car. Or really, alternating between the floor and the “three-er,” a unit of three chairs in an L, short side divided from long by a small triangular table. I was not the only one to have this idea, and I have to give credit to the man in the Lounge car last night.

“First time sleeping on a train?” he said. Guy has a good memory, been working for the train for 20 years. 16 hour shifts. I can’t imagine how he remains so chipper at the end of such a day. I guess after that long, you develop a certain kind of endurance. Even the shittiest jobs (which his is certainly not) can be gotten used to, I guess. I went into the Lounge first to buy a beer. It’s telling that I’m more willing to spend money on alcohol than I am on food, even though the food is guaranteed to be better for me. I took the Budweiser, chosen because I would drink it slower than BudLight, up to the Observation deck, where I sat sipping on it for a few minutes.

“At least the alcohol is reasonably priced,” I said to the car, but to no one in particular, perhaps trying to start a conversation, perhaps simply to complain aloud about the cost of food. Not that bad, I suppose, but a 400% (at least) markup, and all the hot food is microwaved. The young man seated in the chair behind me had a little to say, “I haven’t bought beer yet.” No one else bothered to respond. I wrote in my journal for a while before trying again. This time more directly. I started with one of my standard openers, “Would you rather live in a Treehouse or a Hobbit Hole.” Treehouse, he answered. My follow up: Ewok Village or Hobbitown? “Ewoks are cool,” he said.

We dove quickly into a conversation about wage slavery. He quit his “slave job” around 3 months ago as a home-insurance inspector, mostly assessing water damage. He’s from Baltimore and said I looked like I could be too. A Bohemian town, although not “vagabond-friendly.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard of Baltimore in recent months, and it piques my curiosity in much the same way that New Orleans, Austin, and Maine have in the past. Perhaps it’s red-car-syndrome affecting me, but why the sudden attention spent on this city in particular? What caught my eye to begin with, I wonder?

I never caught his name, and after we spent a couple of hours together, he escaped to the restroom, never to return. Not sure if it was a signal or just awkwardness, but we haven’t spoken since, although we’ve passed each other a few times. Either he was a single-serving friend, or we’ll hang out again in the Observation Car (OC) later when I feel like heading there. For now, I sit in my chair, having just eaten a microwave burrito from Dave’s Outpost, a little store abutting the Grand Junction station with prices better than here on the train. Still, I feel like I just ate 360 calories of poison. Better to think of it as sustinance, regardless it’s origins.

Riding public transit — trains, buses, whatever — always serves as a reminder of just how damaged our society is, how unhealthy its people. I am uninterested in talking with most of these people, perhaps judging them unfairly in my assessment of them as “standard” Americans, with views that mostly stick in my craw as naive, programmed, pampered, ignorant.

The woman seated behind me asked of her husband this morning, just an hour ago, as we were passing through a more rural area of scattered double-wides and manufactured homes, “How do they survive out here?” How, indeed? At that moment, as the train progressed down the tracks, we had an answer.

Extraction. Oil, natural gas, stone, gravel, sand, water, food. How much of our “economy,” I wonder, is wholly extractive? We generate wealth by raping the land, caring little for the downstream impacts — both in time, and more literally as “waste” products entering the surging flow of the Colorado River.  The majority of people, I think, survive here as anonymous servants, in various stores and restaurants. “Service Workers” they are called. And who benefits from the extraction of resources? Who gets the vast bulk of profit generated by claiming material that should rightly belong to all or none? Certainly not the extractors themselves. They serve as much as the woman working part-time in Burger King. Probably they are not paid much more for their labor, only doing their Job.

So who is responsible? Is there anyone we can pin this System on? Many blame the Rich, a limited cabal of wealthy owners who benefit most from this loosely tiered system of industrial slavery. People who are in the positions they are, not because they work harder, not because they are intrinsically smarter in any way–although they manage to avoid many of the pitfalls of modern dietary deficiencies–not because they are better than the rest, but largely because of circumstances completely out of their control. Who they were born to, the schools they were afforded to go to, the connections available to them upon reaching Adulthood. These opportunities were not their choice.  Just as it is not their credit to claim, it can neither be their blame. If they are not responsible for their wealth, how can they be responsible for the damage we all collectively do? No. The rich are not to blame, although they should assume a larger burden of the responsibility for repair, given their access to resources.

Truly, there is no one to point the finger at, or there is everyone.

We all serve the System.

I am serving it as we speak, writing these words on a laptop computer developed and built by wage-slaves the world around, with probably tens of thousands of miles of travel under its belt in its various components and materials. I am riding this behemoth of plastic and steel, taking equal advantage of the system our ancestors struggled to build. I eat of its food every day, drink of its water — although, what choice do I have? How could I live without furthering the machine of which we are all a part? Even Ted Kasinski, fervent hater of the System that he was, could not live without relying on its outputs. There is no where to go that isn’t owned by someone, no resources that have not been tapped for the “Benefit of All.”  Of course, thinking these things, writing these things serves no real purpose. I am still a slave. Perhaps it is better to find my niche within the System, rather than to rail against it. Perhaps, the greatest impact I can make is not through vitriolic words of judgement, casting us all as villains, but as a rejuvenating force, bringing joy and peace to my own life, and hence, to the lives of others. If we are all in this together, we will all have to get out together. Like ants forming a living bridge over water, we will have to rely on each other to save us from the vast abyss we collectively hang over.

Keeping myself entertained as best I can: reading, writing, observing. I have not yet found anyone willing to talk for very long, although I must admit that I haven’t really tried. I’ve been back to the OC a few times to score a seat, but they’re mostly full up or taken by peoples’ stuff. On one of our “smoke breaks,” I met a pair from Salt Lake City on their way to Denver. They seem like a couple of cool cats, and the dude is from Michigan, I don’t exactly recall where, but he’s one of the many that have given Grand Rapids a good word or two — although that might just be politeness. What somewhat-conscious adult is going to say that the place you’re headed to is awful? I hoped to run into the two at the OC, but passed them on the way there both times, seemingly content to sit in their seats.

2:45pm

The river below in Bear Valley braids its way across the valley floor. The hills above are a tan tinged with ocre and grey and spotted with green and blinding white — there’s some scattered snow on the ground in the higher elevations. The landscape is dry, mostly chapparral and mixed pine, rocky where the surface has been bared by erosion. A highway hugs the valley wall, cut into the steep slope. The conductor has just come on anouncing “Dead Man’s Curve,” where a light-blue station wagon rolled off the road in the mid 50s and somehow still hangs high above us. Additional informational tidbits include the movie Undersiege 2: Dark Horizons, starring Stephen Segal, which was filmed along this stretch of the rail.

The valley becomes a canyon, the walls shooting up to 1500 feet and the waters below turning white as they plunge tumultously through spaces in the stone. We must getting higher into these mountains, as snow remains in the shadows all the way down to the waters edge. We pass quickly through three short tunnels, lichen coats the rocks with an iron-orange fuzz, my ears pop. 45 minutes to Granby, Colorado.

6:20pm

We pull slowly into the station in Denver, Colorado. There’s quite a bit of maneuvering that needs to be done. To the right of the tracks some new apartments, constructed almost entirely out of particle board, a large pile of rotting railroad ties, a slow river with trash and young lovers along its shore. They are replacing the old creosote-soaked wooden ties with concrete ones, it seems.As we pass through the trainyard, 10 or 15 sets of tracks converge, Y-ing into fewer and fewer until only one pair remain. “EGO NES” reads the warehouse graffiti. A man and his dog run by on a trail beneath us along the river. Downtown Denver glows in the lowering light, buildings not yet afire with dusk, but turning golden with the setting sun.

I’ve started reading ​Seeds to Harvest​ again from the beginning, although there’s no way it would hold my attention as it did the first time several days ago. A collection of 4 connected novels by Olivia Butler, it was recommended and gifted me by Daniel back in Capay. I do this instead of sleep, socializing seemingly out of the question in my current mood.

Meeting new people is aparently no longer one of my passions, or at least not on this trip. I would rather sit at my chair, re-reading material just finished than open myself up to new perspectives, stories. I have not attempted to engage my neighbors in conversation. They are a variety of folk, mostly older than myself. A latino couple sits at my rear diagonal. Some elderly WASPs sit directly behind. The woman before me rocks to her music, sometimes powerfully enough to shake my footrest, as she is now. She resembles Tracy Chapman from that show with Tina Fey, ​30 Rock​.

I think a lot of people are getting off at this Denver stop. I was hoping for enough time to go wandering, perhaps busk a bit, or get some food from a cheaper establishment. As this parking job drags on, I can feel that chance slipping away. Another walk about, another smoke break. I may be eating dinner again on the train, perhaps a microwaved pizza or a chicken-sandwich. I chose the pizza last night, mostly based on the amount of calories for the money.  We have arrived. I will endeavor to adventure in the 28 minutes I have available to me before we depart again.

I managed to find a “street food” restaurant around the corner from the station, where I bought a good meal of rice and chicken and potatos. I considered buying a side of vegetables, but figured the $9 I spent was enough for the meal. I will load up on veggies once I get to Grand Rapids tomorrow evening. I took my guitar with me in the off-chance I had an opportunity to play.

I had had some time in Reno yesterday and met a young man named Hippy–Kevin to his friends–on the overpass above the tracks. He had a guitar on his back and a longboard under his arm and a pretty apparent drug habit. We chatted briefly, then jammed for a few short minutes. He joked about running away with my guitar. It wasn’t funny. I encouraged him to travel. He’s been homeless in Reno for 5 years, has wanted to leave for some time. It’s a testament to my former lifestyle that I am much more willing (and able) to strike up a conversation with a homeless guy I just met than with an old white lady who’s been sitting across the aisle for the past 20 hours.


April 15th, 9:45 AM

I slept in my chair last night, waking every few hours to stretch and readjust. The forced air system in this train makes my sinuses dry and bloody. I had many dreams last night. One I can remember was about my cousins coming to meet me at some point and me being really nervous about a dreaded traveler kid that Gloria was going to travel with. Like he was up to no good and it was my job to tag along and make sure she was okay. They had both dyed their hair blond and he was taller than me. Cheerful, but hardly friendly. Another dream was about driving around with my buddy David, getting mad at him for driving extremely recklessly and ignoring me when I asked him to slow down. I didn’t have my seatbelt on and I was seated in a way that if we crashed it would be really bad for me. Mack dog was with us, and I was dumpster-diving for cardboard for a restoration project I was working on outside of town. Eventually, I got mad enough at him to leave his car and I met up with Becca and Natalie and Greg, who were somehow riding in a car without a driver. I jumped into the front seat to guide us to my garden, and promptly blacked out and crashed the car. I woke for a smoke break at 4:45 this morning and then returned to bed.

We’re traveling through Iowa right now. A rolling countryside criss-crossed by rivers and dotted with ponds and swamps. The ground has the messy look of a place that snows, but there’s no sign of it now. Most of the trees are just now coming into their leaves. It’s strange to not be able to see any mountains in the distance. I don’t think there are any, the highest vantage point being the small hills that stretch as far as I can see. It’s not exactly flat, but it’s certainly not mountainous.

Last night I spent some time in the Observation Car, listening in on the conversation of a pair of cute dread-locked girls who got on the train in Denver. I didn’t have the guts to strike up a conversation and after 20 minutes of eavesdropping, decided I had little interest either. I drank my beer, wrote in my journal, and retreated to my chair.

Or chairs, really. I’ve been blessed with two of them since I started this trip. Plenty of room to stretch out, and if I put both leg rests up, a handy surface to curl up on, although it’s sharp in some places. My body doesn’t ache nearly as much as I would suppose it should after being cooped up on this Train for the past 45 hours. I guess I’ve been exercising my lounging muscles these past few weeks, especially after being sick and laid out for the few days preceding this journey.

I’ve just lost my double-wide in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

12:45 PM

A rather attractive Australian woman was sat next to me by our car steward, Rob. I tried to engage, but it’s almost like I have an anti-conversation spell on me or something. Maybe it’s just happenstance. After a few minutes of me asking her questions (She was in Iowa to see her brother and is on the way to Norway to see her sister), she got up to “go find the dining car.” That was two hours ago, and much like Baltimore dude from the other day, she hasn’t returned. She’s probably hanging out in the OC. Probably she just wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. Perhaps she found a better one there. The view is certainly better. I wonder if my incipient negativity is what drives people off. Although I’m struck by the beauty of the natural country, especially Utah and Colorado, I haven’t had much good to think or say about the man-made world we’ve passed through. I have little interest in people’s jobs or tastes in music. Have I become so embittered? Or is this simply a symptom of being cooped up in this train for so long, hungry for real food?

Riding through Princeton, Illinois. It’s as flat as Iowa, but seemingly more populated. The dirt roads are pristinely graded. I think perhaps the presence of snow makes asphalt crack too much and need too much repair for use in country roads. I remember Alaska had similar paving techniques, choosing well packed gravel over asphalt in all but the most traveled roads — and those may have been surfaced with concrete, not asphalt. It’s interesting how the small details strike me. Like the lack of roadside curbs in the small town we just passed, even though the streets themselves were well defined.

5:00 PM

The Australian returned when they closed the OC. She curled herself away from me, crossing legs and arms and staring out the opposite window. She held her scarf to her face, as if covering the smell of something awful. I hope it wasn’t me and it was just a nervous tick, of some sort. I know I’ve been on the train in the same clothes for two straight days, but I can’t smell ​that​ bad. I think that maybe she’s just an awkward person. I did joke when she first sat down that I was “surprised she could stand me.” Perhaps that suggestion was enough for her to think I really smell terrible. I’ll never know. She left without a word or a smile when the train deboarded. I exited the train into the cavernous tracks below Grand Central Station, here in Chicago. A big structure — although I’ve been in bigger — the bustle of traveling people filled the space with the sound of squealing luggage wheels and the low murmur of conversation.  I checked on locker prices. $6 per hour. Not worth it. So I lugged my stuff outdoors to catch a smoke and play my guitar. I had an audience of two. A young man just released from prison a week ago. His crime was growing marijuana. 7 months and now he’s on his way to a half-way house across Chicago to serve out his probation. The other member of my brief audience, an older man, gave me $4 in change and dollar bills and thanked me for playing. He clapped every time a song was over and came over to chat a few times.  With an hour left of my layover, I went back into the station to get some food. It wasn’t worth carrying my stuff all over town to try and find something cheaper, and I found reasonable prices in the food-court at the “Mediterranean Grill.”

Leaving Chicago now on time. We pass row upon row of brick tract homes and apartment buildings and the occasional clapboard house squeezed between. But by far the redominant architecture is red brick. Chicago is sprawling like most cities. We pass the stadium and vast, empy parking lots. Soot-stained warehouses and a rusty watertower pass before we’re back into the brick neighborhoods. It’s warm here, although it seems winter is just ending. Trees are just now beginning to bloom, and so the city has a barren feel to it. At least with snow on the ground, there would be a reason why so many trees were bare. As we get further out from the city center, the number of abandoned homes increases, boards over doors and windows, some fire damaged, most just left to rot amongst their neighbors.

I catch brief glimpses of peoples’ lives: a man waiting at a gate, boys playing on the asphalt outside a school, people commuting home from work in the city.


April 20th 4:04 PM

I sit on the couch at Brie’s parents’ house. Her mom has just arrived home (to much barking of the dogs) and is doing stuff in the kitchen. Brie just finished up her computer work and is who-knows-where. This is the first real chance I’ve had to write since I arrived in Grand Rapids 10:30 PM on April 15th.

The city of Grand Rapids is a sprawling city of around 190, 000 people, with an additional million or so in the surrounding metropolitan area. There are lots of large houses on multi-acre lots spread across the country side. Most buildings are made of brick, which is strange to me as a Californian, where earthquakes happen. Apparently there was an earthquake whose effects were felt in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It shook a mirror on the wall of Karen’s room. If there are ever any bigger quakes in the area, many of the building and houses would collapse, or they would sink into the sandy dunes that make up most of Michigan.


April 21th 2:50 PM

Go anywhere in this state, it seems, and dig down less than a foot and all you will find is sand. I’ll have to re-up my permaculture skills to account for the differences. Like, how do you build soil on such sandy ground? Where do you find clay, humus?

I’ve been here for almost a week, now. It’s starting to feel like home to me, or at least a semblance thereof. We’ve been so busy every day, it’s hard to find time to write, but Brie’s making lunch now. Listening to some Devil Makes Three and finishing this.

It’s the small differences that make me feel like I ain’t in California anymore. It’s the way people look into your eyes when you’re buying things from them. It’s the way stop-lights hang from wires instead of on poles. It’s the way there are no curbs on the streets, and the potholes are positioned to break axles. It’s Rainbow Gatherings in the sandy forests of Western Michigan and the strangely sprawling rural communities. It’s kayaking on the waters of a city reservoir.

Well, here I am.

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