joebelknapwall: (Default)
5:11pm leaving

I'm not a good traveler, not because I don't love to travel, but rather because I can hardly bear to leave any place behind. As a kid, I stole souvenirs of every motel, every Waffle House, every rest stop, and every unscheduled delay, because the notion of losing a place that I'd had at my fingertips has always been almost too much. Over the years, I've developed the finer skills of moderation, and my closets are no longer packed with the complimentary mints and placemats of destinations of little distinction, but on longer stays, I still have pangs of wanting to hold on, to be dragged away like a prisoner on the green mile.

I've wound up my trip to Chicago in an odd way, having seen my brother and sister-in-law off to the El and returned to their empty apartment to loll about in peculiar isolation for several hours. I tidied listlessly, doing the last dishes and watering the plants, finally closing the place up like a vacation cabin and locking the door one last time. I stepped down the creaky, well-polished stairs, dropped a few bags of trash in the dumpster, and headed out and over to Ogden Street.

Today's one of those bitter cold days, with biting wind and a vicious freeze that pervades every opening in your clothes and chills your eyes to the point that you lose fine focus. I watched the skyline rise and fall around me as I walked briskly on rapidly tiring feet, still feeling a bit overwhelmed at the scale of this city. A huge tower block looms on the south side of Ogden, ten stories of deserted former medical school relaxing into a disgraceful monochromic Mondrian as its cladding of marble selectively drops away. In my town, a building this size would be a skyscraper, lording over Main Street, but here's it nothing, nowhere, and no one cares.

I walked further and looked back to the intricate, brooding facade of the Cook County Hospital, which is deserted as of last week and looking into the concrete gulf where the Eisenhower & El run with an almost lonely look. Catching a terrific view of the downtown skyline, with the mute towers there winking at me in blue, and missing my family as their train heads south to San Antonio, I could easily understand the sentiment.

I'm surprised to feel something catch in my throat, but before I can think more about it, I see the El racing me to the platform, and I'm off, running under a mountain of luggage, hoping to beat the train, and for a moment, I'm breathing pure adrenaline, a fitting end to a week of almost decadent inactivity.

6:13pm the waiting is...

I wish they'd announce which gate the Capitol Limited will be boarding from--it'd be a shame to wait two hours and still get a lousy seat. I've at least got a friendly neighbor in the lounge, though, a bit of quotidien chat to pass the moments.

7:01pm on the train

Got through the waiting, got on board, and now I'm perched behind a baby, relearning the art of religion as I implore the various godheads for silence, or at least for occasional disruptions in the screeching and parental calm-talk.

10:18pm perchance to dream

I've been fidgeting in my seat, trying to read, but just on the edge of being too tired to actually do it well. I've also been trying to sleep, but the book's got me too interested to do that well, either. As a compromise, I've perched sideways on the seat, reading, but holding the book in a way that'll let it drop to the side should I actually manage to drift off.

4:20am the wee hours lounge (southbound edition)

I've finally drifted out of a fitful sleep, if not a dream-filled one. I'm really not suited to sleeping in a chair, unlike my father, who could have probably slept in a dentist's chair during an anaesthesia free drilling session. Luck was on my side, though, and my seatmate fled to a refuge far from the crying baby (which settled down amazingly quickly, I must say), so I again had a pair of seats in which to attempt a sleeping position. I managed to shake the airline cramp instinct and spread out in a sloppy sprawl of khakis and flannel, rolling and re-rolling my old brown coat into a pillow of sorts. I'd find a perfect position, often triggering an almost involuntary "mmmmm" as I curled into it and felt sleep closing on me like a vise, only to wake again an hour later and have to undertake the quest all over again.

4:41am Pittsburgh

I'm back in Pittsburgh, stopped in the station, and that damned light's right outside my window again, flooding my seat with a murky yellow light that makes me feel like the subject of a Serrano artwork. I'm looking forward to dawn and the chance to hover at the window watching something other than a seamless light show.

6:37am Dawson, PA

We cleared an interminable chain of mobile homes and sailed into a town of amazing victorian buildings, resplendent in turrets and gingerbread. I have to wonder where the wealth came to build a place like this so far from anything.

6:43am Connellsville, PA

Another in-between town, a confection of reasonably well-preserved twentieth century urban evolution. I watch the town sweep by and wonder what I always wonder--who would I be if I'd grown up here instead of in Scaggsville, MD?

9:13am Cumberland, MD

Back in Maryland's other city, this time in daylight. The spires of the churches glint in the bright morning sun, and life goes on around the train in a Monday sort of way. This town is such a paradox, simultaneously lovely and raw, mixing history and bad taste in nearly equal measure. We've pulled in next to the VFW/American Legion building, the words "FOR GOD AND COUNTRY" emblazoned on its side in foot-high helvetica, and we're creeping along and into the station at a slow enough pace to take it all in at leisure. One of the things Paul and I always had in common was one of our criteria for what we thought of a place--how would it be to be a gay teenager there--and I can't say I'd want to be one here. The fringes at the right are a little too entrenched and too privileged for this town to be welcoming to anyone who doesn't fit neatly in the mold, but I can't help but think it wouldn't necessarily be a bad place to return to once you'd built up the wisdom and fortitude to make your own place in the world. The whole cloth of Cumberland may be burlap, but it's plentiful and sturdy. Maybe I'm just romanticizing the place, but it's hard not to, seeing neighborhood after neighborhood of old victorian houses stacked up on the hillsides like an overly optimistic train garden.

9:38am somewhere in-between

I've moved to the lounge car again in hopes of catching a glimpse of my sad little cabin from the train. I'm not entirely sure that this line is even the one that goes by there, but I figure I'll give it a try at least until I pass Martinsburg without seeing anything familiar.

The windows on the right side of the train are appallingly dirty, and for no obvious reason, because the windows on the other side look fine.

10:02am Orleans Crossroads

Passed through the little townlet (maybe eleven houses) known as Orleans Crossroads, feeling overjoyed to see Clyde's old house and the little road leading to the tracks, and the access road you take to get to my cabin. I watched the DC lawyer's cottage pass, then Light's Farm, then the little brown cottage next to mine, then, almost lost in the sunlight flickering through the trees, my sad little cabin, perched on the hillside looking as run-down as ever, but not, as I'd pessimistically imagined, burned down or otherwise in ruins. The electric bill suddenly dropped to zero a year ago, and I've been anxious about why, skipping the obvious possibilities like the single light I leave on burning out or a tree knocking out the wires. In typical fashion, I've imagined it being burned down by evil teenagers or collapsing from its tilted foundation of railroad ties and slumping into a pile of firewood on the hillside.

I had the direction all wrong on the last trip, though it was dark enough I'd never have found it anyway, but it's a curious feeling to be on one of those Superliners I've waved at over the years. It's almost too miraculous to think that the train that takes me from Maryland to Chicago would run almost through the front yard of the old place, and it makes me want to get up there soon with my tools and raw materials, to keep my Dad's last surviving boondoggle going as a sign of defiance.

10:09am Great Cacapon, WV

Got a great view of the old "big city" that Orleans Crossroads is a suburb to. I've made this trip to Hancock, Maryland a million times, following the chunk gravel road back to the interstate as an alternative to the more baroque route through the mountains. Tracking the Potomac river, a thousand rough campsites assembled from old trailers, shacks, and lean-tos line the river, and at night, bonfires reign over the darkness from most of them. Every few years the river rises and the old beat-up travel trailers end up hanging from the trees. Sometimes the camps get rebuilt, with the old trailer frames still dangling overhead like tribal markers.

10:20am the little airport

There's a tiny airstrip here, immaculately maintained. Dad had always planned to keep an old junky car here, so he could fly up here and just drive the last few miles, but it never came to pass. When I think of his old plane, it makes me feel like a child of great wealth, even if it was just a junky old 1946 Aeronca with no running lights or electrical system. That plane scared the hell out of me, but it was something mystical to Dad, something I'm just getting a handle on now.

10:52am nearing Martinsburg, WV

Just returned from the pocket restroom, which is an experience akin to attempting to pee while competing in a rodeo. That said, I'm amazed at how clean and non-stinky they are.

This region seems to be on the boundary where run-down, but distinct and well-loved houses disappear in favor of late-century tract houses with showy facades and crappy siding everywhere else. I don't have a lot of friends who live in these sort of houses, because their character becomes suspect to me as soon as I find that they willingly live in such wretched places. Maybe I'm elitist, maybe I'm just cantankerous, but give me cracked real plaster walls and scruffy real wood floors any day.

10:55am along the C&O canal

Sometimes it's just a shadow, a barely discerable ditch, and others, it looks like it could be put to use again. At any rate, digging a 190-mile body of water from DC to Cumberland is one hell of a project, our own highly-localized Great Wall of China.

We're in Harper's Ferry now, place of John Brown's denouement, town of red brick and grey stone and everywhere everywhere history, hanging over the place like a cloak.

1:31pm (2:31 DC time) Union Station

Back home, back to the bustle, time to rush through the station, call for my ride, and race for the Metro, heading for home.

8:47pm home

Ensconced in the strange familiar environment I call home, halfway between Baltimore and DC, my house neat and tidy because of my Manhattan Project of housecleaning before my trip. I've just woken from a composite bath/nap sort of thing I undertook hoping to make a smoother transition from slowtime to realtime, and I feel muzzy. The dog seemed pleased to see me, though not as much as I'd have hoped. Must dote on her more in the future, to earn a more deranged welcome happy dance. Everything else seems right, but a bit off-center. I feel like writing more about the train, but am a bit tired and raw, so that'll have to wait.
joebelknapwall: (Default)
3:13pm DC-Union Station

Superliner coach, seat 17, at the window. We're drifting out of Union Station at a walking clip, heading westward, or maybe northward, or some curious other direction that's destined to end in Chicago, at another Union Station, a linguistic loop.

I've never taken a long train trip before, having only ever taken the four-hour metroliner to New York--a breezy trip if not a particularly elegant one.

This one's not particularly elegant yet, as we rumble through the rough underbelly of the system, trundling languidly through the extended sidings of DC's rail nexus, but I'm already entertained, catching sides of familiar sights I've not seen. I'm having a hard time not grinning at the whole experience of it, which helps to explain why someone once told me that I should pretend to be retarded when I'm enjoying things most people find tedious so my goofy aura of joy will make some sort of sense. I concur, to a point, but think that I can still pull off "youthful free spirit" as an excuse for a few years yet.

We're picking up speed, cruising over the grim northern suburbs like a police helicopter in search of someone bad, so I think I'll stop writing for a while, perch at my window, and watch the world roll by outside, at least until it gets dark.


Was watching the urban backlots unfold and suddenly realized that we were coming up on the part of Rockville where I used to work. My first semi-professional job was there, lost in a sprawl of fading garages and low cinderblock offices for has-been companies and not-yet-been enterprises.

The train line ran so close to the back of our building that our microfilm camera operators all had to stop filming when they heard the train horns nearing or wind up with blurred images. I'd to sit in my little room, under yellow lights that protected the diazo film from accidental exposure, just watching the railbed and the passing trains, especially the Superliners, which I always imagined to be full of fabulous people going to interesting places, going anywhere but where I was then, stuck in a permanent traffic jam in between a troublesome past and an uncertain future.

Feeling like a time traveler, I watched that grimy window where I used to sit pass by and imagined seeing my younger self framed in it, listlessly copying microfiche and wishing I could be on this train, going where I'm going, going somewhere, going anywhere.


I'm having a hard time shaking the airplane habit, so unused to having so much space to unfold that my body keeps instinctive curling up into torturous airliner yoga positions. I have to keep forcing myself to relax, recalling old exercises from a modern dance class to let my body uncoil from its tension. Sunset is flooding the coach and the mountains are rising to the right side of the train, lit in luminous shades of insane yellow like a Van Gogh.

4:47pm Martinsburg, WV

A town that looks like it used to be somewhere, or maybe like it's almost ready to be somewhere again. There's a colossal red brick roundhouse complex here, half in ruins and yet still dignified, its smashed-out dark windows framed with elegant brickwork and signs that the architect cared to make it something more than mundane. A B&O caboose, resplendent in xmas lights and wreaths, perches on the stub line by the old maintenance roundhouse, and the diagonals of heavy steel braces holding fragments of wall on one end of the complex seem to imply that this place hasn't seen its last days just yet.

We're holding here for a smoke break, a curious indulgence to the nic-addicted that makes me wonder if they'd provide a similar service for people with, say, an addiction to public sex, if enough people on the train shared the addiction. It'd be a splendid setting of industrial decay for a trackside quickie, at the very least.

5:54pm fade to black in West Virginia

I'd entertained a foolish thought that I might be able to catch a quick glimpse of my old cabin in WV on the way, but it's so dark out that it seems almost as if the train crew has switched off the scenery for the night.

I know this darkness well--this is the mountain dark that sucks the light out of a flashlight beam, leaving only a pinpoint of light in the distance as the sole witness that the thing is even switched on. It's the kind of dark that revives my childhood fear of the dark, and it's the reason I learned the ancient art of using a chamber pot in the days before we had a semi-functional indoor bathroom in the cabin, when a trip to the toilet meant a trip through outer space to the musty old outhouse.

This dark is that pre-industrial, primeval, "still getting used to hominid life" kind of dark, where the stars burn burn burn so bright that you can actually see the grey haze of the Milky Way, the reminder of something so big it can barely be imagined, and that's been nothing but a memory for a century of urban ascendancy.

Here and there, I catch the orange luster of a raging bonfire in the woods, surrounded by a circle of barely-lit celebrants making light under a curtain of astronomy, and I feel oddly proud of my species in spite of our seemingly endless catalog of failures.

6:29pm Cumberland, MD

Cumberland's one of those places that makes you thankful for dire poverty, which is definitely no fun for humans, but perfect for architecture.

This town's economy had been submerged for ages, my entire life at the very least, and you can pinpoint the collapse in the frozen styles of the buildings. Lovely brick and block edifices climb the valley walls, forties glass department store facades still hawk a mishmash of wares, and extraordinary sights blend with a chaos of truckstop madness. This town could almost be an italian mountain town, if not for the highways and fast food holes and complete lack of a prosaic rural pace--it encrusts the valley from peak to peak, a strange historical urban confection in a state as small as Maryland, and so far from anywhere. When the railroad and canal were king, Cumberland reigned, but now it's something else, a few moments in time preserved by suffocation.

1:19am the wee hours lounge

I was having a hard time getting into a proper mental state after Cumberland, hovering in between attempts at a sweaty, fitful sleep and trying to read the books I brought along for the ride. I sat and listlessly watched the scenery drifting by as we pulled into the sprawl heralding Pittsburgh, aided by the sudden extinguishing of the coach lights around 10:30. I was hypnotized by the ominous chemical plants and the monuments of heavy industry, seeing things on scales we never see in Maryland, or at least in my part of the state. We passed one factory for what seemed like an hour, its broad and filthy windows glowing like the face of a jack o'lantern and revealing hulking, unidentifiable shapes within, all brilliantly lit in sodium yellow and looking almost defiantly desolate. I watched and wondered, pondering what could come from those acres of enclosed machinery, feeling overwhelmed at the realization that there are factories like this everywhere, all over the country, all over the world, the inexplicable machinery of daily life, the mechanism of a world that's just too damned big and complex to ever hope to understand.

When we pulled into the station in Pittsburgh, the train stopped along side of a huge institutional light fixture the size of a toilet. It hung there like a bloated, jaundiced lightning bug, directly outside my window, soaking me in a urinary-grade yellow glare, washing the poetry out of me and lulling me into a sickly sleep that lasted several hours.

I woke up as the final minutes of a five-hour minidisc were playing out in my earphones--the last bits of the BBC radio version of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which I'd transferred over for the trip. I ejected the disc and exchanged it for another I'd made of low-key music and sat for quite a while, just watching lights passing in the window like I was traveling in outer space and feeling more relaxed then I've felt in ages.

I fidgeted a bit, thinking I'd go back to sleep, but decided instead to roam the train for a while, exploring some of the cars I'd been too timid to explore when everyone was awake.

The lounge car is completely deserted, or rather, it's completely mine, and I'm sitting here, typing this in my own private car, watching the spectacle of midwestern afterhours in a splendid solitary mood and wondering where we are.

6:27am the wee hours lounge part 2

I'm awake again, probably for the day at this point. I'm not well-suited to sleeping in a chair, even a wide and nicely adjustable pair of chairs, so I'll probably be a bit tired today. I'm in the lounge car again, not alone this time--am just in my superspy mode, wearing my headphones, but eavesdropping on a curious conversation about how best to dispose of a gun used in a crime, how to reload quickly, and other such things. Now they're talking about mixed drinks, and I'm more alarmed than I was during the gun chat--thinking once again that it might actually be possible to be bored to death.

Never mind.

I'm not sure what time it actually is now. I think I'm on the other side of a time line or some such nonsense, and it's making me wonder how these train schedule cards work when you cross time lines--does the arrival time refer to the time in the time zone you left or the one you're coming into? Such deep philosophical questions...

I've made a startling discovery on this trip, too. I know where sofas go to die. When they're on their last legs, with cushions sagging and coming apart at the seams, they make their way down to the train tracks and give themselves to the stars in the sight of the passing trains. Then, the great sofa fairy winnows them away to nothing, from sofa to shreds to springs and frame to nothing--the great cycle of life as rendered in furniture.

7:51am dawn impending

It's funny, every time I've gone to the lounge car to write (out of necessity because of the relatively loud key action of my portable word processor), people have approached me to ask if I'm a writer.

I say yes, and fabulize the details whenever the harsh reality seems less than what I'd like. This ride has been both more and less than I expected, not quite to Orient Express standards, but infinitely superior to airliners, those crowded, rushed intercity buses of the air. As a nod to the romance of history, I said yes--I am a writer, traveling by train, and for this moment I'm the very picture of genteel elegance, albeit with bed-head.

Chicago is minutes away, somewhere off in the haze still, but ripe to rise from the landscape like concrete flowers blooming. I'm repacking my bags, undoing the sprawl of accessories, and combing my hair as the great jurassic skeletons of drawbridges and factories pass me by.

8:56am (my time)
7:56am Great Hall

Waiting in the great hall here, in amazing near-silence. The architecture of this place is a lot like that of the Union Station from which I departed 17 hours ago, but a bit less polished and nearly deserted, except for some folks sleeping on the wide wooden benches here.

My ride's here, so more later...
joebelknapwall: (Default)
Packing, in a usual frenzy, or perhaps unusual, because I'm mainly in a panic to get my house clean before I go to Chicago. The thought of coming home to chaos always colors a trip, so I'm doing my damnedest not to color this one.

This'll be my longest train trip ever. I wonder how it will be?

(and naturally, I'm taking my Alphasmart to document the journey...)


joebelknapwall: (Default)

January 2013

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