Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Go By Train

"Travel by rail is a different affair; and having unpacked your books and unstrapped your wraps in your Pullman or Central Pacific Palace-car, you may pursue all the sedentary avocations and amusements of a parlor at home; and as your housekeeping is done- and admirably done- for you by alert and experienced servants; as you may lie down at full length or sit up, sleep or wake, at your choice; as your dinner is sure to be abundant, very tolerably cooked, and not hurried; as you are pretty certain to make acquaintances on the car; and as the country through which you pass is strange, and abounds in curious and interesting sights, and as the air is fresh and exhilarating- you soon fall into the ways of the voyage; and if you are a tired business man, or a wearied housekeeper, your careless ease will be such a rest as certainly most busy and overworked Americans know how to enjoy."

-Charles Nordhoff, California for Travellers and Settlers, 1873

How could we, as a nation, have forgotten so quickly something so glorious as all that? 110 years after the first train ran in the United States and the railroad catalyzed the country's industrialization, modern commerce, vast geographic expansion, and the development of our national identity, our modern railway system appears to have been sidelined by an American obsession with the speed, control, and cutting edge technology of automobiles and jet airplanes. While we relied almost solely on railroads for intercity travel and freight until the 1920s, and they played an important role in all of our most crucial moments in history, in the past 60 years trains have rapidly lost their place of honor amongst American modes of transit. Seeing this travesty, I have taken it upon myself to endeavor to single handedly restore the honor and glory to this historic institution.

In the pursuit of this goal, and my constant Quixotic search for romance and adventure, I will spend the next few months exploring the farthest reaches of this continent by rail. En route, I will discuss anything that comes to mind or crosses my path as accurately as possible, though I will not deny that I have been accused of having a literary voice that leans toward drama and exaggeration on occasion. In this travelogue you, dear Reader, can look forward to reading my constantly changing philosophies regarding American history, politics, and society, between yarns about fellow train passengers and employees, foreign and domestic travelers, and local figures that I come across. In a nutshell, I will be reflecting on the pleasures and curiosities of riding the rails, abiding in hostels, and generally living the life of a modern American hobo (albeit a rather luxurious hobo lifestyle to be sure).

Everyone seems to be complaining about The Great Recession of recent years, and making negative comparisons to The Great Depression of the 1930s. I, however, am looking at our current social and economic climate as a golden opportunity to explore something that, if I had some sort of lucrative corporate job lined up right after college, I wouldn't have the time, initiative, or daring to do. I invite you to do the same, or at least follow my exploits from the comfort and safety of your cubicle after you check facebook.

Just to give you an idea of what is in store in classic booster spirit, allow me to entice you back by listing a few of my routes and the fabulous sights therein.
  • The Pacific Northwest- Seattle, Portland, Dunsmuir, San Francisco, and that epicenter of Western railroad culture, the glorious hidden gem of Sacramento.
  • The Transcontinental Railroad- Starting in our state's fair capital, meandering through Gold Country, Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas, Salt Lake City, The Rocky Mountains, Denver, Chicago, The Great Lakes, and finally, Washington D.C.
  • The Acela Express- Connecting some of the East Coast's most important capitals, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.
  • The Mississippi- Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans, linked by our most famous river, delicious cuisine, and a fabulous music culture.
  • Cross-Canadian Extravaganza- connecting all the most important cities of America's hat, from Vancouver, B.C. to Halifax Nova Scotia
  • and many more. If you live by an Amtrak route, invite me to your home and I will come and visit you. I kid you not.
Also, bringing my impressive patriotism and love of Americana to a whole new level, I will participate in a 17th century style Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, complete with period food, dress, and actors. I am open to suggestions as to the most interesting historic locale in which to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve.

I sincerely hope that my exploits will inspire you to travel about in a new way, or will at least be mildly diverting for the duration.


  1. OK, I am hooked. I eagerly look forward to your reports and seeing your photos while I am secretly extremely envious of the adventure that awaits you. I am reminded of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. Are you familiar with this book?

    I admire your ambition and believe firmly in your constitution and I will be your armchair companion throughout!

    All aboooooard!


  2. You will most certainly enjoy the Canadian. It's a wonderful train. So are you traveling mostly coach or sleeper? Looking forward to your posts.

  3. Have a great time on your adventure. Here is a little taste of the Sunset Limited from about eight years ago: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/289793

  4. I love you, darling Lisa. Reading this makes me think that my erratic hobo life is justified.

    p.s. I'm adding you to my links.

  5. Tonight I met Lisa.

    Traveling by train she was on a stopover
    in Lafayette, Louisiana, and staying at
    the Blue Moon Guest House.

    Cedric Watson, 2009 Cajun/Creole Grammy Winner,
    (and nominee again this year as announced tonight),
    and his band, were performing on stage on the back porch
    of the Guest House, called the Blue Moon Saloon.

    Cedric, as always was great. I get to play in local jam
    sessions which he generously sometimes joins.
    Lafayette oozes with Cajun/Creole/Zydeco musical talent.

    Yes, Cedric is great and Lisa said she "loved his
    music, this is fantastic, this whole scene
    is fantastic, and I'm from California!"

    But Lisa readers please take it from me,
    it is Lisa that is fantastic, she is wonderful,
    and it dosen't matter that she is from
    California. I tried to deflect how impressed
    I was with her quick intellect and disarming

    She's not afraid to stand close and speak softly.
    She has this amazing quality of being both intimate
    and friendly yet she maintains a respectful and
    pleasant distance with her word choice and tone,
    and she has lots to talk about.
    Yes, I was impressed.

    I felt like she has already traveled more, and
    learned more, and appreciates more, and under-
    stands more, than maybe I ever will.

    And what gets me, I am usually so arrogant it's
    offensive to others. Plus I like being critical of people
    who are too stupid to realize how arrogant I am.
    Yeah, so maybe I'm not perfect. But I'm talking
    about what it's like to meet Lisa.

    Years ago, browsing a book store, a certain
    title got my attention, "A Woman Of Substance".

    Watching her walk away across the dance floor
    between songs, Lisa reminded me of that title from
    long ago, A Woman Of Substance.

    She also reminded me of a quote from Harvey
    Penick, the late and highly respected golf
    instructor and writer, "Life is filled with
    a lot of pain and struggle, but every once
    in a while, like a perfect golf shot, life
    can be such a sweet joy".

    I was very lucky to have met Lisa Markuson
    tonight. I hope someday all of her readers
    are just as just as lucky. Because no matter
    what she might write in this blog, my impression
    is that she herself is so much more, and she has
    so much more to write, and has so much more
    to offer the world.

    And yes, if she ever sees this comment, I hope
    she writes back. . . she is a writer you know.

    Looking forward,
    Senator Russell