28 September, 2005

The highlight of the day was our stop in Kansas City.

28 September, 2005

Day 75. The upper bunk was definitely better than the lower one. I still got thrashed about a bit and on any other day I would have considered it an awful night's sleep. But the very fact that I was able to get more than an hour's worth made this an unqualified success. I probably got between three and four hours total. For some reason, I seem to be okay with that.

The final thrash was so violent that I felt my back twist and I knew I'd be feeling pain for the next couple of days. It also meant I wasn't going to be sleeping any more this morning. It was still dark outside. The screaming from across the hall or next door hadn't even started yet. I pretty much had the place to myself.

So I decided to give the shower a whirl. It didn't look too filthy, there were clean towels available, and there was nobody else about. Much to my surprise, it was pretty good. The temperature was sufficient and the pressure was nice and strong. Amtrak gets high marks for pulling this off.

Dawn was slowly breaking outside. I figured it would be fun to give breakfast a try again. And it was. Normally I would cringe at the thought of being seated with total strangers. But I was having some really good conversations and meeting some very interesting people. Today all four of us were strangers to each other. One guy was on his way to Massachusetts with his wife who wasn't there at the moment. Another guy was on his way back to Chicago after painting a house in Arizona. And a third was a Korean-American student from California visiting friends in Illinois. He had also spent time this summer in Mongolia so we had all kinds of stories to share. We all spent over an hour comparing travel experiences, talking about what trains were like overseas, and figuring out ways Amtrak could be better. I think the latter is something everyone on the train would have something to say about.

For all my complaining about this leg of the journey, I have to say this has been one of the more interesting travel experiences of my life. Yes, the conditions are pretty bad and I'm in a considerable amount of pain as a result. But looking beyond that, I'm interacting with people in a way that so rarely seems to happen these days. It's like we've become one big family. Even people I haven't shared a table with exchange greetings and have become familiar faces. This just doesn't happen on planes. You may wind up having a good conversation with the person sitting next to you if he doesn't fall asleep and block your exit. But here you have more time to interact and a greater variety of people to do it with. Those who ride long distance trains invariably are rather individualistic and almost always have an interesting tale to tell. Most everyone here shares a common disdain for airline travel and a general concern over the future of the rails here. So already you have this common ground before you learn anything about the other persons.

The staff is also very relaxed and friendly. There's a woman running a snack bar somewhere on the train who keeps imploring people over the PA system to visit her. I haven't explored enough to find out where it is yet. Besides, the free food in the dining car is enough. The car steward comes around to turn up or down your bed at appointed times although most people would have no problem doing this themselves. He commented on my Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas hat and said it was his favorite game. I told him to listen to the radio the next time he stole a car because he might very well hear my voice. What a strange exchange that was. Between the meal time conversations, the occasional stops with enough time to get out, staring at the passing scenery outside the window, and reading or writing, the time has simply flown by.

After a stop in Kansas City we headed up into Iowa on our path to Chicago. I spent some time in the lounge where it was a little less cramped than in my quarters. My back was really hurting from the obscenely tiny and uncomfortable upper bunk. I only had one night to go and that would be on a different train. I was sure it would be better. My optimism was surprising even to me.

Lunch time rolled around and I headed back to the dining car to see who I would be seated with this time. It was a crusty old Midwesterner who kept making phone calls about selling tractors or something. You could hear him for the length of the entire car. Well, I guess my luck had to run out eventually. I'm fine with people who want to keep to themselves. But this guy was broadcasting himself to everyone within earshot and it was extremely annoying. I was glad when he left.

He was replaced by a middle-aged woman who had gotten on in Kansas City and was on her way to Wisconsin. We had a great conversation about travel and world conditions that must have gone on for well over an hour. So many people really like to travel and want to see so much more of the world. It can be quite challenging with all of the commitments we make. I must have told a dozen people how they too could take a freighter trip across an ocean. And the people you find going cross country on a train are exactly the sort who would embark on such an adventure. I definitely feel very comfortable in this crowd.

Of course Amtrak is going to need more than just adventurous travelers to keep it going. But that won't happen without an improved network and drastically improved infrastructure. I swear there are times on this train when it feels like we've hit a big pothole. Ask yourself what kind of shape a track has to be in to convey that sort of feeling and the need for rapid upgrades becomes apparent.

I went back to my cubicle to prepare for this evening's "Off The Hook" and make sure all of my stuff was packed, essential devices charged, etc. I was thrilled to see that all of the screaming people had either left or moved to another part of the train. I don't like to be mean but all of those kids from both families had some severe issues. They would spend the entire day just going back and forth, opening and closing their door every 10-15 seconds. And one of them had taken to bashing his head on my door. Another kept yelling at his mother to shut the hell up and stop saying his name. He was around five. Like I said, Amtrak trains are where you can go to see bad parenting in action. You could have a child psychologists' convention here and have plenty of material to draw from.

We were running about an hour late for no reason in particular. Yet somehow Chicago came up only about a half hour late which threw me for a loop. I scrambled to get all my crap together and ventured out into Union Station. I had a limited amount of time to somehow download and listen to last week's show and also upload the latest travel journal entries. Then I had to find a place to do tonight's show from, hopefully one that sounded significantly better than last week's satellite phone farce. I really didn't want to have to use my cell phone since those kinds of calls almost always sound bad.

I made my way to the first class lounge and proved via my ticket that I did indeed belong there. I checked my two other bags and asked where their Internet connection was. They said they didn't have one. Oh great, Amtrak strikes again. On the phone they distinctly told me they had connectivity at this place and that it was one of their features for first class travelers. I found out there was a WiFi hotspot at a bar in the nearby food court. So I headed in that direction, paid the fee, and got all of my net stuff taken care of nice and quickly. I listened to last week's show and was appalled at how bad I sounded. My apologies to any listeners who had to sit through that.

I went back to the lounge and did a cursory glance at the payphone bank they had. They looked good but they all proudly claimed to not take incoming calls which would make them pretty useless. Nevertheless I used my cell phone to dial some of the numbers that were on the phones. One of them rang! So much for their little signs and notices. I contacted the studio, gave them the number, set up my computer, and got my complimentary snacks and drinks together.

I love it when things work out well. The timing of this stopover could not have been more perfect for me. My train from Los Angeles pulled in 90 minutes before my show began, leaving me just enough time to listen to the previous week's edition. My train to New York began boarding at 7 p.m., precisely when I would be finished with this week's program. And I had a nice comfortable environment to do the show from on a good old-fashioned Bell payphone. It felt like the first program in a long time where I wasn't traveling even though I still was. Unfortunately we're preempted next week so there won't be a homecoming on the air. And the week after we have to plunge into fundraising mode again. Back to the grind.

I realized as the show ended that I still hadn't gotten my ticket for New York. I had done the whole reservation thing over the net but I still needed to actually stick my credit card into a machine to have the ticket spit out. I had the most inane exchange with an Amtrak employee in the first class lounge when I was trying to figure out where the machine was. "You don't have a ticket? How did you get in here?" "I have a ticket from my last train. I need to get one for my next train." "Because you can't get in here without a ticket." "Yes, I know. But I need to get my ticket for New York." "You don't have your ticket to New York yet?" "No, that's why I need the machine." "New York is boarding now." "Yeah, so do you know where the ticket machine is?" "You need to get your ticket right away." I swear, do these people think up ways to drive passengers crazy or does this all come naturally? I finally extracted the information out of her and 45 seconds later I was back with a freshly printed ticket.

While I was getting my checked bags back, I saw a familiar sight. There was a guy standing in front of me wearing one of 2600's old anti-MPAA shirts. Holy shit! Naturally I tapped him on the shoulder and asked where he had gotten it. It had been directly from us as it turns out. Not only that but he was friends with someone on Long Island who had just gotten one of the area's only LPFM licenses. Fascinating stuff.

I wound up being seated with this guy and his wife at dinner later. They were true train enthusiasts, having ridden all over the country. They knew the ins and outs of Amtrak and how the freight lines basically were running the show insofar as track conditions and availability. They also knew a great deal about the New York subway system. This was a conversation that could have gone on for days.

But the one thing I learned which may wind up changing my life was that Amtrak allows people to hitch private cars onto their trains! That means if I somehow manage to get a hold of a refurbished boxcar or something, I can work out a deal with Amtrak and have it stuck onto the end of virtually any of their trains. Of course the deal breaker is probably finding out how much getting a refurbished boxcar would cost as well as how and where to store it. But the concept is pretty damn cool and something I never thought was possible. It's always nice to be surprised.