This summer, Blind Field’s new editor Sophie rode coach class all the way to camp. As her train left Penn Station, she posted a Facebook status from her phone, to which she added one or two further images as comments and found, to her surprise, that people were responding. The journey took four days. She found that she was typing into her phone, whenever she could get signal, intimate thoughts she’d never found the voice to write openly before. What follows is a lightly edited reproduction of that stream of updates that got Sophie across America.
28th August 2017 “De-training”. This only occurred to me after I’d heard its unfamiliar sound half a dozen times, but “de-training” is a pretty good word for what people are often trying to do when they ride the train over great distances. Coming from Europe, I would say ‘disembark’ or ‘alight’. But “de-training” captures well the desire to unlearn oneself that is sometimes indulged on an Amtrak mega-voyage. When I rode the Cardinal Line and then Empire-Builder to camp, I hadn’t yet seen In Transit, the 2015 “Direct Cinema” documentary about the inimitable human alchemy to be found on that route. There’s a woman in the movie who says “I don’t want to get off the train.” I felt exactly like that.
Largely because of the appearance of an opportunity to defensively auto-cocoon and disconnect, I guess, I’m one of the people for whom a journey by rail always sounds good. Even with the a/c on at refrigeration levels (so as to negate the smell of booze-breath, socks and armpits, so the conductor told me) it feels good, deeply good, to be in motion on a fixed streak of spacetime, a trajectory with a history, while sitting in collusion with other weirdoes, each driven by their own ‘lonely impulse of delight’.
I knew beforehand that I would probably have deep, fleeting rapports with random travelers. What I didn’t know is that riding the train would mean learning how to speak candidly about myself to the people on that deeply ambivalent platform, ‘leftbook’, and feeling (dare I say it) the healing power of their comradely love.
You see, this summer I was forced to learn about phobias (I didn’t ever talk about this on Facebook). A phobia of mine became completely debilitating, as though to say: hey, asshole, you’ve finished your PhD now, you’ve moved to America now, you’ve cut off contact with your dad for almost two years now, where else are you going to run to? Here, this’ll cut you down to size.
I’m talking about a snake phobia. An aside: you might not know about phobias (I certainly didn’t) so let me explain a bit of what I know. Like, the odds are, snakes scare you, they’re scary. Big deal! I get the good intentions behind jovial comments like “aw but snakes are harmless” and ”oh, look, here’s one, it’s a cutie, why don’t I grab it so you can just touch it” but for the record, these statements are, at best, counterproductive. If you meet someone like me, please don’t do this, in fact, please don’t even say the word ‘snake’. I assure you, it doesn’t matter that they’re not poisonous, or ‘legitimately scary’ or what-have-you. A snake phobia, as I know it, isn’t about the reality of snakes. It isn’t even an aversion in practice. I haven’t even run away when confronted with a real one, I’ve just cried and slept for days because the worst has occurred. It’s pure excess: not being able to walk down a sidewalk – in Brooklyn – without scanning feverishly for snakes. Pulse racing, sometimes freezing altogether, in an overgrown bit of Prospect Park. Tensing, miserably, while getting out of bed, because there are probably snakes underneath. Dissociating completely at the sight of a baby garter snake. It’s not actually about snakes?
Because, apparently, life can be caricaturally cod-Freudian, my snake phobia turned out to actually be about rape. Or rather, about a specific, ‘virginity’ [sic] removing, penis-in-vagina rape, sixteen years ago. Or rather, about my father’s active denial that that particular rape ever happened, and specifically, his take on it: “rape is good for the feminist cv”.
As I began my train journey, I was menaced by fears of encountering snakes in the forest at the camp (I was already anticipating the embarrassment). These fears registered in more acceptable anxieties such as: what if everyone saw that I didn’t have a firm enough grasp on debates around periodization and value theory; what if I was too physically and mentally out of shape to cope. I’m broke as fuck, and I was broke as fuck back in May, too, when I figured out tickets. Shame instead of gratitude ensued. I still don’t have my temporary immigrant papers, or an employment authorization. The feeling of sluggish brokenness in my body has been hard to shake. But on the 4th of July I wasn’t just worried about not having a camping-mug, I was worried about snakes. What’s wondrous is: that’s all gone now.
Yeah, my phobia seems to have been defeated this summer, in the months after camp, at the culmination of a not-so-difficult-after-all process of asking for solidarity, fifteen years late, and getting it. Assuming it really has been resolved, this stupid “snake” has been beaten collectively, by me, my chosen family, and my friends. I can see snakes now and they make me slightly nervous is all.
I’ll write about that some time, perhaps. The following piece of writing is not about all that at all. It’s connected to it only because it shows the process of being listened to, abetted, encouraged and heard. This led eventually (a while later) to the blogger understanding what it felt like to open up like that, and therefore, by analogy, realising what she had to do in another arena. The moral of this story is: ride the Amtrak. You might figure out that communism is what you desperately need, including – perhaps especially – at the levels of psychology and the struggle we must name, for the time being, #nodads.
2 July at 07:52 This cyborg choos across America – which is to say: I caught my train. This one’s the Cardinal Line, which runs from New York to Chicago. Not sure why I was fretting so much about making it to Penn Station, coming from Flatbush at 5am – anxiety I suppose – but that said, the relevant subways were all screwed at the relevant stops and I only made it by the skin of my proverbial teeth.
2 July at 13:46 Flushed selfie leaving NYC. Camp, here I come.
2 July at 13:48 View of DC circa 11am (day 1)
2 July at 13:48 At a station in Virginia. Cryo-Trans. The rainbow writing says “Protecting Today’s Perishables for Tomorrow.” Made me think of cyborgs and also what it’s like to be the girlfriend of a trans woman.
2 July at 13:51 Guys, there is kudzu ever-y-where. But, as I keep having to remind myself, its growth doesn’t penetrate deep away from roads and railway lines; it is not actually sinister. There’s a science article in Harper’s that makes the argument well: the myth of kudzu – for racist and specifically anti-Japanese reasons – “has indeed swallowed the South, but the actual vine’s grip is far more tenuous.”
2 July at 15:37 Kudzu aside, what are these tall spires that are everywhere along the side of the track in West Virginia? It’s very difficult getting a shot from a moving train, and the guy next to me is bewildered (at best) by my frantic efforts. Not sure why it matters so much to me right now… But anyway, I managed at last to get a half-decent shot. What are these? The tall yellowish pointy things. Does anyone know?
Anima Bubble 2 July at 16:39 as far as I can tell from the photo that is mullein, which you will see even more of, I think.
2 July at 16:51 Thank you A.B. That’s definitely it (here’s the much better picture from wikipedia – “mullein: the most useful of weeds”). How are we seriously still using the word ‘weed’ pejoratively? I know Anna Tsing celebrates the ‘weed’ matsutake in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Similarly, at a glance, it seems like there are hundreds of herbalism pages online singing the praises of mullein. It was brought over the Puritans, who used it in medicinal teas and ointments. So it isn’t indigenous. But it heals.
2 July at 16:53 Look at this epic horse!
2 July at 18:45 I’m in a working class town in West Virginia and everyone – kids, old people, lads, femmes – everyone is paddling in the river as the sun starts coming down, living what looks like it’s a utopian, communal and leisurely, life – waving at the train as it comes through.
3 July at 07:20 Judy Thorne: pls pls keep the commentary running my darling xxxx i am entertained and edified and enheartsineyesed as ever by yr vision and writing and existence
3 July at 09:56 Right you are comrade Judy, heart of my eye.
3 July at 09:57 The sunrise was unbelievable. This, obviously, doesn’t capture it at all. It was RED RED RED!!!
Folks, I have made it 26 hours. Good morning. Admire the cushion-puffs under my eyes. I did sleep, actually. I mean, it wasn’t a bed, but it was ok, being rocked by the bumping and squeaking. I listened to podcasts about gene editing and the Haitian revolution.
Now I am in Indiana. Next stop Dyer, apparently. We went right by a massive cattle ranch just now. There’s no more mullein by the side of the road.
3 July at 10:04 God, I forgot to try and get photos of the New River Gorge and the Second -Biggest (or Fourth-Longest, or something) Bridge in the World! This is because I was too enchanted by the afore-mentioned utopian community playing in the river. Crap. It’s too late to make up for it now. The gorge was… gorgeous. Heheh. Here is an absurd blur with some rocks just about visible. You’re welcome?
3 July at 10:15 Men sitting right behind me – except for when they are getting drunk in the cafe car, which is most of the time – complaining every hour on the hour about how the beer is $6 and therefore they should have just taken the $100 they are now spending on beer and flown instead, but on the other hand, if they had, they wouldn’t have met each other, so: no regrets. It is their first time on a train.
“When you finish that job next month, you know, you’ll just be an hour away from me, man. If you’re serious about what you said back there, I mean, I’m gonna show up, you know, on your doorstep, and I’ll have a bag with me, and you know, it’ll be … a big bag.”
“I’m a man of my word.”
“For sure, man, for sure.”
“If you teach me all that stuff, you can guarantee I’ll be teaching it to my son, you know what I’m saying.”
“Yes indeed. That stuff changes you, man. Shooting, night hunting, fishing, we’ll do it all. You know it.”
“Oh I’m ready. I’m ready.”
Meanwhile the third man is stabbing these two in the back (“I personally can only tolerate bullshit for so long”) to impress a woman, also sitting behind me, who is flirting back (slightly) out of politeness but ultimately having none of it.
3 July at 11:39 I’ve been sitting still because of a signalling failure, next to an Indiana parking lot, for the past hour. This is what @Todd Kroner predicted.
Urgh, oh no, they’re talking about missed connections, doling out snacks and water. Lest I perish, let the record tell that I was on a 64 day streak on Duolingo Spanish. 64 days.
Todd Kroner 3 July at 13:11 Yeah it’s a thing. If that’s the worst of it you will have had the most successful xcountry Amtrak trek of all time.
3 July at 13:53 Insh’allah, comrade. Arriving into Chicago now. 3 hours late. No skin off my nose though. It’s an hour yet til Empire Builder time 🗺🎠🌄🚞🎢💺
While in Chicago, our hero texted frantically with Blind Field’s native Chicagoan (Madeline Lane-McKinley) about what to try to see in the city. Ultimately, however, Soph only really managed to struggle round the block with her backpack and wait in line to purchase some non-Amtrak food, before re-entering the station. Euphoria nevertheless ensued…
3 July at 15:59 Wooooo!! I’m on the double decker Empire Builder “superliner”!
So I’m sitting on the upper level next to a 23-year-old lesbian navy cadet from Florida (via Missouri) who’s on a massive Amtrak loop of the USA and keeps doing “dips” in her seat. We are discussing the U.S. army. Can’t think why she’s not keen to talk about imperial violence. What she has decided to share is how they turned off the lights in the interview room when she signed up, shone a torch in her face, and told her she had no rights here, so if she’d lied about anything in her application (e.g. drug record/ADHD – btw she had lied) that would be a felony and she’d go to jail. “I’m a patriot, I believe in fighting to defend your country.” It’s awkward, especially because she wasn’t even recruited: she enlisted voluntarily in order to “change the world”. That’s what her blog is also called, by the way. “Be the Change You Want to See”. I won’t link to it here. She concedes at one point: “I guess the US army is mainly just about obliterating other people”.
Jenny Clobber 3 July at 16:03 How else you gonna change the world tho?
3 July at 16:39 Lol! Anyway now I’ve escaped her and am in…. THE VIEWING LOUNGE!!!!!!
3 July at 16:40 I’m on Americanah safari!!!!!!!!!
3 July at 16:42 Can you all tell how excited I am about this VIEWING LOUNGE??
3 July at 16:47 In case the number of exclamation marks here was beginning to grate on you, don’t worry, my mood has been appropriately stabilized by my relatively new friend Mumputz (my mother) who responds to my pix with the following classic Mumputz apothegm: “Sunrises always give you the illusion that life is worth living after a dreadful night.”
Judy Thorne 3 July at 17:34 your mum is the best
3 July at 19:27 Ok the viewing lounge now has a 5-month old Chinese American baby in it who is being passed around. It’s nice and it’s the “golden hour” rn or whatever (ruined by that Occitane commercial). Unfortunately everyone I’ve spoken to so far has had what i at least WANT to believe is above-averagely shit politics. Most recently I’ve encountered a Trumplite commitment to cryptocurrency.
I mean look, I’ve seen Snowpiercer, but I still really don’t think I can convert this train population to communism single handedly. Who wants to do the “Zephyr” route I keep hearing about and occupy the train together next summer?
Jenny Clobber 3 July at 19:27 me
Yay! 3 July at 19:28
Jenny Clobber 3 July at 22:04 I have Amtrak miles
3 July at 22:13 The only real cryptocurrency! Let’s do this
Diane Kaganova 4 July at 00:11 I’ve always wanted to do the Zephyr. Meeting people on trains you would never have met if you hadn’t been on that train is a storyteller’s dream. “I guess the US army is mainly just about obliterating other people”? Priceless.
3 July at 19:33 Oops, began to get tipsy. Forgot to write up basic field notes:
Michigan – lakes
Wisconsin – farms
OK here end today’s field notes.
3 July at 22:15 So at this juncture, dear reader, I’m passing around my flask of Glenlivet and I’m pleasantly inebriated and have made some buddies and I haven’t left the viewing lounge all day.
Judy Thorne 4 July at 06:53 VIEWING LOUNGE
Judy Thorne 4 July at 06:53 in communism every single transport will be a viewing lounge.
3 July at 22:18 OK so this place is called Red Wing. There are a lot of Amish and Mennonite people on the train. On the other side of the viewing lounge, everyone is scrambling to take photos of the red red sunset on the Mississippi. Everyone is just sitting on their swivel chairs spectating the Sublime Wilderness and purring with pleasure.
3 July at 22:19 The other side of the viewing lounge
3 July at 22:20 Mississippi
Diane Kaganova 4 July at 00:12 it’s big.
Judy Thorne 4 July at 06:54 woah […………………………………………………………………………………………] (<america) (so big)
Ding Dong Bell 4 July at 02:40 Pfft. I see your Mississippi and raise you a 45 minute delay at Peterborough.
4 July at 07:19 So as you can see, I made it to day 3, bitchez. Fucking phenomenal sunrise like you wouldn’t believe like phwoarrrrr but I couldn’t frankly be bothered to find my phone. I’m embarrassed because (though she hasn’t said anything) I now realise I kept elbowing the navy cadet in my sleep and – thinking she was an armrest – using her as a pivot for turning over into more comfortable postures. #BeTheArmrest
4 July at 08:06 Seems it took us all night to cross one state. On a TRAIN. wtf America? Bigly is what it is.
Minnesota – no clue. It was night. But I’m guessing: lakes AND farms.
Now everything is grass and, like, marsh wetlands. We just passed a town called DEVIL’S LAKE.
4 July at 10:23 Greetings from Minot, North Dakota. The train is stopping for an hour here. As I temporarily “de-train” (seriously, Amtrak staff all call it that), a man is leaving a very flourishing voicemail for someone, describing where we are as “millionaire country” and the weather as very pleasant. “Happy 4th”, says everyone, including the tall Black man in the ‘Veteran’ cap who’s been nice to me while he listens to his loud radio. There’s some ghosts pressing through this journey, however. A white woman has been screaming in a deep voice (much deeper than her usual voice) ostensibly in her sleep, about killing children. She is rude to her neighbors and especially the Black woman across the aisle who has been trying to calm her. The staff agree to re-seat nearby disturbed white children but otherwise can’t do anything. She is harmless and a regular customer, they say. Meanwhile in “millionaire country”, on “independence day”, the shuttered town of Minot (“an Amtrak-served community) looks rather more like a collection of banks, gas stations and dilapidated dollar stores catering to mothers in poverty. Not a body in sight. Not so sure about souls… Suddenly I’m spooked by the huge car I’m standing next to, which has bloody hand prints painted on it, and a cobwebby skeleton in the passenger seat. I suddenly feel a lot of grief for the indigenous people whose land this is, whose presence I am not even able to detect, and whose continued existence despite everything is resentfully dismissed by white Americans in viewing-lounge conversation, who put scare quotes around “indigenous” in their speech, with remarks like “those casinos are big business”.
Jas Burn 4 July at 19:03 Get thee to a man camp
4 July at 19:12 A man camp, Jas?
Jas Burn 4 July at 19:23 That’s what the shale oil “towns” in the Bakken plateau near Minot are called. 90% men and some sex workers (who can make thousands per day). Have you seen American Honey? (Best American road movie of the decade and maybe century).
4 July at 19:28 ooOooooo. Gotcha. I’d forgotten that that’s what those are called. I loved American Honey. Yeah. I mean, I’m staying put in the viewing lounge and all, but I’ll be sure to follow your advice next time, Hamlet.
Todd Kroner 4 July at 10:30 Yeah, North Dakota is rough. Montana is better. Kinda. There are mountains between the millionaires and the indigenous poverty. xcountry Amtrak is weird af tho. Glad “you are getting your money’s worth” lol.
4 July at 12:18 The mesmeric murmur in which our sassy yet manly conductor says “Hellooo, this is Daaavid in the dining car” has become a kind of joke. “Please,” people take turns imitating him, “there is no neeed to explore fuuurther forward than the dining car – there are only sleeeping cars beyoond”. When I boarded, David said to me “where can I take ya? oh, Seattle? Good choice!” and winked, so obviously I like David. And like everyone, I definitely want to “explore beyond the dining car”. Surely David knows about “don’t think of a pink elephant.”
4 July at 13:56 Guys.
Map Murmur 4 July at 15:54 I’m enjoying these ethnographic notes.
4 July at 16:58 Right. I’ve befriended two men. The first is a 60-something man from Cincinnati-via-Indiana, Joseph, who likes what he calls my “extreme liberalism” (sigh) and who appreciated my sharing my Glenlivet so much he brought me a mini bottle of Dewars first thing in the morning. He went to university, he points out, and maybe taught once, hated majoring in anything, and liked folklore. More than anything, he wants to meet the Dalai Lama. He mentions having been a contractor and also part of the steelworkers’ union. He’s proud of me for being the partner of a trans woman.
The second is Jared, a 33-year-old firefighter-cum-part-time auctioneer from West Virginia who has done smoke-jumping (smoke-jumping! It’s where you jump off a plane into a hard-to-otherwise-access fire, in order to put it out!) as well as fire ecology and forest service work all over the country, including in Montana (where we are currently). Jared knows all the names of plants and trees we pass and where they come from. I had quite a crush on him tbqh, what with his thoughtfulness and those southern vowel sounds, until I realised he was a manager not a worker and thinks workers “take advantage of unions and ruin them for everybody else”. He wears camouflage pants and a checked shirt and recently watched a documentary on railroads on Netflix. The documentary is why he’s not driving to Whitefish as he would be normally.
The three of us have been talking about smoke-jumping and railworkers and mineworkers and antique tea-sets and England and Grenfell Tower for over an hour, and we’re all supposed to be having sit-down dinner later, courtesy of Joseph.
4 July at 16:43 Montana – I’ve seen lots of hay bales, glossy auburn horses and shiny black cows. I’ve seen picturesquely crumpled car-husks and trailer-skeletons and bits of tractors in suspended animation falling into rivers. I’ve seen splintering wooden huts swallowed up from the inside out by vegetation. Burned and charred tree stumps, deer standing alone or jumping in slow-motion through the fields. Sheep sheltering from the sun under tiny windbeaten trees by little creeks, sprinkler systems and grass grass grass grass of different types (Jarrod says a lot of the nonindigenous types aren’t so good for the necessary fire cycles).
I can’t seem to post photos. Might be because there’s no wifi, might be because there’s no signal of any kind, or might be because I’ve burned through my data doing this little travelogue (which I’m so glad to see a few of you are getting something from – hurray!)
Judy Thorne 5 July at 07:14 this travelogue is the best thing that has ever happened to me on fb?
5 July at 11:55 Are you serious, I couldn’t be more gratified.
4 July at 16:56 Photo posting working again.
4 July at 17:03
4 July at 17:13 I’m not intentionally frowning at the people behind me. I was trying to take a photo of what was in front of me, i.e. the sewage removal procedure.
Judy Thorne 5 July at 07:15 lots of 1-colour high necked maxi dresses – are they a thing?
5 July at 11:55 They’re Amish! Joseph and I spoke to them and they’re doing a tour of the US, getting off at Whitefish.
4 July at 18:30 “Big Sky country” Montana. Woah. Hugest flattest place I ever did see. Canola is the new name for what grows here, as we know (“rapeseed” wasn’t marketable). There’s also wheat, and fallow fields, in rotation. I just learned that a new combine harvester (with GPS and everything) costs $700,000. Whereas, right now, you only get $3.50 for each bushel of wheat you grow, or so one man in the viewing lounge is complaining. Pronghorn antelope are around, but in much fewer numbers. Apparently they’re curious and will walk right up to a hunter if the hunter turns on a radio. Then, bang. A sad thing to contemplate. While scanning for the few pronghorns that are still alive, we’re looking at the Sweetgrass mountains, faded grey blue gauze cutouts against all the yellow, tan and green ground. Granaries and hedgerows serve as windshields. Sorry this post is so banally informational! I’m very sleepy but don’t want to miss anything. Compared to navy cadet babe, who is walking around with her perfect tan and (somehow) blowdried hair and dip-toned legs in a 4th of July mini-romper, boasting about her whitewater-rafting girlfriend, I feel like an aching un-athletic oozy meatsack who doesn’t even have the things she needs for camping when she gets to her destination 😦
Jas Burn 4 July at 20:11 ah, i guess this means i’ll be seeing/meeting you. cool.
Molly Qua-Cyborg 4 July at 21:14 Pah, we’re all just oozy meatsacks, and athleticism is only ever temporary and relative.
Judy Thorne 5 July at 07:16 love you so much
5 July at 11:22 Traversing a big Blackfoot Indian reservation (and seeing the town of Browning) was a gut punch and difficult to find words for. Then, mercilessly, the safari train was immediately entering Glacier Park. I mean, I’m speechless, it’s the motherfucking Rockies! Nothing but pine forests and valleys where minutes ago there had just been bare, barely even undulating scrub.
At the foot of all the trees, there are great big clouds of an odd extraterrestrial kind of lily. It’s bear grass. Apparently it only flowers every 5-7 years, but it is flowering like mad … RIGHT NOW! This is overpowering me with gratitude.
So yeah in other words, the views have become too overwhelmingly amazing to do anything but stare and reel and listen to the stories told by the charismatic guy from the national parks, about pass-finding pioneers, empire-builders, drunk grizzly bears (drunk because of grain-car accidents leading eventually to alcoholic fermentation in the snow) and hooch-slinging settlers. There are suspended argulite deposits in the water, and that’s what makes the snow-melt irresistibly turquoise like a liquid gem. Man, that snow-melt though. I badly wanted to bathe in it and be licked by goats in search of minerals (and maybe wolves).
5 July at 11:25 Argh. No signal since yesterday. A long post got irretrievably deleted
5 July at 11:28 Me, Jared the smokejumper from West Virginia and Joseph from Cincinnati
5 July at 11:29
5 July at 11:30
5 July at 11:30 They removed the viewing lounge carriage in the night!
5 July at 11:31 I am currently here, in the Cascades.
5 July at 11:51 Google image of my rare-blooming alien bear-grass loves
5 July at 11:52 Fourth morning
4 July at 19:02 We’re passing derelict townships with graffiti about meth (“METH: NOT EVEN ONCE. RIP VICTIMS OF METH”). There’s a Parks Department representative onboard now, explaining how farming out here is boom-or-bust, and towns are dying because of “mechanization”, not unlike in centuries past when homesteaders were plucked from Ukraine and Scotland came here to starve, go mad, and fail. No mention of people who were here before, only a lament for the bison, who are “all gone”, the uniformed man says. Just a reminder that, you know, Fuck the Fourth/Decolonize Everything/Death to the USA/Smash Capitalism etc etc
Trini Karney 5 July at 11:33 I’m obsessed with you!
Anima Bubble 4 July at 22:18 One of the strangest things abt the US is that places/scenes like that remind ppl (minus parks person ofc) abt settler colonialism in a way cities like NYC don’t, like the “failed” project renders the project more visible than the megalopolis “success” or the landscapes of the west are somehow more resistant to allowing forgetting than those of the east
Jas Burn 4 July at 22:32 why is that strange tho? that seems exactly as you would expect, given that these are last places settled by settlers.
Anima Bubble 4 July at 23:04 idk to me sometimes the visible evidence of giant extractions of wealth seem to me like they would be shouting the history of their foundations in the way ephemeral sites wouldn’t but maybe it is not strange
Jass 4 July at 23:11 oh, i see what you mean.
Todd Kroner 5 July at 13:49 Yup, it gets better in Montana. It’s basically consistently spectacular the rest of the way.
5 July at 11:35 Skykomish U.S.A. Funny sky.
5 July at 11:38 Nothing about the Glacier park is photographable with an Amtrakker’s limited means but it didn’t stop people trying. My attempts were half-hearted but perhaps these still evoke the fact that my jaw was essentially permanently on the floor and my heart pressed up across all the windows.
Jas Burn 5 July at 11:52 this is such a great thread. i’ll be sad when you arrive and it ends.
5 July at 14:20 Reconstructed lost post… It’s 5am and I’m the only person awake, or so it seems, standing with my blanket still wrapped around me, my neck-cushion still curled around my neck, and my earplugs still in my ears. I’m standing at the tail of the train, which has just had our collective sanctuary – THE VIEWING LOUNGE – uncoupled from it in Portland. O postpartum depression! I’m staring at the disappearing rail-tracks and gulping water because my piss this morning smelt like livers. In the half light, one wolf-faced man (don’t know his name) who’s been watching me a lot, with stiff grey upcombed hair, picks his way as casually as he can muster down the sleeping-corpse-strewn aisle towards me. His travelling companion, I noticed days ago, is this loud wild girl with matted hair and a half-repellent half-attractive wisecracking tantrum attitude. Maybe I’m attracted to her and have hooked his interest that way. Or maybe he’s not even hitting on me. I used to never get that men were hitting on me. Anyway now I know he’s gonna say hi even with my back turned, so I unplug my ears reluctantly. “What happened to the rest of the train?” he says. Snip snip, I gesture. Silence. I’ve sent him packing. Did I entirely mean to? or did I want him to want the connection with me more, and not give up so soon? I seem to be feeling some sadness about the fact that the defensive course of action is so instinctual for me at this point whereas (or perhaps, more accurately, because) ten years ago I was simply wide open and as a result having a lot of bad, naive, “dangerous”, mediocre sex and sex-adjacent experiences.
Relatedly I guess, as mentioned, Joseph bought my dinner last night. It was a drag; I had to disentangle myself at the end of it, when he wanted to drink more and tell me more about himself. I’d tried to include Jared in dinner but Jared had to get off at Whitefish. Alas. In the end, there was a woman at our dinner table, about whom, more in a separate post. The dining car was a world unto itself. It made me perceive more clearly how Amtrak staff create their own culture of straighttalking, selectively antiauthoritarian camaraderie. I met, again, honey-voiced David-from-the-dining-car. ♡ Not to mention the briskest brusquest take-no-prisoners hilarious server, Mary. Mary kept cracking jokes about how shit and expensive the food is, while treating Joseph like a waiter treats a familiar old maudlin narcissist/alcoholic scoundrel. Which he is.
Incidentally, I just remembered how this other conductor, working the Shelby-Minot stretch, earlier talked to me freely about the Amtrak workers union. They used to get all their meals for $3 but now no longer do – they pay the same as everybody else and as a result, Amtrak workers basically do not eat the food sold on their own train. They pack their own just like people like me. Amazing, no?
Joseph was and remains generous, if that is the word, and I feel guilty for doubting this generosity. But I trust my cynicism too. Like, he just brought me coffee and breakfast to my seat. He says I’m special. Smart guy. Lol. Jay, my navy cadet neighbor (who is also being kind to me, at least, superficially so) nods approvingly about this act, once Joseph has left. Is her nodding a response to my embarrassed question-mark face, with its tacit appeal to, I guess, misandrist sisterhood? Does she in fact understand me perfectly and wants to signal “don’t worry, he seems fine”? Or is it a rebuff? What role, if any, does her lesbianism play in this transaction? What role the fact that he made lascivious comments about her appearance to me over dinner? Why do I feel so un-cared-for? Jay tells me how men and women alike fall over themselves to buy her stuff, especially – but not only – when she mentions her military vocation. I don’t know how conscious she is of the power move this pulls. Sometimes I don’t know what it is – whether the sense of my lower hot-girl “value” and thus greater debt of labor (not to mention vulnerability) vis-à-vis men … or my political-spiritual dysphoria and disgust at the whole gender game … or both – that incapacitates me sometimes, socially, and makes boundary-setting hard.
Anyway, Joseph waxed super ignorant and tiresome over dinner, producing pictures of rich and fancy food that had set off his wheat allergy one time (I kid you not), or recounting the faux-profound life anecdotes behind his self-designed tattoo. “You see, it’s a spiral. It’s Hindu … or Buddhist. These three dots represents the three women I’ve been in love with…” Reader, I smiled charmingly. I even didn’t say a straight no to coming to visit him. He’d bought me dinner. I genuinely felt I had to say “I’ll try”. I’m disappointed in myself.
13 July 22:22 – CODA – Joseph has been slightly dogging me. At Seattle train station some fellow passengers told me that “my friend, that old man” was looking for me. I didn’t really feel like more goodbyes and melted into the city with my backpack. I had given him my phone number in the camaraderie of the viewing lounge because he wanted to send me pictures he had taken with his (superior, he said) camera. So it was via SMS, after that point, that I politely declined, twice and then three times, his invitation to come pick me up from the camp and shuttle me over to his friend Kathleen’s place. I’d – unwisely – told him the location of the camp. I stopped replying after that point but he continues to send me messages. They are strange. Clearly he didn’t get the memo that I hate the Rainy Fascism Island with a passion. He seems to be attempting to show me that he respects all things British and, which is more touching, that he listened to what I told him about myself (i.e. my PhD being in human geography). Here’s one of the latest texts he sent: “As I mentioned, I read the BBC online almost every day. Today I watched a travel piece on a bridge in China and the engineering efforts behind its construction. Now, how does this relate to you. At the end of the segment, they are talking to a local village potato farmer and it’s impact on his life. This is what I would call human geography. Peace out”.
5 July at 15:04 Ok, one more bleak thing before I switch to the euphoria of arriving into Seattle. I met the overdue pregnant sister of a possible Islamophobic attacker facing six months prison. This was over dinner. What I gathered was this: the brother was “misinterpreted” as abusing two Muslim men, and got into a fight which was then escalated by a male bystander (it was the latter who got stabbed). She is travelling to Portland as an emergency, because the media has “distorted” Sunday’s events; her brother, she says, is not an Islamophobe but a “Buddhist” who just happened to be carrying a knife. She is white and lives near Milwaukee, where she drives for Uber and Lyft, and her son was due to be born last week. She is engaged to be married. I visibly caused her distress by (unlike Joseph, who was nothing but sympathetic) asking questions about how he came to be prosecuted for this stabbing and why, if it was really absent, Islamophobia came to be part of the media account. I don’t really know what to say about all this. The following is certainly a bit of a glib evasion. ***“Possessed nocturnal demons in racist white woman form, and apologists for Islamophobic violence about to give birth? The Empire Builder (TM) has it all.***
5 July at 15:14 I found the news story; this is it… unsurprisingly it doesn’t mention anything about race or religion.
Man charged for downtown Portland stabbing
5 July at 15:15 Do you guys think I should delete this part of the story? I’m v tired and not thinking straight. The details are all very confused.
Hannah Bee 5 July at 16:31 no edits!
Judy Thorne 6 July at 06:51 this is literature
5 July at 14:21 I’m in Seattle! I am so, so happy! At the same time, my body is extremely confused by the stable motionlessness of land. I think this means the train and its rocking, shuntering-ness became part of me.
5 July at 14:32 Seattle. I knew it! That whole North Face brand-associated hip outdoorwear thing (which has quite a base in Manchester, England, by the way) has its headquarters here. Every second shop seems to be high-end hiking accessories. Also: there are seagulls. And several signs for “saloons”, I don’t think I’ve seen a genuine “saloon” before? I like the nouveau architecture shapes in the downtown. There’s a strong emphasis on coffee, obviously. And vomit smells. Lots of good trees. And I’m detecting a strangely cosy feeling? Maybe it’s the reassuring effect of the red brick.
5 July at 14:55 Uhoh. 4 days of sleeplessness just landed all at once. I keep wanting to crack sleepless-in-Seattle jokes. Jfc how can someone so committed to nodads have a dadjoke constantly threatening to burst through her prose. Right well I’m dizzy and stinky and if I don’t head to my planned crashpace right now I might just fall asleep on the sofa in the Art Museum lobby where I’m wistfully staring at the long line of people who have been able to afford Yayoi Kusama special exhibition tickets.
5 July at 15:10 Am I really on the other side of the continent? No deep thoughts and summary insights, but I think this is me signing off this travelogue. At least in terms of new posts. Conversations should still happen if they feel themselves here summoned. Thank you for listening. It’s been an unexpected dimension of the ride. A blessing.
Isabel Powell 5 July at 17:14 Glad you arrived safely and are now happily in bed. Distraught at thought of no longer following your adventures through geographical, political and anthropological landscapes. Has anyone ever told you you should be a writer?
5 July at 15:17 Seattle bin angel. It me.
5 July at 15:17 Ta ta 4 now
5 July at 15:47 P.S. beds! one of the best technologies.
Molly Qua-Cyborg 5 July at 16:32 I ♡ beds! They are the bedst.
Marxology Wombat 5 July at 23:52 That was an epic piece of writing!
Jo Isaacson 5 July at 23:59 Seriously. Publish in BF or somewhere!
6 July at 01:05 Seriously?
Judy Thorne July at 06:53 yeah obviously.
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