I walked twenty minutes from the Greyhound station to a hotel in the historic downtown of Los Angeles. I was stuck there for a night. From Creel, I had booked my ticket on Amtrak to leave the same day I arrived, but I had called and changed it until Monday when I thought I might not make it in time due to the nonsense with the bus from Guerrero Negro. It turned out I would have, but they had already rebooked my seat to someone else.
I bought lunch and walked around a bit. This wasn’t a nice part of LA. I’ve never spent much time in LA, but this part looked like an actual city, tall buildings and density. I tried to imagine streets cars, the long-gone victims of the desire to get around without having to interact with other people, running up and down the wide streets. People asked me for cigarettes even though I wasn’t smoking. Others asked me for money. There were some trendy bars and trendy people and alleys that smelled of urine. The LA Live complex was a twenty five minute walk away, so I went there, and was non-plussed, so I went back to my hotel and spent most of the rest of the day there.
Amtrak didn’t leave until 6:15pm, but I had to check up of my hotel by noon, another day of waiting in a seemingly endless string of them, but this was what I signed up for. I spent two hours in the lobby after checking out before heading to Union Station, a twenty-five minute walk away. I walked through the Pueblo Los Angeles tourist area and into the station.
An older man asked me if I could help him with his bags. He was moving within the area, he said, and he needed to get to the bus stand. He smelled strongly of marijuana, but I didn’t know how to say no in the moment, so there I was walking through the corridor against the flow of commuters, carrying a broom, a lawn chair. a big piece of cardboard and dragging a roller bag. He carried a milk crate full of newspapers and another suitcase. Halfway down the corridor we stopped so he could rest and traded so I was carrying the milk crate, which was heavy. He peppered me with questions, rapid fire. Where was I going? Where was I from? Why was I here? Did I smoke? I was trying to keep my wits about me, wondering if loading me down was a prelude to a pickpocketing. He asked a security guard where the buses stopped, and she told him they were back in the direction we came from. He cursed the world, and I was getting ready to tell him I needed to go check in my bag and couldn’t help him any longer, but we kept going in the direction we were going, despite that it was the wrong way. We got outside, I put down the stuff, he thanked me, asked me if I smoked again(he needed a cigarette) while I walked away as quickly as possible.
I checked my bag three hours early and went to sit outside in one of the garden areas. It was more waiting, more rotating between inside and outside. At 4:30pm, I got in line to get my seat assignment. After, I got a sub at Subway for dinner on the train. At 5:30, it was time to go wait on the platform.
The train arrived ten minutes late. I had an aisle seat, and the window seat was empty as we pulled out of the station. I knew the train was sold out, but I hoped that maybe my seatmate hadn’t shown up. We moved through the Los Angeles and suburban Southern California landscape. Our first stop, at Fullerton, forty-five minutes in, is where my seatmate boarded. He was an older man, on the way back to Colorado Springs after driving with his wife to LA to visit her ailing mother. She was going to spend more time there and then drive home. We talked as the train tracked along I-5 and then turned north near I-15 before turning west to follow I-40, the road that replaced Route 66 across the Southwest.
His name was John, and he had grown up around Los Angeles, but had lived for thirty-five years in Alaska, working as an electrician. He moved to Colorado Springs after marrying his current wife. He had been all over the world for his job and as a a soldier in Vietnam. I let him talk, let him broach subjects. I’m not much for political conversation with strangers, particularly ones that I will be spending twenty-four hours next to. It turned out we agreed on quite a bit. When he said we should be spending more money on infrastructure rather than starting wars, I knew I’d be fine.
I wanted to go to the observation car and look out the window as the the sky turned to dusk, but I didn’t want to be rude. John mentioned early on that his son had been a Marine and had been killed in 2001. I tried to think of things that had happened around then and could only come up with the USS Cole and the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia. He had died in Somalia. It had ended John’s first marriage. His wife couldn’t handle the death of her only son, and disappeared. He told me he hadn’t been able to speak his name, which was Michael, for four years, but joked that now he couldn’t stop talking about him. John carried Michael’s ashes in a vial around his neck. There are moments in life where there is just no possible way to relate to another person’s experience, beyond that fact that we are all human, and we all suffer in our own ways, and this was one of them. When John mentioned his son would have turned forty years old, the date was only six days after I would turn forty, I opened my mouth to speak and then closed it, and left the words unsaid.
I slept poorly. Time ran together. On trains, on buses, boats, airplanes, in waiting rooms cut-off from Wi-Fi, with nothing to do but look and wait, it’s so apparent how time is all of a piece, it never passes, just an invention of convenience, no separate moments, nothing happens, it just is.
4am Flagstaff, AZ for a smoke break. The air was cold.
Arizona and New Mexico outside the window.
A long stop in Albuquerque where I was able to get off the train and buy lunch.
John got off at Raton, NM to catch a bus to Colorado Springs. One hundred Boy Scouts coming back from two week hikes in Philmont got on. My seat, along with everyone in my coach, was moved to accomodate them. We were all fine with that.
Another night on the train. Morning in Kansas. The sun rose smeared over the foggy fields.
A brief stop in Kansas City. A corner of Iowa. The flat farmland of Illinois. Anticipation. Naperville, the platform of Lisle, to where I would be reversing course when I reached Union Station in Chicago. A familiar landscape. The Chicago suburbs. I could’ve been on the Metra commuter line at this point.
The Chicago skyline.
First familiar place in three months. I was in one of my homes, at last. I took my backpack off the baggage claim and I was tackled by three friends I’ve had since junior high. I thought I was being arrested. I had wanted to ask them to meet me, but hadn’t wanted to be a bother. One had called my parents to find out when I was arriving, and tracked my train so they could be there when I showed up. We had beers and I tried to recount my trip but I was still head-dazed from forty-two hours on a train and the return. Zach and I rode the train back to Lisle, a trip I had made countless times. My nephews met me as I got off the train, my brother had been on the same one in a different car. It was more like I was coming home from work than having come 7,000 miles.
A week in Chicago with my family, driving to Iowa to visit S’s family.
I drove into Chicago to meet my friend Phil and see Zach do a show. Every time I go into the city it’s hard to believe I’ll never live there again.
I wished I could fly home and just be done with it, but I said I was going to do this by land, and this was the last leg.
My Dad dropped me off at Union Station on Tuesday night.
I stood outside for a bit and looked at the Chicago River and the skyline.
The train was late, sitting out in the yard for ninety minutes passed the scheduled departure for reasons unexplained. The waiting room was stuffy and crowded and people waited in line in expectation, with no information to tell them otherwise. I sat in the empty Grand Hall and listened for announcements.
We stopped outside the city for awhile, I checked my watch at the first stop in South Bend and we were already two and a half hours behind. I slept. In the morning we were in Cleveland, three hours late. All I could think about was home.
The train emptied, and I was offered another seat, by a window. Northern New York, practically Canada, passed, Buffalo, Rochester, down to Albany, another long stop as we detached the Boston portion of the train. Getting closer but still not home. It started to rain along the Hudson. The sun set behind the Catskills.
I tried to talk a woman who was on her way to DC to take a job at the Pentagon into just going and travelling. She was an achiever, and was having trouble talking herself into breaking free of the hamster wheel of success. Into the bedroom communities of Manhattan, finally into the city proper, underground into Penn Station. The One train.
A dumb grin on my face, just another person going home on the subway now. Walking down 86th street, it was like I had just been there.
On the roof, I drank beer left by S and one last cigar to celebrate, if that is the right word.
The skyline and the sound of passing traffic. I was back.