People you meet on the train

We pulled out of Portland a bit late yesterday but, again, time means little on the train. My decision to come in via Seattle and leave via Portland was validated by the views of the Columbia River gorge on the way back east. I’ll give the Cascades up in Washington a slight edge, but the Gorge was nothing short of gorgeous in its own right. 

On the way west I was in the first car past the engine and crew quarters. For this part of the trip I’m in the absolute last car. I don’t think it’s my imagination making me believe that it’s a less smooth and steady trip being in the back. The car seems to rock and sway far more back here than it did up there and going to sleep was a problem. Staying asleep was a problem. Sleeping without dreaming about being on a pitching ship or on a roller coaster was a problem. I’ve been sleeping on the fold-down bed the whole journey, but at midnight last night I switched to the lower level, fold-together lounge chair bed because I was legitimately worried about falling the hell out of my rack. 

This morning I woke up just as we headed into Whitefish, Montana and then Glacier National Park. I missed that on the way out due to darkness, but seeing it at sunrise was worth the wait. The tracks hug the south bank of the Flathead River and my roomette on the north side of the train gave me spectacular views of the mountains forests and yes, global warming notwithstanding, some snow fields on the peaks.

I don’t always do social situations well, but by now the lottery-like nature of meal seatings has started to appeal to me. At breakfast I was sat next to a Japanese woman and her adult son. She lives in Japan and speaks no English. He has lived in Las Vegas for 19 years and makes a point of showing her around the United States on various trips. Over the past few years I’ve learned that I can talk baseball with just about any Japanese person I meet, and they were no exception. The mother wanted to know what I thought about Yu Darvish. I’m not sure what it is, but every Japanese person asks about Yu Darvish first. Ichiro? Eh. Hideki Matsui? Old news. It’s all about Darvish. 

At lunch I met a guy whose job it is to drive brand new RVs off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana and deliver them to customers on the west coast. His employer makes a deal with him and his fellow drivers: they can get paid a certain rate if the want the employer to fly them back or they can get paid a much higher rate if they take care of their own transportation. A betting man, my lunch companion has, for years now, taken the latter option and the train has been his secret weapon for coming out ahead. 

I just finished dinner where my companions were an academic couple from Madison, Wisconsin and the closest thing to Dos Equis “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” The academics wanted to talk about whether I think Bernie Sanders has a real shot at the presidency, and they REALLY hope he does. The World’s Most interesting Man – in his mid-60s with a salt-and-pepper beard – spent time in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, road tripped through pre-civil war/breakup Yugoslavia and is on his way to some place in Minnesota where an Airstream trailer is waiting for him, which he’ll then take to the Maritime Provinces of Canada for the summer because, hell, why not? I want to be him when I grow up.

Let’s see, what else. Oh yes! The smokers. There are a lot of smokers on Amtrak. Someone told me that a certain sort of smoker likes to take Amtrak, even if it takes way longer than a plane, because it’s impossible for them to go five hours across the country on a flight without a cigarette. That seems extreme to me, but there are certainly eager smokers on Amtrak. We stop every couple of hours at a station that affords them time to burn one, but for some it’s still not enough. This afternoon, during one of the longer stretches between stations in the middle of Montana, an announcement came over the P.A. from the conductor saying that he knew someone on board was smoking and that, if caught, they would be put off the train. I’ve been told by others that it’s not at all uncommon for someone to be kicked off the train on long hauls either for smoking or for being drunk, so I was sort of looking forward to the drama. Sadly, the offender was not caught and cast off into the prairie land to die of exposure.

I’ve gotten more work done on my book proposal today than I have in several days. I still don’t know if it’s any good, but I feel that way about almost everything I write. For all of the people you talk to on the train you do spend a lot of time alone as well. In my roomette alone, I have zig-zagged between confidence and self-loathing with respect to my writing. I’ve had moments of supreme self-satisfaction and moments where I’ve questioned why I’m bothering or why anyone would want to read any words I put down on a page.

The more real writers I talk to the more I learn that this duality is an inherent part of the gig. I’m not sure if that should comfort me for being on the right track or scare the fuck out of me for choosing a life that is fraught with such highs and lows.

I’m in North Dakota now. I’ll wake up in Minnesota and be back to Chicago by early evening. The journey is almost over. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

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