California left me wanting more but I knew I was overdue to take the long ride east. Why not walk it? The passion had dissipated and left me flat unsealed soda sitting in a hot car. Nice simile, huh? These were the dark times, so to speak. So I boarded a bus to San Francisco and spent one last night there in my art deco fortress before shuffling off to Oakland the next morning. The events of this time have already become a grey blur. I remember having a travel companion on the BART, an older gentleman who eagerly related his design to visit a Buddhist temple in Oakland that day. He had a book of prayers to illustrate his intent and read aloud translations as they all appeared as so many lower back tattoos to me. We continued on our temporarily mutual path to Oakland and enlightenment and, crossing over the bay he informed me that the richest people in life were the ones with friends. I could have been overcome by my sudden departure from Kae, and I might have let the grief thoroughly settle in for the long haul had it not been for the next piece of reading material he pulled out to illuminate his point: a People Magazine opened to a spread on Jennifer Aniston kicking into high party gear with her besties for a birthday celebration, Mexico style. At forty-one she didn’t need a man to have a good time and judging from my experiences, neither did I. At this point, I wondered how soon I might part ways with this curious man.
At the station I hopped a bus, the Emery-go-Round, to meet my train. When I arrived, I picked up my ticket and grabbed a seat outside. The station, one large room, was crowded with people and I wanted to isolate myself. However, the day was growing as morose as my mood. A light drizzle began to fall on me so I stood up and attempted to saddle up with my pack. Unfortunately, a combination of hasty, top-heavy packing and having become unaccustomed to the burden led me to overcompensate, and I found myself tumbling heels-over-ass. It was at this point that a stout fellow donning a black leather biker vest and slicked salt-and-pepper hair came to my aid. He led me and my pack into the station and sat us both on a bench opposite he and his wife. I am painfully shy when it comes to talking to people but there is some pretense that falls away with my pack. It’s as if having this nylon sack that’s roughly half my body mass as my one and only traveling companion lowers my natural guard and perhaps makes me seemingly more open to chatting. So I got to know my new friends while we waited for our trains. While I was heading as far as the California Zephyr would take me, they were taking the party train to Reno for some fun and gambling. Hailing from just north of San Francisco, they liked to adventure anywhere they could, with or without their biker gang. We then discussed the bad rap biker gangs have gotten in the past but my only points of reference were Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and what I knew about the concert gone awry at the Altamont Speedway. After a short, token controlled bathroom break, I was headed out to the platform to meet my train.
As I climbed aboard, I grabbed a seat on the left side of the train praying that I would have the most advantageous of views. Several announcements went out over the PA that we passengers had boarded the California Zephyr and not, in fact, the “Fun Train.” I learned over the next few days how bull’s-eye accurate the remark was. For those looking to travel by train across the country let me say this, everything about it gets old and the bathrooms and supplies must only get attention at the end of the adventure. I boarded imagining myself Dagny Taggart, but without the luxuries, amenities, and most importantly, privacy of a personal car, the illusion was shattered within the first few hours. I won’t bore whoever it is that is still checking up on here with every last detail of my ride. I will note that the trip to Sacramento had an occasional commentary on points of interest as we passed. The snow was thick over the Donner Pass, the east side of the Sierra Nevada was a muddy palette of purples, browns, ochre and a rich, emerald green from the occasional pine. I saw storms form over the desert and impossible habitation in an otherwise barren landscape. At Winter Park, I found my friend Nathan’s doppelgänger taking a smoke break. It was also around this point that I encountered “The Fawn.”
He was young and traveling alone save for the connection he’d made with two other unlikely riding companions. Every time he turned my head in his direction, there were stars in his eyes. I’ve experienced this on the rare occasion, someone looking on me as if I were the bee’s knees, the flea’s eyebrows, but usually after they’ve plied themselves with one too many drinks. It was as we made our way through the incredible canyons of Colorado that he got his courage up to ask me to sit with him in the observation car. For this, I’m grateful as it allowed me breath-taking panoramas. But conversations were tenuous. He was from Haiti, had lived in Oakland for less than a year (we’d gotten on the train together and it took me two whole days to notice?), and he was headed to Chicago to stay with family. He listened to rap and jazz and was enthralled with the antics on The Family Guy. So much so that he described them in shaky, ever-lasting detail. A couple next to us drank from martini shakers and searched for a tender that had met its doom some years ago at the bottom of one of the steep canyons we passed through. I looked on with some longing. I declined his dinner invitation and promised that I would breakfast with my young friend, a promise I was able to break somehow despite the limited places I could hide. It’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the observation car ride, but as he went off to dinner and I settled in to tension behind my eyes, I couldn’t help but feel relief that I was back to one. Over the next day and a half, I had a hard time shaking off my little fawn. At times, he would come and sit with me as I was making my way through my traveling choice of literature, Dune. He insisted on reading along with me, my book, over my shoulder. After three days with nothing more than “spit showers,” me and my bacteria posse just wanted to be left to our own devices. I alluded him the last day as he once again, took his seat next to mine, mind you, I hadn’t slept in four days, and I went off to make myself presentable to the world of Chicago which, had we arrived on our timetable, we would have entered that afternoon. Perhaps I dawdled a little too long, some might say I camped out in the train’s dressing room, the only “private” space bathrooms aside. I say private because locks did not appear to have ever been in the design for this room, surely to prevent a little happy time. What would be the “mile high” equivalent at ground level on a moving public transport? When I got back to my chair, I was alone. I don’t remember Iowa or Nebraska save for grey fields. Alone at last, I appeased my longing for some time in Chicago with Sufjan Stevens’ album Come On Feel the Illinoise! In the end I had the whole sum of forty-five minutes in Chicago, the train pulled in six hours behind schedule. I pulled out my mittens and tuque and scrambled to find at least one building studied in my architectural history classes. Monadnock it was. Looping back to Union Station, I found a relief in anonymity as I made my way home to Buffalo…