The End: Train American

I have officially finished my journey, Train American!  Is this just a “Volume One” of a tremendous series to come?  Perhaps.  I have seen many incredible sights, met the spectrum of personalities, and eaten far too many meals alone.

End of the Line

Here are a few summary statistics of this trip:

  • States Visited: 12
  • States Traveled Through: 34
  • Overnights on Trains: 10
  • Different “Beds”: 27
  • Middlebury Friends Seen: 4
  • Rides With Strangers: 12
  • Photos Taken: 7,474
  • Economic Developers Met: 6
  • Amtrak Miles: 9733
  • Total Miles: 15348
  • Days: 39
  • Train Costs: $1001
  • Daily Cost: $114.46
  • Total Cost: $4464.04
Johnny Cash captures my current feeling best: “I’ve Been Everywhere”.

Day 38: An Early Exit

09:03 On my way out for a run, I swing by the Chamber of Commerce and am greeted by two women that are completely unhelpful.  One tells me that she’s not at liberty to discuss local economic development efforts and that I should come back to meet the organization’s director, though she doesn’t know when said director will be in.  Terrific.

09:47 The beach houses here are given names like ships.  Canonicus.  Second Wind.

Mobile Home Park

11:02 A girl of about sixteen is smoking a cigarette while standing with her family as they pack up their car.  She must be French Canadian.  She is.

11:17 I stop at a touristy restaurant and buy a ludicrously expensive lobster roll.  I don’t like shellfish very much, but feel that I’ll be asked if I ate any lobster in Maine so feel obligated to do this.  The lobster roll is disgusting.  I don’t know if it’s me, the lobster, or the mayonnaise, but this meal tastes just like the barnacle undersides of a busy pier smells and I am disgusted.

Seaside Wells

13:14 At the antique auto museum, a man comes out of the exhibit and starts talking to the employees.  I was hesitant to pay $7 to enter, but his enthusiasm for cars is infectious.  He apparently has owned 126 cars since 1964.  I also manage to get the fee reduced to $5.60 using the AAA membership my parents may or may not actually have.

14:12 Mike Livingston, town planner, tells me that Wells in fact has an industrial park and gets relocation inquiries from big employers (50+ employees) almost monthly.  He notes that the population here swells to about 30,000 over the summer, that there is no local sales tax above the state’s 6%, and that property taxes are .86%, among the lowest in the state, and many year-round residents commute out of town to work.

14:38 Just for the hell of it, and because I have the time, I decide to walk the mile and a half to the train station.  It’s my last hurrah and it is hot as hell.

Antique Car Museum

15:09 As if just one last karmic kiss goodbye, I’m told that my last train of this journey is going to be just a couple minutes late.  It’s significant by any stretch, and is much more cute poetic symbolism than anything.

15:15 I get on board and I am just feeling top class, to be embarking on my final train of the summer.  Though sweating still, I’m smiling and grinning and just alive with positivity.  The people who are seated in the first car are reacting very well to my enthusiasm, which makes me feel just that much better.

Packed Beach

15:16 On board the train, I offer to lend my burly strength to an old lady to help her put her bag up, though she declines, I get an, “Aw, that’s so nice!” exclamation from a very cute girl sitting in one of the seats nearby, as she instinctively praises my heroism to the unworthy guy sitting next to her.  I feel great.

16:18 I call Amtrak one last time to figure out all my travel costs and mileage.

17:11 Betty, the patient Amtrak operator, and I finish digging out all the data just as my train pulls into Boston.  Somehow it just feels completely appropriate to be sharing these final moments of my journey with her.  I walk out just feeling irreplaceably amazing!

Day 37: Wells, Maine

04:20 We’re stopped in New Haven for a reason that I do not know, and the change in moment coupled with the fact that a man in the row behind me is snoring mercilessly loudly is preventing me from getting back to sleep.   I’m exhausted and aching, being on my second consecutive night on the train.  Though I’m wearing earplugs, this guy’s breath is penetratingly loud.  I consider waking him up and letting him know that he’s being a complete public nuisance but give in and move my bags and myself four rows up.

07:50 We’re in Boston and I feel terrific to be on home turf.  I’m surprised, though I shouldn’t be, by how active an busy South Station is right now with moving suits.

Rush Hour @ South Station, Boston

09:51 At North Station, I discover that the nine o’ five Train to Main has been delayed, so I my switch ticket from the 11:05 and save four dollars.

10:48 The conductor gets on the intercom and tells the train why we were so delayed leaving Boston: a car went around the barriers at a crossing and hit the side of the train.  Despite Amtrak’s many shortcomings, I have come to really appreciate this policy of direct honesty with its passengers.  I admire anyone or anything that can honestly and readily admit its own weaknesses.

Wells, ME Second Homes

14:49 There are tons of Europeans and French Canadians here in town.  There is more French than English being spoken on the trolley.

16:55 I’m seriously considering just leaving tomorrow.  Wells is completely uninteresting outside of the fact that it is a nice getaway town.  I decide to take a nap first and reconsider.

Roadside Farm Stand

19:24 I wake up after almost two and a half hours of recovery.  I feel really drowsy but know I’m not going to be able to sleep until morning.  I know I should go running but opt instead to take a long ride on the trolley.

21:05 The driver turns around to the only other passenger on board and asks the elderly lady, “You want to run again, hun?”  A pause, then, “sure”.  She must be a regular with little else to do on evening such as this.  How cute and sad.

21:52 I’m on opposite side of the street from the official stop, and the driver of a different trolley shouts at me for boarding from the wrong location.  I decide not to get sassy end up killing her with kindness!  That might be the first time I’ve ever successfully done that.  She doesn’t punch my ride card and starts speaking very nicely to me.  What a victory!

Secret Cemetery

21:54 A woman boards and asks if we can wait for her husband to come out of the CVS.  It’s an amazing thing: as he enters the light of the trolley, I recognize him!  He’s the same guy who I bought a trolley pass with around noon when we both boarded at the Amtrak station.  He had given me a little directional support and we’d gone separate ways!

22:05 I walk into the motel office to tell them that I won’t be staying the weekend.  On the big map they’ve got there that’s littered with pins marking the hometowns of their visitors, I notice a gap on Newport Beach and happily fill it in for them.  It’s an oddly proud moment for me.

Day 36: Another Day on the Train

09:05 In Montgomery, WV, the train cuts straight through Main Street.  This is a completely antiquated system, and the noise must be horrible for downtown merchants and visitors, but I am loving the view from the train.

09:39 West Virginia looks exactly how I imagined it would.  I don’t know why, but I completely expected to find the small mobile home communities tucked into the rugged hills under the overcast skies that I am seeing now.

West Virginian Industry

10:12 I’m reading a book that Sam Walton narrated about the start and growth of Walmart.  Though I find the stores just wretched and horrible, I am fascinated by the story of one of America’s greatest capitalists.  Though upon leaving Arkansas I vowed to never return, this story does make me interested in going back and checking out some of Sam’s original stores.

West Virginia Residential

11:49 We pass a women’s penitentiary where Martha Stewart spent her time.  If the guide hadn’t told us, I would have thought it was some sort of fancy boarding school.

Virginia is Calmer

13:02 The Virginian woods and landscape are markedly tamer than their West Virginian counterparts.  The hills are less steep, the terrain less rugged.

14:45 It’s pretty sweltering on this train because there is predictably something wrong with our car’s AC.

16:49 A big woman gets back on the train bragging about how she smoked two cigarettes on our smoke stop in Charlottesville, VA.

10th & Final Overnight on Train

23:42 There are a ton of people outside the Philadelphia IRS building smoking and chatting away the very tax dollars they labor to squeeze out of us.  The security guard in front of the building tells me that the office is staffed twenty-four hours.  Wake up call: pay your taxes, because there are a million government workers here to hunt you down!

23:47 A man checks the parking ticket machine for forgotten change.  He’s rejected.

Philly IRS Never Sleeps

01:06 Our train, scheduled to leave at 00:13, was supposedly going to be “15 minutes delayed”.  The Amtrak app made no indication of it being behind schedule, and there has been absolutely no uniformed presence on the platform with the crowd of exhausted, waiting passengers to let us know what is going on.  The train just now decides to pull in.

01:11 Observations of the minute: [1] A woman wearing ear buds blasting us with the white noise of buzzing electricity and crickets like we’re all in a quiet suburban jungle together.  [2] A black guy sitting in front of me gets a text from someone he’s named “Gift & Curse”.  [3] A woman shows up on the platform as we start moving and puts her hands up in disbelief that she’s getting left behind when we’re already an hour late.  Where has she been?  Did Amtrak forget to announce the train’s arrival up in the station?

Day 35: Final Stretch

08:36 On the flight from Phoenix to Chicago, Norman of Santa Barbara says, “Maybe you could be Vice President someday,” after I tell him I’m studying economics.  What?!  He explains Paul Ryan was an econ major.

LGB Airport

16:51 It turns out that Danny Zhang ’15 has just gotten off the Southwest Chief from LA, so we meet for some food at Potbelly Sandwiches.  It’s good to see this guy.  He’s just spent the majority of his summer in Nevada campaigning for Obama.

17:42 Running, made late by the fact that I had to wait in line to get my ticket directly from an agent, I hop on board the eastbound Cardinal to Philadelphia.

9th Overnight on Train

21:25 This train is a single-story decrepit thing, which has no observatory car where I can stretch out to sleep, so I’m unfortunately resigned to trying to find a decent position to curl up in on my two seats.

Day 34: Glad To Be Gone

06:33 The train attendant, Tom, taps me as he walks by saying, “Time to wake up and sit up.”   I’m exhausted, irritated, and there’s no one even in the car yet, but this is his train, not mine, and I will listen even though I don’t want to.  I sit upright and fall asleep for another hour.

Mine Equipment

07:50 The banks of the Mississippi are high and dry.  We’re passing a lot of very interesting things right now: a beautiful ridge, a barge has been half beached on the shore by the falling water level, a man-made swimming hole with a tall wooden tower by some trailer homes, a mine, an oil or gas pipeline that runs through the woods and right over the tracks, a set of beautiful white fence horse paddocks, a casino in the middle of nowhere.

Birds Bridging Bridges

08:45 I’ve noticed this morning that several freight cars have a warning emblazoned on the side, “Do not hammer on side”, which I would never have done before but now really want to now.

10:33 It is hard to describe the relief I feel to be out of Arkansas.  Here is a list of the individuals I failed to meet in Malvern, the number of times I tried to meet them, and the reasons why they were unreachable:

  • Mayor (4): kidney stone issue, not in, lunch, went home early
  • Commerce Director (1): convention until monday
  • Commerce Secretary (1): doctor’s appointment
  • Paper Editor (3): lunch, lunch, meeting
  • Housing Authority (4): family death, bad #, closed, on the phone
  • Librarian (1): book run

Busy Oil Refinery

12:16 I just finished transcribing all the notes from my phone onto my computer!  Victory with aching fingers!

15:32 The workers at the Protein Bar tell me they process about five thousand orders every week.  This is at a place that is open about twelve hours daily but only on weekdays.  The owner, a single guy who has paired with venture capital for funding, is doing well for himself.

Day 33: A Better Day

10:14 Alpa, the Indian woman who runs the Budget Inn, tells me I can stay later tonight until my train comes if I pay $25.  I work it down to $20.

10:30 I’m back at 3rd & Main Street Sweets to buy one of Julie’s lunches that I’m planning on saving in my fridge for dinner.  The Mexican food last night was just too disgusting and discouraging for me to want to venture out and try what they’re serving at other local establishments.

11:55 The mayor apparently just stepped out to have lunch.  The man, now the third different individual I’ve found working at the reception desk, tells me it will be at least an hour before he gets back.

13:17 At the police station where I’ve walked to, Chief Tabor tells me that he’s been on the force since 1995 and they’ve never had a problem down by the train tracks.  He lives a block up the hill from the station and tells me he’ll send a couple patrols along throughout the evening.  That makes me feel much better about leaving tonight.

15:56 This is the fourth time I’ve come to the Office of the Mayor.  The woman working there claims, “we’ve been waiting on you all day,” but that the mayor has just left for home about ten minutes ago.  “Are you kidding, this early?” I ask.  “He’s the mayor, he can do what he wants.”  No wonder people think he’s an absentee.

Malvern Neighborhood

16:04 I return to the library to volunteer a few more hours.

23:02 I check out of the Budget Inn and go sit outside the McDonald’s on a bench surrounded by grasshoppers to wait for my 22:26 train, which is delayed two hours and thirty-two minutes.

23:36 I’ve given up on the heat outside and bought a $1.10 fruit parfait for the right to sit inside.  The four workers step outside to sit on a bench together in late night camaraderie.  It’s a sweet moment.

Empty Shells

00:32 It’s very tough to time leaving for the station, because I can’t tell how accurate my Amtrak app is in estimating the train’s arrival time at 00:54.  I decide to leave now and just tough it out down there at the station.

00:38 At the top of the hill just before the decline to the station, I consider stopping up here where it’s bright for a while.  I want to get down to the station just five minutes before the train does, but I decide to just continue down to the tracks where there’s a single family also waiting.

Train Pulls in "Early"

00:40 It’s a damn good thing I’ve chosen to come down now, because the train is coming down the track this very second, fourteen minutes before the Amtrak app still says it is expected to.  Whew, that was a close call!

Day 32: Are You Kidding Me?

07:57 A booming thunderstorm sweeps through.  That’s good for the drought suffering region, but bad for sleep.

09:49 The rainstorm that swept through has made it really cool and wonderful outside.  It’s still fairly humid, but the temperature’s been pushed down to about 76, so I decide it’s a good time to go on a run.

10:07 The lot that Walmart occupied when it first moved into Malvern around forty years ago is now a vast paved wasteland, with only a Dish TV network store, a single restaurant, a computer repair shop, and something that looks religiously related left.  This is an incredibly stark example of the danger of the dependency that Walmart creates.

10:59 Sweating like an attic meat packer in August, I’m back at the bakery for a pre-made lunch.  I rushed over to beat all the bankers that Julie said would be coming over, but see no sign of any of them while I’m there.

Abandoned Commercial Lot

11:37 At the Chamber of Commerce, the director is out of town until Monday at a conference and the secretary is out taking her daughter to a doctor’s appointment.

11:44 Mark, editor of the daily paper, is out to lunch yet again.  Yesterday I came around three p.m. and he was out at lunch.  What is it about this town’s leadership?

T-Storm on Main Street

14:05 At the historical museum I inquire, “So are people out here liberal or conservative?”  “Yes, yes,” my guide responds declaratively, “this is a very religious place.”

15:09 A black woman waves to me from her car and is the first to do so of all the cars and drivers I’ve passed in town thus far.  I’d like to think of it as a good sign, but don’t want to make to much of this small moment.

15:22 I walk into the county judge’s office and meet Judge Bill Scrimshaw and a couple other county-employed fellows.  The three men are just terrific to hang out with.  They remind me of the small town camaraderie back in Middlebury.

Surprising Water Front

16:33 One of the Judge’s friends, John, offers to drive me across the tracks to see the other side of town.  He takes me by the river where I can see the kayaking rapids and river walk, which is surprisingly nice though small, the Walmart Super Center, and the interstate.  He points out the old and new locations of a Burger King that moved literally a quarter of a mile down the road in the past year to be closer to the Walmart, which came into town about five years ago.  From the car I can see all the franchises and businesses that have sprung up on the sides of this road by the Walmart.  Even the Post Office has moved into a new building nearby.

Development Near Walmart

16:58 On recommendation, I’ve come to eat at the Mexican restaurant El Parian, which very sadly turns out to serve the grossest Mexican food I have ever eaten.  Everything looks and tastes like it just got cracked out of a can and microwaved, and I am very disappointed to have to pay over ten dollars for this.

17:34 “Nobody can get along and when they have a conflict, they just split and form a new church.  That’s how come there are so many churches out here.”

Day 31: Miserable Malvern

05:08 For the second time this trip, I’m the only person to disembark the train.  There’s only one person getting on.  It’s completely dark out and I decided to approach the two women who have just dropped their companion off on the train.  I wave over to them as their pulling out; they clearly see me.  But instead of stopping and just cracking their windows open slightly, they ignore and drive off leaving me alone in the night.  Okay, Malvern, we’re off to a bad start.

05:16 The streets were completely empty and quiet, and I’ve arrived at the Budget Inn.  The woman who I wake up claims not to have a reservation for me, but they thankfully still have a room.  The room smells like stale cigarettes and is sauna humid.  I pass out on the bed for three hours.

5AM Welcome

09:50 The supermarket across the street, Brookshire’s, is in the midst of clearing its stock and permanently closing.  The business has been leasing the building, and the corporation decided sales aren’t where they need to be to continue operations.  There are no plans for this space to be filled, so it will simply turn into an abandoned lot.

10:02 The woman working at the fried chicken counter in Food Center tells me that there are no diners or restaurants anywhere near.  She believes Waffle House, a couple miles down the road by Walmart, is probably the only place serving breakfast right now.  I realize, “Oh god, this town is going to be downright miserable.”

10:28 Craig’s Bar-B-Q & Fish is the firs restaurant I’ve come across today.  I’m about a half mile away from Main Street.

11:02 In a gas station cooler, there is more Jungle Juice, an artificially colored and flavored syrup drink, than there is milk.

Main Street Malvern

13:48 By Centennial Park, the skinniest guy I’ve ever seen wearing a tight black wife beater parks his car and calls out, “Hey, what’s up man.”  He looks about seventeen, and is both barefoot and calm.

13:54 Mike, owner of the Game Room Trading Post on Main Street, reveals in his bubbly rubbily voice that he moved to Malvern five years ago from Hot Springs after he and his wife acquired some farmland.  He then moved his business here about a year ago from Hot Springs, because of the reduced competition.  Game Stop, the only other video game store in town, only deals with the new stuff.

14:12 I unexpectedly discover 3rd & Main Street Sweets, a beautiful bakery!  Julie, a Washington-native who moved here from New Jersey with her husband to take care of his mother about three years ago, opened this bakery a year and a half ago.  Business has gotten better every month, as her delicious luxury pastries have gained popularity with the many bankers in town.  It helps that she only pays $600/month for her ~3,000 square feet.

22:43 I’ve been on hold with for over an hour and a half.  This is a good reason why our train system sucks.  I give in and hang up.