Sunday, March 21, 2010

On the Rails Again

This post is about my trip to AZ but I don't write much about my time spent in Scottsdale because I was with my family. Just because I'm a writer and am somewhat public in my life doesn't mean I should write about my family and their private lives. At least not right now. Enjoy!

Soon after I came home to Washington from my writing retreat in Arizona, my father flew from Michigan to Arizona, just a month after heart surgery. I wanted to see him. I don't fly, so I booked passage on the train. Before I left, I journeyed to the train, to the land, to the places I would be traveling and asked for permission to visit. "I am not from your place and don't know your ways. But for a time, your place will be my place. My home."

I just figure it is polite to ask.

Mario took me to the train station. I left him behind on a gray day, got on the train, and went upstairs to roomette 8.

First thing I did was plug in my hepa/VOC filter. Then I put my books and bag of stones on the shelf where I could see them. I set my tourmaline stone near the window.

A few minutes later, the train pulled out of the station. I was on the road again.


I hadn't quite gotten back to normal from my last trip, and now I was leaving home again. But where was home? Where Mario was, definitely. But where on this Earth? I felt almost inescapably drawn to the Southwest. I loved the Pacific Northwest, but I often felt lonely, and the lack of sun for weeks at a time bothered me. When Mario and I were back East two and a half years ago doing research at the Library of Congress, I felt completely relaxed and at home there; I felt more like myself there than I had in decades. But where exactly was home, home, home. Where was the place I loved more than any?

It didn't matter. This train was going to be my home for the next twenty-eight hours.

The things we do for love.

Or for restlessness.

I spent most of the time on the train ride by myself. Sometimes I sat with four people from Orange County. The conversation was pleasant enough, I suppose, but sometimes it was so startling that I was almost speechless. When we discovered two of us were from Michigan, the other former Michigander said to me, "There's a lot of Muslims in Michigan now aren't there?"

This was such an odd question that I didn't know how to answer it. Yes, there are. And there are a lot of Irish people, too. I said, "I haven't lived there in 30 years but the Detroit area has always been wonderfully diverse. In fact I missed that when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, although it's much better now. There's much more diversity."

The woman looked puzzled by my answer but she didn't say anything else on that topic. One of the men wondered how my husband could "let" me wander around alone. Wasn't he worried someone was going to lure me away? I replied that I was a tough old broad and my husband knew I could take care of myself. The man laughed. He was about 80 years old, so I figured this question was an age-cultural-thing. I felt a wee bit sorry for his wife, though. Did she ever get to wander around by herself? Did she ever want to?

When the Orange County contingent found out I was staying at a hostel in Santa Barbara, they were shocked. "But don't homeless people live there?" "Doesn't it only cost ten dollars?" "Won't it be horrible?" "Isn't it only for students?"

Their lips actually curled at the prospect. Really. I said, "It's a travelers hostel so you don't have to be young or a student. No, I don't think homeless people live there because then they wouldn't be homeless. The dorm costs twenty-five dollars, but I'm staying in a room that costs more. It might be awful. But it's Santa Barbara. How awful could it be? If it's bad, I'll call a cab and go somewhere else."

At each stop I got out and looked around. Sometimes I stood with the 80 year old Orange County man. I breathed the fresh air, felt my feet on the ground. On the train I mostly stayed in my roomette. I had brought some stones, so I looked at them.

Once I went down to watch a movie in the parlor car, but something about the noise there was unsettling. Everything sounded so loud, as though we were about to derail any second. Any of the train rides I've taken in the last few years are not smooth. They are not quiet. Many times I wondered how we actually stayed on the tracks. When I got frightened by the shaking and rocking, I imagined the train was this great wonderful beast who would take us safely to our destination. (I don't know why I haven't tried that with planes.)

At night I turned off the lights in the roomette and looked out the window as we went through the mountains. Patches of snow glowed in the woods and on the mountains, as though lit from underneath. Snaking slowly through the mountains on the train was almost worth the entire trip.

I hadn't brought enough food, so I ate in the dining car. Meals were part of my fare, but as you can guess they didn't have gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian meals. So I ate eggs and hoped for the best. Even ate a bit of chicken and hoped for the best.

The first class passengers have their own parlor car. Usually one Amtrak person is responsible for this car for the duration of the trip (as far as I could tell). On the trip south, a blond woman was in charge. She wore headphones the whole time and I could hear music blasting her ears. She never looked me in the eyes when I asked a question. She never answered a question. She was sullen and nasty and looked like she might be a meth addict (or one who was recovering from meth). First class passengers could get meals in the parlor car and not have to sit with anyone else. But even if I had wanted to eat alone, I wouldn't eat in her car. I didn't want her touching my food.

But I did sit in the lounge chairs in the parlor car and talked to the Orange County people, or whoever else was there. At one time, the wife of the 80 year old man was telling me about her grandsons who were traveling overseas. One liked Europe; the other hated it.

"I traveled all over Western Europe when I was eighteen," I said. "I'm so glad I did it. I think it's a good idea for young people to go overseas and get different perspectives about our world."

The other man in the Orange County Four who was probably my age yelled, "I'm an American! I care about America. I don't give a goddamn about anyone else and I don't need to go anywhere but here."

I had never heard anyone talk like that except in movies, and I was shocked speechless. For about two beats. Then I said, "I don't know where that came from, but I do think it's a good idea to understand other people and how they live."

The woman who had asked me about Muslims said, "I agree."

I was relieved near the end of the trip when I had dinner with a young Canadian environmental scientist. He was kind and knowledgeable and his views were much more in line with my own.

We arrived in Santa Barbara at night. When I got off the train, I couldn't see any taxis, and suddenly the night seemed alive with unsavory characters: young people with backpacks. I laughed at myself. I was essentially an older person with a backpack. How scary was that? I remembered my summer backpacking through Europe when I was eighteen and hoped these backpackers weren't homeless kids but adventurers like myself.

However, it was very dark (where were the street lights?) and I felt weighed down by my stuff. Someone could have mugged me very easily right then and there and I wouldn't have been able to do anything.

The hostel was supposed to be across the street from the train station. I couldn't see it when I first got off the train. I went to the parking lot toll booth and asked the young woman working there where the hostel was. She didn't have a clue. I don't even think she looked up from her texting. (The hostel turned out to be right behind her, within view of her, by the way. So is the next generation just going to be absolutely clueless about where they are in time and space and place?)

I went back to the train station--carrying my cooler and purse and dragging my little suitcase--and saw two men standing by their taxis. Yes! I said, "Will you take short fares? I need to get to the hostel but I can't seem to find it."

"Oh sure," one man said. "But come, I'll show you." So he walked with me a very short distance and pointed to the path which would take me to the building with the sign that read International Hostel. I laughed. "That is close. Thank you so much." He smiled and nodded. (By the way, Orange County Four, I believe he was from the Middle East and was most likely Muslim.)

At the hostel, several young people sat around a table staring at their computers. The young man at the desk took my debit card and got me my key. Everyone else was staying in the dorm, but I had decided I'd pay extra for the one room they had. I was feeling quite alien by now and I wondered if everyone was looking at me and thinking, "She's so OLD. What's SHE doing here?"

The young man showed me the code on the door to get into the rest of the hostel. Then he unlocked the door to my room and said, "This is very nice. I hope you like it." He had an accent, but I wasn't sure where he was from. The ceiling light was already on.

"Yes, it's very nice," I said.

I thanked him and went into the room and shut the door. It was a small room. A bed. A table. A big bathroom. Looked like a bit of mold in the bathroom. My stomach lurched a bit. I looked up at the ceiling. Water stains. I wished I could smell. But I couldn't. I felt vulnerable. What if this place was toxic? What if I had an asthma attack? What if I went to sleep and never woke up? What if, what if, what if. I felt alone. Maybe those Orange Co. folks were right.

I set up my hepa/VOC fan. I sat on the bed and called Mario. Felt sorry for myself. When I got off the phone, I felt frozen on the bed. What if there were bugs? I'd heard some places had bed bugs. I looked around the room. What if I had to spend the rest of my life living in places like this? I thought about all the people in the world who lived in substandard housing. I shook my head. This wasn't substandard. I was making something out of nothing. Or nothing out of something. What was wrong with me? I used to travel all over the world. Or all over parts of the world.

I got off the bed. I turned on a table lamp and switched off the overhead. That softened the room. It no longer looked like what I imagined a hotel room in the old Soviet Union looked like. I asked permission of the land and the place for me to be there. Then I got out my stones. I lay on the bed and put a stone on each of my main chakras. I closed my eyes and breathed.

Felt much better.

In the morning, I got started late. The hostel office where my food was didn't open until 8:30 and it took longer than I thought it would at the car rental. It didn't help that I misplaced my hostel key and finally found it back at the car rental place. But finally I packed up the car and was ready to leave when I noticed a piece of wood, about the size of a popsicle stick, jammed into the front of the car and sticking out about six inches. I called the car rental place and told them about it. Since it wasn't impeding my driving, we decided to let it go. I got in the car and drove to Whole Foods on the other side of town, got some groceries, and then headed south on 101 toward Los Angeles.

I found a great radio station. I turned it up, and I drove. I felt happier than I had in a long, long time. Driving down the coast, the ocean on one side, hills on the other, in my cocoon of music and car. I felt free. No worries.


I am often happiest between here and there, alone, knowing loved ones are safe on either end of the here and there, while I am in the in-between.

Los Angeles traffic wasn't bad. Went straight from 101 to 10. The drive was much better than it had been a few weeks earlier. It seemed like the drivers knew what they were doing. It was almost as though we became one entity--or like a school of fish moving this way or that depending upon the stimulus or the mood or the turn in the highway.

And then I was in the desert, driving toward Arizona.

I don't remember much about the trip. I couldn't find a radio station I liked. It was either hip-hop, Christian talk, or country. I'd listen to the hip-hop for a little bit but couldn't stomach the Christian talk or the country music.

Finally I arrived in Scottsdale. My dad came out of the townhouse to greet me. He looked just like my dad. Didn't look like he'd just had heart surgery. We put our arms around each other and embraced. Felt myself grow roots right there next to my daddy.

Then we went in to see my sister and brother-in-law.

I stayed with my dad for a week. At first I felt out of place and picked on. I couldn't quite get my sea legs. I must have been tired and stressed and didn't realize it. I don't like teasing. I never have. To me it seems passive-aggressive. A way to put down someone but then say, "Aw, you just can't take a joke." It feels very Republican to me. It feels mean. I don't understand that sometimes it's just something people do. It's a way of communicating. A way I don't understand.

For whatever reason, it took me a few days to get into the grove. My father seemed mad at me and some days didn't talk to me. He seemed much more comfortable with my younger sister. But my younger sister will keep talking even when my father stops talking, whereas once my father withdraws, I withdraw. Sometimes I mirror what's going on around me without realizing it.

Then one day we were at a grocery store and my father seemed a little overwhelmed. He said, "I think this old world's just too much for me." Right then and there everything switched for me. Whatever discomfort I had been having went away. I rubbed his back and said, "You just had complicated heart surgery. I get overwhelmed going to a grocery store all the time. It's a lot for our nervous system." We walked home and he went to to take a nap. I sat downstairs and sent him Reiki while he slept.

I went to bed early while I was there, usually around 9:00. I couldn't believe how tired I got. But I slept. I kept my door open so I could hear my dad and he could hear me. My intention for the time in Arizona was to be with my father. Do whatever he wanted to do and go wherever he wanted to go.

At the end of the week, I kissed my family good-bye and I headed out. It was difficult to leave, but I did it.

I immediately got lost. I pulled into a parking lot, got out of the car, and phoned Mario. As I was talking to him, I noticed a huge slash in one of my tires. I couldn't believe it. I was so relieved that I had gotten lost. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have noticed the tire. Mario googled the nearest rental car agency and it happened to be less than a mile down the same street. Scottsdale is twenty miles long. This was a great and wonderful coincidence.

I drove to the rental car place. They couldn't give me a new car because I'd gotten the car in California, but they could get me new tires. The tire place was on the same street about a mile down the road. Another nice coincidence. At the tire place, the guy came and looked at the tires.

"I can't believe they rented you this car with the tires looking like this," he said. He looked at the slash. Then he looked at the other tire. "This one doesn't look good either." He noticed the piece of wood sticking out of the front of the car. "What's this?"

"I have no idea," I said. "It's pretty bizarre, isn't it?"

I called the rental company in Santa Barbara and got them to agree to two new tires. Then I sat in the sun and waited. I felt happy and grateful. I wouldn't have wanted to have a blowout in the desert all by my lonesome.

A half 'n hour later I was on the road again. I had gotten Manhunt from the Scottsdale Public Library. I put it on and I drove out into the desert. For eight hours I listened to the real-life tale of the hunt for John Wilkes Booth. I tried to stop every hour to stretch my legs. I called my dad a couple of times to let him know where I was.

Los Angeles traffic was not bad. I sped through it and was soon on 101 again. I had asked Mario to find me a place for me to stay in Santa Barbara that was affordable, didn't use pesticides, and had television. I wanted a treat before I got home. He spent hours looking for a place. Most were too expensive, and nearly all of them used pesticides. But he finally found me a bed and breakfast that met all of the requirements.

I talked to the owner on the phone when I was in Scottsdale. She told me they had tea every afternoon. Was there anything I wanted? "Oh, don't worry about it," I said. "I'm gluten-free and dairy-free. I don't expect people to cook for me." I didn't mention the sugar-free part.

She said, "Oh, I'll make you a gluten-free dairy-free chocolate cake."

I said, "Will you marry me?"

Near dusk, I arrived at the bed and breakfast on a lovely tree-lined street. It looked like most of the bed and breakfast places we'd stayed in: Victorian or close to it. Huge bright yellow flowers grew up and out of the flower beds. A kind woman showed me around. I glimpsed the chocolate cake waiting under a glass-lid. I took my things upstairs. Unfortunately I was at the top--three flights up.

Tired and out of breath, I turned on the tiny television and lay on the bed in the small sweet room. I think it was NCIS or Law & Order. A few minutes later, I went downstairs, got a cup of hot water, and cut myself a piece of cake. Back upstairs, I sat cross-legged on the bed watching TV with my plate of cake in front of me. I knew the cake had sugar in it, so I called upon the plant spirits of chocolate and sugar and negotiated with them so I wouldn't get sick. I promised I would leave them an offering once I got home. (Which I did.)

I had three pieces of cake.

I slept peacefully. Didn't get sick. Woke up to sweet light.

Went to Whole Foods after I checked out. Drove to the ocean. Walked around. Took the car back. The car people kindly drove me to the train station. I found out there that the train was two hours late. They didn't have any storage units, but they said they'd keep my bags behind the counter for three dollars a bag. When I whined about that, they halved the price.

I walked around town in the rain. Stopped at an Indian restaurant and had their lunch buffet.

Waited at the train depot. Watched the people. A woman with her son. Others I don't remember.

The train finally came. This trip I was in roomette 13. Downstairs. It was supposed to be quiet. I got on the train and went to the roomette. I glanced at the roomette across the hall and saw a half-naked man. He looked up at me, smiled, and held his coat up across his breasts. I glanced at him for only a moment but I could see he was drunk.

When the attendant came, I asked who else was down there with me. No one except the drunk.

I was not happy about that.

"He's harmless," she said. "I wouldn't lie to you. He's in a time out. The conductor said no more drinks for him. But he wouldn't hurt a fly."

"Do you know him?"

"Yes, he's been with me since Los Angeles."

When she left, I pulled the curtain and closed the door and locked it.

I didn't stay down in my room much. The attendant insisted the man was harmless, and I thought he probably was, but he was nearly naked, and I didn't want an encounter with a drunk person. I had never been comfortable around drunks, except maybe when I was in college and the drunks were fellow college students.

For dinner, I sat with the woman I'd seen on the platform at Santa Barbara with her son. They were on their way to Colorado to celebrate her birthday. We had a great talk. It turned out she had written for the San Francisco Chronicle. She was excited that I was a writer. We had a good discussion about technology and our concerns that children weren't getting outside and how they seemed to be able to communicate by email or texting but not in "real" life. How was this going to affect our culture, civilization, and nature? It was one of those conversations I didn't want to end, but the waiter finally kicked us out.

I slept on and off that night. The train seemed to be going so fast, trying to make up the lost time, I supposed. At one point I heard the attendant yelling at the drunk across the way from me.

In the morning, the drunk man was gone.

During breakfast I sat with a family of six on their way to a funeral. They told me some man had been thrown off the train early in the morning for having a gun. They put him off the train in the middle of nowhere, they said, in the mountains with the snow.

After breakfast, I went back to my room. I was in the in-between again. Leaving my father's house, going home to my husband. Traveling from the south to the north. I took out my rune cards and tried to memorize their order, their shapes, their sounds.

I saw the attendant and asked her about the gun story. She laughed and said they called those "train stories." "Don't believe them unless you hear them from someone who works on the train," she said. "A passenger did have an ax. The conductor kept it until the man's stop came up. Then he gave it back."

"They said he was put off the train in the middle of nowhere," I said.

She shrugged and named the town. "As far as I'm concerned, that is the middle of nowhere."

I sat up in the parlor car before lunch. Two women sat across from each other talking. One woman was talking about all the things she cooked. All fresh, from scratch, healthy. The other woman was bored. She'd say things like, "We're just meat and potatoes kind of people." And, "I don't like cooking. Just open a can for me." The other woman just kept talking.

When it was time for lunch, I decided to eat in the parlor car. The man running it this trip seemed kind. Plus, I wasn't sure I was up to talking to any strangers for this meal. I got up when it was my time to eat. The woman who was talking about food asked if she could sit with me. I inwardly groaned. And then I thought, well, at least I wouldn't have to hold up my end of the conversation; she'd do all the talking.

We sat in one of the booths. Across from us an elderly man sat. He and the woman I was with began chatting. I was relieved. I quietly ate my organic tomato bisque. I saw another woman sit down. She had pink hair. She wore a faux white fur vest with a peace sign on it. I smiled. Now she had my kind of style. The parlour car filled up. A man stood waiting to be seated. The pink-haired woman said, "Sir, you can sit here with me." The man said, "Ah, no, I think I better wait and see what the waiter wants me to do." He looked so uncomfortable. I wanted to tell the pink lady she could come sit with us, but she seemed unfazed by the rejection.

After a while, my lunch mate and I began talking. She was on the train by herself. She didn't like flying since 9/11. She noticed the pink lady's hair and then began talking about her own hair.

"My hair's so different now," she said.

"I think it's very pretty," I said.

"It used to be a different style," she said softly. "Longer. When I first got the cancer I was sure my hair wouldn't fall out." She smiled. "It doesn't fall out for everyone."

I listened. I had known many people with cancer and their hair always fell out during treatment.

"One day a clump came out," she said. "And then another. I decided right then and there. I got it all shaved off."

I nodded. It felt like she was telling this story for the first time.

"I went to get a wig," she said. "But I ended up not wearing it."

"You didn't like it?"

"When my head was shaved I could go all day without thinking about it," she said. "But when I had on the wig, I thought about it all the time. It was hot and tight and uncomfortable. It was just there. So you know what I did? I got scarves. I got the most beautiful scarves. Bright colors. Just gorgeous. I wore them. When I looked in the mirror I saw these beautiful colors."

She smiled and looked out the window.

"And now my friends and my children's friends, they all ask about the scarves. They want my scarves. So I give them to them. I'm giving my scarves away."

She looked at me and smiled. I smiled at her. I could just imagine her in her closet full of scarves, tossing a purple one this way, an orange flowered one that way. All these scarves blossoming, growing out of her closet like those big yellow flowers at the bed and breakfast in Santa Barbara.

"Thanks for lunch," I told her when we finished. "Have a great trip home."

A couple hours later, as I was packing my things, a man who had gotten on in the middle of the night (in the roomette next to the drunken man) came to my open door.

"How are you?" he asked.

"I'm fine," I said. "Just getting ready to get off in Portland. How are you?"

He was blocking the door, his arm up to steady himself on the rocking train. I looked at him. Something wasn't right.

I became acutely aware that I was down there alone except for this man. He was inappropriately close. I started chatting, so he wouldn't know I was uncomfortable. I thought it was a good way to stall until someone came down the stairs. We weren't far from the station so the attendant would have to come down soon.

I told him the saga of the drunk man. He blinked and said, "Well, I may have had a few but I'm not drunk."

He was, in fact, drunk.

I sighed. Ah yes. I'd forgotten about the wine and cheese tasting upstairs. Why do they serve booze on these trains?

I heard voices then. I zipped up my suitcase, pulled it off the chair, and pushed it out into the hall ahead of me. That forced the man out of my way. Then I went down the hall near the doors. The passenger from the handicapped room came out then. The new drunk stood near my door, trying to stay standing, his eyelids drooping.

The attendant came down the steps. The three of us women commiserated about putting up with drunks on the train. I'd have to remember never to get a downstairs room again, unless someone was with me.

It was gray in Portland when we arrived. I got off the train and didn't look back.

Mario didn't get off work for another couple hours so I had a bit of a wait. Unfortunately the train station had no lockers. So I sat outside with my paraphernalia and waited and watched..

One group of people sat on a bench across from me chain-smoking. One woman rested her feet on her walker and smoked one cigarette after another. A security guard walked around picking up cigarette butts and garbage. A tall man emerged from the station with his tiny son. The man looked like he was Native American. He wore a kind of varsity jacket. He was saying to his son, "You don't want to go outside?" The son was probably three or four years old. His son shook his head. "Well, let's go to this little park here anyway." They walked across the street to a tiny mostly concrete park.

The man put his pack on a nearby bench. Then he picked up his son and held him close. He kissed his cheek. I could see him talking but didn't hear anything. The man rocked the boy gently while standing in one direction. The son looked up and put his arms around his daddy's neck. The man turned to the other direction, still holding his son. And then the other. And the other.

I watched. Yes, there's the West where the Ocean caresses the Earth. There's the North where the Mountains hunker and argue and love. There's the East where the Sun comes up every morning and inspires. And there's the South, where the Desert dances with the Sun and longs for the Ocean.

I felt myself growing roots. Felt myself coming home as I watched the boy and the man hold one another. I watched the world grow still and understandable for them. And for me.

Sometime later a woman arrived. The boy ran up to her and embraced her. She laughed and hugged him. The man and woman spoke. They didn't touch. The three of them left.

Later, it got cold and I went inside.

"Cold out there isn't it?" the guard said to me.

I nodded.

Mario drove up in our little green car. His smile was so wide when he got out of the car. We embraced. The world moved all around us. But we were still. We put down roots together.

I was home.

A few minutes later we drove away.


Unknown said...

I love your writing -- your bravery -- your ability to perceive the goodness of life in a piece of chocolate cake.
Gail K

VG said...

OMG KIm! What a tale. I go so wrapped up in it. It reminds me of years and years ago when I took a Greyhound Bus from El Paso to Portland. I felt like I had been a hostage of other people when I disembarked and felt like I knew so much more about other people's lives and opinions than I wanted or needed to.
Good to hear your Dad is doing well. I wonder as an old broad now if I could hop a train like you did.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.