But Did You Find America?

Lake Champlain from the shores of Alburgh, VT.

In the two weeks since I’ve been back, everybody wants to know, “Did you find America?”

My answer of, “At times, in bits and pieces, at certain moments here and there. She’s slippery, elusive, hard to pin down,” leaves them feeling somehow unfulfilled. I see them squint their eyes, grunt, look away and change the subject.

So perhaps, for their sake and mine, I should attempt to pin down just exactly what I found.

Feeling the spirit in Woodsville at the largest Fourth of July Parade in New Hampshire.

I found not one monolithic America, but a plentitude of smaller Americas, distinct parts where people are influenced by their cultural heritage and the landforms around them. The professors of liberty in new England who trace their roots so easily back to the colonial era. The outdoorsmen of Michigan, Utah, and Colorado whose states offer veritable pleasure palaces for the active. The Native Americans straying from the rolling auburn plains of their reservation to the only saloon in East Glacier, Montana. The international seaport of Seattle with her Pike Place Market serving every craft and cuisine of the Pacific Rim. The immense Bay Area of California sifting her people into their proper places—the urbanites of The City, intellectuals of Berkeley, business travelers of Emeryville. The friendliest folk in the forgotten corner of middle America, Kansas City, MO, whose landscape gives them nothing to brag about. Texas with her wide city sprawls, her wide toothy grins, her wide commitment to the second amendment. The delta land of NOLA and her tourist economy, her perpetual party. Americans react to the landscapes, cultures and climates surrounding them. They preserve tradition while simultaneously modernizing their inheritance. Continue reading

Last Stop, New Orleans

The Haney Train rolled to a stop in New Orleans a little over two weeks ago. I detrained on the evening of the last eligible day to use my pass, August 21, with one nontransferable travel leg to spare. The end of the line.

Used to be the train kept going from New Orleans, on through Gulfport, Mobile, Tallahassee, and ended up in Jacksonville. But as my trip began with a rally to reinstate the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Jacksonville, it ended at the closest station to home.

Erin, Paul, Aimee

Several years ago, my friend Erin from high school boarded the Sunset Limited in Phoenix, AZ, thinking she’d make it all the way home to Florida. When Amtrak spat her out in NOLA, she decided to hang around for a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks, a place to stay, and a job. Now, a few years later, she still lives in the Crescent City. My scheduling annoyance turned out to be a pivotal and fortuitous happenstance in Erin’s life.

Captain Kunal, Me, adult beverages

My other friend from high school in NOLA, Kunal, moved there recently for a job marketing space walks, those inflated bouncy castles you find at kids’ birthday parties. When he offered to let me sleep in the recliner at his apartment in the west side of the city by Tulane University, I cancelled  my hostel reservation and saved $70 for the three nights (yep, hostels really are that cheap).

Continue reading

From St. Louis to Austin

Who’s a red panda? Yes he is.

Everywhere an arch arch.

Before I got to Austin, TX, I spent a few days in St. Louis under that ginormous arch. You can’t fathom how big that thing is until you stand beneath it; it’s the largest man-made monument in the U.S., visible in the city from several miles away. I had also gone to the St. Louis Zoo, deciding that my three favorite animals are the sloth bear (think performing bears juggling on roadsides wearing tubular hats), the beaver (what other creatures–besides ourselves–change their environment to suit their needs, rather than the other way around?), and the red panda, with that brilliant, ruddy coat, that bushy, powerful tail, and that scrunched-up Pokemon face. Yes, I love mammals.

Soul Cowboys at work.

I met up with another lovable mammal in St. Louis, Efren, a soul cowboy I befriended in my Chicago days. He drove in from the suburbs and met up with me on my final night in Missouri, relaying some fantastic details about his own 9-month sojourn through Mexico and Central America a couple years back. Originally heading down to Oaxaca to paint murals in a Catholic church, the community took him in as one of their own before he made a spontaneous decision to drive a girl to Mexico City so she could get the medical attention she needed. After six weeks in the capitol he went back to finish the job he was commissioned for before heading to a beach town on the Pacific and somehow falling in with a bar owner with pistols tattooed around his waist who gave him a job, food, and lodging. By remaining open to spontaneity, he came across characters and situations that made my journey seem ordinary. “But it seems like you’ve seen so much,” Efren said. And it’s true. In the words of Johnny Cash, I’ve been everyware, man. Continue reading

Why Did I Go to Kansas City?

On that day in Emeryville, CA, when I used the time given to me by missing the train to plan out every travel leg and sleeping accommodation, I made the choice to go to Kansas City, MO. There’s no easy way to get from Denver to Austin on Amtrak, which was my real goal, so Kansas City would provide a good transfer point and help me burn up a couple more legs of my pass so to help me feel like I got my money’s worth.

But the question remained: Why am I going to Kansas City?

Kansas City doesn’t exactly grab the traveler’s attention. It isn’t known for its sites of interest or night life. There were no hostels to be found in the city–the cheapest room I found was at the Econo Lodge on the other side of the Missouri River. And when the city bus dropped me off behind Harrah’s Casino at 11pm on a Friday night, and I still had a three-mile walk to the hotel, I wondered, Is this the reason I came to Kansas City? To gamble? Continue reading

Thoughts from the Final Train Ride

I write this from onboard the Sunset Limited, crawling down the track (the train does more crawling than sprinting, I’ve learned) toward New Orleans. My 45-day pass expires at the end of today, so even though I have one of my 18 legs remaining, New Orleans marks the end of my journey. I have friends in the Crescent City–Kunal and Erin–and Aimee’s coming over on Friday to stay the weekend and drive me home to Tallahassee on Sunday. A week from today I’ll be back in front of the classroom.

It’s surreal to think of the thousands of miles of track I’ve covered, the hundreds of hours I’ve spent, the mountains I’ve passed by and the rivers crossed in these bumbling tubes of endearing inefficiency. Most the trains have run late. Most my attempts to sleep in pretzel contortions on overnight trains have proven frustrating. The overhead announcements have started to annoy me. I no longer wish to sit in the observation deck and chit-chat. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Impromptu Planning in Denver

If I had planned out beforehand activities for every stop of my journey, I probably would have gone to Reno, NV for the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open, then booked it over to Denver and gone to see Neil Young at Red Rocks the following day.

Those would have been memorable events for sure. But would I have found America while watching millionaires play golf on a manicured mountain course for a $6 million purse, or after buying a $60 ticket to see America’s most beloved Canadian musician at one of America’s most famed concert venues?

You bet I would’ve.

As it was, when I missed the train in San Francisco, I haggled (read: aroused pity) for a cheap(er) hotel room next to the station and spent much of the day booking train tickets and hostels for the remainder of my trip. I looked not at the goings-on in the cities but focused exclusively on time tables. It was inevitable that I’d miss something spectacular somewhere–as inevitable as it was that I’d miss one of these 18 trains.

So when I finally got to the hostel in Denver at 8pm, took out my iPad, pulled up the concert calendar, and saw that Neil Young was set to tee off at Red Rocks at that very moment, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t planned the smallest iota ahead. But there were so many other bands playing inside the city that night anyway. I took note of a venue in north downtown touting their allegiance to Jerry Garcia, Quixote’s True Blue, and set off walking through the American city night. Continue reading

An Update on the COTSBTH

Last month on this blog, I brought to the world’s attention an emerging underground society about which little had previously been known, and with which my older brother Greg had recently gotten involved: The Cult of the Still-Beating Trout Heart.

Since that time my dear ol’ Uncle Dave of Alburg, VT, the diligent fact finder that he is, went straight to the source and gathered some important information concerning the strange cramps and cravings that could overcome my brother.

The following is a slightly abridged message from my uncle to my brother alerting him to what could be in store.

Hi Greg,….
 I also have some important news for you, healthwise. Recently I spoke with the local Abenaki Indian (yes, we can call them Indians up here) sub chief, (the big chief was unavailable because she’s in the slammer for embezzling tribal funds). When I asked him what he knew about the Cult of the Still Beating Trout Heart , a grave and inscrutable Indian look came upon his face as he informed me that you had jumped the line in the still beating fish heart fraternity by not first swallowing some lesser breeds; catfish, carp and suckers to name a few. But don’t worry! These are gentle Indians not given to vengeful acts, but you probably won’t be getting any free chits at the local casino. He did say that it is not unusual for newcomers to the COTSBTH to eventually find themselves with an insatiable hunger for nightcrawlers and earthworms and often don’t have a ready supply available. Here’s where the importance of extended family comes in. I’m sure you remember meeeting Maretta’s brother, Len. Well, it just so happens that his son in law, Kurt( who came up here the day after you guys left) has a business name Kurt’s Crawlers ( I’m not making this up[ well, some of it]) and ships worms to  customers all around the country for composting and soil enrichment.. You see where I’m going with this? I guess this makes you first step cousins-in-law and as such probably eligible for a family discount. So, when you find yourself in the middle of the night crawling on the floor frothing at the mouth and all cramped up and don’t know why, call me. I can help. Or better yet, wait ’til morning to call me. According to the subchief, the problem should go away after a few heaping meals of crawlers, which are pretty tasty on Combos or Cheezits, by the way.
 Love, your ever helpful uncle, Dave