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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Three Stories From The Train

Image description: old rickety looking tracks with caption:
"Ride the train, it will be fun they said."
I love the train. I love the time to myself to read and think and write.  I would probably take trains all kinds of places around the country if I didn't have a Princess Mononoke to care for. It's a fun way to travel and if you don't mind taking a day or three to arrive, it's really quite lovely. It's taken discovering trains these past couple of years to make me realize how much of my aversion to travel has more to do with the fact that everything about flying is unpleasant.

Here are three stories from my adventures coming to Denver aboard an Amtrak train.

Story number 1:  

This one contains much conjecture. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe everything was above board. But I tend to pick up on people's body language–sometimes knowing what they're feeling before they realize it. (Unless they're hitting on ME, but the Brecheen inversion principle* is not what this post is about.)

When you eat in the dining car (which is part of the roomette price) they make you sit in groups of four. So last night I was across from a Scottish couple. I never got whether they were married, but they lived together, and had gotten to the point in cohabitation where they were using communal farm land in the city, a twenty minute drive from their house.

The guy next to me was from Los Angeles and had been doing a tour of hiking locations. Not just day hikes or anything but the real stuff with the hundred pound packs and the camping and junk. He shared a story about bringing 7000 calories a day on a hike into Mt. Shasta but only being able to stomach 1200 because appetite suppression is one of the first symptoms of altitude sickness. Of course once you're not eating enough, you can get really sick, so it was quite an adventure trying to force himself to eat enough to not lose two pounds a day.

The hiker and the woman from the Scottish couple seemed pretty into each other. I don't really mean "seemed" or "pretty," but one thing I've learned over the years of observing people closely (both with the intention of bettering my writing descriptions as well as due to the ultra-sensitive emotional empathy that comes being an abuse survivor) is that playing Sherlock Holmes/House M.D. with people's body language and telling them what they're feeling is obnoxious enough to point out even when one is right. Also it is wrong–or embarrassing enough that people deny it and get pissed off–JUST enough to be unreliable (along with a certain number of people who throw off "wrong" cues for various reason), so I try not to assume. But there were long glances turning down when one caught the other staring. She was playing with her hair. Extra laughter at his not that funny jokes. She asked him enough questions that she was either very into hiking or very into him.

I was the only one not drinking, and I excused myself after the cinnamon crust cheesecake and the three of them stayed talking. Later when I went back to get a soda, I saw they had moved to the lounge (and gotten at least one more round).

Around 3am (maybe six hours after dinner ended) we pulled into Salt Lake City, and I happened to wake up because it was the stop of a number of people around me. I knew we had a few minutes to detrain and get some fresh air (part of that is story #2) But the platform wasn't long enough to open up all the sleeper cars, I guess, and only the coach cars were actually being opened up. So I walked through the lounge on my way to the coach car and found the woman and hiker guy were still up. No sign of the third guy. They were speaking in hushed tones and leaning in to each other. That was the last I saw of them that night.

I can't tell you what happened. But the next morning at a smoke break in Grand Junction (where I got my power cord at Doug's Depot) the Scottish couple had a Berlin Wall of body language between them.

I never saw the hiker again.

I'm me, so I thought of all sorts of stories that fit what I observed. Possessive guy has dudebro fit that "his woman" stayed out past when he thought was appropriate even though all she did was talk. A flirty night that ended with hiker guy making a pass and when she told her partner, he blamed her for it. Outright infidelity and a steamy train encounter that would be a lot less steamy and a lot more logistical nightmare if you knew how small the roomettes were. Maybe an approved non-monogamous liaison, but some line got crossed like "be back by breakfast."

I finally grew attached to the following story though it is probably the least plausible: that after a half a dozen two-girl threesomes all up and down Scotland and wherever they visited, each in which the guy promised he would be totally fine if she wanted to do one with two guys one day, she finally found a guy she was into. They tried to do all get busy but the room is pretty implausible for two, never-mind three, and so she asked him if she could just be alone with the hiker for a few minutes and then he'd get a turn, but that made things weird, and the Scottish guy called the whole thing off. She found that deeply uncool given all the threesomes they'd had with her old sorority sisters and high school friends. So at Grand Junction she was still seething.

Anyway, I hope they're all better for it. But from what I saw, that would only happen if and when they came through a tunnel of much less happy emotions.

*The Brecheen Inversion Principle posits that Chris will always be wrong about whether or not someone has even the slightest romantic interest in him, even if attempting to account for the Brecheen Inversion Principle.

Story number 2:

In which I damned near spent 24 hours wandering around Salt Lake City looking for something to do.


So they let you off the train every few stops. People who smoke use the opportunity to chain two or three cigs down as fast as possible. Sometimes it's for a few minutes, but if they're running ahead they won't leave before scheduled departure, so sometimes you get fifteen or twenty minutes. In fact, we were early enough getting into Denver that some of the folks who were going on to Chicago still got off with me got to do some shopping because they had over an hour to be back.

In Salt Lake City I was still trying to get a power cord for my phone, and I wondered if there might be a store or something inside the train station. Or maybe one of those tricked out vending machines that actually carries electronics accessories like you see in airports these days.

"How long do we have?" I asked my car's assistant.

"We pull out at three ten," he said. "With or without you."

I looked at my watch: it was only 2:05. "We got here early!" I said.

In what should have been a clue to me that I was about to fuck up royally, he looked at me like I'd gone nuts.

I took off towards the depot at a brisk clip passing the last of the Salt Lake City passengers boarding and headed away from the platform. If you've never been to Salt Lake City's Amtrak station, it is not adjacent to the platform, but is about 75 meters or so walk away and across another set of tracks. As I walked up to the door, I saw the vending machines had something more than just candy bars and sodas and I felt my heart leap.

That's when I heard the whistle and the "All Aboard," the conductor yelled.

My blood froze. WHAT? I should have had an hour left. I had to cross back in what was probably about 15 seconds. The "all aboard" is generally a formality. Everyone but that one desperate smoker grabbing that last straggling puff is on the train by the time they even say it.

So I turned. And I ran. And I waved my arms and cried out "Wait!" like a tourist with no shame.

Of course seasoned travelers have already figured out what I messed up.

Fortunately, the conductor had been keeping half an eye on me. And as I came chuffing back he gave me the "I'm waiting but totally annoyed at you" wave.

"What were you thinking?" he asked as I came up and jumped on.

"The guy said three ten." I said. "I thought I had like an hour."

The conductor shook his head, I couldn't see his eyes because he was scanning the platform for anyone more clueless than me, but I could hear him rolling his eyes. "You crossed a time zone when we left Nevada. It IS three ten."

Oh right! That thing my phone (and my watch that is usually hooked up to it) just normally take care of for me couldn't happen because my phone couldn't be charged.

So I walked back to my room through like eight train cars feeling sheepish, but glad that I didn't have to find a hotel in Salt Lake City and try to schedule a way to get myself the rest of the way to Denver.

Story Number 3:

Friday at lunch I got matched up with a whole new group of three other passengers, and they seemed less interested in letting me just read my book. One was kind of getting into one of those "only STEM degrees have merit" sort of rants. (One downside of the train is that people do not follow the conventional etiquette about what topics to avoid in mixed company.) He asked me if I had a degree.

"Yeah," I said. "English. Creative writing."

"Oh yeah," he said. "What did you do with that?"

"I'm a writer," I said, enjoying the feel of being able to answer that.

That only got me a few seconds though from the STEM-only guy. "No, I mean like what do you do for a living."

"Actually, I write," I said.

"Is it creative writing?" he asked.

"Yeah, it is," I said to him. "Look, I know what you're trying to ask me, and I do some teaching and some child care gigs, but over half my income comes from creative writing." I shrugged. "I really am a writer."

"So you like, write books?" he asked.

"Sort of," I said. "I have a blog, and it's popular enough that I was able to launch a Kickstarter to get an advance on my first book."

"What's your blog about?" he asked, and I wondered if he wasn't still trying to get me to admit that I sold out long ago and made money using my liberal arts degree to write about malamute mating patterns under geothermic stress conditions or something.

"It's about writing mostly," I said. "But I have all these weird characters and personas through which I do the actual writing. Even the main voice isn't really me, exactly. And I put up some of my fiction, and talk about the things that happen to me sometimes."

"What's it called?"

"Writing About Writing."

That's when the woman across from me got excited. "Oh my god, I've READ that! It's really funny."

"Really?" I asked.

She looked a little sheepish. "I've only read a couple of articles. Sorry! You had one about what the author meant that a fellow teacher friend shared with me, and I saw something from a few friends about you helping some woman on BART. I think there was one more I saw, but I can't remember it. I don't follow it or anything."

Needless to say my cynical debunking was truly over, and I felt like if I'd stood up right then, I would have ripped through the ceiling of the train car.


Stories are all around us all the time. All it takes is a moment to take a step out of the cynicism that people are predictable to realize that people are predictably fascinating.

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