Between Two Cities
The entire thirty four hour ride I sat next to a lady who seemed experienced in the art of traveling by train. She claimed a seat in a desolate corner of the observation car clearly not wanting to speak to anyone. Not one word fell from the silently still woman’s mouth. I would occasionally walk down below to grab a Bloody Mary from Claude, the cafe bartender, while she on the other hand, wisely pulled out IPA after IPA from a travel cooler parked by her side. I’ve never seen such a loyal travel companion. This woman, without saying a word, taught me how to travel by train; sitting there writing her heart out, staring out of the window at the moving landscape, only to plunge her head back into the thought stained pages from a pen that bled ink. This is my first train ride. If only I had been born with the innate ability to foresee that I could of brought my own beer on board.
With my last twenty three dollars in my pocket, I am on way my back to Portland riding my way up the west coast. I will have probably spent it all on beer and junk food by the time I get off this train. My head was full of these crazed thoughts all yelling out at once. Telling me what to do with my life. Every thought that existed of my past began to presently fill my mind with the infinite possibilities of my unstable future. Sitting there fighting myself to maintain my composure on which way to go, I took to staring outside the window at the passing landscape. Seeing the world go by helped to take my mind off things as I took swigs of beer. Viewing the unstoppable overlooked existence of stranger's daily lives through a yellow tinted window somehow brought even more comfort to the reality in which I had got myself into.
“At last, my love has come along." The dimming daylight is heavy with the setting sun's golden hue that flares it's warm embrace against my skin. The train is moving at a slow pace now, progressively getting slower and slower. Looking out of the window I could see dilapidated houses fit for working class families in what was once a prosperous time. Swing sets with broken chains, yards uncared for. Crawling even subtly slower, the train passes a parking structure of a hotel that is attempting to define a city skyline for recognition; we are getting closer into a town. The lowly dangling sun on the horizon begins to dance in and out of the buildings. Two kids bravely balancing on a parking structure’s ledge in the height of their evening waved at the train while the momentum kept us moving along. I waved back. Slower now like a record player that has been stopped and the record but still remains to spin, for a breif moment the train's rhythm has now matched the pace of Etta James. I look down beside the train as we pass the guard rail of a freeway on ramp at a man who catches my attention. He is laying in his cardboard shelter shielded from the freeway by a guard rail on the opposite side, serving as protection from the hot California sun and speeding cars. I could see his toes are within inches of the train tracks as he stretches out on the dirt to rest. I look to make eye contact with the man, but he does not care for any of it. I look around the observation car to see if anyone else is experiencing this, but no one can. Only I can hear Etta James in my headphones singing the sweet melodic soundtrack for the juxtaposition of life bombarding my senses. I turn back towards the world outside the window. The train moves even slower now to make sure I don't miss any of it. I want to dig in my bag beside me for my camera, but there is no time. I see a mexican food hole in the wall and my stomach begins to growl. Nostalgia for LA tacos begins to kick in, but before I could bask in the comfort of the past, my attention is taken away by the two men in aprons standing behind the restaurant. One man hands the other a giant bottle and darts back into the restaurant. The other, still standing beside a cargo truck, knocks back his head and takes a swig from the industrial sized bottle of Jack Daniels. At last the train stops, the train station reads "Salinas, CA."
Floating through the twist and turns of mountain ranges echoes nothing but the deafening silence of the train’s grey noise through the endless black night. The sound of metal grinding on metal unconsciously eases the mind into the lucidity of the own imagination. It's the sound you are unaware of as you sit staring into a fire before you realize you were lost in thought. It's the sound of a gentle coastal breeze that calms you down as you lay there on the beach. The underlying sound on a VHS that make you sick with the memories of watching movies with your family as a child. That is the sound of the Coast Starlight. Only this VHS is 30 hours long.
We pulled into a town whose name was covered in snow. I watched the featherlike white frozen flakes gently fall onto the train platform with my head pressed up against the window. Beyond the double paned window where my head rest were people exiting the train only to be greeted by the their loved ones who toughed out the two hour delayed arrival. The thought of getting off to take a picture of the wintery wonderland crosses my mind, but I am unable to summon up the motivation to move my tired body. Being on a train is demanding on your body as you are constantly adjusting to stay balanced as the train rocks from side to side. I look down at my watch to see it's 2:30 in the morning. Then suddenly I hear a loud clashing of heavy suitcases hitting the ground, bringing my attention back outside the window. Somebody’s belongings roll away from the train out into my view leaving pavement trails in the snow. Haunting screams ring out through the passenger car, "My knee, oh my god, my knee! I broke my knee! Ahhh… oh god!" I look at the people sitting around me to see if anyone else cares for the shrilling sound breaking the silence of the quiet wintery night. Looking back outside the window I can see people waiting to board the train looking in the woman’s direction as she screams in pain. These people have waited in the snow for a train that should've arrived hours earlier, I could tell by the looks on their faces. They were more disturbed that this lady was in their way from boarding the train. She continues to scream. Finally my will to investigate brings a spurt of energy to my body, enough to slowly make my way down to the lower level towards the door.
I feel like a fish swimming up stream as the people who have just boarded are barging their way past me all at once trying to squeeze up the narrow stairway to their seats. At this hour nobody says a words to each other, everyone is too in their own heads half asleep. I make it down to the lower level. There is a sudden jolt that knocks me off balance as I get near the door. The train starts to move.
"Hey" a man says as he is walking along side the train.
"We are leaving. Why weren't you on the train?" asks the train attendant.
Walking a little faster the man replies, "I was taking a picture of the snow! I’ve been on the train since LA."
"Conductor, we have a man here that needs on" the attendant radios to the conductor. "Where is he going?" The conductor radios back.
"Portland, PORTLAND!" The man is now running to keep pace with the train. “portland” the radio cracks.
The tension is building as I and two train attendants stare through a tiny window in the door at a man running along side the train. If the attendant doesn't open the door, dammit I will! The train picks up speed, so do my thoughts. Everything is moving faster and faster. Everything except for time. There, in that narrow hallway where moments earlier a woman was screaming in pain. There, in that tiny hallway where the cold wind blowing through the small window is becoming more fierce. I look at the two people standing in front of me; we all look at each other and wait. The sound of the trains metal wheels moving from metal railroad tie to metal railroad tie like the heartbeat thumping in our chest. There is a long pause as the attendant waits for the the conductors response. "Hey man, come on! OPEN UP!!!" demands the heavy set african american man struggling to keep pace with the train. Silence still. "Conductor!" the attendant radios back to the front of the train. At this hour, nobody talks.
I could feel the helplessness of the other Amtrak employee standing next to the attendant and I. She silently stood there, only as a witness to the orders the attendant at the door would have to follow from the front of the train. I knew the man outside the train. He has been onboard for the past day with his brother, who is upstairs. I had spent some time talking to them earlier on in the ride. We talked about how we were both from Los Angeles but had moved to Portland years ago in pursuit of a better life. “It is nice to be able to walk out of your front door and not have to worry about being shot at” his brother told me as we had a beer together in the cafe car earlier that day. Now, the possibility of spending the early morning hours of the night in a remote mountain pass is fast approaching with each step he takes closer to the end of the platform. Finally, the conductor’s voice breaks through the thick heavy silence of the snowy mountain pass, "No time, we are out of here!" The horn blows and the train accelerates.
We are in disbelief, but nobody still says a word. The movement of the train jerking side to side begins to get more intense. Each jerk hitting us like a wave on turbulent waters in rough seas as we watch one of our own drift overboard into the freezing stormy waters pleading for us to thrown him a life raft. "To hell with that!" The attendant opens the door and the man leaps onto the train and falls from the difference in momentum. Without saying a word to any of us, he gets up and walks back to his seat. At this hour, nobody talks. I went back to my seat as well and tried to get some sleep. There, with my head resting against the window, I tried catching glimpses of what was out there in the darkness. Anything that the light of the train could grab ahold of and bring back to my eyes, but there was nothing. I looked up to see the starlit sky beginning to appear as the train sliced through the clouds of a remote mountain region. The fog had been lifted and my thoughts began to wander.
“What city do you think that is down there off into the horizon? There! You can see the city lights radiating into the clouds above it way off in the distance.” I pointed south towards California as we all looked off into the Oregon summer night sky with our backs to the campfire. The air around us is warm and calm without a breeze to bring on the chill. It’s almost perfect. The sun had spared as much light as it possibly could on this long summer night before setting completely. Just enough to have time to have the moon take over for another hour while we set up our camp on top of the mountain peak. But now, both the moon and sun have set in the comfort of knowing that our fire protected us from the expansive valleys of complete darkness that surrounds us. We can only see each other and what the fire light touches and the stars watching us on the outer edges of the sky keeping us company. We were in our own little world surrounded by only what our imagination can perceive is out there. “Maybe it’s possibly Bend?” replies my roommate looking out into the distance as though we were trying to point out constellations. Today was his birthday.
We drank the night away, slugging away two handles of whiskey as strangers sitting around the campfire getting to know each other. There were seven of us and we all didn’t know each other too well. By the end of the first bottle of whiskey were were all singing songs from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and telling stories around the campfire. At one point, while the group conversations naturally broke into smaller talk, I gazed back off towards the city lights I had spotted out earlier in the night. I stared at the still radiant clouds for some time, long enough for actual clouds deep in the distance to roll in front of what I was looking at, creating a darker silhouette of the moving cloud formation. I was confused. My eyes focused in on the radiant clouds hidden behind the cloudy silhouette. I followed it’s path stretching from the southern horizon and up along the roof of the sky to above my head. This was the first time I’ve seen the Milky Way. The clear Oregon air leaves nothing for taking the night sky in with your own eyes. My heart is overwhelmed with the realization as the warm rhythmic conversation fills the campfire air. My thoughts drift on a faint breeze that brings in a slight chill to the campfire. My head makes it’s way down onto a rock to rest itself as my eyes remained fixed on the millions of stars dancing over our heads.
I began to think back to when I was a child living in LA with a telescope. Where the only thing I could see through the polluted night sky was the moon and occasional spec of the North Star desperately trying to keep hold of it’s job as a beacon of direction. I would look out into space wondering what else is out there. My dad would always tell me “Son, there are millions of stars out there. You just can’t see them because of the city lights, but if you focus long enough and let your eyes soak up the light you might be able to see a few more. The key is focusing long enough.” The campfire gives off a loud pop bringing me back to the group. My eyes stay fixed onto the heavens letting the light soak into my eyes. More stars come out of hiding and fill the sky leaving very little space of darkness in between each celestial body who cry out for attention after ages of not being seen. One after another would dash across the sky. I began to feel insignificant sitting there in the expanse of the universe. My thoughts drift back to those LA nights sitting outside with my dad looking at the stars. I felt significant once more. The memory of father and son stargazing and the wonder of what else is out there. Another shooting star zips through the milky way. The sky is shimmering with stars as though they were the big city lights I grew up looking at from the mountains above LA. I fall once more back into my own personal universe; the fantasies, the dreams, the problems, the stress, the fears… day to day life. Everything is crushed under the immense weight of the universe coming down on me. I started to think about everyone I know back in LA who grew up with the disillusionment of the city lights. The gravity of my thoughts pull me deeper into the vast universe of my life. "You have the Dorothy Syndrome." My old man’s words echoed through my thoughts. At the time I couldn't tell if he was serious. "You always want life over the rainbow, but once you are there... you realize there is no place like home..." The reminiscent thought softly echoes through and through as the train continues along snow covered mountains of a cold dark night.
“Move a little to your left! No. Your other left!” It’s my co workers. They are on the edge of a cliff that is being repeatedly kissed by the Pacific Ocean. This is the picture I want to convey of the great times we had together.“This is what it means to be young” I say to myself. “When the past comes together with your perceived future, creating the present moment to make that future come a reality. And in that present moment you realize how terrifying but thrilling being in the moment is. You are reminded that you are alive. Each and every responsible decision sitting there on the foundation of the past is a decision that pushes you closer to what you want your future to be. All that is necessary is to recognize the significance of what is right in front of you.” But they can’t seem to position themselves the way I want. In my frustration I move forward to instruct them where to stand. I get too close to the edge as I move behind them to get them in the right framing. The cliff begins to give as rocks begin to crumble behind me. I slip backwards reaching out for a hand, something or someone to grab. It’s too late and we cannot reach each other, nobody can reach me and I fall. Down I go, hundred of feet down towards the jagged rocks into complete sweet silence within the darkness of death.
In that very same existence of death I wake up in a school. No, a hospital. A hospital that looks like my middle school back in Pasadena. I walk out of my room to search for someone who can tell me where I am. There are people walking around the halls, too busy with their work to notice me. I look through square cut windows in the doors to glance and see hospital rooms as I curiously make my way down the hall. I see doctors tending to other patients on hospital beds. Sunshine is beaming through the threshold of the door at the end of the hallway only to explode onto the polished marble floors, illuminating the entire hallway. There is another door to a lush courtyard full of sunlight that catches my attention down another hallway. I slowly walk towards the light. A man stops me. He knows me, but I don’t know him. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you! It has been a long time,” he speaks as though we are good friends. “Why are you hiding your wings? Bring them out, we have to go.” I feel my back only to feel my shoulder blades under bare skin. “I don’t have wings, you are mistaken.” The man laughs and amusingly replies “Stop joking, we must go now. Pull out your wings.” Right as he says that I feel a pinch in my back. In an instant, wings sprout out of from his back. “You are one of us! You can fly. You forgot how to pull out your wings? You must think hard about them” I concentrate… an all too real pain shoots to my back for a split second. Then a tingling sensation… I reach to my back to feel the softness of feathers. “Nice job, you remember! Now hurry up and don’t keep me waiting. I’ll be flying around outside waiting for you.” Like a locomotive steaming up the momentum to get in motion, his wings flapped. In the narrow chamber like hallway the sound of wind rushing through became deafening. My back begins to ache in pain. I can feel them coming out more as I concentrate. I fall to one knee from the enormous weight of the white feathered wings on my back. I reach out my hands towards the ground to prevent myself from falling any further, upon impact I wake up to the train’s steady rhythmic motion rocking me side to side as I awkwardly sit hunched over in my seat.
The sun was barely coming over the horizon to the east in a dark red cloud bleeding from an explosion that cracked the sky. I looked to the west and there was a rainbow stretching out over a lake. I had spent so much time on the train around the same people in such a small confined space with nothing to do but let my imagination run wild. My reality was blending with my dreams. I turned to the older woman sitting next to me who was awake drinking coffee, "Where are we?" She replies, "We are in Oregon."