First Pass: Across the USA by Rail and the Pacific by Freighter
By Marie Javins, GoNOMAD TRANSPORTS GUIDE
The industry I had freelanced in for my entire adult life was dying. Massive layoffs, company bankruptcies, and incessant restructuring left me disenchanted, feeling older than my 34 years, and in need of a spiritual recharge. My friends and contemporaries were gleefully getting married, buying houses, and spawning. Meanwhile, I barely wanted a houseplant, much less a husband or child.
I owned a condo in Manhattan, purchased when the economy was down and my industry was not, but if I wanted to eat, I would need to get a new job. Possibly one where I’d have to go to an office every day and couldn’t wear my pajamas to work.
Drastic measures were needed. Travel energizes me, supercharges my creativity, and sharpens my wits. I schemed and assigned myself a new job: that of professional traveler. I’d write about a trip around the world, the long way. By land and sea, ship, train, bus, and donkey — anything but a plane.
ACROSS THE USA BY RAIL
I sold my condo and stored my possessions. After missing my first scheduled train, I headed west a day later on Amtrak’s “Southwest Chief.” The Chief is an enormous double-decker “Superliner” that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, following the old Santa Fe Trail and Route 66.
I had never taken a long-distance train in the US before, and in spite of reading Amtrak’s pamphlet about on board Indian country tour guides and complimentary meals, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Packing and planning had left me dazed, exhausted and anti-social. I didn’t feel curious, adventurous, or in the mood to explore. I locked myself in my sleeper compartment and stared at the snow-covered scenery.
The Dining Car Steward came around, asking for dinner reservations. He knocked on the door to the cabin across the hall.
“Oh, I’m sorry, lady,” he announced loudly for all to hear. “You are naked.”
The cabin was empty, and he chuckled at his own joke. The other passengers laughed. The Southwest Chief was a friendly train, with a good-natured staff. I reserved my meal for 8:30, thinking that the dining car would be less crowded then. Maybe I could be alone with my meal and my deadened social capabilities.
The dining car was nearly empty. The steward saw me enter the car, glanced around, did some sort of mysterious calculation in his head, and seated me with two other solo travelers. This was my first taste of the real appeal of the long-distance Amtrak experience. It’s a summer camp on wheels, where you spend days eating and interacting with complete strangers.
I had dinner with a high school guidance counselor from Orange County and a working actor who had played the mummy’s accomplice in “The Mummy.” Both freely admitted an irrational fear of flying, a common phobia among long-distance train travelers. I have no such fear, but found it difficult to explain the somewhat perverse nature of my own plane-less journey.
We lingered for an hour over tasty penne pasta and good conversation. My dinner companions were sleeper car veterans, and they taught me to tip two dollars at the end of my free meal, and five to ten dollars to my car attendant at the end of the trip. They also told me that while all sleepers fit two people (and a baby, if necessary), single travelers never have to share. This was a relief to me, as I’d been eyeing the top bunk in my compartment and wondering if someone was going to show up to claim it.
We all left our two-dollar tips and went our separate ways. The actor went to the Lounge car for some late-night socializing and a video. The guidance counselor and I both headed back to our cars, where our padded window seats had been converted to lower bunks, complete with pillows, sheets, blankets and mints. I turned off all the lights and stared out of the window at passing towns, trailer parks, and railroad crossings, finally falling asleep to the Doppler Effect sound of the horn blowing through Missouri and Kansas.
ACROSS THE PACIFIC BY SHIP
A week later, I left Los Angeles on the “Direct Kiwi,” an Australia-bound cargo ship loaded with one thousand containers, 21 sailors of various nationalities, three retired American couples, and me. I was still tired. Perhaps I wasn’t really a traveler, but an export. No one x-rayed my bags, or looked at my passport. No one asked me if I’d done my own packing. I was loaded onto the ship at night and ignored, save for the furtive glances of the curious crew.
I awoke in the morning to the gentle but erratic motion of the ship rolling in rough surf. No matter; it was big ship; surely I wouldn’t get seasick.
I’m not sure what led me to conclude this, since I ALWAYS get seasick when at sea.
Three days and one Transderm seasickness patch later, I had recovered enough to live a normal freighter cruise life. My daily routine consisted of three meals a day interspersed with napping, reading, and laying in the sun. I learned to ignore the ever-present hum and vibration of the engine. Nights were spent losing card games to other passengers, or watching videos (“The Perfect Storm” being the most inappropriate) with the young Russian officers.
Just before bedtime, I’d go out on deck, alone but for the orange glows from cigarettes of crewmembers enjoying evening smokes. The stars lit up the sea. The Pacific covers a third of the earth. I had no problem believing this, as there was no bird, land, or ship in any direction.
While we were in the Northern hemisphere, the crew was quiet. Like me, they were anti-social, almost surly. But after we passed the equator, the sun came out and they stripped down to their bikini briefs and became goofy, chatty, normal, young men.
The second officer inexplicably chose the deck I was reading on to do his daily pull-ups. The first officer lay almost naked on the deck below, eyes closed, basking in the sun like a furless sea lion. I almost stepped on him, and beat a hasty retreat, wondering if it would be proper to photograph nearly naked Russian seamen without their consent. An albatross adopted our boat, flying around and around. The tiny swimming pool was filled, both with water and Russians.
I had also thawed with the weather, and I got to know the Russian seamen well over the next few weeks. Our conversations were bizarre but honest — their English was stilted and my Russian was limited to “no,” “thank you,” and “crazy chicken.” There was no room for complexities or subtlety, as it was beyond their English capabilities. My New York cynicism retired, and I surprised myself by becoming known for my smile. I spent many afternoons conversing with the crew.
“Have you ever encountered pirates?” I asked the Chief Engineer one day after lunch. Pirates were the flavor of the month back home, as they had gotten press in some magazines and in the New York Times.
“Yes, but not on this ship.” He explained that pirates don’t actually show their faces. They sneak alongside in a small boat at night, and when everyone is asleep, they rob the containers. The pilot, seven decks above on the bridge, doesn’t spot them until the boat is speeding away.
“But what if you catch the pirates?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said the Chief, very seriously. I hoped he was joking.
I lazed around the rest of the day, and at night went out on deck to watch the stars and the added attraction of heat lightning. I’d made the leap from frenzied New Yorker to relaxed traveler easily enough. But as a freelance artist in a fringe, cultish industry, living in a bohemian Manhattan neighborhood, I barely operated in normal society anyway. It wasn’t such a large leap to take. And I was making friends, but not the kind you keep. Just the transient kind. Never alone, but always alone. My self-imposed fate for the coming year. I was too philosophical tonight. It was time for bed.
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