Monday, July 30, 2012

Via Seattle

Every voyage has at its beginning a terse fatalism, a thought that this time it's for keeps. This time you're not coming back. The bags are packed, the appliances unplugged, the changes of clothes washed and pressed. You're getting aboard and you're going to vanish. 

The comfortable sights of home flash past as you come to the next town. This too is fairly well-known but from this point on it will become less-so, diminishing the bank of the familiar until it is run down and every sight is a new one. New cities, new faces, new weather. A mountain for which you have no name comes into sight. Perhaps you come from a place that does not have mountains, and now, emerging as terrible as biblical reckoning, as unbelievable as storybook, here is a shape, a form, whose every contour shouts out MOUNTAIN. You breathe in, satisfied that this is why you have left home.

Now you have to think, did you do everything? Are you really prepared for uncertainty and your life previous for abandonment? Check your pockets. Pat your bag. Didn't you have a hat? And what about that friend whom you owe $10? Then there's that charity you said you'd give your time to in October. And that shirt, the one which you got at the thrift store for a song and whose tag is written all in Italian. The one that makes you look like you've come to ask a favor of Don Corleone. You leant it to a friend who needed to make an impression on a job interview. Or was it a date? He must have had it by now. You will have to find out how it went. He may have your hat. You will be going back afterall. What a relief.

The train goes on carrying me northward, snug as a tapeworm in the gut of my host. I love the shaking chassis, the muffled sound of the whistle from inside the carriage, the stream of urban lighting flickering past the window, the smells of antiseptic and perfume and marijuana and body. I love taking off my boots of going about the cars in my socks, despite the irritation of the attendants. I love bringing my own provisions aboard - ryevita, almond butter, goat cheese, strawberries, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, granola, a mango, 70% dark chocolate, beer. I love most everything about this magic conveyence that bears me away through the night. Even those things that I wouldn't love elsewhere - the malfunctioning toilets, the lack of timeliness, the re-circulated air - I forgive. Afterall, for long distance travel trains are a sentiment.

Here on the Coast Starlight - Amtrak's West Coast Service - I can read, or talk to other passengers, play ukulele, or just look at a landscape which rises and fades at a stately pace. Klamath Lake, Cascades, Willamette Valley, Eugene, Portland, Olympia, Seattle, near cultivation and distant wilderness. Occasionally the train parallels the highway, but mercifully these miles are few and so I am given a view that is largely natural if not purely wild. Thoreau hated trains, but he didn't know what was coming. There are few modes of travel which still allow for such comfort. Ferries may be the only other comparable transportation now that dirigibles are gone from fashion. Cruises don't count since they lack even a pretense of practicality.

I've come onto this train because I had a yen to head up to Seattle to see some friends and to get some film developed at a favored processor. Really though, I was obeying an imperative migratory urge. I was feeling as Steinbeck had when he wrote Travels with Charlie, a need "to be somewhere, anywhere, away from any here." Seattle was just a happy pretext. I needed to go more than to be someplace, and to that end I could have chosen Wichita, or Calgary, or Istanbul. Too, I went because I love coming back as much as going out. I needed to leave so I could return.

This particular route offers what for many is the vision of a train ride across North America: long, hollow stretches of railway cut through a corridor of towering evergreens. The scenery is magnificent. When a valley drops to one side of the tracks, one can look out on mountains that were they east of the plains would have been appropriated as national icons during the formative years of the Republic. But since the incoming populations came largely from the east, passing more grandiose monoliths en route that well-matched the growing nationanalism, these modest pinnacles are not much noted save by logging companies. A middling 7,000-9,000 feet, barely keeping their snows through the year. Some mountains.

At Portland a duo of volunteers get on to give the history of the Northwest in the cafe car. Their commentary goes from diverting to tolerable to escapable and I creep back to my seat to read. However, there's further interruption. The landscape becomes familiar, but then with enough travel every place takes on a shade of home. Look - there's the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. There's Mount Rainier and there's Puget Sound, mirror-flat in the sunset. (Thought: how far could one go in a rowboat from Olympia? To Victoria? To Alaska?) There's Seattle rising up from its nest of shipping containers. The clock tower looks the same. King Station is under renovation. Is that cafe still open in the University District? The one with the exceptionally attractive staff?

The train comes to stop, and I exit with my bag onto the street.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Word

I have a new acquisition. A new enhancement to my retinue of a packable life: a keyboard.

 I had gotten myself a tablet a month ago for the purpose of being able to always stay one step ahead of my debts. The typing could be slow on it - hunt-and-peck, using just the index fingers, with frequent mis-spellings and incomprehensible auto-corrections. Then, I got myself an auxiliary keyboard. The words can fly out from under my fingers again, almost as quicky as I think them. I find myself typing words for the joy of having the keys clack and the feeling of speed in my hands.

"Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party,"

 "We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalieble rights..."

 "Whan that Abrille with the showrs soote, the drouthe of Mars hath perced to the roote..."

 Why the Hell can't I play anything more complicated than Frere Jacques on the piano but can type out, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," with fluency?

Regardless, I like it. No concert hall seats are going to be sold to watch me type out a daring improvisation, but for personal satisfaction it shall do nicely. It makes me feel more akin to the old writers, like Jack London prowling San Francisco with his Underwood under his arm. But several degrees better.

Lest the reader think me boastful and vainglorious, I don''t mean to imply I've written the great American novel and laugh at all preceding writers as but preludes to myself. What I mean is, compared to the processes the old boys used - typewriters, pen and paper - I'm much better off. I can write up a novella in an hour if I felt so inspired and then have it published in multiple languages within the same day.

 I like that my arrangement of tablet and keyboard makes me feel like some starving artist on the Left Bank of some river in whatever city the poets gather to self-congratulate. Typewriters are still pleasing to me, and not just because of my affection for the obsolete. But because of the swish-clack of the keys and the cranking sheets of paper. It's an audio as well as visual experience. The stacks of dirtied paper, however, has always troubled me and kept me from making anything serious on a typewriter, historical precedent be damned. Not to mention the difficulty of finding replacement parts for busted machines. I'd rather be a writer than a technician.

 But I love words, I love language, and I love machines that make the verbal into the visible, especially when they go swish-clack. I have never felt so powerful holding a gun as I have sitting at a keyboard. Lucky for me, it is much more socially acceptable to sit down at a table in a cafe and pull out my sidearm of choice. Call it excersizing my constitutional right.

 So my embracing of new technology has only come as I view it as a return to the classic. Everything old is new again, no?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fellowship of Travel

One of the things I appreciate about travel is the commonality of the travelers. Of whatever background, age, education, or income, we are all, at least for awhile, of the same kind. We are uprooted drifters, en route, in the same boat, so to speak, or bus, or train.

We form a fellowship of the displaced. A great joy of going is not only in seeing what I have never seen before, but experiencing it with others, and finding their stories along the way. The professor of German from the university of Chicago, the Indiana Mennonite showing his son the country, the classical violinist, the Oklahoman, the runaway, the drunk. I prefer their stories to my own. I know mine. Theirs are novel, unknown but knowable, and no matter where I may be or what I am up to, another's adventures are always the more fascinating.

 I imagine that a large part of this has to do with my chosen modes of travel. So much as I can, I like to keep as little separation between my feet and the earth as possible. I like to see the land i'm passing over, to make out the leaves on the trees and how the grass bends with the wind and how the people i pass squint their eyes in the sun. I remain skeptical of the reliance of air travel. To sail the skies in a fire retardant aluminum envelope still sounds to me like the work of fiction, though it is now more than a century since Kitty Hawk. I've taken flights, I know their economy and efficiency, but still, 35,000 feet is many more than I am comfortable with and I have rarely had a worthwhile conversation on a plane. 

Trains, buses, boats, and bicycles have always lent themselves - within my lifetime at least - to a slower-paced crowd, one that does not mind delay. Here one is more likely to find people like myself, wanderers following a planktonic existence, going where currents allow. These are the people with whom i may find support for my decisions, or at least commiseration for the many drawbacks. They help me see my decisions as a daring affront to societal expectations regarding lifestyle, and not as an emotional incapacity to deal with the responsibilities of maturity. My few possessions represent a liberation from property, my meager bank account sufficient for 8 months of living like a vagabond prince.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for congratulation, something I find hard to self-manufacture, that I need the approval of others. It can be so wearing, constantly piecing together one's life. The parts that went right can never be lived over to give some space to breath. So I keep moving, sinking into the crowd, a quiet member of the parish of the traveling church as the earth rolls on beneath.