The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.
As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears
The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.
“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.
From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.
Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.
Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.
Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain
Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.
The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”
“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”
Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.
I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”
In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”
The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.
“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.
Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”
Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.
At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.
Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.
It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.
I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.
Happy Fourth, everyone.
The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life America, America, May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
4/2/72 [age 16]:
“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”
4/7/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”
Author bio: Buster Posey Scearce was born in Dixon, CA, on New Year’s Eve 2011. Although he has no formal education, Mr. Scearce is known for his street smarts. He enjoys dining on fine charcuterie and taking long walks on the beach. This is his first published piece.
Right off the bat, I need to clue you in on something. Paula Bocciardi is not the “Morning Morning Rail” author today. She says she is just too exhausted from being on the road for the last month. I, on the other hand, am not a whit tired, and while I was begging her to play with me this morning she snapped, “If you’re so energetic, why don’t you write the damned thing?” And so I will.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. As my bio notes, I was born on New Year’s Eve 2011 in Dixon, California — a hot part of the Central Valley not far from Sacramento. I don’t remember much about my immediate relatives but I do know that I come from a very proud lineage. We, you see, are the Lhasa Apsos.
Lhasas are fairly recent immigrants to this country, having first arrived here in the 1930s. For centuries before that, we made our home in the mountains of Tibet, where we zealously guarded the Buddhist monasteries from approaching marauders. We are not warriors and we do not fight; we are much too refined for that. But our job is to protect against potential invaders by basically barking our lungs out. So, like my fathers before me, I am a sentinel through and through. At home, 24/7, I warn my moms about developing threats like wind-blown trash bags or sketchy people in hoodies. My bark is so shrill it could trigger a coronary.
The history books say that Lhasas are lionhearted, which also apparently translates to “maddeningly stubborn.” We’re quite smart, but we refuse to do anything that makes no sense to us. For example, when I was a few months old, my moms decided that I should get used to wearing a collar in the house. This, to me, was folly. There is no reason on earth for me to be inconvenienced in my own home. So, after they put that thing on me, I sat down and refused to move. For six hours. I do not exaggerate. I was a bouncy puppy, and yet I did not move for six hours. Eventually, they caved.
I am also reserved. Paula says that she gets jealous when she meets dogs in the outside world who constantly wag their tails and give kisses to passers-by. Whatever. That’s just gauche. I am wary of strangers and children and I have absolutely no reason to be friendly to them. I am above all that. I may be related to the Shih-Tzu, but I admit that I’m not nearly as nice. I’m like a Shih-Tzu with attitude.
But I’m fiercely loyal, playful, and funny (more than once it’s been suggested that I try stand-up comedy). Unlike Paula’s first dog Peanuts – a beagle who apparently relentlessly ate everything from Paula’s dental retainer to her father’s cowboy hat – I’m a self-feeder; I merely graze in my bowl whenever I feel like it because I resent authoritarian schedules and want to eat on my own time, thank you very much. I can go 14 hours without “doing my business,” I sleep all morning long without waking my moms, and I don’t shed, which means that I never cause Julie any wheezing fits.
Best of all, however, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.
That’s why I’m eminently qualified to write this blog post. Some of you readers may be weighing the possibility of taking a long road trip with your dogs. Worry no longer. I, the World’s Greatest Traveler, am about to generously share my wisdom, tips, and experience with you so that you will be fully prepared for the extravaganza. If you don’t care one iota about this subject, please stop reading now and wait for Paula’s next blog, which, with July 4 coming up, will undoubtedly be about something patriotic. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.
One note: I prefer to use the term ’cross-country trip for our escapades, even though technically we do not drive all the way from coast to coast. (Please don’t blast me on Twitter for this slight irregularity of language!) Our trips are generally from San Francisco to Louisville, Kentucky — a distance of about 2,500 miles.
Before we leave home, my moms spend a lot of time discussing which way we’re going — the northern route along Interstate 80 (through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska) or the southern route along I-40, much of which parallels Route 66 (through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma). Although Louisville is a bit north of San Francisco (bet you didn’t know that!), both routes involve about the same number of driving hours (around 36), and both end up taking us into Missouri, through St. Louis, and on to Louisville.
Gorgeous high-mountain scenery
Higher speed limits
Really nice rest stops with grass where I can do my business
Between Reno and Salt Lake City, there just ain’t much going on
Tortuous interstate driving through the Rockies, often with gale-force winds
Hundreds of miles between towns
Follows Route 66 (this is huuuuuge for Paula)
More In-N-Out Burgers (a big plus for me – more on this later)
Oklahoma – so clean and friendly!
Many closed and/or undesirable rest areas through Arizona and New Mexico, with “pet areas” that are just patches of thorns and brittle weeds
Only one rest stop in Texas
More sketchy hotels
Julie likes the northern route because of the rest areas and because she feels safer. Paula likes the southern route because of Route 66 and because she feels safer. These gals just do not make sense.
The ideal situation is that we follow one route coming and the other going. But the reality is that we take most of our trips in the fall and winter when the weather across the mountains is typically dicey. So Paula usually wins.
Paula, of course, has compiled packing checklists for every kind of trip and every city, and apparently there is a “Buster” checklist as well. Although they pretend to adhere to these lists religiously, the bottom line is that my moms are not exactly fashion mavens and they really don’t need to bring much.
Paula has a dozen Eddie Bauer Infinity shirts, in different colors, that never wear out; she wears them every day she travels. They absolutely never wrinkle even if you wad them up in a tiny ball, which is how she packs.
Julie is widely known for wearing shorts and a t-shirt without fail, no matter what the weather, even in a blizzard.
I, however, am high-maintenance and require a multitude of items.
First and foremost I have a little red travel bag that carries my toys, collapsible food and water bowls, ear infection medicine (just in case), hypoallergenic shampoo, comb and scissors, toothbrush, my medical and licensing paperwork (you should always carry those with you on a trip!), a bell to hang on people’s doors so I can ring it when I need to go out (yeah, you read that right!), food and treats, poop bags, and a belly band with Maxi Pads.
That last item is a bit embarrassing for me to talk about. You see, when I was young I used to occasionally pee in people’s houses (but only if they had let their own dogs pee there, which made me think the whole house was a bathroom). It made sense to me but my moms were always mortified, so their dogwalker friend Al suggested that they put a belly band around me with a lady’s Maxi Pad in it to cover my you-know-what and soak up any leaks. They’ve done this for years even though I have outgrown that habit, and the whole scenario has been an insult to my masculinity and a source of many triggers for me.
Behind the front seat my moms keep my leash and harness, bottled H2O, and a little water dish. Sometimes I am just too bull-headed to drink outside the car so Julie actually fills the bowl and holds it while I lap from the convenience of my prone position in the back seat. I’ve heard some people comment that that’s the height of entitlement but I consider it to be a luxury well deserved.
Oh, and Julie bought me a portable sunshade that suction-cups onto the side window. Nice!
We have a mid-sized SUV, and I ride in the back, on a fuzzy bolstered car seat for my ultimate comfort and so I don’t slip around. My dog bed – covered with my 49ers blanket (to show off my San Francisco cred) – is back there, and on the road I spend most of my time in that bed.
Now, before you all start a Twitter campaign against my moms: yes, it’s true that they do not restrain me in the back seat. But here’s the thing: I don’t accept any form of restraint. I simply will not stand for it. Many seats and leashes and crash-safe harnesses have been tried on me, and I’ve refused them all. They’re just a royal pain in the culo. (Remember my aforementioned six-hour sit-in when my moms tried to force me to wear a collar in our house.) But because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I do not stick my head out the window. I do not pace. I do not pant. I do not cry. I do not bark. I do not stand up on the seat. That behavior is for boors. I just lie quietly in my bed, for hours and hours on end. So my moms figure that since I am always lying down, the chances of my being thrown through the windshield are negligible. And we do have side air bags. They did, though, buy a mesh thing to stretch across the gap between the front seats. Otherwise I will spring onto their laps mid-ride whenever I am scared out of my wits by road grooves, passing motorcycles, or that true horror of horrors, moving windshield wipers.
Because of Paula’s bad sacroiliac and poor packing abilities, Julie is in charge of loading and unloading the car. She strategically fits all of our suitcases into the back of the car, along with an ice chest, pillows, case of water, and finally her amazing collapsible red wagon. She bought this thing because standard hotel luggage carts are too wobbly and hard to steer, not to mention that they’re not always available. Paula originally had many a laugh about this wagon but now has come to eat her words and admire its utility.
When we arrive at the hotel each night, we load all this stuff – plus my dog bed – into the room. It’s a lot. At least, for expediency, my moms put all their road clothes and sundries into one little yellow duffle bag so that they never have to root through multiple suitcases. Very smart. Oh, and here’s another tip: be sure to put your lotion and other sundries bottles in plastic bags because, Honey, otherwise they will explode all over your clothes when you get up at altitudes above sea level!
You know, every time we’re about to leave on a ’cross-country road trip, I hear one or both of my moms utter these exact words: “This time for sure, we cannot have fast food for lunch every day we’re on the road. We need to bring healthy food from home, eat low-cal Subway sandwiches, or stop at cute little places along the way. So this time will be different, right?” Then we proceed to have fast-food burgers every single day for lunch.
Our favorite joint is In-N-Out Burger. Unfortunately, along our routes they’re found only in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. Because we love them so, when we’re in those states we try to schedule our daily drives around their locations, especially because I am an ardent fan of their “puppy patty.” It’s just the right size, unseasoned, with a fairly low level of grease, unlike that gigantic greasy patty I recently ate at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company that made me retch. That’s the last time we’ll do THAT!
If In-N-Outs aren’t available, we’ll grudgingly get a Subway sandwich or go to McDonald’s, which is the Switzerland of fast food for my moms because they simply cannot agree on any other chain. It’s so odd, though: they go in to McDonald’s really excited and after they’re done eating they’re consumed with guilt and shame. Honestly, I don’t understand people at all.
Meanwhile, we do eat well at dinner. In our hotel room, my moms always put out a delicious spread of what they call their “Tuscan meal”: rosemary crackers, cheese, almonds, prosciutto, salame, wine, and maybe a bit of chocolate. Unfortunately, they force me to eat dog food.
Although I consider it to be blatant discrimination, many hotels do not allow pets to grace their premises. So it’s good to have some kind of idea which hotel chains allow dogs. Paula – OF COURSE – keeps a database of all our road trip lodging. The database not only includes comprehensive notes on every aspect of the hotels, but it also assigns a star rating to each establishment.
La Quinta Inns & Suites, until earlier this year, allowed pets to stay for free. But they were acquired by Wyndham a few months ago, and now each location is allowed to determine what, if anything, to charge. They’re still a great value and are our go-to hotels.
Best Western pet policies vary, but fees usually don’t top $20.
Drury Inn & Suites, recommended by our friend Val, charge $35 per pet and have weight restrictions. (For pets, not people!) Paula loves them because they offer free cookies, free popcorn, and a free “dinner” (of questionable quality, but heck, it’s free and it’s food) including two glasses apiece of wine, beer, or liquor!
We really love Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites, with pet fees that range from $25 up. Three days a week, they even offer free dinner and drinks (except in Wyoming, where for some reason they legally can’t serve booze).
At many hotel chains, like Holiday Inn Express or Embassy Suites, pet fees (if they allow pets at all) vary by location. In Tulsa, the Embassy Suites charges $50. Paula says that’s the most she’d consider paying for me because I don’t shed, I don’t do my business in the room, and I cause zero damage. Again, I am the World’s Greatest Traveler.
Some places, like Homewood Suites and most or all of the Marriott hotels, charge fees like $150 per pet, and that’s just plain old highway robbery, as my hero Rin Tin Tin used to say.
Please note that most of these hotel chains include “Suites” in their names. This, my friends, is the number-one key to a good hotel experience with your dog. As soon as we discovered that La Quinta suites are only $10 more per night than the regular rooms, we vowed never to get a regular room again. My moms like having a table – or at least a coffee table – where they eat their dinner. More importantly, I really appreciate having a lot of space in which to run around, and the closed door between the bedroom and living room is a great buffer from any hallway noise, leaving me less of an incentive to bark at night and guaranteeing my moms some peaceful sleep.
(But one bit of warning: make sure it’s a “one-bedroom suite” or “two-room suite.” A “king suite” or “king studio suite” usually just means there’s a low partition between the bedroom and couch areas. What good is that??)
Each night, my moms typically reserve a room for the next night. They usually book the room online and then call the hotel to make sure everything went through. They also make this call because – and this is a word of warning – some sites and apps allow you to reserve a room at a pet-friendly place, but when you get there you find out that the specific room or suite you booked is not pet-friendly. So insulting.
Oh, and by the way, some hotels on our latest trip, even though they had pet fees, didn’t charge for me. Although my moms puzzled over the lack of these charges on their credit card bill, I’m convinced it was because I’m so charming.
On the road:
When our vacation time was limited because Julie was still working, and before Paula’s back got so bad, we would drive about 9 hours a day and eat a drive-through lunch in the car, which meant we were on the road for probably about 11 hours a day when you add in all the gasoline and rest stops. Ugh. Now it’s more leisurely, and we make sure to drive no more than 6 hours a day, changing drivers every hour or so.
And remember that driving east we jump ahead an hour as we cross into each time zone, so on those days we have less time to drive if we want to pull into the hotel by dinnertime. Driving westbound allows us more flexibility.
If it’s a weekday, we have to base our departure and arrival times on rush hour, at least in the major cities. So in the mornings we often wait out the rush and leave at 9:30 a.m. Julie watches the news while Paula, who heaves and gags whenever she watches cable news, sips a cup of decaf and reads a book. Then Paula takes me on a long walk around the hotel, allowing me the daily satisfaction of peeing on every vertical object in sight. Julie, meanwhile, packs up the SUV.
I’m always really eager to get in the car every morning. I love the drive. I love the gas stations. I love the rest stops. Periodically, we get off the highway to track down some bit of Americana or another that Paula has read about somewhere. If we’re going the southern route, most of the attractions are on Route 66. In the north, Paula uses her “Roadside America” app, which she claims is the most useful app she owns. (I guess she’s not counting her beloved “Rest Stops Plus” app.) Anyway, my moms typically pose me in these historic places, and because I am the World’s Greatest Traveler, I resignedly humor them.
And when we pull into each new hotel every night, I am nearly overcome with anticipation. I love trotting through the lobby. I love getting on the elevator. I love sniffing under the door of each room down the hallway, trying to figure out which one is ours. Then, when we throw open the door to our own luxurious suite, I love rubbing my face on every square inch of the place, to establish my dominance. O, the rapture!
I love the open road, and I love smelling every new town all across America. I’ve stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. Seen cowboys in New Mexico. Visited the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Admired the Mickey Mantle statue in Commerce, Oklahoma. Sat under the world’s biggest rocking chair in Cuba, Missouri. Stumbled upon a neighborhood tribute to Negro League ballplayer Buck O’Neil in Kansas City. Eaten barbecue in Nashville. Tromped through a pumpkin patch in Indiana. Paid veterans my respects on the Purple Heart Trail. Posed next to the Lincoln Highway monument in Wyoming. Walked along the shore of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Sat on an antique trail wagon in Elko, Nevada.
I’ve ridden past the colorful deserts, ranging farmland, rugged mountains, sweet-smelling forests, and meandering trains covering this great land.
I’ve been everywhere, man.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/12/72 [age 16]:
“I’m ashamed now that I had to be such a quitter [at skiing] yesterday. And I had to be so clumsy when Colleen and Tony were doing so well. Anyway, this morning [at Bear Valley] we went to the recreation area and had snowball fights. And oh, yes, we rode on a snowmobile out to the lodge and watched Clint (what a doll!) Eastwood and Ron (what a bod!) Ely play tennis.”
2/11/72 [age 16]:
“My First Date by PRB. Okay, so now I’ll tell you about Thursday night. It was our last night game [of my high school football team]. SOB, SOB. Anyway, Jerry asked if he could take me and for some inexplicable reason they [my parents] actually let me. . . . Afterwards, we went to Shakeys in Milpitas. A whole mess of PH [my high school] kids go there after night games, I found out. You should have seen their reactions [because I was the principal’s daughter]. The whole place just stared at us. I heard some comments. And Jerry said everybody always says “hi” to him but only one person did. They were the swingers – cheerleaders, songgirls, hard guys. They think I’m a goody-goody. ‘You have to prove you’re not,’ Jerry said. Well, I am A-1 confused. I am torn, because what do I do? Act contrary to my nature so I can be ‘accepted’? Or stay goody-goody and never fit and still go without dates? Sure, Jerry’s available, but I don’t like him that much, and the guys I do like, well, they don’t have the nerve to ask out PRINCIPAL’S DAUGHTER.”
2/14/72 [age 16]:
“Now that my first date is over with and the novelty is worn off, I’ve been kind of depressed. I wish Pat Sears would come back. He’s the only guy I’ve ever really liked. Maybe this summer. Jerry asked me to eat [lunch] with him again today and I said okay but I’m not going to tomorrow because he is bound to get the wrong impression. He is all right but I wouldn’t want him for steady company. Gosh, I’m sleepy. Zzzzzzz….”
2/18/72 [age 16]:
“Well, I had my second date tonight. All we did was go to the [basketball] game and then to Straw Hat Pizza again. Somehow I didn’t think it would ever be like this. Jerry is okay, but is really a baby. If only Pat Sears would come back. There is a rule in adolescent love: those you like like you not, and those who like you you like not.”
2/22/72 [age 16]:
“Today I have finally advanced from the rank of super goodie-goodie to beginning bad guy. I actually cut class. Jeanne and I went to the [school] library and sat down and looked at ‘The Chronicle.’ ”
2/23/72 [age 16]:
“I keep thinking about our basketball game. I only got to play the second half. But I didn’t make ANY points. I missed two shots and two free throws. In practice I am really super-fantastic, but in a game I get really nervous. My hands get all sweaty and everything. I just can’t hit. And I’m always so worried about what people are going to think of me. I get really embarrassed when I make a mistake. We lost 57-7. What a cream!”
2/25/72 [age 16]:
“I can’t explain why, but a big wave of depression has come over me lately. This time it is so deep it is threatening to drown me completely. I can’t get out. I’ve been actually considering running away. I am really surprised at myself. I don’t know where to yet, and it can’t be right away because of school, but I don’t want to go to college! I have my doubts. I don’t really need it. I’ll be so young . Maybe I should wait a year. I just am too young. I realize now how sheltered I have been. I really don’t know what the world is like, and I’ve had no experience with it. I was talking to Mr. Barisich [my dad’s associate principal and a family friend] and he said he didn’t think people should go to college until age 24. He said if he were me he’d be “scared as hell,” not because of the academic competition but because of social adjustment. He told me I have a lot of thinking to do. I LOVE Mr. Barisich. This old college fear is weighing on me so heavily. I need SOME ANSWERS!!! And wow, I’m already 16 and never been kissed.”
3/9/72 [age 16]:
“Dad [also the principal of my high school] found out about Senior Cut Day, which was supposed to be tomorrow, and really threatened us over the P.A. today, saying they would make house calls and maybe take away the Senior Ball and Senior Picnic, etc. But what got me is Marc and Colleen both told me that everybody thinks I was the one who finked!”
For they looked in the future and what did they see They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land All up through the seaports and into their hands
– Gordon Lightfoot
A remarkable American event occurred nearly 150 years ago on April 28, 1869 – something that was considered to be an unimaginable feat at the time.
On that day, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world, a group of men laid down 10 miles and 56 feet of rail in the high ground of Utah in less than 12 hours.
We may not be able to appreciate it fully today, when automation and technology have reduced most tasks to the push of a button. But in those days it was a feat of human perseverance, brute strength, endurance, planning, ingenuity, guts, cooperation, and commitment. It was a record that would never be broken.
Construction of an expansive rail system spanning the continent was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing goals. By the 1860s railroads were up and running in the east, but they came to an end near Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, it would take four months for anyone to make the trip west to California by stagecoach or wagon train.
The overall plan was that the Union Pacific Railroad would construct tracks heading east out of Omaha (well, technically, Council Bluffs, Iowa). Its counterpart would build a railroad from the west that would meet the Union Pacific in northern Utah.
The logistics of building the western segment over the Sierra Nevada mountains were considered to be prohibitive, however, both physically and financially. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, had visited northern California and declared that laying down tracks over the Sierras would require the work of none other than “giants.”
But the collective hubris of California’s “Big Four” rail tycoons – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Charles Crocker – led them to pool their amassed fortunes and take on an enormous gamble: financing a railroad that would face the challenge of traversing some of the most challenging geography in the country as it headed towards its terminus at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. And so the Central Pacific Railroad was born.
Work on the Transcontinental Railroad by the two powerful railway companies went on for six years, and the Central Pacific had a much tougher time of it. Crossing the Sierras was backbreaking, and the weather and topography proved to be formidable adversaries. The snow was deep, the gorges steep, and the mountain rock nearly impenetrable. Imagine tunneling through the Sierras by hand. To create each tunnel, two men would work an entire day to pound holes 5 feet into the rock using only hammers and chisels. Then other workers were hung from the rock faces and suspended in baskets while they stuck black dynamite into the holes, lit the fuses, and were frantically yanked to safety before the explosives erupted. More than a dozen tunnels were blasted through the mountains. And of course grades needed to be carved and bridges constructed.
The Big Four neared bankruptcy. But the work continued, and eventually the exhausted Central Pacific crew broke through and descended into the Nevada desert.
At this point, I’d like to note that both of the companies involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad hired immigrants for the hard labor. About 8,000 of the railroad workers were employed by the Union Pacific and were primarily of Irish, German, and Italian descent. The majority of the laborers (13,000), however, were Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific. These guys were, reportedly, extremely hardy and committed workers. They built Buddhist shrines to tend to their spiritual well-being. For their physical health, they wisely arranged for deliveries of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters and abalone, pork, and poultry, so their food was healthier than the meat-and-potato staples of the other workers. And because they drank boiled tea rather than untreated water, they tended not to fall prey to the dysentery and other infectious diseases that roared through the camps. Of course, they were paid far, far less than the white workers. And to make matters worse, although meals were included in the white workers’ salaries, the Chinese men had the cost of their food deducted from their wages.
Still, they persisted.
As the Central Pacific guys were moving across the Nevada flatlands, the workers of the Union Pacific were slapping down track at breakneck speed as they headed west out of Omaha towards the Great Salt Lake. And at this point the effort became a race, of sorts – a rivalry to determine which group of workers could lay the longest amount of track in the fastest amount of time. That is when Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad made the claim that everyone thought was foolish: that his men could put down 10 miles of track in a single day.
At 7 a.m. on April 28, the sprint began. The plan, as executed, involved bringing in 16-car trains loaded with rails, bolts, spikes, and other materials needed for two miles of track. All 16 cars were then miraculously unloaded in eight minutes, “cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army,” according to Erle Heath, associate editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The emptied train would be hauled immediately out of the way and a new loaded train pulled into the appropriate position.
Enter those little iron handcars we’ve all seen in Buster Keaton movies. A keg of bolts, a keg of nails, a bundle of fish plates, and 16 iron rails would be loaded onto a handcar, each of which was manned by six Chinese laborers and their white boss. On flatlands and uphill grades, the handcars were pulled by two horses in tandem. On the downhills, they went sailing along at full tilt, with one man serving as brakeman, the horses galloping alongside until they reached level ground. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening, the empty handcars returning from their position were on the same track. So as the fully loaded cars came whizzing toward them, the guys on the empty handcar had to leap off, hoist the car off the rails, and then put it back on again after the full car had zoomed by without slackening its speed.
Then came the Irish rail handlers – an elite crew of only eight men who actually laid down all the track. And on the tough grades and curves, the rails had to be bent through the sheer force of heavy hammers. Each rail was 30 feet long and weighed – get this – more than half a ton. By the end of the day, each of these guys had lifted 125 tons of iron.
After the rail handlers came the spikers, the bolters, the guys who “surfaced” the tracks by shoveling ballast under them, and finally the tampers – at least 400 of them – with shovels and tamping bars. Foremen on horseback raced back and forth along the tracks.
“It could only be compared to the advance of an army,” said Heath.
But it all went down smoothly, at the rate of about a mile of track laid down every hour. All in all, in that one day the workers placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material for a total of 4,462,000 pounds. Ten miles and 56 feet of rail in one workday.
It brought the Central Pacific railhead within four miles of the eventual connection, a month later, with the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit.
On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad opened up for through traffic after Leland Stanford, using a silver hammer, drove in the historic Golden Spike connecting the two railroads at Promontory Summit. (Side note: the spike was actually gold-plated, because real gold is too soft.) Both the hammer and the spike were connected by wire to the telegraph line, which would enable the hammer strokes to be heard as clicks at telegraph stations throughout the land. The entire country was listening in. But there were technical difficulties, as the story goes, so the clicks were actually “sent” by the telegraph operator. Uh, oh. FAKE NEWS!!
In the end, about 1,900 miles of rail were laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, with tracks reaching as high as 8,242 feet (at Sherman Pass, Wyoming). Estimates are that fully a quarter of the American labor force worked, in some capacity, to build that railroad.
And it would now take only a week for goods and people to travel from coast to coast.
As with all “progress,” the emergence of the national rail system was not without its drawbacks. It permanently disrupted the way of life of many Native Americans, for one thing. And the railroad barons, driven by greed, exploited their workers.
But intercontinental train travel allowed the restless and growing American populace to find their place in whatever part of the American landscape captured their hearts. It provided a way for poor Southern blacks to migrate northward and westward. It offered employment to thousands. It allowed farmers to transport their goods anywhere quickly. It was the face of the Industrial Revolution.
Labor Day was not yet a holiday when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. But we celebrate it today to honor the labor movements of the late 19th century that were borne out of the suffering of workers who toiled under truly harrowing conditions, with 12-hour workdays, unsafe labor conditions, and paltry wages. Some of those workers were children as young as 5 years old.
Let us be reminded, on this first Monday in September, of the sweat of our ancestors who made possible for us the comforts with which we are living today. Let us be grateful for the miners, the lamplighters, and the stevedores. And let’s think about those railroad workers grinding their way, under the most difficult of conditions, to give us the gift of mobility and freedom.
This week I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr, as I do every couple of years, and traveling across the country by train. To this day, the Zephyr – which goes from Emeryville to Chicago – runs on a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, from Sacramento to Winnemucca, Nevada.
When I get to the eastern shore, four days later, I’ll be spending time with my Maryland friends and playing music with two of them in a Baltimore coffeehouse.
The name of our band?
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
“Boy, hardly any days left of school. This year went by so fast it’s hard to believe. And thinking we only have one year left at this great school just tears me apart. Skipping [a grade] has taken away one year of my youth. I have been thinking about waiting a year before college. Heck, I’ll only be 16 and just a baby. I’ll be sucking my thumb while everyone else is walking already.”
“I sure love music. I used to listen to KLOK, but I don’t too much anymore because they play too many oldies, which I hate. But KYA has the good rock and roll. The current songs I like are ‘Sweet and Innocent’ by Donny Osmond and ‘Timothy’ by the Buoys (which is about cannibalism).”
“The Blanchettes came over for a pheasant dinner tonight [with their two sons, Butch and Carl]. A couple of weeks ago when we were at the beach, Butch and I went out pretty deep in the water and when he said ‘Better hold my hand’ I thought he was getting fresh or something, but he wasn’t. Now he’s in the ‘in’ crowd. [My sister] Janine was telling jokes like a book called ‘Music Theory’ by Clara Net. Ho ho. But here’s a good one offered by Carl: ‘Hole in the Mattress’ by (ready?) Mister Completely!”
“I don’t feel too bad today. I made it through OK. Only threw up 4 times. My temperature was up to 102 degrees and climbing, but I took an aspirin and it zooped down to 100.6. But my stomach was in agony & I thought I was in a furnace. It’s funny how under these conditions your mind kind of leaves your body and wanders around on its own, while the mortal body will only lay and suffer, and hope for an end to the torment.”
2/25/71: “I had a murderous Chem test today and I’m beginning to get very worried. So far I have about a B-, and if I don’t bring it up I may wreck my 4.0 average. And I just CAN’T do that! It’s practically my life!”
Next day, 2/26/71: “I got the highest at our table on the Chem test [yesterday]. But it was only 41 out of 50. I hope he gives us some extra credit this semester or I’ll really just BOMB OUT!”
“Mr. Curtis came up to me today and said that he was shocked that I wasn’t taking Algebra II. However, baby, NO AMOUNT of coercing from him will prompt me to take it. I cannot stand math (except Geometry, which I love) and do not wish to burden my schedule with a course I do not like!”
“Today was rather unusual. I got to school at about 8:40 as usual, but inside it was dark. When the bell rang the power was still out and they wouldn’t let us in. We knew that if the power was off for about an hour, they’d let us go. So we stood outside and prayed until, at 9:30, the glorious words came: SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!”
It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .
The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.
I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.
It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)
We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law. 😉
Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.
Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.
“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.
The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.
Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.
I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”
Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.
“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)
“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”
In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.
Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.
Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.
Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.
I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.
I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.
I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.
I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.
Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.
We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.
I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.
I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.
We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.
I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.
I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.
I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.
I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.
In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.
At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.
Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.
So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.
I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.
When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.
As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.
“Triangle Acres,” it read.
I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof. But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.
I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.
“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.
“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”
Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”
His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.
There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.
Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.
Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.
I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.
But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.
This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.
“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”
To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.
So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
A few weeks ago, the Chronicle’s outdoor writer Tom Stienstra published a column that was a real blockbuster for me: one of Black Bart’s hideaways may have been discovered in the Sunol Regional Wilderness.
I was about 7 years old when I first learned about Black Bart in a thin little book called Stagecoach Days, a Sunset publication that Wells Fargo Bank gave away to its customers. A few years later, when I frequently insisted that my younger sister and I “play school” and that of course I be the teacher, Stagecoach Days was one of my two “textbooks.” (The other was the Bible. The sole reason I chose them was that they were the only books in the house of which we had two copies.)
Black Bart was an outlaw who robbed stagecoaches in the late 1800s, shortly after California’s great Gold Rush. I became obsessed with him for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was a “gentleman bandit” of sorts. Second, he was known to have left poems at his robbery sites, and one in particular became part of my repertoire. As a youngster and a bit of a loner, I took to memorizing things, and I could recite the states and their capitals, all three stanzas of “O Captain, My Captain,” the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, assorted Kerouac quotes, and the entire Gettysburg Address. But my favorite piece of literature that I committed to memory was one of Black Bart’s poems. You’ll have to wait for it.
Born in England in 1829, Charles Boles (later Bolles, or Bolton, depending on his alias du jure) emigrated with his family to America when he was two years old. Not much is known about his childhood on a farm in upstate New York, but we do know that as a young man he and his brothers joined everyone else and their brothers in heading to California for the Gold Rush of 1848, hoping to strike it rich. Some were fortunate, but many came up empty. The Boles Brothers were in the latter group. They made two unsuccessful trips, and two of his three brothers actually died in California.
We also know that Charles fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, marching with Sherman through Georgia and suffering life-threatening abdominal wounds at the Battle of Vicksburg. Though his wounds were considered to be so bad as to preclude his ability to continue fighting, he rather heroically went back and served on the battlefield for three full years before being honorably discharged.
Charles eventually married and raised four children in Illinois and Iowa. But it seems that his stint in California had created in him an unshakeable urge to gamble, and he periodically would leave his family to mine for gold, at first in Montana and Idaho and eventually back in California. During this period he sent his wife a letter, recounting an event in which Wells Fargo agents tried to buy out his share of a small mine he was tending in Montana. When he refused, apparently the bank agents somehow cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon the mine. His conviction that he had been wronged caused him to tell his wife that he was going to “take steps” to exact revenge. The poor woman never saw him again, and at this point she just assumed that he had died.
But he hadn’t. And gold fever still infected his bloodstream, so he headed back to California with one last hope of striking it rich.
In those days, stagecoaches were often used to transport passengers, mail, and valuables to and from areas not served by the railroad. Enterprising robbers realized that they had a convenient opportunity to simply travel to areas through which they knew the stage would be passing and quickly hold up the helpless driver and passengers without leaving a trace. They often would select a spot through which the stage would be traveling laboriously – e.g, up a steep hill – and spring out from the bushes, brandish their rifles, demand the loot, and scram out of there in very short order. The greatest bounty they could get was the box of money that companies like Wells Fargo transported to pay the workers who labored in their mines.
During the period 1870 through 1884, there were 313 attempted robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wells had the money to hire some very accomplished detectives, though, who did a fairly good job of solving these crimes. Five miscreants were killed during the attempts, 11 were killed resisting arrest, 7 were hanged by lynch mobs, and 206 were ferreted out and sent to jail. Only 84 robberies were “unpunished,” but many of them, it turns out, were committed by the same person.
During this time, Charles Boles was living in San Francisco. He lived a rather highbrow life despite not necessarily having the means to do so, since all he appeared to own were some unsuccessful mining interests in the hills. He attended the theater and concerts, ate at the finest restaurants, wore natty clothes, and always sported a cane. The cane was fashionable rather than functional; he was in terrific shape, walking many miles a day. He reportedly never took a drink in his life, always carried a Bible with him, and was generally a respectable, quiet man who eschewed profanity and was not prone to any kind of excess other than his unending tendency to take a gamble.
Beginning in 1875, Wells Fargo stagecoaches traveling through California’s Gold Rush country would be hit 28 times by the same bandit. Some say he was afraid of horses and others say he simply couldn’t afford one, but in any case he walked to and from his crimes and carried a shotgun that he never fired, which was a good thing because it was so rusty that no bullet could have successfully traveled through its muzzle. He wore a flour sack with two holes cut out for the eyes, and he sported a linen duster (which is a long coat). Unfailingly polite, he never harmed a passenger; in fact, if they handed over their money or jewelry, he would insist on giving the items back to them. All he wanted was Wells Fargo’s money. And he was highly successful, netting thousands of dollars a year.
For me, though, the most delightful thing about the bandit was that on a couple of occasions he would leave poems at the site, like this one:
Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morrow; Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow;
Let come what will, I’ll try it on
my condition can’t be worse
and if there’s money in that box
’tis munny in my purse
— Black Bart
Black Bart was the name of a fictional character who had appeared in a story called “The Case of Summerfield” that ran in the Sacramento Union in the early 1870s. That man, though, was a vicious villain and certainly didn’t resemble the gentleman who was robbing these stagecoaches. But the name sounded ominous, and the robber didn’t mind the fear it instilled in the public. He probably also thought the moniker would evoke an image that was such a far cry from his public persona that it would throw detectives off the trail.
The story goes that at his first holdup, in July 1875 in Calaveras County, Black Bart asked the driver to please “throw down the box” and shouted over his shoulder into the woods, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys.” The driver, on seeing several rifles pointed at him among the trees, swiftly threw down the box as ordered. Then, after the bandit disappeared, the driver discovered that the rifles in the woods were just meticulously crafted sticks.
It was at the scene of his fifth crime that Black Bart left the poem that I have memorized, and it makes me smile every time I repeat it (bear in mind that Stagecoach Days conveniently did not include this particular poem):
I’ve labored hard and long for bread
for honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
you fine-haired sons of bitches.
Black Bart committed his last robbery on November 3, 1883. A man with one of the greatest first names in the world – Reason McConnell – was driving a stagecoach out of Sonora alongside a 19-year-old boy named Jimmy Rolleri, who had just been gifted a new rifle and was out to do some rabbit hunting. At the bottom of a place called Funk’s Hill, Jimmy jumped down from the stage to look for rabbits and Reason continued up the incline. Black Bart leaped into the road at the summit and, as was customary for him, politely asked for the express box, which was bolted to the floor in an attempt to thwart such robberies. When Reason pointed out this situation, he was ordered by our robber to step down and unhitch the team, at which point Bart himself jumped up and started working on the box with a hatchet. Meanwhile, Reason slipped away and got Jimmy’s attention, and somehow three or four shots were then fired at Bart with Jimmy’s new rifle. The local newspapers reported that the driver had fired all the shots, but Jimmy’s family members insisted that after Reason missed the first two, Jimmy disgustedly snatched the gun from him and slightly wounded the bandit in the hand. (Apparently there is some evidence that Wells Fargo later gave Jimmy a fancy inlaid and engraved rifle.) In any case, only one of the shots grazed Bart, who took the $550 in gold coins and 3-1/4 ounces of gold dust worth $65 and got clean away.
Or so he thought.
Wells Fargo detective J.B. Hume was quickly dispatched to the scene, and there he discovered a black derby, magnifying glasses, field glasses, and a handkerchief, among other things. And in one corner of the handkerchief was a laundry mark.
Ultimately, Detective Hume and his associate Harry Morse traced the laundry mark to San Francisco and, after visiting 90 laundries, finally learned that that particular mark was used by a fine gentleman named C.E. Bolton. Mr. Bolton took frequent trips into the hills to check on his “mining interests,” but he always came back to his boarding house in San Francisco – which, by the way, was directly across from the police station. In fact, he often dined with the gentlemen of the police force and expressed an acute interest in that nasty outlaw Black Bart.
Detective Hume filed this report:
“Bolton, Charles E., alias C.E. Bolton, alias Black Bart, the PO-8 [“poet,” get it?], age 55 years; Occupation, miner; Height 5 ft. 7-1/2 inches; Color of hair, gray; color of eyes, blue; gunshot wound on side. He is [a] well educated, well informed man, has few friends. He is a remarkable walker, has great strength, endurance.”
Charles pleaded guilty to the one crime and spent four years in prison at San Quentin. During that time he sent a number of letters to his wife, professing his love, expressing remorse for this crimes, and asking her for forgiveness. She apparently responded that she would be willing to take him back, but when he was released from prison, he vanished.
He was the most successful bandit in the history of the American west.
There are countless rumors, folktales, tall tales, old saws, fables, and fantasies about what happened to Charles after he was released. Three Wells Fargo stagecoach robberies took place shortly thereafter, but no one was ever caught, and there was no tangible evidence linking Charles to the crimes. In one story, however, Detective Hume somehow tracked him down and offered to pay him a lifetime pension out of Wells Fargo’s money if he would just, for the love of God, stop ripping them off. Some say he moved to New York City, where he spent his last days. Others speculated that he went back to Montana to try more mining. The most popular story seems to be that someone saw him boarding a steamer and heading for Japan.
So, who were the “fine-haired sons of bitches” to whom Charles directed his antipathy? His hatred probably didn’t emerge during his Civil War days; in researching this piece I learned that it was common among Confederate soldiers – but not among Union soldiers – to aim their sights at companies that appeared to have too strong on a grip on the economic machinery that ran the country. No, most likely it happened when the Wells Fargo agents used their power to unfairly force him off his own mine. So his particular grudge was probably against that one company. And perhaps the wealthy money-lenders could afford to keep their hair fine? I don’t know. Maybe someone can look that up for me.
I know that it’s wrong of me to harbor any feelings of admiration for a criminal. And just because he stole from a massively wealthy company does not mitigate the crime. I learned this early on from my mother. When I was in college, my friend Jeanne and I concocted a scheme by which we could talk endlessly to each other, long-distance, for free. In those days, of course, it cost a ton of money to make a long-distance call, and there was no way my parents would have paid the bill for such a luxury. (Plus they completely distrusted Jeanne because she wore wire-rimmed glasses.) But Jeanne was working as a telephone operator on the East Coast, and she had access to credit cards held by large corporations. So I would find a remote, unoccupied phone booth somewhere, and I would somehow place a call to her, through an operator, that allowed me, without charge, to give her the number on the phone in the booth. Then I would hang up and she would call me back using a random corporation’s credit card number.
As I type this, I am absolutely appalled at myself. But back then I thought that it didn’t matter because those big companies had unending funds and they would never miss the paltry amount it would cost them. I was so clueless about what I was doing that, in fact, I went home and cheerfully told my mother all about the scheme and how clever we were and that we would never get caught. Very calmly, but while undoubtedly choking back her complete disgust, my mother explained to me that stealing is stealing. It took all of two minutes for her to point my moral compass away from south and back to true north, where it has been ever since.
Still, I will always secretly admire California’s gentleman bandit, and I will forever appreciate the way in which he poetically told those fine-haired sons of bitches that they had stepped on his toes for far too long.
I was hoping for yet another dream trip when I took Amtrak last month from California to the East Coast and back. But the day before I boarded the first train, a god-awful microbe boarded me and rendered me virtually unable to speak, not to mention saddling me with a bad cold, a rattly cough, and an angry sore throat all the way to Maryland. The return trip, thankfully, would be much better. As usual, I took a notebook (yes, and a real pen!), and I thought I’d share some of those scribblings with you here, in this ’cross-country train travel primer.
October 4, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound from Emeryville to Chicago, day 1)
Long-distance Amtrak passengers can travel in one of two ways: by coach, or in a sleeper car. Coach travel is the most economical way to go. For about $230 (if you get your ticket well in advance) you can ride the rails from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, D.C. The trip takes four days and involves two trains: the California Zephyr runs to Chicago, and after just a few hours’ layover, the second train (the Capitol Limited) departs for D.C. Not a bad price, really. But you have to be willing to sleep in your reclining seat (or grab a few winks in the observation car, if you don’t get chased out). There’s no question, though, that the seats are leagues better than those on an airplane; they’re comfortable, wide, and long (plenty of legroom), with leg and foot rests, eating trays, reading lights, and electrical outlets.
The other option is to get a room in a sleeper car. Generally, there are two choices: a roomette or a bedroom. Both have fold-down bunk-style beds, but the bedrooms also have a combination shower/bathroom. (The other two options are the “family bedroom,” which is wider and has room for two children in addition to the adults, and an ADA room – both located on the lower level of the train.) Restrooms and a huge shower room, accessible only to sleeper car passengers, are also on the lower level. All meals are included. These days I opt for the bedroom. It’s a perk, I suppose – and a necessity – of being, shall we say, “seasoned.”
So, how do you pack for a train trip? Well, let me just start by emphasizing that most of the coach seats and sleeper cars are on the upper level on long-distance trains, and to get there you have to ascend a narrow, twisting set of stairs. There is very little room in which to maneuver, and unless you’re a linebacker, you probably don’t have the strength to carry a heavy, loaded suitcase directly in front of you. So most people leave any heavy suitcases downstairs where they will cheerfully await them when they disembark, and they carry a lighter, soft bag up those treacherous stairs on their back. I learned this tip from my friend Leon Emmons. I did not follow his advice when I made the trip in 2014, and the attendants (formerly called porters) had to schlep my corpulent suitcase up the stairs like sherpas because there was no way I could do it. So this time I got smart. I bought a wheeled backpack. That way, I could throw it onto my back as I went up the stairs but could also wheel it along behind me in the train stations, etc.
This idea was very good, but it would have been more brilliant had I not filled the backpack so full of unnecessary items that it was almost heavier than my suitcase. I nearly snapped my lumbago. I wore my turquoise “train outfit” today and brought two or three no-iron train shirts and miscellaneous socks and underwear. That would have been fine. But I also felt that I needed my SF Giants orange polo shirt to wear during tomorrow’s wild-card playoff game with the Mets. I also packed peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and chocolate-covered almonds for snacks. And I had to have a hairdryer (gotta look good), a huge sundries bag, and about 30 types of drugs for my virus. Of course, I was laden with gadgets like my phone, an iPad, my brand-new camera, and an iPod (which my sister Janine says is “so last-millennium”). And I brought a jacket because I didn’t know what the temperature would be like. All of these came in handy. But to top it off, even though I downloaded books onto my iPad, I insisted on bringing Springsteen’s new hard-cover autobiography, which must weigh 5 pounds. And finally, for who knows what reason, I packed a bottle of vodka. Now mind you, I really don’t drink vodka. But I did the same thing for my last train trip, and both times I never once opened the bottle. What is wrong with me???
So, what are the “bedrooms” like? Well, they’re sufficient but small, and they require a certain amount of flexibility and limberness. On last year’s trip, I was assigned to room A. Little did I know that room A is legendarily difficult to navigate. Its design is a bit different from the other rooms, with the bathroom situated so that if you need, say, to get up in the middle of the night, you have to crawl down to the foot of your bed and roll directly into the bathroom. There is just no room to even stand up. So when I made reservations for this trip, many months ago, I called rather than book online because I wanted to specifically ask not to get room A. And it turned out that that request was not a problem at all. (In fact, I suspect it may be quite common.)
The two beds are bunk-style, and when folded back up each morning the bottom bed becomes a couch. There is also a little table and chair, a sink, a trash can, and the bathroom. The shower faucet is almost directly over the toilet, so many people just sit on the toilet, with the seat closed, and take their showers that way. It’s easier to sit down when the train is barreling along and you don’t want to be thrown pell-mell into the shower controls. That could cause, in the words of my friend Mark Houts, “quite the contusion.”
Riding Amtrak is not good for people who have any expectations whatsoever about service and amenities. For example, sleeper cars are supposed to come with bottled water, soap, and shampoo. Only once on my six sleeper-car train trips did I ever get shampoo. Usually, but not always, I got soap. In some cases, I had to ask my attendant for water every single day, while on other occasions there were cases of water outside the rooms near where the juice and coffee are set up for sleeper passengers. Basically, it’s all just – as the kids would say – random.
I’d like to mention, too, that every sleeper car includes an array of buttons that do not work. There are all kinds of knobs and levers related to temperature and air flow, and none of them makes a whit of difference. There is also a button called “Music Control,” and I’d love to know what function it ever served, because now it serves none at all.
I wanted to get an observation car seat before we got to Sacramento this morning. The observation car is open to everyone and is terrific because it has ceiling windows and is often a place for genial conversation. Unfortunately, because my throat hurt so much, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone in the observation car. There were definitely some chatterboxes there. One guy who lives in Santa Rosa said that he drives into Guerneville every day to do a radio show that is “part 60s soul and mostly 50s doo-wop.” I think he might be “Papa A,” a regular on KGGV-FM.
There was some discussion about whether a person should be allowed to save a seat in the observation car. The conductor’s announcement when we first boarded noted that no seat-saving was allowed. But one woman kept making an issue of it, asking people around her whether they agreed with the rule. She wanted to save a seat for her husband for at least an hour(!), and she disagreed with the rule. I firmly believe in the rule (quelle surprise!) and I wondered who on earth she thought she was, but my near-laryngitis kept me mute, which was about making me crazy.
For dinner, an attendant comes to the sleeper cars first to take reservations, and I typically ask for the earliest time because I am constantly hungry. I was really worried this evening because of my laryngitis and the catch in my throat and my congestion; it was all enough to terrify any self-respecting healthy person. But no one shrank away in revulsion, and I was at least able to eke out a question or two, although there was no way I could form a complete sentence and talk about myself.
I sat next to a very young woman named Michaela, who was getting off in Elko. She’s from the Sonora area near Yosemite but is moving to Elko with her fiancé. She’d typically taken buses before (including one to Idaho), but said trains were much better. Across from me were Lori and her husband. They’d formerly lived in upstate New York but had recently moved to Florida. Although they must have been at least in their fifties, she was super hip and had a nose ring plus all manner of chains and other metallic accoutrement on her left ear. They’d been out visiting her son, who lives in Santa Clara and used to work for LinkedIn. Because the New Orleans-to-Florida tracks were completely damaged in Katrina, they couldn’t take a southern route but had to take the Zephyr east to Chicago, the Capitol Limited to D.C., and then a third train to Florida.
Creamy tortellini with pesto
The food is free for sleeper car passengers, who have to pay only for alcohol and whatever tip they want to leave. The herbed chicken was excellent and came with a baked potato (fair) and green and yellow beans (cooked to absolute death). The chocolate lava cake for dessert was outstanding, though. The couple across from me had the Signature steak, which seems to get high marks from everyone. I may try it tomorrow.
After dinner, Karen (our attendant) came by to set up the bed and to remind me that we’ll be in another time zone tomorrow morning, so I set my watch and camera. All time zone changes on this entire trip happen in the middle of the night, conveniently.
October 5, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound to Chicago, day 2)
I had a terrible night because of my horrendous throat pain. But, not completely daunted, I got up at 6:30 and donned my Giants polo shirt and earrings to bring my team luck for the game later today. One of the attendants, who complimented me on my turquoise train shirt yesterday, exclaimed, “Nice sweater! You’re just a fashion extravaganza!” Ha ha ha!
We stopped for about 20 minutes in Grand Junction, Colorado, so I got off to stretch my legs and then took the opportunity to get some hot tea in the café car (well, a cup of hot water with a Lipton tea bag on top of it).
You can have dinner brought to your sleeper if you want, and tonight I decided to do that because of my near-total voice loss. Unfortunately, the Signature steak arrived nearly raw. I hated to do it, but I had to call my room attendant and protest (using more gestures than speech). The chef then personally brought a new meal to me and said that mine had been put on the wrong tray. Well, I have to say, the steak was utterly delicious, with a sauce to die for! For some reason I had to buy a half-bottle of red wine because they did not have it by the glass as they do in the dining car. I drank one glass and saved the rest. That’s how ill I was feeling!
Leon and Julie both texted me throughout the Giants game with updates. The Giants won with Bumgarner’s pitching and a Conor Gillaspie homer! Now they play the Cubs. I’ll be fine if the Cubs win and take the whole darned Series. They’ve waited over a century, for goodness’ sakes.
October 6, 2016 (transfer from California Zephyr to Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 3)
I’m so bummed not to be able to talk. In the observation car this morning I heard one conversation about the Cubs and another very intellectual discussion about jazz between two obviously knowledgeable fellows. Dang!
We got to Chicago a little early, so I had 3-1/2 hours to kill before our 6:00 boarding time. Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge – which is open to sleeping-car, business, and Amtrak Select passengers – offers drinks, snacks, wi-fi, and comfortable furniture. Today’s snacks were just Chex-Mix type things, and they were a bit too spicy for me; I tried them and immediately was overcome by a paroxysm of coughing. But the unlimited cold orange juice made me feel better.
We boarded at 6:00. I didn’t want a dinner reservation, so I just had peanut butter crackers. Not a very nutritious day.
There was a horrible burning-wires smell in the train shortly after we boarded and one of the conductors (a woman!) walked through the train and told me that an engine had quit working and they had to do a last-minute repair. The beauty of this is that when she mentioned the failed engine, I did not panic. I did not start to cry. I did not hope that there was a priest on board who could give me the Last Rites. I did not have to prepare myself to plunge 30,000 feet to my agonizing death. No, I was not on a plane. I was on a safe, hospitable train. I thought nothing of a bad engine. Ah, the Zen of it all.
October 7, 2016 (Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 4)
TIP: To avoid constantly being thrown from side to side as you walk through a train, you need to employ a bit of a Charlie Chaplin walk. Watch the conductors, and imitate them as they point their toes outward and sway from side to side while they move down the aisle. That way you won’t bruise your boob in every doorway, or go sprawling across a diner’s lap. Not that I’ve done any of that.
I had a hard night. It was freezing in the room and I actually had to wear my North Face fleece jacket all night! I noticed in the morning that I had no soap, so I had to unscrew the hand soap dispenser from the sink. Then, to make matters worse, I discovered that the plastic cover was up on the toilet paper holder when I took a shower, so the entire roll of paper was soaked through. From that point on I had to use the sandpaper Kleenex. Luckily this was the last day, and it was a short one; I arrived at Harpers Ferry around noon.
This blog post is about train travel, so right now I won’t go into the time I spent with my wonderful friends in Maryland. Suffice it to say that I had a lovely time, and I only wish that I could have talked more with my friend Ellen, who put me up in her home and helped nurse me back to life while I could only croak at her. She even had to translate what I was saying one time for a waitress! But I was better by the time I got to Baltimore, and I spent some of my best days that week jamming with my friends Julie R. and Lauren, who play folk music together. I even got to drum with them at a gig. Someday I will try to put into words the joy of making music with other people.
October 17, 2016 (Capitol Limited, westbound from Rockville to Chicago, day 1)
The closest Capitol Limited station from Baltimore is Rockville, Maryland. I didn’t realize that the Rockville station has no restroom and, as it turns out, no signage at all indicating that it’s an Amtrak station. I freaked out (again, quelle surprise!) but Julie R., bless her heart, figured it all out for me. The train was supposed to stop for only one minute(!), so I was worried about finding someone to store my huge suitcase below the sleeper car, but they were very efficient, actually called my name, and loaded my bag while I boarded. Carlos, my attendant, had already made me 6:00 dinner reservations. I was really looking forward to eating in the dining car and speaking with other humans!
I had dinner tonight with the world’s nicest couple, from Michigan. She (Nancy) just “retired” as a PT, although she still does occasional contract work. He taught middle school for 30+ years. They spend their winters warming up in south Texas, near Brownsville (he has a brother there). They have three or four kids and a couple of new grandchildren. She had just heard that her daughter, who sleepwalks, tried to step over her husband in bed and woke up as she was crashing to the floor and breaking her shoulder. Too bad Nancy was on the train trip and not there to help her! Oh, and they told me that Brownsville is apparently the grapefruit capital of the country. Who knew that?
I had the steak, creamy mashed potatoes, the usual mixed vegetables cooked to death, a salad, a roll, a chocolate dessert, and a glass of cabernet.
October 18, 2016 (transfer from Capitol Limited to California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 2)
I slept deeply last night. I’d been dreaming that I had bedbug bites all over my toes, but I woke up when we pulled into a stop. I peered out the window and saw passengers pouring off the train, so I sprang out of bed and actually yelled out loud, “Oh, my God, we’re in Chicago already!” only to calm down, look at my watch, and note that it was 4:45 a.m. Then I saw that the station sign said “Toledo.”
In Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge, this time, they started putting out wine bottles and veggies and cheese at around noon. I was worried about my nervous stomach, though, as always and decided to forego anything until I got on the train.
We boarded at 1:30. I was the first one into our car. After I plopped myself in the room, I tore into a bag of Dove chocolate-covered almonds and shoveled peanut butter crackers into my mouth like a ravenous jackal. And it was right about then that the drama began.
A woman and her husband, who had been behind me in line, were trying to navigate their way down to their room (A) at the other end of the sleeper car. But the woman could not get her legs to operate at all, so two conductors had to get her up the narrow, steep, twisty stairs. Her husband Bill was completely useless because he paid no attention to her pleas for assistance. It turned out that she had multiple sclerosis, and I don’t know whether she was having a surprise attack or whether she was always unable to use her legs. In any case, after they got her up the stairs, one of the conductors was needed elsewhere, and it became clear that she would have to drag herself painstakingly along the floor, down the entire length of the aisle.
(I heard Bill say that the ADA room had been booked by someone else and that he had called in advance and was told that the aisle would accommodate her walker, which it clearly did not.)
Now, here’s where I was faced with a choice, and where I fell somewhat short. As I mentioned before, I had booked bedroom E a year in advance so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the dreaded room A. But I thought this woman could greatly benefit from my room, since she was already approaching it and it would take her forever to crawl down to room A at the other end. Not to mention the humiliation of the experience for her. I hemmed and hawed internally and cursed the whole situation and cursed my own inaction and selfishness, but finally, as she was just past my door by an inch, I forced myself out into the hallway to ask the conductor whether I should switch rooms with that poor woman and her husband. Surprisingly – and I have to admit that I was relieved – he told me that the couple’s belongings were already situated in room A and that I should not attempt to make the switch.
I still don’t know that the conductor was acting in everyone’s best interest when he made that decision. He came back later, thanked me for making the offer, and said, “You don’t want room A. It’s small and undesirable, and it wouldn’t be fair to you to switch.” In retrospect, it seems to me that he should have been thinking more about the woman with MS than about me or what was “fair.” Not to mention the fact that there were two people who were going to be in that room, one of whom was disabled and would not be able to leave the room for any reason until she arrived in Sacramento two days later. It took the woman thirty minutes to crawl to her room. I think this will haunt me forever.
After I got over that trauma, I was eager to get down to the Zephyr’s observation car and possibly speak, with actual functioning vocal cords, to a fellow passenger. And much to my surprise and amusement, who should be in the car, down in his customary seat at the end, wearing his customary camouflage hat, but the Chico guy from 2014! Harvey! He was loudly bloviating as usual, and I took my seat at the other end of the car. But no one sat near me, so I was alone with my thoughts.
I was also eager for dinner, and I decided to bravely sample the tortellini. I have to say, they were al dente and pretty good! They were strangely topped with those bland overcooked veggies, but I still enjoyed the meal.
My dinner companions were Les, a bald man whose accent I immediately picked out as Philadelphian, and Barbara, a reed-thin woman with pigtails, an abundance of wrinkles, and red rheumy eyes. Les is heading out to visit his daughter in L.A., but he’s going to get off in Emeryville and kick around San Francisco for a week first. He used to work for the railroad, first as an accountant but then as a computer guy in the 1950s, using keypunch cards. He never went to college but worked his way up to a fairly high supervisorial position. Barbara is from Virginia and goes out to visit her son – a biogeneticist – in Mill Valley every year. For some reason she spoke in barely above a whisper, so it was hard to hear her. She did say that the previous night she had dined with a “crazy” woman who assumed that all food on the train was all-you-can-eat and free for everyone!
October 19, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 3)
Paul, our nice attendant – who, by the way, is also a PGA professional – came by as we were pulling into Union Station in Denver to tell us that the dining car was open, so I flew down there to beat the Denver rush. I had scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, a biscuit, and coffee – all good. Clara and Jack, two 80-year-olds who had lived in Reno for 40 years, were seated across from me. Both of them were in terrific shape. I’m beginning to think that 80 is the new 50! At first I was slightly put off by him, because he seemed to be constantly correcting me or “teaching” me something, albeit in an extremely pleasant way, which was unnerving. Well, it turned out that he was an emeritus professor of philosophy, so I suppose his lifelong propensity to teach was exerting itself. I found myself not only nodding but subtly indicating to him that I already knew what he was trying to impart by answering “right,” or “yes, indeed,” or “I’ve been there.” Because he was born and raised in Chicago, I thought it might interest him to hear my one-minute condensed story about Myra Stratton, the Chicago nun with Alzheimer’s whom I’d befriended and whose life I had researched (https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/10/02/finding-myra/), but although he smiled a lot he didn’t seem particularly interested. Clara was the one who asked me questions. She was a law librarian for a national judicial education center, so she knew about the Center for Judicial Education and Research (part of the Judicial Council of California, where I used to work). She had librarian hair – neck length, bangs, a straight and simple cut – and no wrinkles whatsoever! Jack interjected that there is no judicial education for trial judges “anywhere,” but I pointed out that, at least in California, there certainly are minimum judicial educational standards. I don’t know where he gets his information. Oh, and apparently he teaches a class in “reasoning” to judges. Whatever! Anyway, they visit their son in San Francisco frequently and of course Jack had to tell me all about the Bernal Heights neighborhood as if I had no clue about it. But he really was a sweet man. He had trained at one point to be a pastor, so he had that serene manner about him.
The train is really an introvert’s dream. At times – sometimes for hours while going through the Rockies – there is no online connectivity at all (no wi-fi on the long-distance trains). WHAT??! How on earth do people survive? Well, they read, listen to music (perhaps on their so-last-millennium iPod), watch the scenery, think. Or write. When I got back to the sleeper, I continued reading The Girl on the Train – which, by the way, I think is highly overrated. I figured the whole thing out from almost the very beginning, and normally I am completely flummoxed, confused, and in the dark about everything.
At one point over the Rockies, Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero” and then the Mills Brothers’ “The Glow Worm” played on the iPod. The train rushed through a long pitch-black tunnel and I danced crazily to both of them. No one could see me. For those of you who don’t know “Glow Worm,” it’s a song that just makes you happy.
At around 11:30 I headed for the observation car. The more scenic side was completely full, with Harvey down at the end as usual. And, just as in 2014, he was talking about his guns. Mainly about calibers. At first he had a young woman caught captive, and he was telling her that he’d taught his nephews how to assess wind direction before peeing outside. He also mentioned that he’d tried to get his daughter to pee outside as well, but she’d have none of it. (Well, duh, Harvey!) Then he roped a really old codger into his conversation, and the two of them had an amusing “discussion” during which they didn’t respond to anything each other said!
The next victim was a sweet, small man whose only interjection was that he believed in the Bible and eternal life. Harvey responded that he disagreed about the Bible but made it a point never to discuss religion or politics because it always ended in animosity. He showed a sensitive side, too, talking fondly about his college-age daughter and mentioning that he and his sister were both adopted. His ex-wife, he said, was a “mess,” a former singer who messed up her life when she was on the brink of a contract with RCA. And he himself, he admitted, had made mistakes with drugs and alcohol in the past. He said that he’d never lied to his wife, but that there were things he omitted (it was her fault, he claimed, because she didn’t ask!).
There were some Mennonite couples in there, too, as well as a group of mentally challenged adults. Definitely a diverse bunch!
I saw a bald eagle as we glided by. And that reminds me. There’s a new Google television ad with four hipsters on a train paying no attention to what is outside the window but instead giggling gleefully over the virtual reality headsets they’re wearing. That commercial makes me absolutely apoplectic.
Dinner tonight was the chicken again, but this time instead of being herb-crusted it was in a terrific chopped-tomato sauce. And I want to bathe in that chocolate lava cake with the warm caramel center. My dining mates were Joleen and Ned (a couple from Kansas) and Matt, a young, extraordinarily handsome man from Australia with reddish hair and a trim beard. He recently got out of the Australian navy and is currently driving trucks. The navy wants him back, but he’s at a crucial crossroads, not knowing how he wants to make that decision. Of course, I urged him to follow his heart and be neither swayed nor flattered by persuasion. He comes to the U.S. every year and makes it a point to take at least one train ride per visit. He said the Australian trains are six times as expensive as Amtrak, are only for rich tourists, and are decidedly not worth it. Joleen and Ned have been married for 52 years and live in Kansas, where their families have been for centuries. Ned said their family tree is really a “family shrub.” He had been in public education for 50 years, starting out working stockrooms and sweeping floors but ending up teaching, coaching, counseling, and eventually serving as a high school principal and then assistant superintendent. He claimed that he and Joleen are the only two people in Kansas not voting for Donald Trump.
Afterwards I decided to spontaneously head down to the café car and ask for a hot toddy. After all, my friends had been recommending it to me during my bout with this awful cold, and even though the cold is all but gone, my voice is hoarse and catchy, and I still have a slight cough. The guy gave me a cup of hot water, a container of honey, and a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels. I plopped down at a table in the observation car and the man across from me looked over and said, “Ah, you have the makings of a hot toddy.” So I ended up talking with him and his wife a while. They were headed west to go to an annual reunion of soldiers who had shared a tent in the Vietnam War in 1965. These four guys and their wives had been getting together every year for decades.
October 20, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 4)
Around 4 p.m. today (and so far, miracle of miracles, the train is exactly on time!), I will disembark in Emeryville, be put on an Amtrak bus to the Temporary Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, and then need to get a cab home. Stressful!
[Note: I ended up doing just fine getting home. But I have a confession to make. There was only one cab waiting at the bus station when we got there, and I literally ran past Joleen and Ned to get to it. I needed to get to the west side of town through rush-hour traffic, and it was going to be a long trip for my weary bones. I can’t be nice all the time, can I?]
As we pulled into Reno, the dining car announced “last call” for breakfast, so I zipped down there. The oatmeal with raisins and honey sounded like a good plan, but they were out. So I had my standby of scrambled eggs, grits, a biscuit, and coffee. Across from me was a young couple from Idaho who had just finished moving themselves (in four 1,000-mile trips!) to southern Utah to be near his 77-year-old mother. He had long-ish hair and looked almost exactly like John Tesh (remember him?), and she looked a little like the Piper character from “Orange Is the New Black,” except worn around the edges. To me she looked a lot older than he did, but I’m not great with ages. They were taking three trains to go visit a friend in Spokane, then were riding a motorcycle down to San Francisco, and then were heading on to Atwater in southern California, where they would be visiting her daughter and new grandchild. Mother and daughter had been estranged and had not spoken in four years but had had some sort of breakthrough. He was a truck driver and was clearly very smart. He said he’d spent two years in a Holiday Inn Express in Nevada, walking across the street each morning to work, trucking fuel somewhere (he was a “fuel specialist”), returning to the motel at the end of the day and falling asleep, only to do it all again the next day, for 70(!) hours a week. It was a lonely job and he got to know the hotel workers better than any family member or friend. He was kind of mesmerizing – a fluid, brilliant storyteller. Next to me was a 30-something, short-haired, tough and stocky blond woman who’d grown up in New Jersey but moved to Berlin and was living there as a freelance translator of architectural and museum materials. All of us tentatively ventured into the realm of EU, German, and American politics. We lingered a long time. It finally eked out that all of them were against Trump but rarely discussed issues with friends or families because of the potentially damaging rifts that could result. The German woman made a couple of inflammatory and denigrating remarks about Americans but I held my tongue even though my blood pressure spiked and I almost threw a clot. Sometimes it’s best to just listen. It’s interesting to hear what Europeans think of us anyway.
I’ve been spending my final hours listening to music. The most recent songs have been:
Desperadoes Waiting for a Train (The Highwaymen)
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (Kris Kristofferson)
Samba Pa Ti (Santana)
Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash)
The Waiting (Tom Petty)
Riding on a Railroad (James Taylor)
Rise to Me (The Decemberists)
Seven-Year Ache (Roseanne Cash)
For some reason, “Seven-Year Ache” makes me cry today. It was such a dream to play music with my friends in Maryland, and it upsets me to live so far from some of the dearest people in my life. At one time they all lived in California; why did they have to move away? I vow to myself to forever stay in touch. Hang on, hang on, hang on to the people you love.
Many people, when I tell them about traveling by rail across the country, say that instead they would like to take “the train that goes across the Canadian Rockies.” But that is a different experience. It is an elite tourist train that touts its “luxury and comfort beyond compare” and, by the way, puts you up in a hotel at night.
This is not my aspiration. I love Amtrak. Amtrak is a passenger train; more than 30 million people a year climb on board. It doesn’t cost $5,000. It allows the average person to get from point A to point B. But it remains constantly in political danger, and I continue to urge people to ride and support the passenger rails. They are a bridge for all of us.
I don’t want to be in a hotel. The amenities might not be perfect, but being on a train is like being in a moving cottage with beautiful picture windows and the great American expanse passing in front of your eyes. I want to be falling asleep to the rhythmic rumble of the wheels and to the periodic squeaks, squeals, and groans, the random hisses, and of course the low-pitched whistle of that powerful locomotive.
We need these trains. They are honest. They are for everyone. They are longtime survivors of a simpler time. They honor the past and they honor our country. And they make me feel safe.