A-Camp by Rail: An Ode to Amtrak

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Why yes, sir, I did want to wear your conductor hat. I thought you would never ask

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Being the human of questionable judgement that I am, I have elected to wend my way toward that nexus of sheer joy known as A-Camp by train. I live in Portland, which makes the trip roughly 30 hours long and approximately completely awesome.

On the train, you spend a lot of time thinking about being on the train. Here are those unfettered thoughts and observations, as recorded at a not-too-impressive amount of miles per hour.

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List of things I brought on the train (and their status as of departure + 4.5 hours)

(1) Cold beer (drank it immediately to ‘wind down’ after running down the train platform)
1.75 liters of screw top red wine poured into an aluminum water bottle
1 pack smooth mellow American Spirit cigarettes, which are like not smoking at all
2 avocado and hummus sandwiches (1 down)
10 .5 mg clonazepam (emergency use only) (prescribed)
Altoid mini tin of marijuana (prescribed)
2 egregiously large chocolate cookies
1 lemonade of sorts
Assorted organic whatnots

My snack stash don’t quit, y’all #trainhoarding

 

Mistakes to date:

Forgetting a toothbrush (bought one on the train for one dollar! win!)
Not supplying my own fount of caffeine
Forgetting a blanket. I will pay for this one.

Windfalls so far:

Scoring a seat on the ocean side
Having a maybe-queer in my row
Sitting next to a totally sane person

Train Log Day 1: Portland to Northernish California

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It begins! Leaving beautiful PDX… See you in 30 hours, LA!

2:30 PM: And we’re off! Portland is sunny and gorgeous, but I guess I’m going to California where it is always sunny and gorgeous so I can’t complain! The woman on the platform said she’d give me an oceanside seat, because that’s the kind of small kindness she has to dole out.

5:30 PM: We stopped in Eugene, Oregon so the smokers could stop vibrating in their seats and driving everyone insane. A girl in my aisle who seems queerish got up and looked excited, so naturally I followed her because I wanted to be excited too. I stood striking my coolest I-don’t-give-a-fuck pose about 10 feet away from her, devil may care and all, you know, the whole deal. Unfortunately, I forgot to forget a lighter, because that’s the only real way to start a conversation with another human. Other unsavory humans approached me employing this tactic while the maybequeer hit a tiny joint there on the other side of the train tracks, holding it tucked in her hand which is a move I can never really pull off — I just burn myself. I saw her 20 minutes later on the bottom level where they keep the luggage, eyes fixed out the window, just standing there.

6:30 PM: I’m in the observation car now, which is kind of cool, especially because we’re going into a lightning storm. In the observation car, the glass stretches up to the ceiling so you can take in the scenery as it passes or effortlessly avert your gaze from the meth heads who hopped on board at the last stop.

I recognize the man stuffed away in the bottom level snack cart. He calls me honey, which I like. He calls everyone honey. He is old with leathery skin and a toothy grin. There used to to be two snack vendors, he says, but not since ’82. He is making hot dogs, but I just want some watery coffee and to get away from the hot dogs.

Fog rolling in at the northern Oregon Cascades

7:30 PM: We’re slipping along a muddy stretch of the Oregon cascades. It’s beautiful… today there’s rain, even though there’s snow on the ground too. There’s a deep valley winding around the edge and every now and again you get a glimpse of white through through the fir trees. Not snow or sky, just white. Like negative space, with no borders at all.

8:00 PM: What kind of people take the train? People with time on their hands, maybe. Wayward people. Lots of people in transition. The girl sitting next to me is “between everything” and works the herring season up in Alaska. She said her steel toed boots freeze through and showed me how big a herring is with her hands. They’re pretty small. She told me that one time she just kept petting one of the fish with her hand because it was so beautiful. I think I’d like herring too.

10:30 PM: Train travel feels falsely survival oriented, kind of like a lot of modern camping. Assessing my resources, I have roughly a third of a bottle of wine and some pretty choice salted chocolate to trade. Still no blankets have manifested out of my bartery interactions. Travelers seem evenly split between people who care about getting shitfaced and people who care about their carbon footprint. Why are both of my feet asleep?

11:00 PM: Hanging out in the observation car again, now with the ne’er do wells. Was hoping the maybequeer might be a relative train night owl, but she is sleeping in a small stoned ball against the window.

11:15 PM: Train drama! Some guy in all camo and a Led Zeppelin shirt is apparently being much more obvious about his boozing than the rest of us. The conductor suggested she would let him off in the middle of the tracks where he would surely perish at the hands of bears indigenous to the area.

Now some other seeming methhead is very excitedly/nonlinearly recounting a story about a boulder crushing the last train he was on. Huh. He’s carrying around some kind of container the size of a propane tank which he keeps sipping out of. We should swap moonshine recipes. I wonder if he has a Pinterest account?

Sunset somewhere north of Klamath Falls, OR

This shit is like international waters. You can do whatever the hell you want on the train, just maybe like, be 3% discreet about that thing. We got off in Klamath Falls, Oregon briefly and people were basically leaping onto the platform in a plume of pot smoke. I think we should hold an Amtrak tribunal for our transgressor. I wonder if trains have ordained ministers, like ship captains? I want the snack man to wed me and the little stoned girlball.

11:30 PM: I ate three identical sandwiches today. That’s sort of weird and definitely way more sandwiches than I usually eat per day. I ate one preemptively in a panic at home. The other two were survival fodder. It was either me or them.

11:45 PM: I think I’m sleepy but it just seems like kind of a big commitment.

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Back in the day, Taylor Hatmaker was the founding Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle's tech sister site, Technostraddle, may it rest in peace. Now, Taylor writes about technology for ReadWrite.com and Entrepreneur Magazine. For Autostraddle, she writes essays, takes pictures of thing and draws comics on occasion too, if you ask real nice.

taylor has written 109 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    I’ve spent about seven hours on trains in the last two days (which doesn’t really compare, but the UK’s a lot smaller) and I spent it reading a book on feminism and staring at the rain in the Welsh countryside. Your journey sounds a lot more exciting.

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        Oh I love the arriva wales trains, or a couple of them at least! The Manchester – abergavenny route is so beautiful and takes me right to where I want to go without having to change twice or wait for hours like the Virgin route. Also the virgin trains make me super travel sick. Basically i love wales and going by train so i don’t mind it being a wee bit slower!

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          it’s not so much the slow-ness as the lack of room and less comfortable seats and lack of plugs. Also single virgin train from midlands right to the tip of north wales. Pretty useful.

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          The Welsh scenery is my favourite in the UK. I’m used to getting the first great western ones from London to Cardiff and I might go to uni there so I’m getting myself used to the route.

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          People i know at cardiff said it was pretty good, also you may have less people telling you that you will go to hell for not speaking welsh (true story)

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          Only in the north do they tell you to go to hell, you head south and people who are speaking welsh are rare.. like dragons..

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          I live in the tiniest most ridiculous part of wales, arriva trains wales are the skankiest trains imaginable! It’s like a dream when you reach Cardiff and switch to the great western!

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      Arriva trains are almost as bad as the really really old Northern Rail trains that also sometimes come through Cheshire. Yay for Virgin trains :)
      And this summer I’m going to do Camp America in the USA, and so far have planned a 6hr Amtrak journey from St Louis to Chicago – and if I don’t have to resit any exams then I’m going to get a cross country train from San Fransisco to New York before flying home. I’m SO EXCITED.
      Wish I could be at A-Camp right now though. sob.

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    I love all long transportation rides. I can’t even read a text message without getting nauseous so I’m really relieved of any pressure to do anything, which I love. Of all transport, trains are probably the best cause you get all the scenery, the luxury of a bathroom, no liquid regulations, and no imminent fear of police.

    That “survival” or “modern camping” feeling is so true. The primary concerns are all physical – am I cold? is my foot asleep? how do I not eat all these snacks at once? how do I balance staying hydrated with not having to wake up this random dude so I can go pee? which substances should I consume and when?

    I also love the completely arbitrary “all in this together” feeling of all these random people.

    Anyway, this can’t help you, but it can help someone. I will add to your list:
    – earplugs
    – bandana to tie around eyes
    – sleeping pills
    – neck pillow with a string tied to it so you can strap it on
    – fuzzy socks
    – notebook for doodling

    And I second everything you listed and the addition of toothbrush, blanket, and caffeine. Also, trains are a great place to use narcotics recreationally.

    Congrats on the ocean-side seat! and the observation car sounds amazing.

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    When I moved from Kentucky to California, I spent a bit over three days on trains/in train stations/on a bus. (Something like eighty hours and change.)

    Fulton, Ky, to Fullerton, CA, which was a mistake, I was supposed to end up in Northern California. My long-distance girlfriend lived in Riverside, not so far away, but did not come and see me at the train station, even thought I was there for eight hours, waiting for the train that would take me to San Jose. Turns out she was sleeping with two other women, and we broke up shortly after that. I did get a lot of reading done, though.

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    I do the Amtrak from New York to DC and the New York to Rochester on a semi-regular basis but never very long! I prefer flying but the train is a pretty cool experience. Though I’m pretty inoffensive looking being tiny so old men like to sit next to me and touch my thighs.

    This is mostly when I take the Acela.

    Anyone listen to Fountain of Wayne’s ode to Amtrak?

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          I KNOW!!!!!! I may not be able to contain myself I’m so damned excited. They’re not even going to know what hit em! Or maybe, I’m not even going to know what hit me. Either way it’s going to be fabulous. Especially since you’re there!!!

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    I usually go to San Francisco via Amtrak, which is probably the most hideous and senseless train ride in CA (I think Riese wrote an article about it), and feels exactly like what you’ve described, including the maybe girls and the creepers. Hope you’re not too tired when we all meet (I’m a GG) and see you…Tommorow, wow.

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    I really enjoyed this post Taylor! I’m actually driving up to Portland after camp. If I wasn’t bringing my dog, I might just take a train! Never been on a real one.

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    I really hoped you’d be writing about this!
    I think the hardest part of traveling alone is just getting lucky about who you sit next to. It can change a trip completely.

    Late July comes from where I’m from!
    Thanks for reminding me to go buy snacks!

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    “I stood striking my coolest I-don’t-give-a-fuck pose about 10 feet away from her, devil may care and all, you know, the whole deal.”
    Rofl, I do that too! There should be an A-Camp photo of all of us standing around like this, trying to be noticed by each other while attempting to appear as if we don’t give a fuck at the same time.

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    Am I the only one hoping the stoned maybequeer is also on her way to A Camp? Because that would surely be an interesting situation. Also, I must take a train someplace….these updates are fantastic.

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    This essay was a lot of fun, it’s always cool to see how other react to similar events. Did you talk to the maybequeer? She sounds like she could be a lot of fun.

    The last time I rode Amtrak from Portland to L.A. was a few years ago with a group of people, it was pretty fun but we got derailed twice from the snow (it was late december.)
    We figured out that you can turn the seats to face each other, so we had little groups of four. At the next stop an Amtrak guy came up and said, “Who did this? This isn’t okay.” and one of our adults said he did and the guy started to cuff him! We were all really worried but it turns out it was something they’d set up earlier. After that shock we were allowed to keep the seats like that as long as we rotated them back before getting off.

    I spent most of the ride in the bathroom playing my friend’s DS or in the viewing car, even though it smelled like steamed broccoli.
    I wonder if we even had the same snack guy, sounds like the old man who was in there making hot dogs a few years ago.

    I love riding the train though, I’m looking forward to riding it when I’m no longer a minor.

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    I love trains! The ride from Portland to the Bay Area is like my favorite trip ever, even when it’s late and cold and raining. It seems like there’s always cute maybequeer girls and the potential for meeting cool people is always high, so it kind of balances out the creepers and meth heads. I love the feeling of the train rocking back and forth and opening your eyes and seeing a sunrise or sunset in a new city or in the wilderness somewhere, and going through the canyon in Northern California and the mountains and fields in Oregon and just aaahhh. So great.

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    This sounds like a fun train…No kids? Lucky! I was on a train from DC to Boston and some woman got on in NYC, popped in her ear phones and let her two kids (who she plopped directly in front of me and my gf)do what they wanted. Those two ‘precious kids’ yelled, jumped, played with the reclining seats, looked over at us and said “HI!” about 20 times before I lost it. Of course I looked like the raging, childless, lezbo, but come on! From that point on, I would bring xanax… and a better gf, who pretended not to know me. At least 3 other people gave me the knowing “I can’t believe those kids” look and said something to me about it. It was a holiday weekend too, which made it so much worse. Maybe pot would have helped too.

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      If you ever ride the train again, try to sit in the “Quiet Car” if they have one. Usually it’s the very last car, and kids aren’t allowed to sit in there. They don’t always designate one, but I feel like there has been one on most of trains I’ve been on.

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    I ride the Northeast Regional from NYC to Baltimore or NYC to Providence usually a few times a year, but it’s never as exciting as this. My most “exciting” Amtrak experience was Christmas 2009, when my daughter was 8 months old. There was a power outage in Penn Station, so they told us all to take the PATH train to Newark and then get onto a southbound train from there. Of course when we got to Newark no one knew where the hell to go or when the trains would actually be leaving. We were sitting in the waiting area and my wife started to nurse the baby, and like right then they called our train. So she ended up running through Newark Station while nursing the baby, with me pushing a stroller and pulling a suitcase, and then she practically took some guy’s head off who elbowed into her in the elevator.

    I would love to take a long-distance train ride some time though. I traveled all around Europe by train the summer after I graduated from college and it was so much fun.

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    The last time I sat on Amtrak was merely a week ago during Spring Break when I went down to LA from the Bay Area with the girl I really liked but she didn’t feel the same way. And I remember waking up, turning my head, and seeing her sitting there, framed by the blue skies and the sea. It made me so happy inside

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    Sandwich truth: I ate one preemptively in a panic at home. The other two were survival fodder. It was either me or them.

    <3

    My longest train journeys are 2 hours, living in England, but I still feel like this a lot. You can never have enough food with you when you're travelling. People laugh at me, but it's a fine art, picking food that will be nourishing and fun and will not exacerbate any possible travel sickness. If you find one good kind of sandwich it's good to stick with it.

    I recently went by car to a city about 2 hours from home with my boyfriend and a friend, and I took multiple apples, a huge loaf of tiger bread, hummus, a bag of cookies and some peanuts. They thought I was crazy, but I had the last laugh when the hostel we stayed in had no breakfast and we were all starving.

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    I used to take this same route. Only I was twelve and with my mom. I just remember these two kids that were in our car who were running all over the place and being awful. There was also an old woman with her oxygen tank, who I was worried would die at any minute.

    Taking the train as a legal human being might be a very different experience. I want to get a sleeper car someday and ride across the country pretending I am in a Hitchcock film.

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    I LOVE observation cars. One time I took the train from Northern VA to Sanford, FL (yes, I know) and it was weird. This sounds way better. Also one time I took a coal train from Cumberland, MD to Washington, DC but that only took 5-6 hours. It was fun, though.

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    I’ve taken Amtrak cross country (yes, the ENTIRE way across) three times (and back, so six times, actually). Best way to pass the time: making up the life stories of other passengers. It’s equally fun to decide the stories are true or to ask at the end of the trip and see how far off you are. I will never forget a particular passenger who thought she found a mouse in her food that turned out to be a hunk of felted material that came off her own sweater. Good times. Also, best way to make sure you have everything you need: travel in a car adjacent to a troop of boy scouts. It’s true, they always are prepared, and actually do want to help girls in need of screwdrivers on long journeys.

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    I always fall in love on trains.

    I barely even have to look at her and I spend he duration of the journey imagining various scenarios in which we end up talking and reeeeally hoping she doesn’t get off the train. Then I spend all that dreaming time with my head phones in and my face in a book and then feel really sad when she gets off the train.

    I think trains are seriously over looked as a first date location. If someone offered to take me on a train for a date, I’d marry them immediately.

    If I won the lottery, I’d be on trains all day every day. I like how people bond over being on the train together. If the train is late, everyone acknowledges it. If you’re on a train late and everyone is drunk, you’re all friends immediately. If the train breaks down, everyone tuts together. In England, I think it’s nice to have that kind of anonymous kinship.

    “Do you like trains?”
    “Not particularly.”
    “Then aparently you hate fun.”

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