But Did You Find America?

Lake Champlain from the shores of Alburgh, VT.

In the two weeks since I’ve been back, everybody wants to know, “Did you find America?”

My answer of, “At times, in bits and pieces, at certain moments here and there. She’s slippery, elusive, hard to pin down,” leaves them feeling somehow unfulfilled. I see them squint their eyes, grunt, look away and change the subject.

So perhaps, for their sake and mine, I should attempt to pin down just exactly what I found.

Feeling the spirit in Woodsville at the largest Fourth of July Parade in New Hampshire.

I found not one monolithic America, but a plentitude of smaller Americas, distinct parts where people are influenced by their cultural heritage and the landforms around them. The professors of liberty in new England who trace their roots so easily back to the colonial era. The outdoorsmen of Michigan, Utah, and Colorado whose states offer veritable pleasure palaces for the active. The Native Americans straying from the rolling auburn plains of their reservation to the only saloon in East Glacier, Montana. The international seaport of Seattle with her Pike Place Market serving every craft and cuisine of the Pacific Rim. The immense Bay Area of California sifting her people into their proper places—the urbanites of The City, intellectuals of Berkeley, business travelers of Emeryville. The friendliest folk in the forgotten corner of middle America, Kansas City, MO, whose landscape gives them nothing to brag about. Texas with her wide city sprawls, her wide toothy grins, her wide commitment to the second amendment. The delta land of NOLA and her tourist economy, her perpetual party. Americans react to the landscapes, cultures and climates surrounding them. They preserve tradition while simultaneously modernizing their inheritance. Continue reading

Last Stop, New Orleans

The Haney Train rolled to a stop in New Orleans a little over two weeks ago. I detrained on the evening of the last eligible day to use my pass, August 21, with one nontransferable travel leg to spare. The end of the line.

Used to be the train kept going from New Orleans, on through Gulfport, Mobile, Tallahassee, and ended up in Jacksonville. But as my trip began with a rally to reinstate the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Jacksonville, it ended at the closest station to home.

Erin, Paul, Aimee

Several years ago, my friend Erin from high school boarded the Sunset Limited in Phoenix, AZ, thinking she’d make it all the way home to Florida. When Amtrak spat her out in NOLA, she decided to hang around for a few days. A few days turned into a few weeks, a place to stay, and a job. Now, a few years later, she still lives in the Crescent City. My scheduling annoyance turned out to be a pivotal and fortuitous happenstance in Erin’s life.

Captain Kunal, Me, adult beverages

My other friend from high school in NOLA, Kunal, moved there recently for a job marketing space walks, those inflated bouncy castles you find at kids’ birthday parties. When he offered to let me sleep in the recliner at his apartment in the west side of the city by Tulane University, I cancelled  my hostel reservation and saved $70 for the three nights (yep, hostels really are that cheap).

Continue reading

From St. Louis to Austin

Who’s a red panda? Yes he is.

Everywhere an arch arch.

Before I got to Austin, TX, I spent a few days in St. Louis under that ginormous arch. You can’t fathom how big that thing is until you stand beneath it; it’s the largest man-made monument in the U.S., visible in the city from several miles away. I had also gone to the St. Louis Zoo, deciding that my three favorite animals are the sloth bear (think performing bears juggling on roadsides wearing tubular hats), the beaver (what other creatures–besides ourselves–change their environment to suit their needs, rather than the other way around?), and the red panda, with that brilliant, ruddy coat, that bushy, powerful tail, and that scrunched-up Pokemon face. Yes, I love mammals.

Soul Cowboys at work.

I met up with another lovable mammal in St. Louis, Efren, a soul cowboy I befriended in my Chicago days. He drove in from the suburbs and met up with me on my final night in Missouri, relaying some fantastic details about his own 9-month sojourn through Mexico and Central America a couple years back. Originally heading down to Oaxaca to paint murals in a Catholic church, the community took him in as one of their own before he made a spontaneous decision to drive a girl to Mexico City so she could get the medical attention she needed. After six weeks in the capitol he went back to finish the job he was commissioned for before heading to a beach town on the Pacific and somehow falling in with a bar owner with pistols tattooed around his waist who gave him a job, food, and lodging. By remaining open to spontaneity, he came across characters and situations that made my journey seem ordinary. “But it seems like you’ve seen so much,” Efren said. And it’s true. In the words of Johnny Cash, I’ve been everyware, man. Continue reading

Why Did I Go to Kansas City?

On that day in Emeryville, CA, when I used the time given to me by missing the train to plan out every travel leg and sleeping accommodation, I made the choice to go to Kansas City, MO. There’s no easy way to get from Denver to Austin on Amtrak, which was my real goal, so Kansas City would provide a good transfer point and help me burn up a couple more legs of my pass so to help me feel like I got my money’s worth.

But the question remained: Why am I going to Kansas City?

Kansas City doesn’t exactly grab the traveler’s attention. It isn’t known for its sites of interest or night life. There were no hostels to be found in the city–the cheapest room I found was at the Econo Lodge on the other side of the Missouri River. And when the city bus dropped me off behind Harrah’s Casino at 11pm on a Friday night, and I still had a three-mile walk to the hotel, I wondered, Is this the reason I came to Kansas City? To gamble? Continue reading

Thoughts from the Final Train Ride

I write this from onboard the Sunset Limited, crawling down the track (the train does more crawling than sprinting, I’ve learned) toward New Orleans. My 45-day pass expires at the end of today, so even though I have one of my 18 legs remaining, New Orleans marks the end of my journey. I have friends in the Crescent City–Kunal and Erin–and Aimee’s coming over on Friday to stay the weekend and drive me home to Tallahassee on Sunday. A week from today I’ll be back in front of the classroom.

It’s surreal to think of the thousands of miles of track I’ve covered, the hundreds of hours I’ve spent, the mountains I’ve passed by and the rivers crossed in these bumbling tubes of endearing inefficiency. Most the trains have run late. Most my attempts to sleep in pretzel contortions on overnight trains have proven frustrating. The overhead announcements have started to annoy me. I no longer wish to sit in the observation deck and chit-chat. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Impromptu Planning in Denver

If I had planned out beforehand activities for every stop of my journey, I probably would have gone to Reno, NV for the final round of the Reno-Tahoe Open, then booked it over to Denver and gone to see Neil Young at Red Rocks the following day.

Those would have been memorable events for sure. But would I have found America while watching millionaires play golf on a manicured mountain course for a $6 million purse, or after buying a $60 ticket to see America’s most beloved Canadian musician at one of America’s most famed concert venues?

You bet I would’ve.

As it was, when I missed the train in San Francisco, I haggled (read: aroused pity) for a cheap(er) hotel room next to the station and spent much of the day booking train tickets and hostels for the remainder of my trip. I looked not at the goings-on in the cities but focused exclusively on time tables. It was inevitable that I’d miss something spectacular somewhere–as inevitable as it was that I’d miss one of these 18 trains.

So when I finally got to the hostel in Denver at 8pm, took out my iPad, pulled up the concert calendar, and saw that Neil Young was set to tee off at Red Rocks at that very moment, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t planned the smallest iota ahead. But there were so many other bands playing inside the city that night anyway. I took note of a venue in north downtown touting their allegiance to Jerry Garcia, Quixote’s True Blue, and set off walking through the American city night. Continue reading

An Update on the COTSBTH

Last month on this blog, I brought to the world’s attention an emerging underground society about which little had previously been known, and with which my older brother Greg had recently gotten involved: The Cult of the Still-Beating Trout Heart.

Since that time my dear ol’ Uncle Dave of Alburg, VT, the diligent fact finder that he is, went straight to the source and gathered some important information concerning the strange cramps and cravings that could overcome my brother.

The following is a slightly abridged message from my uncle to my brother alerting him to what could be in store.

Hi Greg,….
 I also have some important news for you, healthwise. Recently I spoke with the local Abenaki Indian (yes, we can call them Indians up here) sub chief, (the big chief was unavailable because she’s in the slammer for embezzling tribal funds). When I asked him what he knew about the Cult of the Still Beating Trout Heart , a grave and inscrutable Indian look came upon his face as he informed me that you had jumped the line in the still beating fish heart fraternity by not first swallowing some lesser breeds; catfish, carp and suckers to name a few. But don’t worry! These are gentle Indians not given to vengeful acts, but you probably won’t be getting any free chits at the local casino. He did say that it is not unusual for newcomers to the COTSBTH to eventually find themselves with an insatiable hunger for nightcrawlers and earthworms and often don’t have a ready supply available. Here’s where the importance of extended family comes in. I’m sure you remember meeeting Maretta’s brother, Len. Well, it just so happens that his son in law, Kurt( who came up here the day after you guys left) has a business name Kurt’s Crawlers ( I’m not making this up[ well, some of it]) and ships worms to  customers all around the country for composting and soil enrichment.. You see where I’m going with this? I guess this makes you first step cousins-in-law and as such probably eligible for a family discount. So, when you find yourself in the middle of the night crawling on the floor frothing at the mouth and all cramped up and don’t know why, call me. I can help. Or better yet, wait ’til morning to call me. According to the subchief, the problem should go away after a few heaping meals of crawlers, which are pretty tasty on Combos or Cheezits, by the way.
….
 Love, your ever helpful uncle, Dave

Postcards and Perceptions in Salt Lake City

Dear Haney on the Train Nation:

I have some momentus news. I found America. It resides at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

I kid. At least, not my ‘merica.

But I do have news: unfortunately, there will be no postcards coming from SLC. Because I missed the train in California and had one less day in SLC, because I spent Saturday up in the mountains, and because SLC practically shuts down on Sunday except for bars and the Mormon headquarters, I was not able to find any.

Imagining I had the resources to make my own postcards, I came up with some ideas.

Salt Lake City:

-If you don’t climb mountains and you’re not a Mormon, we wonder why you why the hell you came here.

-The widest streets in America.

-Have one kid for every mountain on the horizon.

-It’s all about the powder.

-Where beer shall never be stronger than your faith in Kolob.

-Yeah right, Brigham Young would never scalp an Indian.

-Can we have your address and phone number, you know, just to chat some time?

-Space Jesus.

He lives – in space!

For serious though, Salt Lake is a beautiful city. It sits in a wide, flat valley with 10,000-foot peaks of jagged granite and quartzite rising up on all sides. Every time you go outside those mountains remind you why Brigham Young chose to plop his people down there back in 1846. Continue reading

The Blame Game

With so many trains to catch, it was inevitable that I’d miss one. Yesterday morning I didn’t make it across the bay from The City (San Francisco) to The Town (Oakland) in time to catch the 9:10 train toward Chicago.

After 40 mintues of running in frantic circles around the Market District, I tried to hail a cab to take me over. “Can you get me to Emeryville Amtrak for a 9:10 train?”

The driver looked at the time. “You’re not going to make it. There’s too much traffic.”

Anyone up for an episode of Full House?

I moved to the side and fumed, not sure whether to be angry Amtrak for not routing the train through San Francisco proper but making passengers load onto shuttle busses out of the city, at the shuttle bus driver who dropped me off three days earlier and pointed haphazardly to the Amtrak bus stop (“It’s over there, in front of Bloomingdale’s”), at my smart phone navigation app for directing me to the wrong side of the block, or at the shuttle bus driver who didn’t stop when I tried to wave him down after finally finding the Amtrak bus stop.

In reality, though, I could only be mad at myself for not waking up an hour earlier, for not figuring out exactly where the stop was, for not listening to my pal Chris Krohne, who I was staying with, when he told me just to take the BART under the bay. Continue reading

Dear America: Look to Portland

A scene from the street festival.

If the purpose of this trip were to find a place to move after graduation, I would’ve just stopped in Portland. The city is alive with color from the plentiful wildflowers, sunflowers, and hydrangas. The youth appreciate Americana, gathering to watch folk bands with instruments like accordions, mandolins, and even kazoos. Even more appealing, the bulk of the businesses are local and independent, each with its own flare. I didn’t see a Target, McDonalds, or Wal-Mart there in five days.

This morning I had coffee, an egg and bacon sandwich, and a fresh doughnut in a cafe built inside an old wooden house. Yesterday I ate lunch in a place called Por Que No? which sections off its patio with discarded front doors. The grilled cheese truck around the corner from my friends Pat and Marika’s place utilizes a double-decker bus for a dining room. As I walked by it one morning I waved to a little girl in the top deck with her face smooshed up against the glass.

She was up in there.

Portlandians make use of the goods lying around them. Instead of hauling in tons of new materials to build up their city, they make do with what’s already there. They practice sustainability, minimalism, and even conservatism in that they attempt to conserve resources, conserve the beauty of the mountainous countryside, conserve a way of life that celebrates individualism over homogenized mass consumerism.

Food truck pods appear all over the city. One open lot might contain eight trucks with eight different genres of food. And bicycles rule the road. I took a five-hour bike ride yesterday up Mt. Tabor, along the Willamette River, into downtown, and back to Pat and Marika’s. Cars yielded to me, waiting for me to pass before turning, always conscientious of my presence and my safety.

So why doesn’t the rest of America look to Portland as an beacon for what we could become, a model for preserving regional culture as natural resources dwindle and mass-consumerism white washes our greatest cities? Partly because Portland doesn’t want the attention. The more people discover this gem of a city, the greater the chances Wal-Mart, Target, and McDonalds will move in and dilute their forward-looking, individualistic culture.

Gearing up for an epic bike ride.

And there’s the paradox: if I had halted my journey in Portland, would I assimilate smoothly into their city, or represent another step toward the globalization of American cultural identity?

Either way, I’m back on the train and making my way down to San Francisco where I’ll stay for three nights then head over the mountains to Salt Lake City, Denver, Austin, and New Orleans.

Traveling Backward through America Part II

Yesterday I arrived in Portland into the seedy area around the train station. A girl asked me for $4 toward a train ticket for her and her boyfriend to go home to Boise. I gave her two dollar bills and regretted it as soon as I saw her scuzzy boyfriend come out and give her a high five. I saw a group of 10 men getting tickets for drinking in public. Someone offered to sell me some herb. While I waited for the bus, a passing gutter punk blew smoke in my face.

But I made it to Pat and Marika’s pace in a much nicer part of Portland and have since had three great meals and a few $2.50 pints of craft beer. I think I’m gonna like this city.

On the train here from Seattle, I sat in the lounge car and found myself in conversation with a 61-year-old woman bemoaning the decline of America. “Corporate interest runs the country. It used to be great. A Bachelor’s degree used to mean something. Now they’ve sent the jobs away, sold us downriver. Obama’s a huge disappointment and Romney scares the hell out of me. Republican, Democrat, it’s all the same. Too bad for your generation. It’s so hard now to even find a job.”

You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. But the conversation got interesting when she confessed to leaving the Mormon church four years earlier. “Why are you going to Salt Lake City?” she asked. “They’ll run you right out of town. Don’t give ’em your name in Temple Square.”

Oh my what have I stumbled upon?

Continue reading

Sights and Sounds of the Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market provides a smorgasbord for the senses. The smells of boiled and stewed seafood, Spanish and Asian specialties, and flowers, herbs and spices drift through the long hallways. Pink salmon and red grouper sit on ice before a crowd of international visitors while neon lights shine overhead. Patrons run their fingers through fruit stands where peddlers push peach slices in front of you, in the shops people rifle through shelves of old signs and records and hold hand-made statues and trinkets up in contemplation. Some raise spoonfulls of ciapporo–an Italian seafood stew with a tomato broth–while others chew on croissants and skewered meats.

But the sounds of the market make Seattle ring like no other city. Besides overhearing conversations in a litany of languages, you’ll encounter skilled street musicians entertaining the steady stream of market goers and watching their guitar cases fill with dollar bills.

An old man in boots, a leather vest, and a wide-brimmed hat plays guitar and sings about New Orleans in a voice like Louis Armstrong’s. Four young men with mandolins and acoustic guitars play an eerie Americana with an off-balance beat, arresting shoppers with their pleading rhythms. A cellist contorts herself around her instrument as she pulls a long vibrato tone.

In this video, see the jangly piano man who wheels his workplace into position each day and uses his visibility for polemics. Around the corner at the Seattle Museum of Art, a large black shadow bangs down a hammer ad infinitum. I heard the echo of a mournful accordion for two days before sniffing out the sound. The antic accordionist rewards my efforts with a look back into the camera.

Traveling Backward Through America

I’m finding out that travel bloggers live in the past. Especially on a trip like mine, where destinations roll by like cherries in a slot machine, experiences from days ago linger until I can get them down, post them to the blog.

When I set out I figured I’d write about each city on the train ride out of town and be ready to focus on the next. But as I mentioned, the internet tethering on my phone has been spotty at best, and anyway I meet the most fascinating people on the train. We talk and then I run to my notebook to jot down what they said. Sometimes I even sleep.

Greetings from Seattle. Such a diverse market and, at least to my mind, it exists in three time zones.

Even now, as I sit in a Seattle Starbucks, comments on Chicago, adventures in Glacier National, and characters from the Amtrak juggle through my mind. The memories accompanied me while I found my hostel, toured the market, wandered the harbor. In each moment I look around me and behind. Continue reading

The Smart Ones, Aye?

That view I told you about.

I cheated in Michigan. I got in a car, and I went to Canada. Those acts were neither trainey nor American. But the former got me to a wedding on time, and the latter gave me a great view of the Detroit skyline. Sometimes it’s better to break the rules.

My buddy Alec flew up from Tampa (which he calls the “Cultural Siberia”), rented a car, and picked me up in Ann Arbor, a charming little city an hour east of Detroit where our friend Rob lives. The three of us used to row together on the crew team in high school. Rob put me and Alec up and took us out barhopping.

Is there a better way to find America than to barhop in each of its cities?

Don’t answer that.

Ann Arbor is a really cool town. The University of Michigan is interspersed among houses and businesses within the city, and its downtown features numerous coffee shops and bakeries, a grocery co-op, nice bars and restaurants, wide streets lined with trees and flowers, and handsome wood and brick buildings. Continue reading

Holy Toledo, I’m in the Wrong Car

As I got off the chair lift up over the par-3 course and looked off the bluff over hazy Lake Michigan which, along with the sky, glowed with every shade of blue, I reflected on how far I’d come from that exhausted soul in D.C.

Views from the train–West Virginia.

After leaving Aimee off at Raegan International, I made my way back towared Union Station and prepared for my first overnight train ride. I stopped in a market and bought a sandwich, an apple, and some chips, and I threw in a small bottle of whiskey in case I needed help falling asleep.

They boarded the train and I shuffled my way onto a packed car and sat next to a woman eating a Big Mac. At least I got a window seat, I thought.

Maybe you can tell me how a guy with as much student loan debt as I have can misinterpret instructions so badly as to get in the Chicago car when his ticket is for Toledo. I thought they meant toward Chicago, not to Chicago. Anyway, I raised my hand during the attendent’s final lecture about no smoking and find your closest exit. He called on me like a home-room teacher in middle school. “I think I made a mistake,” I said. “I’m going to Toledo.” Continue reading

How to View the National Mall

After Aimee and I were treated to surprise mariachi on the New York subway we boarded the Amtrak in Penn Station and bumbled our way down to Washington D.C. Aimee got our her smartphone, as she does, and navigated us over to Columbia Heights where we stayed with my good friend Callie from back home in Central Florida. Callie works with the government to try and improve standardized testing across the nation, is heavily involved in mentorship programs in Washington, taught English for two years in Japan, and also plays golf.

Whoever’s plate this is will have to sue me to take it down.

When we emerged from the subway onto the bright, hot street, life moved at a different pace. The power walking necessary to not get knocked aside in Boston and New York City didn’t jibe here. Rows of pedestrains ambled around us clapping their flipflops and yakking on their phones. We couldn’t pass or weave and had to settle into a languid stroll. We were back in the South. Continue reading

America So Far

Dear Reader,

This morning I woke up in Chicago with no immediate plans, no train tickets booked, no parades or weddings to get to or airports to visit. After the past two weeks of constant movement, this opportunity to rest, recharge, and ruminate on my experiences is a welcome respite from the quick pace of the trip so far.

The past two weeks have simultaneously flown by and been jam packed with diverse and edifying experiences. I met the crunchy hippies of Vermont, the simple folk of New Hampshire who live by one motto: “Live free or die.” I chilled with Ben Franklin and Paul Revere in Boston, went to New York City and wandered the hard streets of Brooklyn, walked the hipster haven of Williamsburg, dropped my jaw before the neon metropolis of Manhattan. In D.C. I slogged across the National Mall through heat and chaffing to pay homage to our nation’s greatest figures. I rode the train, flew on three planes, hopped in my buddy’s rental car in Michigan to see the charming college town of Ann Arbor, the National Lakeshore with its humongous sand dunes and bluffs overlooking Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, the tough downtown of Detroit whose streets are so quiet you can hear the buildings whisper stories of a golden past. Continue reading

Close Lobos and the New York Subway

The story of my 43 hours in New York City really begins at the end, as Aimee and I rode the subway out of Crown Heights in Brooklyn toward Penn Station. Feet sore, eyes rolled backward, speech garbled and brains short circuiting, we jostled listlessly to the back and forth of the subway car, our painfully heavy bags at our feet. I looked up and noticed a Mexican man, serious and sombreroed, standing against the door. Two more appeared and…

     It’s not that important that the first time I saw New York City from the ground happened when Aimee and I emerged from the subway onto the streets of Crown Heights. I felt a bit overwhelmed. Pedestrians filled the streets in all directions–coming at me, away from me, crossing the street, exiting doorways. Four-story apartment buildings lined every avenue with countless markets, cleaners, coffee shops and mystery establishments beneath them. Each building had a front stoop, fence, and bars on the door. We walked toward Aimee’s old friend Joe’s apartment about seven blocks away where we stayed for the two nights, and the bustle never let up.
     Nor is it important that the guys where we stayed were playing Magic the Gathering and watching a live feed of the Mortal Kombat World Championships from Las Vegas. They were good guys, and I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions about them or the city. Aimee and I set our bags down in their flat and went looking for excitement.
     It hardly even matters that a couple hours later, while searching frantically for a bar to a buy a beer so Aimee could use the bathroom, we stumbled into Trash Bar, rated by The Village Voice as the number one punk bar in NYC. When I found out about their distinction, for fear of getting my head butted in, I turned to Aimee and said, “let’s chug this and go.”

The Ghosts of Boston’s Past

Wafer graves, with the Franklin plot there in the middle

Boston straddles the line between history and modernity, keeping one foot planted in the American Revolution and the other in the consumer culture fundamental to our post-industrial society. I know this because yesterday I took the walking tour with Ian “Meat” Miller, 10-year Bostonian, as a guide.

Aimee and I met Ian (they’re cousins, by the way) in Boston Commons where we picked up The Freedom Trail, established in 1953, and followed the red line–sometimes paint, sometimes brick–around the city. It led us first to the Granary Burial Ground where headstones look like wafers–thin and stone gray–and we found the graves of Paul Revere, John Hancock, and the Franklin family plot less one important Benjamin. A little girl left a penny face out on the Benjamin marker and said to her daddy “I did it!” then jumped down from the stone step. I slid in to snap a picture. Continue reading