I’ve been home for more than a month now, teaching and writing, thrust so quickly into a routine of working days and co-op vegetables that the nightly dreams of rail hopping faded in half a week. But the stories linger ’round me like a smoker’s aroma. I’ve changed. I have tales to tell at parties of cities, states, regions and peoples and their varying personalities; of characters met on the rails and their stories; of the delights and hardships of train travel. Changed in that, when someone tells of some far reach of our country I can say, Yes, I’ve been there. And it was just like you say.
Each city a different place, a different moment in time, a different me. Each with a different affect, all beautiful in their Americanness. So now, for my final entry before I call haneyonthetrain.com a done deal and move on with my various other life projects, I bring you The Haney on the Train Awards for Superlative Cities.
Alburgh, VT – Best Tie-Dye in America. Around the corner from my Uncle Dave and Aunt Maretta’s house on Lake Champlain is New Dye Mensions, a shop where two Canadian dudes do nothing but tie dye all the day long. Across the nation, I got mad props every time I wore the T-shirt I bought there with the green and purple spirals.
Woodsville, NH – Best Fourth of July Parade. Clowns and shriners, firetrucks and tractors, butt cracks and lawn chairs, my mom’s home town hosts the largest Independence Day parade in the Granite State, and recluses and socialites alike filter in from the surrounding towns to see the action flow down Main Street, over the Connecticut River, and end up in Vermont. As they say, it’s a wicked pissah.
Boston – Most Salient Conflation of Past and Present. I know what you Bostonians are saying: “Yes! That’s the award we wanted to win!” With its cobblestone alleyways beneath modern-day skyscrapers, its site of the Boston Massacre double-purposed as a subway stop, its Ruth Chris’s Steakhouse inside the Old City Hall, I felt like I was slipping back and forth through time as I vacillated between cobblestone and concrete while meandering through Boston’s downtown.
New York City – Most Jaw-Dropping Cityscape. I’d never been to Manhattan before, so all the day that I spent dragging Aimee around the booming island I shook my head in disbelief at the sheer enormousness of the place. On every block the towers stretch mindbogglingly high. On every street a cavalcade of yellow taxis rush to scoop up passengers. At ground level neon lights sparkle for a crush of human beings. The massive cityscape has its own percussive quality, as in you turn a corner and – Bam! – there it is again. Manhattan.
Washington D.C. – Most Overwhelming Sprawl of Monuments. While NYC exists on a massive scale, Washington D.C. spreads its colossal monuments out over the miles-long sprawl of the National Mall. Good luck walking from the White House, past the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian, over to Congress, then back again to the Lincoln Memorial and the new MLK Jr. Monument. I developed heat rash on my legs and suffered from exhaustion because the day was so hot and the lengths so long. But hey. ‘merica.
Ann Arbor, MI – Quaintest City. Co-op grocery stores, coffee shops and bakeries, a state university whose buildings intermingle with the rest of the town, and eclectic architectural styles highlighted with vibrant foliage and rolling terrain – not to mention a population of earthy-polite people – make Ann Arbor the quaintest city I visited on my trip.
Detroit, MI – Spookiest City. Open highways. Dilapidated buildings with busted-out windows. A people mover that travels above the city ferrying the ghosts of some long-past golden era. Detroit is a big, quiet city projecting shadows and echoes of what used to be.
Windsor, Ontario, Canada – Best View of the Detroit Skyline. Across a bridge or under a tunnel from Detroit, you’ll enter Windsor, a city that boasts a poutinery, a rest-o-pub, and casino gambling. Its best attribute, however, is the remarkable view of the Detroit skyline: a cluster of shiny new GM towers set apart from the aging towers of yesteryear. Thanks, Canada.
Glen Arbor, MI – Best Place To Have a Wedding. Really, the only place Alec and I went to in Glen Arbor was the resort where Ana and James held their wedding. The ceremony was held on a high bluff above Lake Michigan and I was stunned by the blue-spectrum lake, the hazy sky above the islands way off in the distance, and the way those Michganders love to dance. Early the next morning we were up and out and, five hours later, leaving from Detroit.
Chicago – Best Sports Town. Da’ Bears. Da’ Bulls. We all know the Ditka Dance. Truth is, Chicagoans love their sports teams. Although I lived near Wrigleyville for six months of my life, I entered the stadium for the first time this trip and watched the Miami Marlins deliver to the Cubs a proper walloping. But you know, the Cubs lose. That’s how it’s always been. We don’t love ’em any less.
East Glacier, MT – Best Scene for a Friday Night. East Glacier is a tiny little town, a tourist town, with access to Glacier National Park, an Amtrak station, and not much else. But there is a saloon on the main drag, and I went there on a Friday night. Lots of Blackfoot Indians came over from the reservation and had a whopping good time. The women were fighting to the hoots and howls of the men. Every so often someone would fall over drunk and the place would erupt in laughter. I helped a man at the jukebox find Journey’s “Spirit in the Sky.” Good times, good people.
Seattle – Most Sensational Market. When I walked out of my hostel, I found myself staring at the Pike Place Market, and after a few minutes of wandering through its crowded halls and smelling its epicurean delights, I found myself running for the ATM. Beyond the seafood bisque and Mexican pastries, the Pike Place Market houses vintage shops and features street performers who excel at their crafts. A delight for every sense.
Portland – Most Progressive City. Portland embodies all of what America should strive for. Bicycles rule the roadways. Small businesses abound. Local, independent restaurants and food trucks line the streets. People make beautiful gardens out of their yards and paint their houses in funky, individualized patterns. Plus the residents are kind and welcoming and accepting and they love beer and personal freedoms and liberties.
San Francisco – Best Nap. When I got off the train in San Francisco, I had about six hours to kill before my buddy Chris Krohne got out of work and we could meet up. So I started walking. I walked through downtown, up Haight Street, through Golden Gate Park, and before I could hit the Pacific Ocean, I had collapsed in a grassy field under the weight of my pack and the heaviness of my weariness. That nap I had there on the grass – a cool breeze balanced by a warm sun, hugging the still earth after a night on the jostling train – stands out as the best nap of the trip, and, perhaps, ever.
Salt Lake City – Widest Roads. Legend has it that when Brigham Young reached the stunning valley ringed on three sides with mountains and the fourth with the Great Salt Lake and declared, “This is the place” for his flock of Mormons, he also declared that the roads should be wide enough to turn a 12-mule team. So today, SLC has the widest roads in America (unofficial) and next to no traffic congestion. They are a pleasure to drive around on.
Denver – Most Difficult City to Breathe In. Not because of pollution or dust or heat, but because the high plain on which Denver sits at the base of the Rockies is a damn mile up in the air. Jogging twenty steps to catch a bus, cycling round on the bike share, even walking home from the bar at the end of the night – this Florida boy found himself out of breath and muddled in his thinking; ready, after three days, to get back down to sea level and breathe again.
Longmont, CO – Coolest Giant Beer Can. Oskar Blues’ Home Made Liquids and Solids features a giant can of Dale’s Pale Ale as part of its restaurant/brew pub structure. I mean, the can (though empty) is huge, like 40 feet in the air. A fitting monument for Colorado where they do beer big.
Boulder, CO – Most Enviable Place for a World-Class University. The University of Colorado, Boulder sits up on the hill above the city grooving in its strong academics and highly competitive acceptance rates (I didn’t get in). Meanwhile, its denizens can wander through the hip town below, frequent its great breweries and brew pubs, and even hike or drive up into the mountains when the urge hits them. Nice place to become indoctrinated into the clandestine ideologies of the liberal leftist elite.
Galesburg, IL – Most Schizophrenics. I had a five-hour layover in Galesburg, IL, birthplace of America poet Carl Sandburg. Besides that fact, the city’s most notable feature is the large number of diagnosed schizophrenics walking around. I talked to one in a coffee shop who said he studies music theory and reads the Oxford Anthology of Classical Music to keep himself sane. And then I tiptoed backward out the door and waited patiently at the station for my train.
Kansas City, MO – Nicest People. Kansas City, MO (the Kansassyans don’t like that Kansas City is actually in Missouri) was in the running for a few different awards: Best Barbeque (drool), Greatest Fidelity to American Musical Standards (killer jazz and blues clubs), and Most Surprisingly Exciting City. But the friendliness of its people sticks out the most. One bought me barbeque at Arthur Bryant’s. Others made sure I wasn’t alone while bopping to the music. Nice people. Good people. I’d go back.
St. Louis – Most Imposing Man-Made Monument. You’ve probably heard about the St. Louis Archway, the Gateway to the West, but until you arrive in St. Louis, you have no clue how enormous that half-circle is. From the western shore of the Mississippi River, it towers over St. Louis and its inescapable presence can be viewed from several miles away. Walking to the coffee shop and Bam! there the arch is. Leaving the bar at night and Wow! it’s still up there. This largest man-made monument in America is what impressed me most about St. Louis.
Austin, TX – Best Statue. When Willie Nelson helped christen the brand-new bronze statue of his likeness in front of Austin City Limits on 4/20, at 4:20, to a crowd of completely sober and clear-eyed Austonians, he thrust Austin to the top of this category, even above the Jimi Hendrix statue in front of the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the Louis Armstrong statue in Congo Square, New Orleans, and the George Bush Sr. statue gazing wistfully over downtown Houston. Well played, Austin. Well played.
San Antonio, TX – Worst Amtrak Layover. Come on, Amtrak. Are you kidding me? To get from Austin to NOLA, you force your passengers to layover in San Antonio for 8 hours – between 10pm and 6am – the time when most of us would be sleeping. So not only must we endure a night in a stinky train station with a blaring television and limited seating, our sleep schedules are thrown out of whack. Y’all could do better. Just. sayin’.
New Orleans – Most Sensible Alcohol Laws. There are few places in America where one can drink beer so freely on the streets. And I say, why the hell is that? It’s a matter of liberty, damn it. Of being American. And NOLA gets it. You buy a beer, you drink it while you walk around, you have a damn good time apprising the French and Spanish architecture, the live Cajun music, and the libertines of Louisiana. Why aren’t open container laws more of an issue this election cycle?
Tallahassee – Most Amenable City to My Crackpot Plans. The starting and ending point of my journey, Tallahassee is home to a supportive community of friends, writers, and academics who helped and urge me along during the preparation for and execution of HotT. I needed approval from professors and directors, the support of tech geeks from the FSU Graduate English Department, donations for my crowdfunding campaign, and a host of people who I respect to read my posts, say “Good job, Paul” (is there a better feeling in life?), and pat me on the back when I got home.
On that note, let me offer a Huge Choo-Choo Thank You! to everyone who donated, who met up with me or put me up (or put up with me) along the way, who helped me conceive, design, and execute Haney on the Train, and who clicked onto my site to check out what I was up to. Thanks you all, truly, for being beautiful.