Trip 33 -- TTTTTITD
Message 5: A journey of 60 cookies
Thursday, September 15, 2022
No one was at the reception desk of the Ramada Grand Forks at 3:18 a.m. on August 16. A sign indicated a phone number to call.
"I'll be there in a few minutes," he said.
After 18 minutes, I called again. It sounded as though someone answered and hung up. I called again, and this time it rang until the call dropped.
I could see my check-in sheet on the desk: room 119. There was also a box of key cards next to the machine that coded them. On the machine was a label: "Password 5555."
Dare I? The machine was prompting for a password. I punched in the four 5's, but I didn't know how to proceed after that. If the instructions had been obvious, I might have gone on. Then I realized this might be the sort of thing that could get me in serious trouble. I deleted the 5's.
I guess I'm sleeping in the lobby, I thought. There was a sofa surrounded by lamps. I turned off all the lamps until I got to one whose switch was broken.
Then I noticed a breakfast area off to the side. It was darker there. I climbed into a booth, used my backpack as a pillow, and, after considering the various ways the hotel was going to make their transgression up to me, eventually fell asleep.
People came in an hour or so later. "Look at that, someone's sleeping on the bench," someone said, chuckling.
He would eventually go behind the reception desk. I approached.
"I'd like to check in," I said. "And then I'm wondering if you can help me, since I've been waiting two hours."
"You should have called the number," he said, referring to the sign.
"I didn't receive a call." I was certain that he had answered my initial call and then hung up on me the second time. "You should have told us you were coming."
"I did." I had spoken with someone the day before, who said there was no problem to arrive in the middle of the night. "So now that I've been waiting so long, can you help me with a ride to the airport?"
Grand Forks International Airport was five miles away. The city ran a bus service in town but for some reason chose not to serve the airport. My plan was to rent a car -- the one day I had planned to use a car on this trip -- to see a couple of specific things in North Dakota.
"I suggest Uber," he said.
"Do you have a credit card I can use? Since I've been waiting two hours."
"I have my own credit card, but I'm not going to pay for it."
The least the hotel could have done was cover the cost, but I didn't press it. "Then can you help me with a midnight check-out?"
"Why do you need a midnight check-out if you're going to the airport?"
It was none of his business. "I'm renting a car, then returning it to the airport. Then I'd like to come back here before getting on the train."
"Midnight is another full day I'd have to charge you."
"I really don't think that's unreasonable, since I've lost two hours of sleep."
"You didn't lose sleep. You were snoring there on the bench."
"I've lost a third of the time in my room." The rate was $88.51 -- not dear by overall hotel measures, but I wanted to get out by 9:30, and it was going to cost me $22 per hour just to sleep. I've paid a lesser rate for escorts.
"You can have until noon," he said, and he walked away.
The locking mechanism to room 119 was broken, it turned out, and I was able to enter the room without a key. If only I'd known it two hours earlier.
I climbed into bed at 5:41. I was going to be driving a lot and needed to sleep. Let's see when I wake up, I decided, without setting an alarm.
That time came at 9:36, when there was a knock on the door. "Housekeeping," she said. "Are you checking out?" Usually the "Do not disturb" sign goes on the door as soon as I get to a room, but I hadn't placed it.
"I don't know," I said.
I saw no reason to contribute to Uber just because there was no airport bus, so I walked the five miles, leaving my bag cable-secured in my unlocked room. I brought the car back to the hotel. By now, of course, the room lock was working, and my key didn't open it.
There was someone new at the front desk. "I just need to get my bag," I said. "And then we're going to have a talk about the guy who checked me in this morning."
She recoded my key and I retrieved the bag. Now there were two receptionists; the newest one was the more senior. I recounted my incident with the night clerk.
"He really said that?" she said when I mentioned his comment about snoring. "We've had a few complaints about him. I'm not going to touch your folio yet. I'm going to talk to the owner when he gets here around noon. We'll see what we can do."
"Thank you. What I'd like to do is bring my bag back tonight and leave it here before I return the car, and then come back for it."
"That's fine," she said. "My name's Becca. I'll be leaving at three, but Liz will be here until eleven. She's very perky."
"And is it the same night clerk after that?"
"What's his name?"
"Thank you. I'll be sure to come back before eleven." I didn't want to interact with Dennis again, and I didn't trust him with my bag.
There were two things I wanted to do in North Dakota. The first was visit the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center and register for the Best for Last Club. The other was visit the little town of Hoople. The two locations were each about an hour away from Grand Forks, in opposite directions.
I found a country-music station on the radio and shook my head at the billboards emphasizing the amazing things the anti-abortion folks think clumps of fetal tissue can do. The songs verged toward the consumption of liquor even more than the usual country-music repertoire. "It's only half past twelve, but I don't care; it's five o'clock somewhere." I'd heard the song numerous times, but it was played at 12:04. Shouldn't they have waited another 26 minutes?
I wasn't sure how to announce my achievement at the visitors center. For a moment I looked at all the brochures advertising things to see in North Dakota. A young woman sat behind a window, not exactly uninterested but not budding with enthusiasm.
"Hi," I said after a while. "I've just entered North Dakota as my fiftieth state."
This was the fuel she needed to perk up. "Welcome!" she said. "Congratulations! Could you please fill out this form?" She handed me a tablet.
She wrote my name on a paper certificate, signed it, and handed it to me. "What size T-shirt do you wear?"
"I'm never sure. Medium?" She brought it out and I measured it against my body.
There was a "Best for Last Club" poster. "Would you mind taking my picture?" I asked.
She obliged. A couple came in; they must have been about 70 years old. They had never heard of the Best for Last Club, but it turned out the man was eligible to join. We all celebrated for a moment.
After some knoephla (dumpling) soup and fleischkuechle (meat pastry) at the German-American Kroll's Diner, I got back on Interstate 29. This time I found a talk station. The Fargo school board had moved to stop reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of its meetings, something it had only begun to do in March. Well, this had caused an uproar greater than any other issue -- teacher shortages, school safety, health -- and members of the school board had received hate messages and threats, many from outside the state.
The host was rightly unnerved by this reaction. Don't schools have better things to think about?
I left the interstate and continued on Highway 81, past fields of corn and sunflowers. For such a rural area, the side streets, which disappeared into farmlands, suggested a distant city core. Signs marked the turnoffs to 56th Street and 147th Avenue. What metropolis's rays extended this far? Where was the zero point?
When I was growing up, I loved listening to the music of a fictional composer, P.D.Q. Bach, whose works -- parodies and satires of classical music -- included the "Concerto for Horn and Hardart," the "Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle, and Balloons," and the "'Sanka' Cantata," which was the first of P.D.Q.'s works to be discovered, the manuscript having been used as a coffee strainer. At summer camp, a few of us performed his opera "Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice."
P.D.Q.'s works were made known to the public through the efforts of a man who started every concert by saying, "My name is Peter Schickele, and I teach at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople." My camp mates and I provided him with a cassette tape of our performance of the opera and received a very nice letter back, thanking us for sharing our shamelessness. I still have part of an instrument collected from one of his Boston concerts: a pastaphone, made of uncooked manicotti.
So Hoople, a town of just a few hundred people, had long been on my list of places to visit. It isn't even in southern North Dakota; it's about 40 miles from the Canadian border.
After capturing photos of city hall, the post office, the grocery store and gas station, the grain elevators belonging to the Hoople Farmers Grain Company, the oil freight cars on the tracks at the edge of town, and the sign at the town's entrance ("Tater Town USA"), I checked out the bar, Duffy's. The bartender, who was about 75 years old, didn't know anything about Peter Schickele or P.D.Q. Bach. He did say that fans of the English rock band Mott the Hoople sometimes came by.
A younger, female bartender arrived, along with another customer, and the first bartender left. The customer told me about the town. Those crops I saw on the way in were sugar beets. The town also produces soybeans and other edible beans, wheat, and, of course, potatoes. The town smelled of oil, but all those oil cars were there to be washed, not loaded up, he said. His niece was working at the grocery, and, needing to take something away from Hoople but without the means to cook a potato, I purchased a cookie baked by her mother.
On the way back to Interstate 29 I passed a sign for a farmer's market. The venue was Heritage Village in a Grafton, a cluster of buildings made to re-create an old town. I picked up some homemade doughnuts, and a kid named Zander sold me a drink coaster emblazoned with the name of his town's sports team, the Cavalier Thunderbirds (he was hesitant about selling only one coaster when they were meant as a set of four, but his father nodded approval with the indication that the kid could easily make one more). The biggest display was freshly cooked fajitas offered by a Mennonite youth group in exchange for a donation to the Sunshine Hospitality Home. I was expecting only one filled tortilla but before I knew it, I had a whole package containing watermelon cubes, salsa, and a chocolate-chip cookie.
I drove back to the hotel, dropped my bag off, loaded up the car with gas, and brought it back to the airport. It was about an hour before sunset, and my shadow was almost the length of a railcar as I walked east along Highway 2. There was no sidewalk, but there was a wide shoulder, crumbly with construction.
A police car approached and stopped. "Are you all right?" the officer asked.
"Yes. Just walking back from the airport," I answered, resisting the urge to ask why there was no city bus along the route.
"OK, have a good evening."
"Thanks for checking in."
My dinner (that fajita was just a snack) was at the Speedway, a place favored by University of North Dakota students for its $2 happy-hour Long Island iced teas (and what the heck, I thought, I was done driving) and shared cocktails served in bowls that could comfortably accommodate a school of salmon. I collected my bag -- the lobby lamps I'd switched off were still off -- and walked back to the Grand Forks train station. Becca never followed up. I called her a week later and she promised to refund the entire stay. When that didn't happen by the end of Burning Man, I initiated a chargeback on my credit-card account.
The final stretch of the Empire Builder brought me to Chicago. I'd forgotten what a pretty city it is, with the walkway along the Chicago River, eateries perched above it, and a surprising amount of boat traffic. I walked the half-hour to the Hyatt Centric Magnificent Mile, enjoying the old buildings along the way. Like the Conrad in Los Angeles, the Hyatt Centric required one elevator to get from the street to the reception area and another -- in this case in an alcove entirely at the other end of the lobby hallway, installed almost as an afterthought -- to get to my room.
The Hyatt's situation was worse than the Conrad's, because the reception was only one floor up from the street. There were multiple stairwells indicating street access, and despite the receptionist's cheerful admonition that I couldn't get out that way, I had to see for myself. Of course I was met with all sorts of signage indicating the cacophony of alarms that would go off if I so much touched the exit door, and I slunk back upstairs in humility.
I had one main thing to do in Chicago, of interest primarily to advocates for bike and pedestrian safety. In the previous few days a thread on Twitter had noted the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and East Balbo Drive, where a white ghost bike had been placed as a memorial to Gerardo Marciales, who was killed by a driver who failed to yield to him in February. The intersection was known for drivers' running the light northbound at the T-intersection.
The problem had become so bad that an advocacy group had stood at the intersection with signs, blocking drivers during the pedestrian phase and enabling people to cross.
The police had responded by keeping the light green for drivers for five continuous minutes.
I wondered whether I could join some of this advocacy, if there was any going on. But no one was there, and there weren't even any obvious red-light runners apart from a couple who got through the intersection just as the light turned red. The green phase for drivers was consistently 82 seconds -- a long time for a pedestrian to wait, but I've seen much worse. On the plus side, I got to enjoy the green space of Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain.
Go hear some blues, my dad recommended. As is my usual timing with such things, I arrived at Blue Chicago just before Laretha Weathersby and the Mike Wheeler Band finished their first set of the night, and I nursed a vodka-and-lemonade until they resumed. This wasn't the singer's usual band, but there were no noticeable missteps, and she engaged the audience and had us clapping and repeating. "Hey, hey, the blues is alright!"
In the late morning I headed up to Little India, where some members of a touring company and I had enjoyed a late-night meal 19 years before. Usmania used to be a little storefront, but it's now a large, airy restaurant marked by a colorful auto-rickshaw. I didn't have time for lunch in the area -- the subway ride up to Loyola station was long, and missing the connecting bus by seconds didn't help -- but I acquired some crispy snacks for the California Zephyr.
Boarding the Zephyr at Chicago's Union Station was a mess. The station's grand entrance hall is unused, and Amtrak passengers are relegated to what seems like a distant corner, almost an annex. Three trains were boarding simultaneously, and there was no room for each to have its own continuous line, so the queues merged and diverged -- much like the station's tracks themselves -- and I climbed over a row of chairs to get where I needed.
I found myself behind a young woman going to meet her boyfriend in Ottumwa, the stop before Osceola. An attendant was handwriting seat assignments onto little tickets and marking them off on a piece of cardboard. I found it hard to believe that this was the method of tracking seats for a passenger railroad on Earth in 2022. He seated us together, given the proximities of our exoduses. When we found our seats, there was another person in mine and a dog in hers.
"It's all right," I told the passenger occupying my seat. "I'm going to the observation car anyway."
No one else was there yet, so I had my choice from the whole car. But an attendant found me and said, "The observation car isn't open yet. You need to go back to your seat....Hey, haven't I seen you before?"
I recognized him as the attendant who had grudgingly exchanged my aisle seat for a window on the way to Glacier. "Portland," I said. "Good to see you again. They seem to have double-booked my seat."
"Talk to Armando," he said. He was friendly about it. "Please tell him what happened."
I returned to the coach car. The dog had vacated the seat for the proper occupant. I found Armando. "Two of us have been assigned seat twenty-eight," I said. "But I don't need a seat assignment. I'm planning to go the observation car, and I'm only going to Osceola."
"I must not have marked it down," he said. "Go ahead. That's fine."
We departed Chicago 56 minutes late because of a mechanical issue. The observation car filled up, and a couple from southern Idaho took the seats next to me. "Is this still Iowa?" the man asked five minutes after our entry into Iowa. "Iowa owes me two hundred eighty-one dollars from nineteen eighty-one." He had done some work for the army, and the tax recordkeeping had sent funds to "IA" instead of "ID." He'd given up getting it corrected. "Two hundred eighty-one dollars. And sixty cents."
They were getting off at Salt Lake City to drive the four hours to their home in Idaho. There used to be a train line through Idaho, they said, but now Amtrak has just one station in the state, in Sandpoint in the north. Many people in Idaho had never been to Boise. "I used to go as a kid and ride the escalators all day," he said. "Like a carnival ride."
It was a fun group in the observation car. A few people were playing Rummikub. Others were playing cards. Someone was strumming a guitar and singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads." It felt like a party, and the delay didn't matter.
The guitar got passed around. An announcement was made over the train's intercom system inviting people to the observation car for casual music.
"Will you come sing 'Sugar Magnolia' with us?" someone was asked. Then it was "Angel From Montgomery." And then "City of New Orleans" (which is the name of Amtrak's train between Chicago and the Big Easy).
Anna from Goshen, Indiana, brought out a small harp. She used to play in orchestras, until she was presented with a piece in which she had to count out 400 measures. "I did not get into music to do higher math," she said. Now she plays for private events.
The guitar, the harp, the singing -- I didn't want to get off the train, even when we pulled into Osceola 75 minutes late.
Patrons at the West Side Tavern looked at me as though I were an exhibit at the Museum of the Weird. They were all men who looked older than I; the female bartender was much younger.
"Do you have food?" I asked.
"We're supposed to, but the deep-freezer died," the bartender said.
There were no other eateries open late in town. I had just missed the closing of two Mexican restaurants. I walked the 30 minutes to the Super 8, opposite the giant Osceola Foods meat-processing facility. "Positivity is the state of mind that helps you to imagine and see the possibility of what you can learn, earn and achieve today," read the dry-erase board on the reception desk. At least someone answered when I rang the bell.
Dinner was going to be collected at the Casey's Travel Center truck stop. I picked out a sausage "mega slice" (relative to what, I'm not sure) from the rotating display, a breaded-pork sandwich, and a can of Modelo Especial, the only beer that could be bought in a package of fewer than six.
I should have also been able to get a medium fountain soda for $1 by joining Casey's Rewards. I went through the steps to download the app and put in my phone number and all sorts of other information they shouldn't have needed (there was not much else to do in Osceola at 10 p.m. unless I felt ambitious enough to discuss politics with the people over at the West Side Tavern), but the cashier couldn't get the discounted price to take, and $1.39 seemed excessive. Beer and Super 8 plumbing would be enough to quench my thirst.
Osceola is as close as Amtrak gets to Des Moines; to get to the capital I took a bus for 45 minutes. The local news program on TV got me in the mood for the Iowa State Fair. They were showing how they typeset the 40,000 ribbons awarded each year. There would be a rubber-chicken variety show: "Here's an Elvis chicken. That's chicken a la king! It plays 'Love Me Tender.'" And there had been a cow-chip-throwing contest.
Wabi arrived late that night, and the following morning we boarded the fairgrounds-bound public bus (a very well-run and organized service) to become two of the Iowa State Fair's 128,298 attendees on Saturday, August 20, the record for a single day in the fair's history.
And what better way to kick off the day than with a good old-fashioned American demolition derby? The event started with a prayer, a tribute to our flag, and the singing of our national anthem. Then came the little kids: children about six years old in colorful electric Power Wheels. And the event for older children: Those age 10 and up (to 14, or 16 if it's their first derby) could participate in a real demolition derby provided they were accompanied by an adult. One of these cars sported a Confederate flag. They lost this battle, too.
It rained that morning, and the wet track disabled a lot of the cars and caused tires to kick up mud. Various heats featured cars of different styles (such as full-weld and "front-wheel-drive hobo"; the nuance was lost on me) and as many as 76 wheels battling the dirt at any time. Usually a few cars would get stuck early on, with three or four others taking charge and positioning themselves to pounce periodically. It struck me how a driver aiming head-on at another could sometimes miss the target completely, but then I got back to New York and watched people drive on congested streets, and I realized that modern everyday accuracy doesn't deviate much from that found at the fairgrounds.
It was most fun to watch cars chug along with one wheel lopsided and barely a beat-up frame holding the rest together. Sometimes a bumper or other piece would fall off, and they'd pause the event to clear the area of debris. Once in a while a car would become shrouded in smoke. When each heat ended, there was a substantial hiatus before the next as what remained of the disabled vehicles was machine-cleared and an attempt was made to flatten the muddy driving area.
Eat things on a stick, they told us -- the fair's Web site mentioned 62 such items. A double-bacon corn dog and a rattlesnake sausage were our breakfast. Fried green olives on a stick were a new item this year, and the queue for a pork chop on a stick (they came in six-packs, but one was enough) moved quickly. Fried wild-rice meatballs were another treat. Alas, the quintessential fried butter was not being served this year.
The cow made of butter was still there, though, standing square above a sign saying "Undeniably Dairy." Other butter sculptures included a diorama from "The Music Man" with a drummer and one seventy-sixth of the requisite trombones. Giant buildings labeled "Swine" and "Sheep Barn" housed hundreds of livestock, including the champion 1300-pound boar named Pee-Wee and a 456-pound ram. Groomed sheep were lined up and inspected much as canines are in a dog show, much to the animals' bewilderment. Horses, goats, and cattle were also on display. I milked a Jersey cow named Lil' Ditty and learned that my hands are better suited to the piano and machines are better suited to the task.
The lines grew as the day progressed. A big draw was the Rib Shack, where we waited 45 minutes to order a rack of ribs and the fair's voted best new food, the Finisher: a baked potato topped with brisket, smoked pulled pork, bacon, and macaroni and cheese. With sour cream and butter, of course. And I couldn't leave without indulging in an overflowing bucket of about 60 Barksdale's chocolate-chip cookies; that took another hour. They were served warm and remained reasonably chewy as the week went on. Each was just the right size for a big bite, making it easy to eat a few at a time. I gave some away on the trains as I approached Burning Man. I think I still have a few left somewhere; I wonder when I'll find them.
Even apart from the fair, Des Moines was good for eating. While I waited for Wabi to arrive, I had a ramen pizza at Fong's: noodles, edamame, mushrooms, beef, mozzarella, and "Fongolian" sauce. And after dinner, a slice of "Capital Pie" at the Iowa Taproom: cookie crust, peanut butter, ice cream, and whipped cream, tall enough to startle a cow. And before Wabi headed back to New York, brunch at Americana, a buffet extensive enough to take over part of the kitchen area, with a made-to-order grilled-cheese-sandwich bar and compile-your-own Bloody Marys.
Moving around the country so much made my mind not always sure of where I was. I realized this as I handed my ticket to the bus driver, who was dressed more aptly for steering a horse, with a cowboy hat, a cigarette, and a cheerful smile. In my defense, the flashing sign on the bus indicated the wrong direction.
"Are you going to Des Moines?" I asked the driver as I handed him my ticket to Osceola.
He seemed puzzled for a half-second and then looked at the ticket. "No, but I'm going to Osceola!"
This time I arrived in Osceola in time for dinner at Playa Margaritas, where the wooden benches bore the word "Playa"...just right for someone heading to Burning Man.
Before my onward train to Denver, I passed some time at the West Side Tavern.
"There's still no food," the bartender said.
"That's OK. What beers do you have?"
I saw rows of Buds and Coorses in the fridge, but I couldn't make everything out. "Heineken," she said.
"Heineken sounds great." To my surprise, there was a Black patron in the bar. He was also drinking Heineken.
"Did you get drunk and dive headfirst into some freshly mowed grass?" someone asked, referring to my green hair.
The people on my right were discussing firearms. "I think what they should do in liberal cities is just hand everyone a gun and say, 'Have at it,'" one was saying.
"But most people there don't have guns," his friend said.
"They're scared of 'em," the bartender said.
"I bought a gun in California for self-defense, but it had to be kept locked up and separate from the ammo," the first one said. "What am I supposed to do when a criminal has a gun? Ask him to wait while I get mine?"
He had worked in casinos but had turned to construction. "A guy bought a calf and put it in his back yard, fenced in, and that's not legal," he said. "Well, the cow got its head stuck in the fence and died. He came to me and said, 'Can you help me butcher this cow?' I said, 'I pour concrete for a living! I got trowels, not knives! You think I know how to butcher?'"
Osceola's train station had a stained-glass rendering of the station. It also had the cleanest toilets of any building in the Amtrak system, from my experience. For this I commended the station manager, who was sitting with a few of us in the station hall wondering when the train would arrive. "Weakest Link" was on the television. If my train hadn't been late, I still wouldn't know that the dot in a lowercase "i" or "j" is called a "tittle."
Eventually she ushered us out to the train. Amtrak may be chronically late, but the team gets extra credit for what happened as I got on.
"I believe you're looking for this," the conductor said, handing me an envelope.
I'd been so enchanted by the musicians on the way to Osceola that I'd left a credit card on my seat as I departed. I'd realized the mistake in Des Moines and filed a report on their lost-and-found site, but shortly after that -- so soon that I'm certain it was proactive and not because of my claim -- I'd received a phone call from the conductor saying he found my card. We'd discussed a way for me to get it back and considered that I might pick it up during our brief stop in Omaha, but it had been delivered to the conductor of my current train and given to me as I boarded.
As usual, I took up residence in the observation car, which was almost empty late at night. I woke up to a bright morning and the chatter of people who liked to state the obvious.
"That's the sun!" one was saying.
"There's coffee!" another one offered, or maybe it was the same person later. They all sounded the same. "Do you want coffee? They're serving coffee. How about some coffee?" I've never heard someone say the word "coffee" so many times in 30 seconds, or with such wonder.
We passed one of those giant field-spraying devices. "Irrigation!" they yelled in chorus, nodding with pride at their observation.
"I'm never gonna ride with these people again," a man said, returning from the dining car with coffee. "They've lost a customer for life." I never found out what had provoked him, as he and his companion then started speaking in Mennonite Dutch. I saw large numbers of Mennonite passengers on the California Zephyr and the Empire Builder, most in better moods.
About two minutes outside of my disembarkation point of Denver, we stopped for an hour due to a temporary failure of positive train control, a computerized system designed to prevent accidents. It was frustrating that the system couldn't be overridden, but I guess that's the point.
"We think we're getting closer to finding a solution to our problem," the engineer announced after a while.
"Reboot it!" someone yelled.
"Does anyone know the password?"
"It's probably 'Amtrak.'"
There had been lots of extra seats on the way into Colorado, but an attendant warned that people would need to make room as there would be "exorbitant amounts of people boarding at Denver." Whatever their cost, they were all lined up when we finally pulled in, two and a half hours late.
I'd worked in Denver in 2007, conducting a production of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" at the Arvada Center. I'd enjoyed the experience and the city tremendously, except for one night. In all my travels for almost half a century in about 75 countries, the only place I've been successfully mugged was outside a bar called Veronica's Bases Loaded, a dive that used to exist near the corner of Federal and Speer boulevards.
The building is now a Mexican restaurant called Adobo, and if it had been open on Tuesdays I would have lunched there. It was a kind of perverse curiosity that had me taking pictures of the restaurant's interior from the outside and remembering the man who had befriended me 15 years ago and then pulled a knife when I left. It had happened so fast, and after giving him my wallet I'd run back to the Residence Inn and called the police. I'd gotten the wallet and most of its contents back a few weeks later; he'd tossed it -- minus the cash -- into a truck.
With Adobo closed, I walked up Federal Boulevard. I'd remembered more Mexican restaurants than seemed to exist now, but I found sustenance -- and Spanish-language oom-pah-pah tuba music -- at La Fuente. I spent the afternoon reconnecting with places that seemed too clear in my mind to have been part of my life a decade and a half ago: My Brother's Bar, where I had dined after getting off the Frontier Airlines flight; the mile-high marker at the Colorado State Capitol; the pretty pedestrian bridges over the South Platte River.
In 2007 I'd had a car; this time I used the buses and the light rail, which were free in August. Somehow on my first trip I had missed dinner at the Buckhorn Exchange, which boasted Colorado's first liquor license and provided me with a spittoon at my bar seat on the upper level, under the watchful eye of a wolverine, a two-headed calf, and other stuffed fauna. It was the ideal setting to have Denver specialties such as Rocky Mountain oysters with horseradish cream and cocktail sauce, steamed rattlesnake in a cream-cheese casserole, and a plate of rare elk and a pair of quail. The birds were crispy, juicy, and less bony than I remembered of quail, with a saltiness tempered by an apricot and prickly-pear glaze.
Portland's Union Station had urged, "Go by train"; Denver's spelled out "Travel by train." When I resumed the westward journey on the morning's California Zephyr, once again there was a seating issue.
"Seat forty-eight," the attendant said as I got on. "The first open car."
I boarded the first car. "You need the next car," someone else told me.
"He said the first open car."
"I knew he was gonna do that," he said, ushering me up to the penultimate car. "There are some empty seats in the back; take any one." This attendant understood me: When I started to put my bag down, he pointed across the aisle and said, "You can sit here; you'll get a bigger window."
This Zephyr had one of the more talkative conductors. "This is Conductor Cody, just got on at Union Station. We're stopped here just outside Union Station, waiting for a big green signal, and then I'll be taking you to the west. That's where you want to go, right? Just doing a little railroad work and then I'll come through to answer questions. This is conductor Cody saying, 'Talk to you later.'"
My seat's bigger window was no match for the observation car, of course. The broad views were particularly popular on this journey, and I was lucky to find a seat as we began our climb up to Eldorado Mountain. We slowly wound around switchbacks and were above a steep drop-off with views of mountainous forest before entering the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel.
"Please don't move between cars while we're in the tunnel," Cody told us. The century-old tunnel's walls are caked with residual dust and coal soot, and it was best to keep particles out of the train. Inside the tunnel we reached the highest point on the Amtrak system, at 9372 feet, where we crossed the continental divide.
Emerging from the tunnel, we passed the seasonal Winter Park station, which has a heated platform for skiers of the nearby slopes. The creek we had been following east of the tunnel was now the Fraser River, and after Granby we reached the junction with the Colorado River.
This may have been the finest scenery of the trip, as we followed the Colorado for several hundred miles through Upper Gore Canyon, the Azure Valley, and then the Lower Gore Canyon. "These are fourth- and fifth-class rapids," Cody told us. Below us, people were launching into the river. Some mooned the train.
Cody pointed out an upturned car high up on a slope across the river; it had remained there since the 1960s, when a student driver missed the mark. Farther along, a pair of insurance-fraudsters had pushed a car off in order to fake an accident for the payout, but one had turned the other in. A trail ran along the ridge on the opposite side; I'd have rendered it unsuitable due to its height, even without the rockslides that blocked it from time to time.
We entered Glenwood Canyon on the way to Glenwood Springs. The rock was striped in beautiful browns, reds, and grays. The river was murky but popular with rafters and anglers. "Camp Naked," a canyon shed admonished. At Grizzly Creek, a fire burned through much of the woods in 2020, and flash flooding resulted in 24 mudslides last year. Near the Colorado-Utah border, Ruby Canyon was accessible only by boat or train -- and the train didn't stop there.
Or at least it wasn't supposed to. We were stuck near there for a while, but in a place of such beauty I couldn't complain. "We will have to get off the train and throw some switches," the new conductor said, Cody having left us at the last station in Colorado. "They're just not operating by power. We should be on the move shortly."
When we resumed, the lush hills gave way to sand and rock as we proceeded into Utah, the late-afternoon shadows adding spice to the meringue-like dune tops. The ground was broken and arid.
"About ten minutes," a conductor said to me as we approached my stop of Green River. There was nothing around. When we arrived, 35 minutes late, I was the only person to disembark, and only one passenger replaced me. I walked through the downtown, a network of disused buildings and shattered windows: Frank's Pizza. Beer. You Are Here -- Welcome to the Green River Epicenter. Beer, again. On a display, an eight-by-eight grid of sheets said "World peace starts at home" 64 times.
On my way to the Travelodge were lodgings whose status of operation could not be discerned. The neon sign of the Sleepy Hollow Motel had a pair of flowers. The Oasis, which had palms, was missing an entire illuminated sign between its name and "No vacancy." And "Motel" could have any number of letters still hanging on, up to five but generally three or four or even something in between.
There was a commotion outside the Travelodge, which was also the location of a gas station, the town's bus stop, and a statue of a dinosaur. Twenty passengers from the Greyhound service were standing outside their bus, which had broken down for the third time -- a problem with the air brakes, I learned.
A mixed-race, mixed-gender couple was trying to get to Las Vegas. "They're telling us we might have to stay the night," she told me. "I don't know if this town likes Black people." He was on the phone with Greyhound, trying to arrange for compensation and remaining reasonably calm under the circumstances.
I wished her luck and walked across the Green River to Tamarisk, the closest proper dinner spot -- Green River had options. Tamarisk was a popular place and I was lucky to get a seat with a view of the murky river. I ordered a Polygamy Porter and an appetizer of Navajo fry bread, a food based on wheat flour, salt, and some kind of fat. The basic recipe was created out of necessity in the 1860s, when indigenous people were uprooted and forced to move to land where their traditional, more nutritious, food could not be grown. The Tamarisk's version came with blueberry and strawberry jams and butter. Smothered California chicken completed the meal.
Shouts of "The bus is leaving!" woke me up at 5:30. I wasn't upset by the disturbance; there were enough Greyhound-stranded people at the Travelodge that rousing everyone in the building may have been the most efficient way of alerting passengers that their progress might be resumed. Yet this, I would find out, was merely for the local service. Some of the Greyhound passengers stuck around much later.
Green River was built as a mail stop and settled in the late 1870s. John Wesley Powell, for whom the town's museum is named, was the first of European descent to explore the area. In the summer of 1869, he took nine men and four boats and paddled down the Colorado and Green rivers (the Green is the Colorado's largest tributary).
The trip was not a smooth one. One boat, the No Name, soon shattered against a boulder and sank much of the expedition's food and cooking gear. More was lost to a fire a week later. In late August, three men had had enough and ditched the group; when they attempted to hike out, they were killed by indigenous people. Powell himself was said to have gotten along well with the native tribes, but there is, sadly, not much about them in the museum. Powell left the 1869 journey at the mouth of the Virgin River; a few others continued to Fort Mohave, near the Arizona-Nevada border.
Powell continued the exploration two years later but, in his writings, combined his accounts of the two expeditions, which has led to some confusion. This was the last area of the continental United States to be mapped. He gave many of the locations colorful names, such as Marble Canyon, Dirty Devil River, Canyon of Desolation, and Cataract Canyon. Between Grand Junction, Colorado, and Helper, Utah, the rock strata are so pronounced that the ridge has been named the Book Cliffs. Southwest of Green River, the Henry Mountains were mapped in the 1930s, the last area to be mapped on horseback and among the first from the air.
It was around the time that I was watching the museum's 20-minute film about Powell that the text message came in from Wabi. She had Covid and would not be able to meet me in Reno for our final Burning Man preparations. She would have to arrive a day or two after the event started, if she could make it at all. We agreed that it made sense for me to go ahead.
After Powell, attempts to tame the Colorado-Green river system were just as fateful. Steamboats for commerce and passenger transport got stuck on boulders, had their propellers smashed, or were underpowered for the upstream journey. River running became a favorite sport. Uranium was mined in the area in the 1950s; the Green River Launch Complex, a testing site for long-range missiles, took over the uranium mill and operated from 1963 to 1980. Coal was also collected here; some of the ceilings of coal mines contain dinosaur footprints.
The fertile lands provided peaches and then melons; in September, the Melon Days are a weekend with a parade, a melon-carving contest, a three-man scramble, Wild West dancing, and fun with guns for adults and kids. Around the Travelodge were melon vendors, but the produce was too hefty to carry onward.
It was too far to reach the abandoned buildings of the missile complex on foot, but I walked along the river a bit (eventually a trail will reach a campsite a few miles north) and toward the mountains, gaping at the Book Cliffs and reaching the dusty edges of the town, where the main road forks toward Interstate 70 and along the old desert highway. When I collected my bag from the Travelodge at 2:30 p.m., the Greyhound passengers were still there, 19 hours after their scheduled departure.
The short hop from Green River to Helper was two hours late. I checked in to arguably the most interesting lodging of the trip, an Airbnb housed in an old Sinclair gas station with Corvettes in the garage and bug-like Dodges from about 1955 outside. The only food available for dinner was at the Shell station across the Price River (and with hot subs, it wasn't bad), but there was a dive bar, the Regis Club.
The bar had about eight people inside, one or two of whom at a time were passed out on a couch in the back room. A couple of female friends were taking tequila shots. The more tattooed of them was being courted by a man trying to engage her in a pool game, played at the restless rate of one shot every five minutes. "Are we ho-ing or are we playing pool?" the bartender kept asking, trying to assume an aggressive persona but coming across as silly.
The next pool game was as silly, with the same players trying to make each shot using only one hand. "If you put roofies in here, do you promise me you will just snuggle?" the man asked his would-be companion for the night. Another guy came in and perhaps aroused jealousy from the first, charmingly offering the tattooed player a hot dog and his prison stories. Yet peace was maintained.
I should have gone back to the Sinclair, but someone bought me one more beer. I was pressing my luck by staying, and I paid dearly for it: The song came on -- the same song I've railed against for years. This time it was a cover by a female singer, but the song was just as atrocious. I was still just as uninterested, as would any reasonable person be, in whether Billie Jean is the singer's lover or whose kid it is.
I've identified more of what bothers me about the song, apart from the fact that the story belongs on "Maury" and away from my ears. It's the repeated "not" on two accented beats in the chorus in quick succession. "Not" is already a negative and offputting word, and the stress reminds me of people who write the same word and insist on capitalizing it, as though I hadn't known its definition for almost five decades. It is a word best used sparingly, whether in song or in print, and best allowed to float by naturally without calling undue attention to itself or insulting its audience by means of excessive emphasis.
In the morning, after watching the eastbound California Zephyr slink behind the Sinclair almost four hours late, I walked north. There was an entire mountain that I hadn't noticed in the dark. The path emerged onto the most unwelcoming residential street I'd seen in years. Dogs barked from behind a gate that was signed "Warning. No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again!" Another sign on the same gate said "This place is politically incorrect. We say merry Christmas, God bless America, we salute our flag & give thanks to our troops. If this offends you, leave. In God we trust."
Another house's "No trespassing" sign bore a picture of the kind of firearm a sniper might use to take out an army. The owners' mailbox was inscribed with their names and address in incongruously flowery cursive. A sign tacked onto a post with spray-painted lettering simply said "German Shepherd" with an arrow pointing to the right.
Helper was named for the helper locomotives that used to carry trains up to Soldier Summit. The Helper Museum provided a fascinating history of the area, with emphasis on the railroad and the coal mines. The mines, which depended on and supported the railroad, were each separate towns to the west of Helper: Sweets, Consumer, National. Mining life was harsh even beyond the dangers in the tunnels: Each mine also had its own currency ("scrip") and general store, and miners and their families were expected to purchase provisions from the company using scrip, often at inflated prices.
"Helper on Parade" was a 20-minute film shot in 1939 and shown before feature films in movie theaters at a time when mail-order purchases were taking over. The promo film showed people at cafes ready to serve, a gas-station attendant bending his knees in a little dance, and other people imploring residents to buy locally. One local business was the brothels that occupied the upper floors of the buildings along Main Street; a sign admonished, in a Wild West saloon kind of typeface: "Notice: Six persons per bed limit!"
Marsha of Marsha's Sammich Shop, where I had lunch, offered to let me leave my bag there so that I could walk a bit of the trail leading to Peerless and the abandoned mining towns to the west. I crossed the swinging bridge over the Price River and walked for almost an hour, occasionally looking back at the "balanced rock," a giant boulder naturally resting above a thinner column.
It was a peaceful afternoon stroll, and I wished I'd had an extra day to walk for several hours and return. I caught glimpses of remnants of the mining buildings among the mesmerizing hills; I couldn't resist continuing to see what might be beyond the next bend. But I had a hard 6 p.m. deadline to retrieve my bag, when the sandwich shop closed.
Perhaps it was good that I was on a schedule, because the rain started, and I might have gotten caught several hours out from Helper. I turned around and hastened back, but I soon slowed my pace: Maybe 50 meters ahead of me was a pair of medium-large dogs, perhaps black labradors. They saw me and paused briefly before continuing their own journey toward Helper. I kept a 30-second gap between us, stopping when one of them took time to sniff and do business. They didn't seem dangerous -- they might have been siblings, looking out for each other, and their stroll together as buddies was sweet -- but I didn't want to tread on their immediate turf.
If the train from Helper had been on time, I might have watched us cross Soldier Summit before dark, but of course it was two hours late. Had it been a steam train, as in the old days, its whistle would have alerted housewives to take the washing off the clotheslines, so that it didn't become covered in soot, and customers would have heard the approach and finished up at the brothels. Instead, I had dinner at the Balance Rock Eatery and Pub before waiting it out under the awning of a gas station while the rain continued.
This California Zephyr, the 16th and final rail segment of the Train to That Thing in the Desert, was sparsely occupied. I had two seats to myself and slept well; I never even made it into the observation car. In nearly four hours we reached Salt Lake City -- a trip granted 53 minutes more in today's schedule than in 1960, and the earlier timetable included 15 intermediate stops instead of just one today (Provo). This section of Amtrak service has some of the longest distances between stations in the country -- 263 miles from Salt Lake City to Elko, 142 from Elko to Winnemucca, and 189 from Winnemucca to Reno. From Helper to Reno is a 14-hour journey with only four intermediate stops.
Between July 22 and August 27, I rode the entire Empire Builder from Portland, all of the Sunset Limited and part of the Texas Eagle, the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Portland, most of the California Zephyr, and the Crescent except from Atlanta to New Orleans, where I used buses in order to visit Montgomery. I rode 8785 miles of Amtrak rail out of the system's total of about 21,354 passenger miles, or 41 percent of it.
I could feel the desert dust on my skin a half-hour past Winnemucca. Somewhere to my right, people were building Black Rock City. I would get there in two days, but first I had final preparations to make in Reno.
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