Nick Not Yet in Armenia – West Coast Travels Via Amtrak

In three weeks I’ll be leaving to serve as a Community and Youth Development Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia. But not yet! In the meantime…

I left my job at the end of January and embarked on a three-week West Coast trip to Portland, Berkeley, and LA, all via Amtrak. Before I go further, I’d like to give a hearty thanks to Amina, Lauren, Julea, Tess, and Arya for hosting me in their respective cities! Your couches and air mattresses were as comfortable as your hospitality was warm. I would also like to thank the Amtrak-riding people of America for making my various rides an unforgettable experience, for better or worse.

Brief Trip Highlights

In the interest of brevity and emulating the Buzzfeed listicle, here are six highlights from my travels, accompanied by pictures where appropriate:

  • Catching up with dear friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, who shared their homes with me and toured me around their cities.
  • Food, food, food: from fancy burgers and whiskey in Berkeley to surprisingly tasty vegan brunch in Portland to Korean BBQ in LA, my stomach and taste buds were very pleased.
    Afternoon dumplings and tea service in the Embarcadero

    Korean BBQ in Koreatown
  • Amtrak (simultaneously highlight and “lowlight”): more on this below, but my Amtrak travels exposed me to a fantastic variety of strange and interesting people, in rare cases vaguely threatening, and in all cases entertaining.
  • Working Weekend: at Reed I had the pleasure of helping mentor a group of students for the “Sustainable Life on Earth” panel, and was pleased to see a group of 25 Reedies of all years proactively investigating how they want to spend their time after graduation. Kudos to the Center for Life Beyond Reed for putting on a great event.
  • Outdoor adventures and cultural experiences: Forest Park in PDX, Angel Island in Berkeley, walking up to the Geddy in LA! Turns out there’s some pretty scenery out West.
    Scenic views from Angel Island in the Bay
    Enjoying the unique architecture and gardens of the Geddy

    The Wende Museum – so many Lenin busts…
  •  LA celebrity sighting: on the roof deck of the bizarre Museum of Jurassic Technology (exhibits included portraits of Soviet space dogs, sculptures carved out of pin heads, and depictions of old folk remedies from around the world), Tess and I saw someone who was incredibly familiar from a recent Parks and Rec episode I’d watched. Turned out to be Werner Herzog.

The Amtrak Experience

In retrospect taking Amtrak both ways cross-country was masochistic. With the trip over, however, I’m glad to have done it all. And indeed by the end of each trip I’d developed a sort of Amtrak Stockholm Syndrome so that the prospect of sleeping in an actual bed and having to make choices about where to walk and what to eat worried me. Below, I present two more listicles on the Amtrak experience:

Train Lectures

Nearly everyone I talked with for more than five minutes on the train seemed to have a pet topic. Needless to say I learned a lot about things I’d never thought about. These topics included:

  • A description of how a perfect circle of glass, if heated to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, will vaporize/sublimate and reform as a perfect square. (The old hippy artist from New Mexico who imparted this knowledge also emphasized that, “if the cops tell you to disperse or they’ll fire tear gas, believe me, you should disperse.”)
  • The tenets of feminist psychology and teaching methodology at Antioch College.
  • How “I feel like ISIS is doing all the right things, just for the wrong god” (overheard as part of a long conversation in the seats behind me – I stayed well away from this guy). The speaker in question also repeatedly asked if we were in Chicago yet as we passed through towns like Elyria, Ohio, and Elkhart, Indiana.
  • The finer points of viticulture and large-scale agriculture in the Salinas Valley, from a college guy self-reportedly hopped up on Xanax and quite drunk at 11 in the morning.
  • How Santa outfits are so expensive ($200!) that it’s good to already have the belly so that you don’t also have to spring for the fat suit. The man who told me this also has trouble growing facial hair, as do his brothers, though his nephew for whatever reason can grow a very impressive mustache.

You get the idea.

Poor photography, but documentation of sunrise in the Columbia River Gorge
Lounge car scene approaching San Luis Obispo
Morning in New Mexico, 1 of 2
Morning in New Mexico, 2 of 2
Lounge car entertainment with the Amish (see below)

Amtrak Bingo

If you ever take the train cross-country with someone else, I highly recommend mocking up a bingo card with the following points:

  • Bathroom faucet with violent water pressure (this is the free space in the middle, they’re all this way)
  •  Someone smoking in the bathroom
  •  Smokers complaining about the distance between smoke breaks, or their short duration
  • Overly quick sharing of very personal information with strangers (e.g. how someone has not talked to his daughters for more than five years, and the various reasons for their estrangement)
  • Stranger telling you about a recent family death or sickness
  • Undisciplined screaming child
  • Poor parenting
  • Person clearly on drug(s) other than alcohol, bonus points if it’s self-reported
  • Unreasonably long (105+ minutes) café car attendant meal break
  • Man traveling alone w/crazy eyes
  • TV show/movie watched at high volume on personal device without headphones
  • Repeatedly ringing unsilenced cell phone
  • Evangelizing Christian(s)
  • Talk of fear of flying
  • Alcohol illegally carried on and consumed on train
  • Long, unexplained stop
  • Amish traveling en masse (I saw a different group on each cross-country ride. The second was in the midst of a six week train trip fleeing the Lancaster County, PA winter; they’d already been to San Diego and Mexico, on to spend three weeks in Orlando)

Anyway, that’s a scattershot summary of my West Coast trip; in the coming weeks I’ll actually turn to the topic of Peace Corps in Armenia and describe my thoughts leading up to my departure, what I’m packing, what I expect to miss, etc. Thanks for reading!