A Ramblin’ Mixtape - Side B

16 12 2008


The noise, the noise! I’m all Quiet Riot and feelin’ it like the world’s worst cover band. I turn my face to the gods of sound above. I beg, I beseech you—release me from this wretched spawn of yours, this child called Noise.

Can you see it, dear reader? Can you see the Noise?

Look there, as it slithers on the floor of my sleeper car. Right there, see it? No, no! Don’t look directly or it’ll snake you good. Just use that special corner-of-your-eye vision.

See. There it is. It’s doing its best impression of a live wire, cruelly cut and crying. Zapping, dancing its jolly jig upon the cheap carpet. Look. See it how it forms the word shiver and eagerly looks for a spine to run up. For the spine is the path, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.

“The path to what?” I ask.

“Your last nerve,” it hisses. “I must use your spine as an organic conduit to your ear. There I will scratch my whine and squawk and creek-e-craw down the chalkboard of your eardrum, until that last nerve of yours is more frayed than the cord of your 70s dressing gown.”

How rude!

But man, what a racket, what a din. What a world-class noise!

As the California Zephyr pulls out from the comfortable snuggle of the Oakland station, I sit and get all grouchified in my traveling compartment. Just me and my Noise.

It is day one.

It is day one of my great big train whore across America. Eastward ho! All aboard!

The California Zephyr is, as you may have guessed, a train. It propels travelers across the broad shoulders of America, from Oakland all the way to the windy city. Think of it as the Orient Express without the express, the Orient, or the murder. Although a trip to the café car and subsequent hot dog purchase may change your mind about the latter.

The fine folks of Amtrak are the Zephyr Wranglers. Say what you will about Amtrak and their timetables and lack of respect for them, but you have to give them their due here. They do an admirable job of employing people capable of shaking off train malaise like wet dogs emerging from the surf. They are both cheery and approachable.

But this Noise, this racket, this dark melody of machinery, is neither of those two things.

I sit here in my cabin and imagine what I believe to be making this racket. And as the daughter of a mechanic, it is my inheritance to obsess over these things. To ponder on the cause of the ping, the whine, the hiss. All leading to a confident, “I now pronounce you faulty alternator” or “dust in the brake pads”, or some such nonsense.

But this one, this Noise of undetermined origin, has me beat up and twisted like a nightmare sheet.

Let me set the scene properly. Masterpiece Theatre of Your Mind Time. Curtains up.

There I am. See me hunkered down in my seat? I face the direction we travel, as I prefer to gaze toward the future rather than lament the passing of the past. (It’s actually for travel sickness reasons, but let me seem at least somewhat mystical. This is, after all, my telling. My production).

I am located at the forward end of a Superliner train carriage. On the lower level. The upper level contains the teeny-weeny cabins. These are advertised as “sleeps two people, no cat-swinging possible”. The lower level contains the larger family rooms. Rooms in which, should a person choose, they could easily grab a cat in each hand and swing mightily and freely. Don’t worry, the cats love it.

As luck would have it, I am in one of these larger rooms (sans cat). Actually, luck can get its own late night talk show, because this had nothing to do with luck. I paid for this privilege. And this privilege comes at a cost sicklier than money.

The cost is as follows: I am next to the shitters.

At first glance, this is bad news. At second, still bad news. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s supposed to be romance of the rails, not romance of the poop chutes, right?

So that’s one strike (Noise) and one decidedly foul ball (the poop proximity).

But here’s something I have not shared with you, which is possibly a ball, though not quite a walk (ok, end baseball talk right now). My room has its own bathroom. I can close the door on my travel cocoon and never be faced with either pooper or poopee in the hallway. But more than that, it means I have a window on either side of the train to look out of. How many toilets do you know where you can see which part of Colorado you’re actually peeing on as it flies by?

But I’m jumping ahead. Colorado is yet to come. We’re still in California. For right now, right this very minute, it’s Noise that invades my brain. So I climb the stairs and walk one car back to the dining car. To indulge in the yellow of an egg-like product and two shots of steaming train coffee for breakfast.

Noise can take care of itself.


Observation. I kill at it. I can observate the pants off anyone you know.

Wait, that didn’t come out right.

What I’m saying is that my powers of observation are intense. And this is due to a lifetime of practice.

To illustrate:

When I was 14 and still very much a farm girl unaccustomed to the ways of the English, I was hit by a car while jaywalking. You see, Kentucky Fried Chicken was across the street and I’d never sampled its wares. I was very excited about opening the palatial doors for the first time in my life and being let into this esteemed fast food club. It was a champagne moment in my life.

What would you do in this situation?

I know what I did. And I have the x-rays to prove it.

I dashed out like a girl possessed by eleven secret herbs and spices. And then I was hit.

For many years, my mind’s eye would replay the tape from that day and I would turn and see that car. It was a green Holden Commodore. But when the true facts of the case were presented to me some years later, I discovered that the angry vehicle in question was not in fact a green Holden Commodore at all, but a brown Datsun.

I was astonished. Brown? And a Datsun? But how? From that moment on, I swore to be more observant. To take in everything around me and absorb like some kind of eyes-peeled sponge. (That said, I can’t explain why, 8 years later, I managed to get hit by another car. I still haven’t seen that one coming. But hey, are we not all just works in progress?)

But let’s get back aboard this train. The idea of an entire train car devoted 100% to Observation sounds to me like a ripe place to work on my powers. Really whittle them to a sharp, jabby point.

I enter.

At what point in the history of man did it become popular to travel somewhere just to have a look? I don’t think early man had Observation Cars. Well, they might have had something like it, but not for looking at pretty mountains or great big holes in the ground, just for the joy of it.

No, they probably had them but used them for spotting…I don’t know, sabre tooth tigers and such. Not for gazing out toward some shimmering horizon, turning only to yell back, “Hey, check out this kick-arse vista!” to the bored children sitting back in the van.

But not many things eat us anymore. That’s a crack in nature’s armor. One that the Observation industry has wriggled into.

Now we can refer to maps bursting at the folds with handy icons and riddled with “must see” verbiage. All so we know where IT is—the absolute best place to go and just look. To observe. And if you do your observing while encased in glass to protect you from the gnats (the modern day sabre tooth tiger), then that’s even better.

The Observation Car in the Zephyr has floor to over-ceiling glass. And boy, do I observe. I observe my own pants off. That’s how Olympic level I am.

I observe for a full five minutes.

Boy, this scenery doesn’t half wind on. Windows on a forest, a canyon, a stream. I see the distinct oil of nose prints pressed on the glass. I can’t help but hypothesize that the nose prints are not really from an eagerness to get closer to the view, but more likely an unplanned bump into the glass caused by the natural gait of a drunken train.

Some people look out, contemplating the trees. I get bored and start looking in. This early in the trip it’s nearly empty in here. The trees flail by, the Sierras wave hi. I stick my nose in a book and let my shins drink in the sun.

Despite all the efforts of this Observation Car to make me look, I don’t. And then, a voice from above…

“This is the first call for lunch in the dining car.”

All at once I am 15 again and being lead across that busy road by my stomach and the promise of something new. For once, the Observation Car watches me, and he has a great view of my back, leaving.


When it comes to mealtimes on the Zephyr, the socially awkward need not apply. It’s very confrontational. But if your goal in life is to overcome your shyness in as many uncomfortable ways as possible, then the dining car is the place for you.

Here, they seat you based on how many people are in your party.

The party in my head is always well attended. A real window rattler. But in this particular instance, I have to admit to the dining car attendant that my party, though a righteous good time, is a party of one.

I know what you’re thinking. Ah, to be a lone wolf traveler. A quest seeker. A grail hunter. So noble.

But truthfully, I travel alone simply because I have no choice. When you’re single and wanna see things in an observation car-like setting, well you have to do it by yourself or you’ll never, ever, ever get to see it. I’m not going to sit around waiting for someone to go looking at stuff with. I’ve got to see it now, and I’m going to see it with or without you! (Whoever you are).

So, once again, my party on this trip is one. Normally, that just means a lonesome table, where they whisk away that other bothersome setting and give you plenty of space for your notebook. But on this trip it means I will always be seated with people I don’t know.

Strangers. On a train.

This is both scary and awesome.

It means that at every meal, I will meet new people. That I will have to overcome the napkin-picking awkwardness of the first few minutes. That I will have to step outside myself and start a conversation. And then there’s the flipside. Each meal will reveal to me a new victim. Someone who has never heard my thrilling life story.

So I ask you—who should be more scared? Them or me?

The roll call at my table for the first lunch of the trip goes like this. On my right is Mary-Anne. She’s a librarian. I like librarians. They touch books and stuff. Very dewey decimal. She is staying in the room at the other end of my car and also traveling alone, returning to the east after visiting her grandkids.

Sitting across from her is Ruthie, a sprightly 81-year with impeccably applied makeup and a fist full of rings. She orders a Heineken and we chink our bottles together in newfound solidarity of the rails.

Then Axel rolls in. He has sauntered on up from the regular cars, not the sleepers, and is also traveling alone. A fifteen-year-old, five-grade-skipping, long-haired, braced-teeth kid with the gleam of Keroauc in his eyes and a guitar minding his seat.

He explains to the ladies that he’s named after Axel Rose, and a confusing couple of minutes ensue.

“You’ve never heard of the band Guns ‘n’ Roses?”

He seems genuinely surprised as he chomps down on his burger, proceeding to explain the deep pool of complexity that is the band, and his mother’s obsession with them.

Later, as we nibble on our individual cheesecakes, Mary-Anne tells me that she wants to read my book when I’m done.

So do I, lady. So do I.

I laugh that uncomfortable laugh that has me reaching for my inadequacy medication shelf. Where is the pill to make this guilt taste good? But all I find are the deflection pills, so I mutter ‘sure thing’ and change the subject.

In the end, I am so enamored with the lunch that I skip out without paying for my beer (food is included, but not booze). From that moment forth, every time I visit the dining car, even if I’m just walking through, the attendant points and says, “Hey, there’s that lady who doesn’t pay for her beers. I never forget a face.” And we laugh and laugh and laugh, and she does that ‘I’m watching you’ hand motion from her eyes to mine. And through the laughter my shame pinks my cheeks good and proper.

As the sun drops low later that afternoon, we stop in the middle of the empty desert and throw someone off the train. It’s all rather dramatic. I see a police car waiting by a bush and we slow down and stop. I can’t see what’s happening but I have a vivid imagination.

I imagine the life of riding the rails, and boxcar boys, taking the West Bound freight, and all that other train speak I don’t know how to do. It fills my head with wild images in sepia. Oh joy, America! Wrap me up in a hobo cocoon. A dream coffin of freedom riders. Nail down the lid and bury me in myth. (Cause I don’t want to hear about the starvation and beatings and such.)

Oh, and just as a side note, here’s a tip. When they say no smoking on an Amtrak train or they’ll throw you off, they mean it. And it won’t be in a place that’s convenient to you. Just ask that guy back there in the desert.

After dinner, I come back and find that my car attendant, Steve, has set up my bed. I eye the turned down sheets and blue blanket with interest. It’s only 8, so I read aloud to the Noise for a while, just to help it fall asleep. But it doesn’t, so I give up and decide to bunk down myself.

It is night. The first night sleeping on a train. I’ll admit, this was a part of the trip I was looking forward to. I had imagined what it would be like. The lying down in the dark and the gentle clack of the rails and swagger of the train as it rocked me to peaceful slumber. And looking out to the oil black sky with its pinhole stars and distant towns twinkling as mysterious mountain shadows passed by. Yes, I imagined the ca-clack soundtrack beating on my back. The gentle Elvis rock and roll of the ‘won’t you be my teddy bear’ carriage.

But I don’t get that tonight.

I get a moaning, grumbling train that’s nothing more than a screaming banshee dream destroyer. I get Noise as my sleeping companion, and it’s not staying on the top bunk. It short-sheets my bed and sticks the pins of its mememe, lookatme voice right in my ear.

At around 4 am, I try a new tactic. I put in my earbuds and listen to music with no lyrics. I think I fall asleep, because suddenly it’s light.

Noise is well rested. It begins its day filled with vim and anger anew.

“Sleep well?” it creaks, and I begin plotting my revenge. But how does one get revenge on a noise? It’s impossible. So I do the one thing that I have the power to do in this situation.

I hunt down a shower and go trawling for food.


If I can stand on the 4 train without holding on as it screams downtown in New York during rush hour, then it stands to reason I can take a shower in a closet on a train without holding on to the metal railing. (I don’t like signs that tell me what to do. Hold the rail. HA! You can’t tame me!)

Let me point out the critical difference between the 4 train scenario and the situation I face now, standing naked in this tiny white coffin with a sad water jet that works in 30 second bursts. The difference—apart from the nakedness and presence of water—is this.

The 4 train during rush hour is a packed cattle truck. You can remain standing without holding on because you are crushed between the workers and wanderers, perverts and pensioners. The bigger challenge is to actually extract yourself from that crush at your stop. Just try to fall over. It can’t be done.

In the Zephyr shower, however, it’s just you. You and your stand up and sway motion.

I don’t fall. Just bang my elbows awkwardly, get shampoo in my eyes, and curse in my own special way. Finally, I grab the shiny railing with a reluctant gratitude, and after a few 30 second bursts of tepid water, I feel sufficiently schooled enough to end it all and reach for the towel.

Flinging back the plastic curtain that has been flung back many times judging by the torn press-studs at its edge, I stand, blinking in the harsh light. My reflection suggests that I lost some kind of aquatic battle, perhaps featuring blunt tridents, judging on the red welts on my face where I whacked into the wall early on in the experience.

Not much I can do about that. Dry, dressed and humbled, I exit.

Breakfast is a chatty affair. Across from me sits a couple out to see America. Turns out they lived on a sailboat for ten years (this comes up due to a conversation about train legs vs. sea legs). Then one day, they stopped for repairs at a small island in the Caribbean and ended up living there for twenty years.

“We had the inclination to leave,” they explain. “Just not the motivation.”

Inclination, but no motivation. Why does that sound so familiar?

Holding that thought, I sway my way back to my room and the bed is gone. Packed up and put away. I settle in with my laptop on my tiny little table and two pillows behind my head. America waves lazily as it saunters by the window.

A blur. A shift. Time ticks. A snooze sneaks up behind me and throws a burlap sack over my head. My eyes close in a whoosh of relief.

I don’t inquire as to the whereabouts of Noise at this time. But I dream of it sauntering off to find a breakfast of axle oil, or at the very least, some WD40 toothpaste.


There’s a distinct lack of swooning in the world. It’s a crisis actually, a real tragedy. The untold story. Imagine the millions of humans living their lives minus the pouncing shiver at the back of the neck and the tightening coil of anticipation in the thorax.

What power! What thrill! To be physically overcome and rendered useless by the sensation of rapture. To literally faint. To drop. To come over all funny due to the sheer presence or action of one on another. Knees tremble and fold with sharp crease. Foreheads manufacture beads of excitement and eyebrows throw their hands up in genuine surprise.

Man, to swoon!

Weary swoon seekers of the world, rejoice. For I have hit the mother lode.

Direct your browser to Google maps and plot your course to a longitude I don’t know and a latitude I can’t be bothered looking up. But plug any old decoder ring into these numbers and it’ll spell out S.W.O.O.N. It’ll breathe it out in hot waft of hair-shifting delicateness. This place is a slow eyelid droop. And it grabs you by the throat while stroking your cheek with a fur-lined glove.

Oh, Colorado. You had me at CO.

Ruby Canyon flashes its leg first. Smooth, red and luscious. Every layer aches to be touched, but I sit quiet and dumbstruck in my rattler. Imagine the weight of time, the force of patience that made it this way. Imagine. The determination to grind down this ancient path, to carve its name in the face of hard, red rock on the hem between Colorado and Utah. Before there even was a hem. Before there was a Colorado, or a Utah.

Noise, happily sitting with me behind this window, creaks approval. My camera whirls a click of its own. Curved red line against sharp blue sky. If I were a sentimental old woman, it would be enough to make me mouth the word “holy”.

We chug on.

Grand Valley, Glenwood Canyon, then Red Canyon steps out. I like this name. Red Canyon. It’s named the way Australian’s name things. Blue Mountains. Snowy Mountains. The Great Dividing Range. See-say. It’s not always a bad thing.

Side note: Who named Space? That was brilliant.

Red Canyon winks and flexes a bicep. Gore and Byers Canyon show me some abs. My heart books a spot on Springer’s “love at first sight” show and my finger exerts its influence on my Nikon.

As we sit in semi-darkness for the 15-minute dream and float through Moffat Tunnel (no murders reported), the Continental Divide limbos its way beneath us.

What is it about this trip, this train? Why is it such a swoonfest for me?

Is it the broken, ancient landscape sliding by, cinematic and grand? Is it the gentle motion rocking me to my very contemplation? Drift away dear brain. Marvel at the wilderness, the snarling crags and jagged silhouettes. Behold the indifferent trees that stand and fall, and care not if you or anyone else sees or hears them.

I swoon, America. What a great vision you are. People find you easy to hate. From afar, and sometimes from within. But from this window you have never looked more open to me. More filled with possibility, with hope. From the easy conversation in the dining car, or the quick chat with Amtrak Steve as he deconstructs my bed of a morning, you have never felt more free.

And I guess that’s what the romance of the rails does to you. Optimism jumps a gauge. Curiosity shovels coal into the dream.

Right now, right now, the great tailor is grabbing a spool of cotton and darning a nice hem into my life pants.

It’s the 7th inning stretch. The last day. Time to reach down, touch the toes, and extend the hamstrings. Nice and easy.

Time is running out. We’re going to have to sprint.

The Zephyr’s out of sausage. Out of pancakes. It’s a mix ‘n’ match breakfast today. I sit alone for a spell, me and my USA Today. I pull my head out of it only when Mike and his mum slide in across from me.

Mike is from Inverness in Scotland and, I don’t know how to put this delicately for all my fellow passengers, someone who is not of retirement age. It had not escaped my notice that the majority of people I have dined with—the ones who do the trip from coast to coast—have been, for the most part, retirees or grandparents visiting kids in California.

We chat for a bit and I find out that this trip is both a big birthday trip for his mum’s 80th and an opportunity to knock out some research he’s doing for a book. I’m insanely jealous. Not because he’s writing a book about the five Inverness’ in America - which he is - but because he’s actually taking steps to get the damn thing written. A totally different strategy to my mine.

I run away. He chases his down.

I, of course, refuse to divulge anything about the pain of my not-getting-written book. I’m hoping the lack of talking about it will cause it to just explode out of me one day, like a build up of creative gas from my bloating unmotivated corpse. It might destroy me in the process. All I ask is that my wake is a simple affair. Oh, and should my explosive demise make the papers, please ensure I am described as a “tragically misunderstood dreamer”.

This day’s scenery is horribly consistent once we get past the Mighty Mississippi, which we do around lunch time. The Zephyr is now out of any kind of beer that I would drink (meaning they still have Bud), so I settle for a half bottle of wine. I get it uncorked and go back to my car to wrap up the trip in style: Drinking a cheeky little pinot from a paper cup.

Corn goes by. Then some more. Then, more corn. I keep a watchful eye out for a young Clark Kent, should he choose to race the now thundering train. It should be noted that the speed of the train has banished Noise to the heavens and I raise a soaked paper cup to the make in gratitude.

It’s all moving horribly fast now. We must escape the corn; its regimented rows, its starched math of consistent height and stand-to-attention vigor. I run my glazed eyes over America’s bread basket as it flies by. I pronounce it yellowish with green edges.

And like this fast moving train, I grind out the day at breakneck speed. It’s not long before I wave goodbye to my cabin, to the Noise and to Steve the cabin man. It’s not long before I find myself in a Chicago hotel room overlooking the river, the bridges snuggled to its dark water as the sun sets. It’s really not long at all before I am barefoot and cross-legged, eating room service and yelling at McCain to look at Obama when he’s debating him.

I sleep like a contented drifter on a feather bed in the sky. I wake like a person so close to home they can already hear themselves dropping their bag on the wooden floor, and watching the trajectory of the house keys as they are thrown in the direction of the couch.

As we touch down, the trip is slain and I am reborn. The adventurer of old. The escapee. The runaway. New York. I breathe you in as we yellow-taxi weave through Brooklyn to that spot on the map where I get my mail and store my mind. A smile settles. I can’t kick it off.

See you out there.

Here endeth the missive

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Video coming soon!



3 responses to “A Ramblin’ Mixtape - Side B”

16 12 2008
A Ramblin’ Mixtape - Side B : NOT YELLOW, CHICKEN (16:28:37) :

[...] up the story as I board The California Zephyr Word of warning: reading it will require a commitment of [...]

26 12 2008
Zephyr. The movie. : NOT YELLOW, CHICKEN (09:09:45) :

[...] An excerpt of something I wrote, the full text of which can be read here [...]

5 07 2011
kathrin (08:37:53) :

hej noodles,

i was stumbling upon your video about the california zephyr on vimeo. and i was immediately blown away - thank you for sharing this video! i’ll riding on this train next year from chicago to san franciso and i can’t wait.! :) until i hop on board, i’ll watch your video a couple of times. :)

i’m writing about my upcoming adventure on my blog, can i quote a paragraph from “a ramblin’ mixtape” and using it for my blog? i loved your writing, now i’m having wanderlust. :)

have a great day,

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