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#Amtrakresidency: The Empire Builder

I knew I needed Twitter followers @SpaffordJason when I saw something posted online called #Amtrakresidency. I was intrigued. What are the odds of that, kind and relentlessly charming readers – something intriguing on the big web? This residency involves getting picked to be one of 24 writers who will get a round trip ride on Amtrak for a few days to work on writing. I thought it was a good idea – for writers and the Amtak marketing people. The application was simple enough. I only needed to submit a story under ten pages, I needed to give my full name (I do that a lot anyway), and I needed to tell how this would help my writing. But, I also needed to give my Facebook URL, Twitter and Instagram handles. Uh, oh. I smell a marketing experience. Nonetheless, it would be a good experience.

For the most part, I’ve decided that my chances at this residency are limited, as they may weigh the number of twitter followers and Facebook friends more than writing skills. I’m afraid my 16 twitter followers are not going to help my cause. I follow a rock and roller named @woolyB on Twitter. If only he could expose me to his huge following of 70 plus persons, then and only then might I have a chance at the #amtrakresidency. But let’s not worry about that right now, because this whole thing reminded me of a story that very few people will ever read.

Several years ago we needed to attend a wedding in Indiana. I had to work, so decided to leave later and meet my family there. I had never ridden Amtrak before and the price made sense. This was well before hearing of such a thing as the #Amtrakresidency, but as luck would have it, I was even writing things at that time that people would never read. I thought this would be a perfect chance for me to have some quiet writing time.

I boarded the Chicago bound Amtrak train, The Empire Builder, at 7:30 am on a Friday morning in St Paul, MN. I found a seat and placed my ticket stub above the seat to officially lay claim to said seat. I unpacked my lap top, opened a blank word document and began to not write. It quickly became obvious that I needed a break. Breakfast seemed like the most rational escape.

Making my way to the dining car I walked through the observation car. I observed that the sun was streaming in and the early morning light made any shadows disappear like sin on Sunday. I thought this would be a better writing place than my seat and stuck a mental post it note on my cerebral cortex. I entered the dining car and chose a window seat at one of the white linen covered tables that partnered with four chairs. Soon after, three more people joined me. I would like to, for the sake of this story, be able to say that these were the three most interesting people I had ever met. But that just doesn’t happen every day and my guess is they might say the same of meeting me. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear about where they were going and search for those connections that are fun to stumble upon.

After breakfast, I went back to my seat. I took with me a small bowl of oatmeal with plastic wrap over the top, because for some strange reason the waitress had offered that she could make it “to go”. I sat my bowl of cooling porridge and plastic spoon in my seat, grabbed my lap top and moved back to the observation car. The car was not very crowded and I found a seat that I thought would be just the right amount of sun, but not too much, and could produce the best writing. Once my screen was up I decided to look out the window and enjoy the scenery. I like to watch people and scenery.

This watching all started, kind and curious readers, many years ago with my dad. Years ago, in rural areas Friday nights across the country were spent on Main Streets. People would be paid on Friday and then go to town. Growing up in Northern Wisconsin our Friday nights meant going to the thriving metropolis, the hub of the north, the home of the Hodag (that’s another story) – Rhinelander. My dad would sit in the car with the kids while my mom shopped at all the finer stores – JC Penney’s, for instance.

As we complained about boredom my dad would tell us to watch the people. The people are interesting. What’s their story. In the summer, are they local or a tourist? In the fall, do they work in town or in the country? In the winter, why are they here? In 1972 the people looked a lot alike in Rhinelander. One summer evening a young man was walking down the street with long hair, ripped pants to the point of underwear hanging out and an American flag patch attempting to bridge the gap. I thought to myself, what’s his story. My dad slowly shook his head and said, “Look at that God Damn Hippy.” I guess he knew the story with this guy. The window was rolled down and I always wondered if the God Damn Hippy heard my dad.

Twenty five years later as I was walking into a store with my own long hair, I walked by a kindly looking older gentleman and under his breath I heard him say, “Hippy.” Fortunately for me I was not considered “God Damned.” I was relieved and amused and went about my shopping.

As I looked out the window of the moving train, at that particular moment I really wanted to see a hippy. Nothing. Only trees. All of this thought had made me a bit tired and I decided that I should go away from the brightness of the observation car for a short nap in my seat. It was at this moment, upon evaluating how much writing I could possibly do, once I could start writing, that I thought about how it would be a good idea someday if there was something called “Twitter,” to have a writing “residency” aboard an Amtrak train. Maybe call it something like #Amtrakresidency. I didn’t know what the number sign would mean, but assumed some clever person in the future would figure it out. This twitter thing could be really cool for a few years – until old people started using it, and by that time there would be something cooler.

I made my way to my seat. There was a woman in my seat. She appeared to be in her late 50’s with unnaturally blonde hair. She had Birkenstocks on her feet and wore a necklace with a peace sign. She was sound asleep. My bowl of oatmeal was empty and on the floor. This Goldilocks had eaten my porridge and now she was sleeping in my Amtrak chair. I coughed in the aisle. She didn’t wake and run from the chair. She didn’t budge. I fidgeted for a short time, but couldn’t bring myself to wake her. I looked at her face in a real hard way and tried to figure out her story. I walked back to the observation car and all the way back I tried to figure out her story. No luck.

Upon my arrival back in the observation car I found that there were a few more people. Some of them had just gotten on the train. Among these extra people were two elderly gentlemen setting up what looked like a small P.A. system. They also had a microphone – nothing fancy, the trusty workhorse Shure SM58 microphone. These guys were fixing to talk into that microphone. They did a couple of squelchy microphone tests. You can tell when someone is no stranger to the audio field. These nice elderly gentlemen were somewhere in the audio forest – far, far away from the audio field.

I was getting ready to help them, but they finally pulled it together and plugged the mic jack into the right hole on the P.A. Whatever they were about to do, they were now off and running. Happy to have a microphone in hand, they made small amplified talk to those who made direct eye contact with them. I was curious and wanted to know their story. I stopped beginning to start writing for a time to try to understand the purpose of these amplified retirees.

Bob and Ed were their names. Bob got out a large three-ring binder with laminated pages. They flipped through the pages apparently trying to find the correct starting point. Once they came into agreement, Bob held the microphone and Ed read from the holy binder. It became apparent quickly that they were reading information about the towns we were going by. The interesting thing about trains, like boats, is that you are often seeing the back side of towns, so other than an occasional crossing sign you may never really know what town you’re passing.

They read facts and figures about the places we passed. They told little stories about the towns or semi-famous people from the towns. It wasn’t bad, aside from the fact that Ed probably had not read out loud since 8th grade, some sixty years ago. Bob would have a turn, but he obviously had not retired from the broadcasting business, either. So, it went like this for a couple of hours, with long breaks in between towns and banter Ed and Bob had apparently came across in some record books that may have discussed Vaudeville.

During one of the breaks in the entertainment I went back to my seat to see if the fairy tale was over. It was not. Goldilocks was still sleeping in my seat. I didn’t even stop, but continued on in search of the car where food could be found. It was now early afternoon and I was hungry. It was probably a good idea to eat something, then I could jump right into writing. I felt that I had soaked up enough of the atmosphere. I ordered a sandwich and decided to soak up a bit more atmosphere in the form of an alcoholic beverage. One beer would probably just loosen up my fingers enough to be able to keep up with my brain’s story telling. Yeah, one beer would be perfect. I had a sandwich and a beer and headed back to the observation car. I walked back past my seat and saw Goldilocks’ sandals and thought, “God Damn Hippy.”

Back in my writing position, with fingers poised on my key pad I decided to quickly go to the calculator function on the lap top and mentally go through our monthly finances. Sure enough. The outcome was the same as the last time I did this. Just before focusing on writing something, I paused to notice what Ed (I must have missed Bob’s last turn) was talking about. There was a break between towns then it was Bob’s turn again. At Bob’s turn I realized the problem. They were one town off and had been for a while. Tunnel City was Camp Douglas, Camp Douglas was Mauston, Mauston was Wisconsin Dells etc. I couldn’t believe I just noticed this and I was more shocked that these old timers with mile markers on their pages had not caught it. But suddenly the microphone went silent and there was a non broadcasted meeting. I think they just realized it. They came back on-line and announced a break.

The sun was so warm and the beer and sandwich were working together in not an unexpected way. I decided that I would come up with a title – one that I could easily change later – then I would take a short nap. I deserved that. In anticipation of years to come I titled my little story “#Amtrakresidency”. I slept as the hum and sway of the train wrote great stories in my brain that would be forgotten when approaching the waking station.

I must have slept for a while. When I woke the elderly men were gone, replaced by shadows of late afternoon. We were just starting out from a station and I overheard a ticket taker talking to another Amtrak staff person. Apparently, there was a woman who had gotten on at the Fargo station in the early morning and she was very drunk. She had slept through her stop and we had to make a special stop to let her off the train. The ticket taker anxious to get the skinny on the scuttlebutt asked the other person who it was. The staff person said it was a blonde woman who sort of “looked like an older hippy.”

My God Damn hippy must have been the woman. No wonder she didn’t budge. And what drunk hippy wouldn’t eat a bowl of oatmeal? It all made sense. As we slowly pulled away from the station I spotted Goldilocks outside on the platform fifteen miles from the station she wanted to be at, looking hung over and a little confused. Being a former hippy I felt a little bad for her. But, you’ve got to keep it together my hippy friend. It’s a tough world out there for the God Damn Hippy.

Now that I could go back to my seat I didn’t really want to. The observation deck felt like home to me. It reminded me of my small town Main Street with people coming and going. I could listen to people and watch people and possibly talk to people. I heard stories about towns we went though, albeit not exactly the right towns. I even got to see a hippy through that great big train window. The only problem was that we were almost to Chicago and I had not written a single thing. I didn’t have a single story. I only had the title, “#Amtrakresidency”, and I had no idea what that meant. All I could think is that maybe I could find some quiet time at the wedding. Then, for sure I would write something. And if not there, maybe I’d take another train ride someday and I would absolutely write something then.

Sadly Yours,

Jason Spafford

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