On the Road
Otherwise the section on Boneyards and me in this National Journal article is accurate except where otherwise noted, which is everywhere…
…LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd initiative called the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-distance train, where they would basically stare out the window and type on their computers. The program was bashed by conservatives and lightly mocked on the Internet; yet an astonishing 16,000 people wound up applying. Among the eventual winners were several high-profile media figures, including the writer Jennifer Finney Boylan and the public-radio host Marco Werman.
In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stanley, a 47-year-old Amtrak resident writer who would be taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, before heading to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. Stanley, who wore an Ed Hardy–style Western shirt, is a playwright, performer, and adjunct professor both at New York University and Drexel University. A fan of all things occult, he staged his latest production in the basement of a South Philadelphia synagogue, where he used a Ouija board and a martini shaker, among other instruments, in an attempt to connect with the dead [see Boneyards].
“Now, supposedly, the old station at Harpers Ferry is haunted,” Stanley tells me, as we approach West Virginia, sitting in his sleeper car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called Screaming Jenny, [Um, no. I spent about 30 minutes between DC and Harpers Ferry explaining to this writer that I had visited Harpers Ferry many times due to my love of history. I told him that the Capitol Limited runs the route of the former B&O Railroad, and that many times I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal which was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of a young Robert E. Lee. In 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves. Years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications. Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the very train line we were following. Lewis met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West. Talking about the Lewis & Clark expedition got me thinking about Thomas Jefferson who funded it, and I mentioned to the writer that one of the many reasons I admire Jefferson is that whenever a slave in Virginia sued for his freedom Jefferson would represent them pro bono. All of the above got boiled down by the writer to “but, anyways.” See below.
At some point during my longwinded Harpers Ferry rumination I spent a thimbleful of time mentioning the legend of Screaming Jenny and quipped that we should keep an eye out for her as we passed the station.] before concluding: “But, anyways, I like Harpers Ferry. The train goes right through it. It’s really romantic.” [a laughable, heavily redacted misrepresentation of my words about Harpers Ferry].
Stanley proved a spirited companion, and the Amtrak Writer’s Residency is, in its own way, an admirable idea. But I couldn’t help thinking that, for an agency fighting a perpetually losing war to persuade Washington of its worth, the program sends exactly the wrong message [Exactly what message does he think the program is trying to send? This “odd initiative” was created in response to thousands of Tweets to Amtrak begging them to start a writers residency, so they agreed to give this pilot program a go; the point of it isn’t to tout speed, it’s to allow writers to escape their lives for week or two on an intentionally long and circuitous cross-country route to do nothing but write. If I had been on a high speed rail I’d still have chosen routes that would have made the journey last 12 days]. Train travel, after all, shouldn’t be quaint and romantic; it shouldn’t cater to artists who are purposely trying to go places slowly [Given the expense of cross-country superliner travel I don't think Amtrak is trying to save itself by catering to the starving artist market. Both superliners I took across the country coming and going were jam packed with people from a variety of walks of life and included tons of families. Superliners with dining car, sightseeing car and sleeper cars are not commuter trains, so naturally it's going to take a few days to get from Philadelphia to Washington to San Francisco. Also I'm not sure a faster train necessarily precludes romance or quaintness. High speed trains in Europe are still scenic and lovely]. It should be fast and high-tech and, well, useful. [The many travelers that I spoke with on these packed trains during my 12-day journey found it extremely convenient and useful. Again the article fails to distinguish between small commuter trains and mammoth cross-country superliners. Personally I liken the superliner and its amenities to a cruise and can't wait to take my own family on a cross-country train trek someday as a non-Resident Writer].
For now, that vision is going nowhere in Washington; but on the Capitol Limited,the political problems surrounding the future of rail travel seem very far away. After we pass Harpers Ferry and down a couple of drinks from the “bar,” [not sure why this is disparagingly in quotes; it wasn't meant to be a bar, it was a family-friendly snack bar, in fact there were two such snack bars, that sold a limited choice of alcohols among other soft drinks, juices, foods and kids' souvenirs, surrounded by the ubiquitous seating of the glass-roofed sightseeing car] Stanley and I head to the dining car for our 7 p.m. dinner reservations, where we eat passable steaks with Simon Tarr, an experimental filmmaker at the University of South Carolina who himself almost applied for the fellowship. (Amtrak makes you sit with strangers.) [They don’t make you sit with strangers. Three meals a day are included with a sleeper ticket. If you choose to have your meal in the dining car then yes the seating is communal. You can also have meals brought to your sleeper car in traditional room service fashion if you’d rather dine alone. You can also forego the dining car altogether and buy food and drinks from the snack bar, then grab a seat and bask in the romance and quaintness of traveling through a breathtaking American landscape like the Sierra Nevada instead.]
“There’s something about the mental state that you get dipped into, with the sound and the movement, that you don’t get the same way on a plane, that you don’t get the same way not moving,” Tarr says. “I don’t know mechanically why it is, but it makes me ruminate more than I ordinarily would.”
Stanley knows exactly what he means. “See, I equate it with being in the womb,’ he says. ‘The rocking back and forth makes me think you’re in a cradle. Not really a womb. A cradle.”
“Earlier, when the train was stopped all that time, I mean, normally, I’d be freaking out,” Stanley continues. “But now,” he says, all blissed out, “I have nowhere to be.” [Yes, because I'd been awarded a residency, and I was there not to commute, even though I also do that regularly between Philly and NYC. I was there to hide and to write which I did liberally throughout my journey. The wait being referenced here was a 25-minute late afternoon delay akin to any rush hour traffic jam or airport delay. This article seems disappointingly slanted at every small opportunity against the Amtrak superliner for being, egad, a stress-free way to travel long distances.]
For some odd reason the US remains staunchly a car-loving culture despite the expense, stress, danger, and crumbling interstate highway system. I do wish the US would get a sleek, high-speed commuter rail between major cities so the Europeans would stop laughing at us, but then again I’ve also traveled overnight by creaky, hot, crowded, dangerous, slow-moving train in India which makes Amtrak’s superliner look like the bullet train so it’s all relative.
Bottom line, even if high speed rail is introduced by either government or private investment, separate tracks will need to be installed as the current Amtrak rails are also used by freight carriers like CSX, so there’s no reason the superliners can’t continue to exist quite usefully alongside their smaller, faster, commuter train cousins. – Jeffrey Stanley]
Cell phone video shot by yours truly.
This posting is a promised addendum to my 3/17/15 seance and EVP session held in room 551 of the Hotel Colorado on a two-day stopover during my Amtrak Writers Residency trip across the US. To learn about my encounter with the Most Adorable Ghost-Hunting Family Ever, a Disney Channel reality show waiting to happen, I urge you to read the full entry here before proceeding. (If you’re looking for the Bachelors Grove Cemetery EVP session and slideshow they’re here).
The Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO was built in 1893 and is considered by many to be haunted. Supposedly, the hotel’s ghosts include a young girl in Victorian clothing seen playing with a ball, a woman who hovers over sleeping male guests, and a man who roams the hallway on the fifth floor (where I stayed). Both of the primary haunted rooms, 325 and 553, were booked, so the clerk kindly put me as close to one of them as possible, which wound up being room 551 which also has its share of haunting tales.
One popular story about room 551 regards a ghostly interior decorator. In 1982 an attempt was made to replace the wallpaper. The morning after contractors put it up, all the paper had mysteriously rolled off the walls and was in the floor. They reapplied it but the next day it was found on the floor again. After a few more tries, the contractor got the idea to leave several wallpaper samples on the bed overnight. When he returned the next morning all of the samples but one were on the floor. They papered the room with the choice left alone on the bed and the wallpaper stayed in place. Also, there is supposedly a high level of electromagnetic energy detectable in the hallway between the door to 551 and an unmarked door across from it which leads to the attic.
All caught up? Good. As I explained in the aforementioned posting, as soon as amazing Iowans the Warren-Powell family and I entered my room on my second night they all fanned out with tablets and smartphones and began snapping away at every square inch of the place. I told them not to bother as I had already done that and seen nothing unusual. The words were barely out of my mouth when high school senior Cody interrupted. “You’ve got a little boy in the bathroom.” Huh? Sure enough on the pic he had just snapped we could make out what seemed to be the solid figure of a short person (let’s say roughly a 10-year-old) leaning halfway in the bathroom doorway right where we were standing, yet it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Are you getting chills yet? I was. Here is the original photo and a closeup of the mirror (click on any photo to enlarge it):
(News Flash: Jeffrey Stanley’s BONEYARDS reincarnates in Philly this June at the Art Church of West Philadelphia as part of the 2015 SoLow Fest. Tickets and full details here.)
This posting is a promised addendum to my 3/14/15 visit to Bachelors Grove Cemetery, a brief stopover during my Amtrak Writers Residency trip across the US. To read about my witch encounter and see my Bachelors Grove Cemetery slideshow read the full entry here. (If you’re looking for the Hotel Colorado ghost photos and EVP session they’re here).
Now for the audio I recorded live from my P-SB7 spirit box at the Fulton family grave. As usual I have slowed it down but maintained the original pitch, boosted the volume and applied a little noise reduction. I stress again, as I’ve done here in the past and in my Washington Post story on this subject, that I remain agnostic about the existence of ghosts, and also view the spirit box as a form of surrealist art; an aural version of the old Exquisite Corpse game created by the Surrealists. That said, a transcript and my interpretation follow: (continue reading…)
This morning while hurtling across western Pennsylvania I enjoyed my final Amtrak breakfast. I sat next to a uniformed Amtrak police officer en route to a meeting at our final stop on the Capitol Limited, Washington, DC. From there I’ll take a two-hour ride to Philadelphia on the Amtrak Acela Express and be home in time for dinner.
Across from us sat two elderly women from Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The officer had spent 26 years on the Chicago police force before retiring into a much less stressful “second career” working for Amtrak.
After a few minutes of instinctively probing their names, destinations, life stories, I sprung it on them that I’m a (continue reading…)
A chilly, snowy, slushy day in the Windy City. Awoke to falling snow and a forecast that had increased to 3 to 6 inches.
Another 10-mile run along Lake Michigan was out of the question so I ran 10 miles on a treadmill in my hotel’s fitness room. That might seem like a desperate act but after a 2 and half days of being sedentary on a train I had to sweat out some toxins and burn off the crazy.
Got up with the rooster crow — or in Amtrakspeak the ear-blasting 6am breakfast call — to see off the Warren-Powells who hopped off in Osceola, IA at 7:40am. I then wrote until an early lunchtime (the last meal aboard my beloved California Zephyr before it concluded its run in Chicago) during which I met a pair of retired micro-brewers, Wendy and Don Littlefield. The better half is completing her first novel, a murder mystery that I look forward to reading. They also hipped me to Philly Inquirer food writer Craig LaBan, whom I should have known about as I’m now a Philadelphian, but I didn’t. Now I do. We also talked about our shared appreciation for August Wilson and the fact that they’ll be seeing Two Trains Running in Chicago soon. This was the second time on this trip that August Wilson came up.
I spent my final few hours aboard the Zephyr (continue reading…)
Haven’t I been here before? Woke up this morning shooting across Utah and worked on LITTLE ROCK for a couple of hours before finally succumbing to the call of hot breakfast and coffee wafting from the dining car. There I met a high school senior named Kira who’s interested in pursuing an acting or singing career, and also Jane, returning home from a yoga retreat.
In Glenwood Springs, CO the Warren-Powell family boarded my train on their way back home to Iowa and I spent a good chunk of the afternoon and part of the evening playing trivia with them and talking ghosts. (continue reading…)
I have slingshotted around San Francisco and am now hurtling back toward the East Coast, back on the California Zephyr at 9:10am this morning to cross through now-familiar terrain but staying on the opposite side of the train as much as possible to take in a different view: (continue reading…)
Yesterday and today were mainly traveling days. Up refreshed by 7:30am yesterday despite the previous night’s ghostly shenanigans, I worked on LITTLE ROCK for awhile before heading to the Hot Springs Pool for one last dip before skipping town. I had lunch at Polanka, a hole in the wall run by two Polish (continue reading…)