Letters from a Train Ride

Excerpts from Letters From a Train Ride: May 21 – June 2 2009


I am writing these notes on the return to Seattle from Chicago via the Empire Builder of Amtrak®. There have been delays, which I have learned are customary in railway travel. The jostling of the passenger compartment has become familiar; the miles are confluent, each like the others. Several times hourly, the locomotive horn bellows an acidic note, muffled by the wind. The top velocities are around eighty miles per hour, but the width of my field of view creates the sensation of stasis.


On Current Scenery I: Glasgow, MT

We are now traveling through the plains of eastern Montana. The tracks in this particular stretch run parallel to the highway. Through the window, one sees the interminable chain of power lines, cryptic little buildings, and small clusters of poplars. The landscape is becoming more corrugated as we approach the foothills of the Rockies, but it is still flat. Going through this part of the country, one feels three predominant emotions. The first is an ambivalent sort of boredom, as if not sure whether to grab the camera or not. The second is solace. The landscape is comforting, like ruffled bedding, like still milk in a bowl. The third is insignificance. Our inner thoughts are humbled by the size of this ocean of land, this basin that always was and always will be. The flatness will not abate for a while. The horn blasts again.


On the First Year

There could be much said about my times in medical school. But most of it would not be worth recounting here. The year finished with a course on neuroscience and anatomy of the head and neck. It was perhaps the most trying, and yet enjoyable, class I have had to date. I am now seriously considering neurology as a possible specialty. With the conclusion of this course, we completed the utter dissection of our cadavers. My last view was of a garbled commotion of flesh on the table, deconstructed over eighteen weeks. Dissection of the head was slightly disturbing, as we effaced the structures, such as the eyes, that impart identity. It was, however, a formative experience, and one that cannot be foregone.

I cannot say there have been any profound changes in my outlook. And I suspect this is because most of what I have gained is information, rather than experience. Surely, all of us now have a new appreciation of biology that pervades things. Last night I had occasion to eat a lamb shank (yes, to the good times) that was so gently cooked that one could recognize all the muscular compartments, branches of the sciatic nerve, and filaments of blood vessels. While entertaining, this factual load is not yet useful.

On the other hand, there have been some changes in the approach to being in medical school. One realizes that a titanic effort is needed to truly master the material. And then one realizes that complacency in the face of such demand is a waterfall to the depths. But all the same, one cannot allow the rude brute of competition get in the way of the larger scheme of things. In the trenches, if you will, it is too easy to fire through the crosshairs. And reload without second thought.


On the History of the Vehicle

Amtrak®, as it happens, is the largest intercity rail carrier for US passengers. It has a somewhat tortuous history, as most entities of this scale do. The company is actually traded under common stock, and all shares are owned by the government. Indeed, it seems that the system we know as Amtrak (actually the brand name of the National Railway Passenger Corporation, NRPC) was created under the Nixon administration, under a secret pact with various rail contractors, to prevent extinction of the passenger rail industry. In the early seventies, the federal government was granting munificent subsidies to the auto and aviation industries. New roads and runways were not subject to the same property taxes that the railways were. In order to rescue the private passenger rail lines, congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970. Private companies were given the option to buy into the state system in exchange for common stock. Almost every operating rail company merged with the NRPC, an account of being on the verge of bankruptcy.

The famed lines that we now associate with the golden age – the high nostalgia – of train travel retained their names. Hence, we have whimsical routes such as the California Zephyr, Sunset Limited, Capitol Corridor and the Downeaster. Tracks that were laid by subsidiaries of the NRPC are now shared by Amtrak trains. This particular line, the Empire Builder, was previously owned by the Great Northern Railway.

Most thought that Amtrak would fail within a matter of years, never achieving independence as a private enterprise. Throughout the years, Amtrak has chronically required federal subsidies. The most recent one was requested by G. W Bush, in the amount of 1.4 billion dollars, in 2006. Many of the amenities that have made this ride somewhat restful, such as the succulent food and high staff-to-passenger ratio, have been cut from other routes. But the Empire Builder was exempted from such pruning.

Approximately half of the dedicated passenger tracks were converted to transport freight exclusively. Disparate lines were connected, simplifying the architecture of the country’s railway system. The rail services were integrated, more or less naturally, with the National Parks. It is therefore not uncommon to find a ranger in one of the lounge cars providing expert commentary on the passing geography. Our guide, so to speak, was an aged gentleman who sat at the booth with a thick stack of flashcards. I happened to listen in as he was describing the differences between farmsteads of German and English genealogy – the differences are subtle.

An interesting result was brought to my attention, that train travel is energetically more efficient than travel by car or airline. Transport of a single passenger occurs at the expense of 2.1 k BTU per mile, 18% lower than other modes.


Seating the Table

On this train, in the dining car, there are three meals daily. You get your ticket for a dinner reservation, say, and you are seated wherever space is open. Because this form of transportation is especially attractive to the elderly, who cross the country in a leisurely way to see extended family, it seems that I fall more than a deviation below the average age. It has been fascinating to sit and eat with these new companions, for rarely would such an opportunity arise in any other setting. During dinner the other day, while we were wending through the marshes of the La Crosse River, a bald eagle surged full-breasted between two trees along the banks. This was surprising, as the habitat seemed incongruous with the species. But it was strangely appropriate to the syncopation of this mode of travel, which seems at once archaic, romantic, and improbable.

“Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch,” I say.

“No, we’ll be getting off at Grand Forks in the morning,” the man with a smile of skewed and absent teeth says. The accent is from Virginia, the voice a soft leather cream that begins to sink as it leaves the mouth.

“Maybe we’ll see you around.”

I am beginning to think that there is something to this, this random intermixing of people from various backgrounds, all traveling a segment of the same line of rail. The matured content of their lives is implicit, and it is sometimes nice for an unproven person, as I am, to get an osmotic dose of wisdom.


Packing the Room

Leaving Madison, I ended up packing my things for the first time (omitting the original move). It is strange. Living in an apartment for a while, you begin to feel a sense of possession over the space. And it evokes an unexpected shade of melancholy to strip it bare and step out. Perhaps because it was my first place, away from home, the task was so unusually affecting. Adieu, you grungy efficiency, you will not be readily forgotten.


Soundtrack I

Madison, as I have repeatedly gushed, has a terrific orchestra. The last concert I went to was of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. It is an interesting composition in that the solo vocal parts are highly operatic, but this does not detract from the weight of the text. We managed to claim cheap student tickets to the frontmost row. It starts with a very subdued Kyrie, during which the choir repeatedly incants “requiem” (lat. “rest”), with solemnity that tells you that this is no ordinary Mass. Then the scepter blows the sky open, the doubled choir swells with incrimination, the violins scuttle crazily like terrified crowds, and the bass drum pounds once then again like the hand of God upon the wrecked planet. The ground buckles.

Ironically, TK, my Russian friend, had lost his translation of the Latin, so he was somewhat bewildered throughout the entire concert. “I would have preferred to sit higher up,” he said.


On Current Scenery II: Marias Pass, Glacier National Park

 The itinerary of this train was designed such that we would enter Glacier National Park at dusk and exit it at sunset. But as we are approximately three hours behind schedule, we passed the east entrance at nightfall. Outside, the dark serrations of the Rockies loom overhead. The change of ecosystems was very abrupt. Without warning, the flatness of the plains gave way to this sudden jut of mountains. With it, we have the equally sudden appearance of conifers and snowbanks.

In the past, driving through this area, I have been awestruck by the power of the landscape. You see the undulating sweep of the hills, the green chaos of the trees that rise up on either side of the road like a colonnade. But now, nothing can be seen. Only the kinetics of the train impart any information about elevation and contour. And perhaps the conductive hearing loss as my middle ear equilibrates with the atmosphere. There is no cellular reception.

I call up the cabin attendant, Isaac. He an black man with a deeply austere quality, eyes fixated perpetually in the distance. He dresses exactly in a vest and straight tie.

“So how long will it take to cross over this pass?” I ask.

“It’ll be a couple hours. But the best part comes when we cross over the Cascades. Because that’s home. I don’t care – home is always the most beautiful part.”

His voice is low and rough, speckled as if with granules of pine.

Perhaps he is right. I do not know if it is better be alone in nature, or in a metropolis. But either way, it is a dance with the night.


On the History of the Scenery

 The Rocky Mountains have perplexed geologists for some time. Here, we have a colossal mountain range, of great size in all three dimensions, which sears through the middle of the continent. The mayhem of tectonic activity occurs off the west coast, and yet it manages to heave a mountain chain thousands of miles inland. Current theory has it that the massive Farallon plate of the pacific floor collided with the North American plate. A smaller section broke off and began to insinuate under the continent, forming a subduction zone. As in most subduction zones, a volcanic arc emerged on land. This arc evolved into the Cascade volcanoes and the Sierra Nevada range. It seems that the orphaned section of the Farallon plate continued to subduct at an unusually shallow angle. This caused the present Rockies to lift above the vast sedimentary plains that covered Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and most of Montana.  The event is known as non-magmatic, since there were no spewing volcanic chains created during this uplifting.

The northern plains that lie eastward of the Rockies are known together as the Missouri Plateau. Underneath it is ancient shale and gravel layers from repeated glaciations. The inevitable forward press of the glaciers left a trail of “Kettle” lakes that become engorged when there are flash floods or rains. The area is occasionally marked by extinct riverbeds, probably dissolved in the landscape like a shed reptilian skin.


Interpretation of the Current Scenery: In the Literary Style of the Late Romantics  

 The glaciers, meltwater, and winds continue to erode the surface of these mountains. It is interesting to contemplate the molecular slowness with which these processes are occurring. You may imagine yourself standing in a rotunda, the mountains folded around you like a scroll. Time is compressed and slingshot forward, and you see the peaks dissolve to sea level, their mass now spread out in particles across the quiet plain. You see the ground ice over and thaw, the seasons flicker in cycles like a strobe. Time is unpackaged, compressed again, and whipped backwards. Now you see the mountains reform, but then they subside in a seizure of shakes. The noise roars around your observatory and you are clenched in the mega lion’s very jaws. The land gives a final shudder and splits apart to reveal a primordial sea where there was none before. The western third of the continent recedes, passing over the horizon.

The train passes through the arena of all this in the night. An occasional signal light alerts the conductor to the status of the track. You open the door to get some air.


Soundtrack II

 I am under the impression that some form of music should be playing at this time, as we glide blindly through the glacier. The other night I went into the lounge car. As if in an old spaghetti western scored by Morricone, there was a gristly man in flannel playing blues on the harmonica. The tune I recognize but cannot quite identify. He inflects the melody with altered scale degrees, wrenching it into the sphere of solitude. I never expected to sit down on any sort of train and hear a bluesman play the evening away. I had brought my violin home with me. Should I have joined and jammed with him? No, it seems that this sort of blues ought to be done solo, the first strains starting alone, the last ones fading alone. With frail hands like wisps of cotton, he packs away his instrument.

Watch the Politics

At the dinner tonight, I was seated next to an osteopathic family practitioner. He is the sole doctor of a rural clinic in Missouri. I have always been curious about osteopathic manipulations. These are special maneuvers that are performed in order to alleviate somatic problems. It seems that they are often based on a rheumatologic understanding of human anatomy. For example, he described a maneuver that prevents epigastric pain from radiating into the back; it involves twisting specific thoracic vertebrae (T6 – T7) in order to interrupt what he called viscerosomatic reflexes. He then explained that massaging from the feet upwards along the preaortic lymphatic chain can actually improve sinus drainage and recovery from an upper respiratory infection. Apparently, during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, there was a significant difference in the mortality of patients treated by osteopathic and allopathic physicians. It is extremely fascinating.

The point is, then, that allopathic training appears to have left out an entire set of skills that may have clinical value. A careful look at the evidence base is required. These therapies, he says, ought to be used as adjuvants with the pharmacopeia. He looks across the table with a big reddish face and a wry smile.

“Watch what happens with Obama in office. There is going to be a huge infusion of funding into primary care,” he says. “Watch the politics.”

Perhaps I will decode that at a later time.


On Past Scenery I: Wenatchee, WA 

I am writing this some days after arriving. It appears that I slept though most of the Cascades, so the finest views have been missed. But that is of little significance. Sometime during the night, the train was bisected. Half of the cars attained a new engine and continued to Portland, OR via the Columbia River valley; the remaining cars bore us towards Everett, WA.

When I opened the curtains, I found that we were just beginning to descend through the Cascade pass. It seems that The Spring has come late to the northwest, for just now are some wild flowers in full blossom. To the left, facing south, there were blaring sprays of color, wildflowers bunched in the tall grass and undergrowth. I am not even sure what species were responsible. But the sudden fanfare of these colors was a dousing of electricity into my visual reality.

Occasionally, the train passed over short trestles, spanning over various sections of the Skokomish River. It drains westward of the Cascades, into the Puget Sound, and so by following it one is led home to the shore. Indeed, the lumberyard of Everett soon relented to the silt beaches of Mukilteo. Small ensembles of people strolled, sleepy and happy, along the waterfront. The piers here are all rotted through, so that only the pylons remain, barely standing, arthritic and silent. A round woman in flimsy pink does yoga, greeting the sun, her movements supple. Couples walk in a mutual embrace, sometimes behind their children, skipping in the sand. And I wonder how so much perfection could be offered by the world, and how it could be observed through such a small sliver of window.

Perhaps though, it only seems this way. The skies are fair, the tide low. Through the vents seeps the smell of the water. It is the smell that I have described to you in an earlier letter. You breathe it in. There is kelp, definitely. I would venture that the kelp contributes to most of the smell, sharp like a knife, a mix of mineral and photorespiration. Or so I like to think, for I still have no good answer for the source.

Ah then! A quick slam of errata. A bit of reading, and it seems that the chemical etiology of the ocean smell has been worked out. It is produced by the metabolism of bacteria living within the most superficial layer of water. Dead ocean flora release a sulfhydryl, DMSP, in the gaseous phase. This is captured by bacteria and enzymatically converted into dimethyl sulfide (DMS). It is the smell of this DMS that is so evocative.


On the Past Scenery II: The Eastside, Seattle (Home)

I have been at home for a few days now. My family seems to be in satisfactory condition (oh, come off it!). It is generally quite nice to be together again. My brother is in a highly anabolic state now, acquiring new bulk every time I visit. I am told that this is possible with just a few short weekly session of intense iron. Perhaps, then, this will be the summer of iron, if not the summer of languor. But to get back to the subject at hand, it seems that my brother is now interested in studying medicine. It is perhaps revealing that I have yet to hear this firsthand. I will investigate.

I am spending an excessive amount of time practicing the piano. I suspect this is a sort of binge behavior owing to lack of a keyboard for the last few months. There is something compelling about the piano. It is an instrument of quasi-neutral timbre. There are pianos so fine they respond like a spitfire motorcycle to the strike of a key. I suppose this is a welcome relief, at times, from an instrument such as the violin, which requires constant persuasion to draw a decent tone. And at this time it occurs to me that much of the therapeutic side effects of practicing music are derived from the physical work of playing whatever instrument. It is a sort of moving meditation – the tension of the strings under the finger pads, the syrupy drag of the bow, the acoustic feedback – that could be as effective as any other.

The other day I found myself in the home of the fellow across the street. We had been friends in yore, around fifteen years ago in grade school. We rode our bicycles with buccaneer abandon like imps from the rivers of hell. I do not exaggerate. We were involved in antics, the danger always increasing. Ah, the antics. Somehow, we were deviated along separate paths, and had not really interacted for a long bout. So it was interesting – a little chilling actually – to stand in the old home. There is an off-centre reaction that one experiences in this moment, when one is deposited in a place from childhood. Your good and strong memories still inhabit the room. But when you see the objects themselves, and then reflect on the mind’s image, it is as if ether has been caste into granite. The antique oak table, the blue-hued chests, the tarnished candelabra: everything is there, unmoved, iced over, a wax museum.


 On the Current Scenery III: Within the Frame

Since my maternal aunt is visiting from Taiwan, ROC, we have been touring the Current Scenery with her. She is a visual artist, and so in my leisure I have been popping into (and quickly out of) various galleries. The art world is a fascinating place to be, and I highly recommend a visit. Like music, the visual forms exit on continua of various axes. You have axes of integrity, axes of price, axes of genre, and so on. But ultimately you are taking in the creations of a fervid mind, and it is always a thrill to be an audience to inspiration. Museums generally require a fee, but once you are entombed in there, you may amble around as slowly as you wish. Galleries are free to enter. They generally hold art for investors, and thus you cannot linger, “contemplate”, lest you wish to be pitched a sale of some sort. Be careful, as they can be cleverly concealed in an academic conversation. Alas though, this is a simple and too- cynical view of the world.

I visited a few galleries first. One of them, according to the owner, holds fine art from major Italian artists of this century. And I believe this is so. I saw a series of oils by Calvetti. As is the common format for exhibits, the paintings were thematically connected, belonging to a set known as After the Night. It seems to be an examination of how night brings about changes in human behavior.

His artwork is troubled in a way that pickles your skin. One painting shows an attractive young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, sitting in a European subway. A wide staircase occupies the left half of the canvas; the steps are painted in oily swatches of black. Your eye gravitates slowly down the tunnel, the platform sooty and deserted. At the end is a bench on which the woman sits, bent over, perhaps adjusting a shoe strap. She is wearing a red dress. There is a flash of calf. Her hair hangs over her bowed head in a curved brown whisper of want. She is the only figure in the scene. You are given the impression that she will do commit some disgrace, tonight. There are streaks of red across the floor, almost accidental, a wrong swipe of the brush.

In the next painting, we see the same woman standing next to the window of an apartment, several floors up, in the corner of a building. The room is lit like a jaundice. She is looking out the window, face deadpan. The dress is now black, devoid of texture, lethally smooth. Her thumb is pressed to her lips, her eyes downcast. Curtains are drawn over the other windows. Behind one of them, you can see the dark figure of a man, you believe he is approaching her. Out of the windows hang sheets, painted in the same gasps of red as the streaks in the subway. You see the sheets blowing slightly in the wind this night. Another work shows the same building from afar. There are no figures to be seen. But still the red curtains are hanging out the windows, swaying terribly in the wind.

This female appears repeatedly in every painting. The dashes of red also, always there, a warning sign, a premonition, an accusation. She sits at the end of a wooden table, cheek cupped in her left hand, flexed at the wrist. Her expression is distant. Maybe she was stood up, maybe she was despairing.  Or she sits on the edge of a decrepit bed. The red trail is still there, now smeared across the floor before her feet. You look at the painting and you want to invest the figure with a soul of some kind. But it will be your soul, because it is you who are alone with the painting. You there, who selectively notice and ignore the weight of the paint, the minute terrain that it creates on the canvas.

But then you must disengage and return to your primary reality. Your moment of exile has passed, but as the art critic P. Schjeldahl has remarked, the effect of the work stays with you. And so it does, this generic woman, perpetually pursued (or perpetually creating) the red paint, the signal of injury. We cannot, in practical terms, look at the world this way.

“She isn’t real, ” the gallery owner told me.



Well, I am now weary of writing this document. The skies of these last few days have been unusually clear. One’s visibility is stretched by miles. The crushing charisma of Mt. Rainier is now very apparent, bearing on us as we get an open view. It will be summer, and the proper response ought to be to rejoice. So that is the task at hand.

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