Tag Archives: amtrak residency

#AmtrakResidency — The Kissing Motorcycle Reverend and Mobile Audio

The Amtrak observation car is a parallel universe to the bar Cheers — nobody knows your name, but they’ll ask politely, and even if they never ask your name they’ll tell you their life story anyway. Rev. Johnny Brandt’s card says “Weddings. Bike Blessings. Ordained Minister.” He offered to talk to me after I whipped out my mic to speak to a pair of sisters traveling from Ft. Worth, Texas, to Hawaii by train and boat. The sister Rev. Brandt is kissing refuses to hop on an airplane, but that doesn’t stop her from traveling. (I’ll upload their story separately.) Meanwhile, here’s a tiny snippet of audio [sorry, a bit muffled] from the Reverend — or as I nicknamed him, having gotten a smooch myself, the Motorcycle Kissing Bandit.


I’d hoped to upload more audio by now, but I’ve been learning as I go. For the first time, I’ve been recording on two different platforms on my iPhone, instead of a stand-alone audio recorder. I’m now in Los Angeles, where I had some additional mics delivered — a new lavalier and a stubby little omni mic with a port for headphones. I’ll use those on the last leg of my trip. In some ways, I wish I’d brought a regular audio recorder because I had some challenges transferring the audio from my iPhone to the computer. Plus I had to re-download the entire Adobe creative suite because I’d gotten a new computer, but not properly outfitted it, before leaving New York. It all plays very well into my plans to teach iPhone recording on Friday when I get back to the classroom.


The train is marvelous but I stayed a couple extra days in LA and am actually flying to New Orleans and meeting a reporter from MSNBC. I’ve been seeing friends and doing yoga and working through the inevitable knots of mainly sitting for 48 hours of long-distance train travel. (I’m the kind of person who actually uses a standing desk a lot of the time.) Off to New Orleans tomorrow; then back on the rails to NYC.

Amtrak Residency: The Writing and the Railing

SunsetLimited_poster Right now I’m listening to the whistle of an approaching train, and the laughter of ‘tweens a couple of roomettes down the hall. They’re adorable, part of an extended family traveling together — three girls and two women who give off an auntie/Godmomma vibe — a little permissive, but definitely in control. A different pair of women wait in matching flowered PJs, holding their toothbrushes, for the showers (rooms have their own; roomettes do not); while a couple sits reading in their cabin with the door closed against noise, but the curtains open so others can view their tableaux. My curtains are drawn on the side facing the hall, and open to the mainly dark exterior. Occasionally there is a passing train or, every now and then, a grand house rising out of the countryside between Houston and San Antonio. Of course, even less often, there’s a town, the kind with a Dollar General store and a gas station but not much else near the noise of the tracks. But mainly from where I sit there is the dark; a few lights in the far distance; the whisper of air through the vents and the rocking of the train.CrescentPoster

As the Amtrak Residency hinted it might, the rails have been good for writing. I’ve been noodling with a TV treatment, a new genre for me. Book edits. Taxes. Arranging interviews for a travel article, and actually doing the reporting, some of it by phone on the train; some on my stops. I break my time into chunks by project and never find myself bored or mentally trapped, although I do sometimes feel a bit physically confined. (You cannot do sit-ups in a roommette without putting your legs on one of the chairs that becomes the lower bed.) The scheduled pit stops where you can stretch your legs are often eaten up by delays. Freight trains don’t care that you want to do lazy woman’s yoga. But this was my choice.
Amtrak’s generous offer to writers was that we could, for free, take a roomette (with meals included) up to four legs on two connecting train routes. I could have gone round trip on one train — 3 days of travel back and forth on the LA to Seattle Coast Starlight, for example, which is supposed to be beautiful. But I chose 8 days of cross country train travel plus stops along the way in New Orleans and LA, for a total of 12 days. Specifically, I took the Crescent from New York to New Orleans; spent three nights and two days there of reporting and seeing friends; and am now on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and will spend 3 days and 2 nights there, reversing to head back to New York with a brief pit stop in New Orleans. The roomettes on the Crescent are roomier than the Sunset Limited; but the Limited is a double decker and has better views. I am fascinated by the scenes of both historic and dying towns; of industry and industrial decay. I’m Instagramming photos as MissMetropolis.
This blog post has become about the mechanics of the trip. I wanted to talk about the extraordinary conversations I’ve been having, but I’ll have to save that mainly for another time. In the dining car, unless your party naturally forms a four-top, you’re seated with strangers. Something about trains and the people who take them make for good conversations and conversationalists. I’ve had very deep and friendly encounters with people who pretty clearly don’t share some of my cultural and political perspectives, but as we listen rather than debate we find we have much in common. There’s something about the train that seems to create an expansive space for intimacy amid the physical confines.

The Discipline of Travel

Travel is the maze around my heart, the path that I keep following to find myself. Since my mother got me my first passport when I was four, to visit my father’s family in Zimbabwe, I’ve hit the road for destinations far-flung and near. They promise to teach me more about the world and my fortitude for living in it; I promise to listen.

Jewelry as comfort; literary festival entices; microphone to capture.

Jewelry as comfort; literary festival entices; microphone to capture.

Creature comforts and tools of the trade must be boiled down to essentials. I am a chronic overpacker, and jewelry reminds me of home and friends; notebooks, camera/phone, recording devices capture the journey; and I gather local event flyers and ephemera to turn into artwork at later dates. Flat is not digital, but it’s hard to so overstuff luggage with paper that you can’t carry it.

The metallic bassline of the tuba; couples, friends and strangers swaying on a street corner as a man from the band passes a metal pail for cash; a refined bowl of bouillabaisse at Galatoire’s — this was my entry into New Orleans after two days on the train at the start of my Amtrak Residency. New York to New Orleans: stop, enjoy, report. New Orleans to Los Angeles: repeat. And then, return. To think, to see. To be in my place and out of my place. What is my place? These are the questions that travel allows me to ask, if not always answer.