(Time Suck Alert: This is a very long and wordy post. If you have a real life, or anything else similarly interesting to do with your time, you may want to attend to that first…or get some snacks. Snacks are good.)
Riding the train out from Indy, I can’t say that I slept well. Actually I can’t say that I slept at all, but that’s not because I was uncomfortable. I was stretched out on a reasonably comfortable bed (the two seats in the compartment magically fold down into a bunk that is just a little smaller than a twin-sized bed), and I had all the peace and privacy I could want. The rocking and rolling of the train was constant, and even the wooo-wooooooing of the train’s whistle seemed comforting — just loud enough to hear, as though they were piping it in like Muzak so that you’d remember you were on a train. (Definitely NOT the same sound as the freaking loud freight trains that scream through Bloomington in the middle of the night and drive me bat-freaking crazy.) Once we got out of Indianapolis, the city lights disappeared, the speed picked up, and you could lay there rocking and rolling in total peace…until all of a sudden the darkness would explode in violently bright red flashing lights and the loud clang-clang-clanging of a road crossing rushing by (well yeah, actually I guess it was the train doing the rushing by…but you get what I mean), and then just as suddenly it would be dark and quiet again. Far off in the distance there was some lightning — it would dance up and up, and then you would see a whole huge thunderhead silhouetted against the dark from the inside. Then it would disappear and all you could see was blackness.
The train passed through half a dozen nameless little towns that all looked alike in the dark, all quiet and deserted in the middle of the night. I was just starting to doze off as it was getting light and we were pulling into Cincinnati, and then of course I was wide awake again, trying to see everything as we passed. There wasn’t much to see — just a lot of grey and dirty industrial areas and freight yards. This isn’t a knock on Cincinnati, it’s just the reality of train travel. Unlike flying at 30,000 feet, you get to see the country up close and personal; sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s not. It’s a lot like real life.
I did doze a little, but the trip just became too beautiful to ignore the further east we went. Sometimes it was agonizingly slow, but it was always scenic — through the mountains (like, literally through the mountains) and gorgeous gorges (see what I did there?), and through little towns and road crossings where it was fun to see people waving as the train went by. (I remember always waving to the caboose when I was a kid…why don’t they have cabooses anymore?)
Late in the day as we approached D.C., I had dinner with a couple returning home to New Jersey after a 6-week Bucket List trip out west, where they had visited probably a dozen different National Parks and Monuments in Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado — a lot of places I had never even heard of, and I’m a big fan of the National Parks. They seemed like a typical older couple enjoying retirement, telling me all about their kids and their grandkids, but it turns out this was in fact their honeymoon trip: they were just married last year. They had both lost their spouses after long, painful battles with Alzheimer’s (as if there is any other kind), and had become caregivers to the caregivers when they met. Now they are on the first of several planned trips, seeing not only sights they’ve always wanted to see, but also those places that their deceased spouses had longed to see. They made me laugh and cry, and they were wonderful.
We had a good long time to chat because the train sat still on the track a lot of the time. Passenger trains have to yield the right-of-way to freight trains, and you could tell the closer we got to larger cities by the how often the train had to slow down and sometimes stop all together. If you’re in a hurry, Amtrak is NOT the way to go, but if you don’t care — or if you consider the journey part of the adventure, which I most definitely did — then taking the train is the ONLY way to go. I don’t mind flying; in fact, I love flying and get as excited as a little kid anytime I’m near an airplane. My dad was a pilot and I feel like I practically grew up in airplanes and helicopters…but I hate flying. Yes, 9/11 was scary. And frankly, now the prices of airline tickets are scary. And yes, the security checks and baggage limitations are a hassle…but it’s the feeling of being squeezed into a seat that’s too small for even a five year-old, jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder with a hundred other people who are always sneezing and coughing with God-only-knows what kind of super virus, inside an insanely small and insanely loud aluminium tube, where you can’t see anything but some ratty old copy of SkyMall magazine and the only thing you get to eat is a lame packet of pretzels that contains exactly eight and half pretzels and costs $2.50.
Okay, maybe I’m ranting just a little.
Union Station in Washington, D.C. was a far cry from the one I’d left in Indianapolis. It was massive by comparison, and felt more like an airport terminal with dozens of shops and food courts, and big screen monitors to tell you what track your train was on and what it’s status was. Mine was, of course, delayed.
I spent the next couple of hours people-watching, waiting to see some important member of Congress, or maybe a spy on a secret mission, or maybe a tear-jerking Hollywood train goodbye — you know, where the woman runs after the train in her high heels, yelling out to our hero Joe that Yes, she will wait for him….
Well, I didn’t see any of that. I don’t think there are any important members of Congress, and all the spies were secret enough that I didn’t see them. The closest thing to tear-jerking was watching a guy with one cell phone jammed between his ear and shoulder while he poked around on another cell phone with one hand and stuffed (yes, literally stuffed) McDonald’s french fries into his mouth with the other.
When the train finally came, I again waddled out onto the platform looking for the right car — not a sleeper for this leg of the trip, but “Business Class” — and again enjoyed my own little chuckle as the conductor looked at me and my pack and repeated (twice), “Business Class up forward; COACH here!” But when I got to my car, I couldn’t find a seat. Wait, what?? I paid for a reserved, business class seat (I may be insane enough to want to hike 2,200 miles but on the train I still want my comforts), but there was no seat to be had. I was tired and confused and had no idea what to do, because the train was starting to move out. An off-duty crew member invited me and my pack to sit down with her in the lounge area of the car while the car attendant sorted the issue out. It turned out that some important looking guy with an expensive suit and big briefcase was sitting in my seat (he was probably the spy); he looked sheepish as he was escorted back to sit with the peasants, and I sat myself down in a very comfortable leather recliner as we zipped out of D.C. toward Boston.
And I do mean zipped — like, at the speed of sound. Or something very near to it. That train accelerated so fast I felt myself pushed back into that comfy recliner like a jet pilot. It was almost alarming after that long, leisurely rolling trip in from Indiana.
You’d think there wouldn’t be a lot to see in the middle of the night, but I don’t think this part of the east coast even has night; everything seemed like it was lit up the whole way. The only time it was truly dark was when we disappeared into tunnels, which unnerved me completely, especially as we entered New York. I mean, we’re travelling underneath a RIVER, people! Through a tunnel that was built, like, before your grandparents were born…aren’t you nervous even just a teeny little bit?!? I tried to sleep and probably did doze off a little, but I was awake and watched as the sky lightened over the ocean. The area was still pretty urban for the most part, but I saw some beautiful inlets and tidal marshes as we got closer to Boston.
I had to make a transfer in Boston that was…well, educational. I had to get off the train at Boston’s Back Bay station and get myself across town, via the subway, to South Station in time to catch my next train up to Portland. And I had to do it with my monster backpack. During rush hour. I got off the train at Back Bay and wandered around like a wide-eyed idiot, not sure exactly where to go or what to do. A staff member very kindly took pity on me and directed me to the kiosk where I needed to buy a subway token, then pointed me down the stairs to the subway platform, saying with a gentle urgency, “And you have two minutes to make it!”
I thought I was moving fast, but those people in Boston MOVE FAST. They blew past me like I was standing still. I managed get to the right track and got myself into the car in time — along with a guy named Brian who had also been on the train out from Indianapolis (he had actually been travelling all the way out from California) — and we just stared at each other in disbelief as people literally pushed and shoved their way into and around the car. I felt like a tackle dummy at football practice. I had to hang on for dear life and brace my legs as if I were going to be hit by a hurricane as we zipped through about five or six stops, then quick rush out the door and run up an escalator with a huge bio-mass of people who all just seemed kinda cranky.
The train up to Portland was (of course) delayed, so it had been a frantic rush just to sit and wait, but Brian and I enjoyed the time people-watching and admiring the immense and beautiful station. Brian was quite a talker, so by the time we finally boarded our train for Portland, I knew everything about, well…everything. Brian might have been just a wee bit manic and grandiose, but he was fun. (And I was also happy we were in different cars for the last part of the trip.)
The train up to Portland was again very slow and frequently stopped, which was starting to irritate me because I was getting tired and still had a long way to go. But the staff on the train were so friendly and helpful it was hard to feel irritable for long, and once we were out of the ugly urban jungle the scenery started to get pretty again. Finally there were some stretches where we could speed up and make up some time — but we pulled into Portland five minutes too late, and I missed my bus to Bangor. (Which, by the way, is correctly pronounced “BANG-GORE”. I know, feels weird. But trust me on this one.) I had to wait over four hours for the next bus in the not-so-scenic Portland Transportation Center, but it was still a lot nicer than the station in Indianapolis.
I finally got to Bangor after a two hour bus ride that would have been a lot more tedious if it hadn’t been for sitting next to a delightful man named Tom, who was on his way to his summer home up in Caribou — up in the far, far north of Maine — a place so far removed from the rest of us that it’s practically a different country. Tom is retired, a veteran of Korea, and says he just doesn’t like the cold winters up north anymore, so he “winters” down in Connecticut. This guy is my hero.
I got to Bangor just in time to catch the bus to Medway, and enjoyed the ride in spite of being nearly psychotic for lack of sleep. I was completely exhausted but everything was so pretty it seemed a shame to close my eyes and let it all go by. It’s not an area of stunning vistas, just miles and miles of deep forest and beautiful clear rivers. It actually reminded me a lot of a lot of northern Minnesota.
There were about five other hikers on the bus, and when we got off at Medway we gathered together all nervous and shy like little kids on the first day of school. Alex was waiting for us at the bus station to shuttle us the few last miles over to the AT Lodge in Millinocket. He somehow managed to not only fit all of us and our gear into the van, but also helped break the nervous tension we were all feeling. We had all traveled a long way (although I apparently get the prize for having come the farthest), and we all know we are about to embark on something…significant, I guess. Alex has thru-hiked the trail six times. Six. I’m not sure if that makes him a professional or some sort of vagrant, but he is a wealth of knowledge about the trail.
We got to the Lodge and met Paul and Jamie, the owners. There was a flurry of activity as everyone got signed in and assigned their “bunks” in the “bunkhouse”…words that might conjure up images of something rough and rugged and bug-infested like in a John Wayne movie, but this is most definitely NOT like a John Wayne movie —
I had actually reserved a private room for myself — less because I’m a pretentious snob than because I knew full well that I’d be up all night tossing and turning, and I didn’t want to keep everyone else in the place awake. My room was gorgeous and more comfortable than most hotels I’ve stayed in — with blooming lilacs right outside the window.
After I got settled in, I walked to the restaurant next door for something to eat. It was getting late; there were a few local guys talking and laughing at the bar, and the waitress was clearly getting ready to close things up for the night. It occurred to me for a second that maybe this could be uncomfortable: I’m one of those irritating outsiders intruding on their time together at the end of a long work day. But within five minutes, the waitress Katie had me hooked up with the best burger and the best IPA I have ever had, and the guys at the bar are laughing and talking with me as though we’ve been friends our entire lives.
Millinocket has suffered the crippling shutdown of the paper mill that essentially built this town, and people who have lived and worked hard here their whole lives are seeing a way of life change before their very eyes. There is a clear distinction between those who are local and those who are from “away”, and they see hikers and kayakers come and go all season long, but they still had a genuine friendliness and interest in what I was doing, wished me a good hike, and looked forward to seeing me sometime again.
Maine is amazing. From Portland to Millinocket, I have found it to be beautiful, friendly, and welcoming. I have never felt so immediately and completely comfortable anywhere in my whole life. It really is the way life should be.