May 21 2010

13 Tips for a Month of Train Travel

I was planning on posting more photos, but this is a post I’d like to get out while I have it fresh in my mind.  It occurred to me just now that today marks the middle point of my trip.  I’ve been gone for 15 days, and in 15 more I’ll be back in San Francisco. Furthermore, of my 9-city itinerary, I’m at the fifth city, with four more to go.  The whole trip so far has been a whirlwind, and the days are quickly blurring together.  It’s pretty common for me not to realize what day of the week it is until I look at my phone or am reminded otherwise.

So, without further adieu, here are some things you should be prepared for if you plan on buying one of Amtrak’s 30-day passes.

– Shower whenever the opportunity arises.  Often, you might not get to shower for a few days.  Same goes with toiletries. I’ve had to buy deodorant, shampoo and conditioner twice now because I leave it in people’s bathrooms.  I’ve got in the habit of returning it all to my suitcase when I’m done showering, because not having these things sucks.

– Don’t rely on having internet access.  I have a Verizon cellular data modem (it’s a little USB stick that costs $60 bucks a month), and without that, I don’t know what I’d do.  Even with it, I still can’t stress enough that you can’t rely on having internet access. Things like your schedule and key contact info, keep offline somewhere.  Lots of rural areas the train rolls through will have zero cell service at all (especially the mountains, the South, Texas, and everywhere between cities), and in lots of urban areas it’s terrible.  I’m in Brooklyn right now, and I’m getting an average ping of about 5,000ms, and it regularly hovers around 50,000ms, with the bandwidth of a 28.8k modem.  (If you know what that means, you feel my pain)  In New Orleans, I had 200ms pings and a consistent 2Mbps connection, so don’t assume that the densest place in the country will have better internet access than the hurricane-ravaged South.

– Keep all your batteries topped up at every opportunity.  Phone, camera, computer, everything.  You will need those batteries, and you will find yourself in a position where simply topping them up the night before makes the difference between being able to take pictures or make phone calls when an important situation arises.

– Always carry cash.  When I lived in Los Angeles, I relied on everybody taking credit cards all the time.  In San Francisco, I always try to keep at least $20 in my wallet for when I hit a mexican restaurant that only takes cash.  On this trip, I’ve been keeping at least $100 in my wallet in cash with me at all times. Not only will you hit places that don’t take cards, but you’ll need to tip, reimburse people, and generally be flexible, and cash is king. On that note, smaller bills are very useful, and getting change when you need it can be difficult. If I buy something from a chain store, I use my card when I can or break large bills even if I have small bills.

– Don’t leave anything unwatched in the lounge car on the Texas Eagle.

– Pack clothes for all types of weather.  It was hot and humid in New Orleans, and cold and rainy in DC.  Austin and LA were warm, but in Brooklyn I sweat when I walk out the door.

– Pack clothes for all occasions.  If you’re meeting new people, I’ve noticed that it’s better to be clean-shaven and well dressed with combed hair.  People take you more seriously and trust you more.  Even if you can’t shower, change clothes often. This holds more weight in a city like New York, where people expect you to wear a sport coat in warm weather. On the flip side, I’ve learned that being grungy in the right situation will win you more points. When I was wondering around the most economically depressed areas in New Orleans, one day I showered and wore nicer clothes and I was much less approachable.  The next day I rolled out of bed and wore just a t-shirt and I wasn’t viewed as suspiciously.

– When your host introduces you to new friends, often these new people will say things like “oh, you’re the TRAIN GUY!  I’ve heard about you!”  Get used to it.

– Most of the time, you will be a pedestrian. Learn (quickly…  or ask) what the overall aggressiveness of motorists is like. In most cities, you can step off a curb into a protected crosswalk and cars will stop for you. In San Francisco and New York, you can stand on a corner or a curb and cars will stop and yield the right of way. In New Orleans, even if you cross at an intersection, cars will NOT stop, and will expect you to jump out of the way if they get too close. Even if a car is half a block away and you’re already crossing, they won’t stop. They will play chicken and you will lose.

– Carry a note pad, pen, and business cards everywhere.  I haven’t been so good about this.

– Get a transit map of the city you’re in if you want to go anywhere. See #1. My iPhone does not work in the NYC subway, so as amazing as Google Maps Transit Directions are, they’ll be useless when you need them.

– Be social with the train crew. This is ESPECIALLY important on long-haul trains but I’ve had great conversations on even the short ones. Besides great conversation, they’ll often go out of their way for you, do you special favors, and sometimes bend the rules slightly.  Even if you can’t reciprocate directly, pass along the good vibes.

– Figure out what kind of beer the train has on-board.  Different trains have different brews.  You can get Blue Moon on the Sunset Limited and Yuengling on the Crescent. Everything comes in glass bottles. It’s also about $5 a beer, although the price varies by train. Most of the rest of the beer selection sucks (think Bud Light), but if you get a temperature-sealed bag with a six-pack of a decent beer that the snack car sells, the crew will either assume you bought it in the lounge car or the unofficial policy is to look the other way. DO NOT ABUSE THIS. Seriously, don’t be a dick and bring a case.  It’s a violation of state liquor control laws. But, if you want to save twenty bucks and get a decent buzz going especially after the snack bar closes at 11pm, or get around the no-beer-on-Sunday laws that some of the most socially conservative swaths of the South and Midwest seem to enjoy forcing on you, you can fix that.

May 20 2010

Crescent – New Orleans to Washington, DC

As the Crescent left New Orleans, we headed due North until we passed the Lakefront Airport.  I thought the geometry of the concrete freeway ramps was interesting:


We hugged the lake for miles.  There were lots of these pilings sticking out of the water from former docks and piers:


I took a short nap, and when I woke up, we were in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


These gentlemen were loitering at the station.  Lots of people were loitering at the station.  The train only comes once a day, so I wasn’t sure why.


As we approached Birmingham, the rural landscape gave way to factories and old brick housing complexes.


We had a short stop in Birmingham, and I took a few pictures of the station.


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May 20 2010

38 More Photos from New Orleans

So, I’ve made it to New York City and I’m still posting photos and stories from my five days in New Orleans…  two cities ago.  So that I can move on to DC, I’m going to post 38 more photos here and get them out of the way.  These are mostly from the French Quarter, as I was going to make a post about that but didn’t get around to it, and the rest are from everywhere.




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May 19 2010

Venice, Louisiana

My last day in New Orleans was a bit of a misadventure.  The plan was to head down to Venice, Louisiana and try to shoot something relating to the oil spill.  I had lofty ambitions of talking my way onto a cleanup vessel for a couple of hours, but I figured I’d settle to just see what the situation was like on the ground firsthand.

Josh borrowed a car from his co-worker John, and we headed down the Mississippi river toward Venice.


This is what Highway 23 looks like most of the way:


On the way downriver, the clouds were heavy and we often encountered rain.  We made a few mental notes of places to stop and shoot on the way back during blue hour, or after nightfall when the grey skies would add to the aesthetic of the photo instead of detract.


There are large levies on either side of the highway, so it’s impossible to see anything on either side.  We pulled over a couple of times when a road led to the left or right over one of the levies, but mostly we just came up to gates that looked like this:


These docks abut virgin wetland:



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May 19 2010

St. Claude and the Lower Ninth Ward

I started my walk a little bit north of the Marigny district and started walking east, through parts of New Orleans that are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina five years later.

It’s so hot and humid that most people hang out on the street.  Everywhere I walked people were sitting on their porch, or, if they didn’t have one, their front steps:


Many houses still have spraypaint markings from the Katrina search-and-rescue. This one had some additions spraypainted on to liven the bleak mood:


This kid had the biggest grin I think I’ve EVER seen.


Some of these houses are beautiful, but generally are waiting to be leveled by the city:


This building is either being refurbished, or is about to be flattened.  I couldn’t tell.


Here’s detail of some of an interesting piece of illegal street art that appeared on the back door:


One of the locals I talked to for a minute after shooting the above building:


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May 17 2010

No Cat Selling

Josh and I were walking back to the French Quarter from an amazing underground concert we all but stumbled upon when I decided to take photos of this strange outdoor car repair shop on St Claude Ave and Louisa St.



The sign on the left says “No Loitering, No Crack Selling, No Cat Selling, The Facts”.  Realizing that we weren’t actually doing any of the second two things, we loitered for a few minutes and I took photos.



May 17 2010

Gas Station, Lower Ninth Ward

Josh and I were driving around and found this abandoned gas station, ostensibly left since Katrina rolled through.





After some quick deliberation and a run back to the car to pick up my tripod, we went inside:


You can see the water line in the refrigerator glass:


The inside was just a little bit torn apart.


The inside of the refrigerator still smelled terrible, five years later.


I took one last shot of the outside and we continued our adventures.

May 16 2010

Lake Pontchartrain

These are the pump houses at Lake Pontchartrain.  Their job is to pump water out of New Orleans during a storm and into the lake.  They weren’t running when we passed by, but the scale of these things is amazing.



As we made our way toward the lakefront, massive abandoned boathouses lining the shore were the first things we saw, still damaged and boarded up from Katrina.


In some cases, they weren’t even fenced off or boarded up.  You can really see the scale of the damage here.  I’m amazed that they’re standing at all.




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May 16 2010

New Orleans Cemeteries

I was waiting for Josh to get off of work, so I hopped on a streetcar and bought an unlimited daily hop-on hop-off pass so I could explore the city a bit.


I decided to take the streetcar to the cemeteries.

I didn’t wind up using the pass after the first ride.

I don’t have many words for you today.  Only photos.






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May 15 2010

New Orleans


My old friend Josh came to meet me at the New Orleans Amtrak station.  I’ve known Josh since the fifth grade, and we went through middle school and high school together.  Josh is now a naval architect (he designs boats), and works for a firm in New Orleans.

The first thing I noticed right away about New Orleans is the textures of everything:



Lots of concrete and brick surfaces haven’t been painted in awhile, and during the years it takes the paint to wear off, rust and simple dirt fill in the small pores in the concrete.  The humidity definitely plays a role.




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May 14 2010

Sunset Limited: San Antonio to New Orleans

The Texas Eagle from Austin took me the relatively short distance to San Antonio, Texas.  After some slight misinformation that was no fault of the train crew, I left my things on the wrong train (a now-northbound Texas Eagle) resulting in some serious panic and confusion when the conductor packed it all up for me and put it in the station without my knowledge. This led to a harrowing 10 minutes that seemed like forever while I was running around the empty train while the crew was preparing to shunt the cars around. They were not pleased. When I figured out what happened, I was relieved to learn that the thousands of dollars of camera and computer gear I’d left set up in the lounge car wasn’t actually stolen, but the adrenaline lasted far longer than that.

I finally got settled in my seat on the eastbound Sunset Limited I had a ticket for and relaxed as the train rolled away from the station just after Midnight.

Here’s the conductor taking us out:


At some point, I passed out, tired and exhausted from a day of drinking and an hour of panic.  I’d had some trouble sleeping in the coach seats up until now, but perhaps it was the exhaustion or my body getting used to it, but I had my first full night of uninterrupted sleep in a coach seat.  When I woke up, we were already in Louisiana.

I asked this woman if I could take a photo of her cuddling with her newborn.  She agreed.  It was the sweetest thing I’ve seen on the train yet:


I wanted to talk to her and ask her about her story, but her baby was sleeping so I left them alone.  I was hoping I’d have an opportunity to have a conversation, but it never happened.

Here are some photos I shot out of the window on the way through Louisiana:










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May 13 2010

Austin, Texas: Day 2

My second day in Austin was the most laid-back of any of my stops yet.  We didn’t have anywhere to be and only a vague idea of what we wanted to accomplish.

Nicole decided to take me to the local lake, Lake Travis.

On the way, we passed the IRS building that was hit by a kamikaze pilot a couple of months ago:


We got to the lake around 10:30, but the restaurant didn’t open for another hour. The lake was gorgeous though.


We decided to go to this restaurant instead.  I told Nicole to show off her favorite restaurants, and everywhere we ate was awesome, but a sign like this really seals the deal:


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May 12 2010

Austin, Texas: Day 1


I arrived in Austin at about 11 in the morning, and my friend Nicole met me at the train station.

I’d never actually met Nicole before…  back in my junior year of high school, a few friends of mine and I created a website called Electronic Mayhem.  It was a blog of sorts, but we typically stuck to making fun of ourselves, other people, and writing movie reviews.  At one point, we set up a discussion forum as part of the site, and invited a few other friends of ours who had websites to share the forum.  The forum thing took off, and a year later, we spun the forum off into it’s own website called xForums.  It had a good four-year run, and in 2005 after it was maliciously hacked a number of times, we let it die peacefully.  Nicole was a long-time member of xForums, and we’d kept in touch sporadically since it’s demise.  When I met her at the Austin train station, I felt like we were already old friends.

We got lunch in Austin with some of her friends, and there we met up with Rowan, another girl I’d known on xForums, who everybody on the forum knew as Badger. Apparently I was the one responsible for Badger moving to Austin years ago, which was…  pretty cool.  I’m also directly responsible for a number of marriages in other parts of the country.

We ate a buffet breakfast and enjoyed bottomless mimosas for an hour or so, and very full, Nicole and I left to explore Austin.

Our first stop was a coffee shop, where I finally got to write a blog entry I’d posted a few days ago and Nicole caught up on some work.

From there, Nicole took me to the Texas Capitol building:



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May 11 2010

Sunset Limited: Maricopa, AZ to San Antonio, TX

Okay, I need to get better about writing blog posts immediately because I’m still two days behind, and I’m already getting blurry about key details.  (Lots of drinking in Austin will do that!)

So let’s get caught up to speed.  When I left off at the last post, we were just leaving Maricopa, Arizona.  I had trouble sleeping, so after talking to a nice gentleman in the lounge car, I made my way back to my seat to try to get some sleep.  Sleeping in two coach seats isn’t that easy, and I stayed awake for some unknown amount of time, but probably conked out at about 3:30am.  When I woke back up, it was light out and we were stopped in Tucson.  Still groggy from sleep deprivation, I hopped off the train to stretch my legs and hang out with the smokers.


I forgot this gentleman’s name, but he was on his way to Lake Charles or Lafayette. He shared with me his frustration about how far behind schedule we were, but I made an attempt to explain how I was taking it in stride, since we were both going to miss what we were hoping to do when we got to our respective destinations.

“I’m going to miss a funeral!” he said.

I immediately felt very very bad, since all I was going to miss was a party in Austin.


Here are our crewmembers, Jerry and Kevin.  I began to feel really bad for them, the passengers were all very frustrated with the situation and they had to bear the brunt of the complaints.

The stop in Tucson took a bit longer than anticipated, as we gained another locomotive.  We had one locomotive pulling the train all night between our breakdown near the Salton Sea and now.  Jerry told me that Amtrak paid $20,000 to “borrow” a locomotive from Union Pacific to pull the train.


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May 9 2010

Sunset Limited: Los Angeles to the Salton Sea

I’m now a day behind in blogging due to reasons I’ll reveal in the next post, but I’ll start with Friday’s events, as that’s where I left off.

After a full day of events on Friday, I wound up sleeping in a lot later than I had anticipated.  My original plan was to make it to Union Station extra-early, go across the street to Philippes and get a french dip, and spend a few hours shooting the station.  In reality, I wound up getting to the station with just enough time to check my suitcase, grab an overpriced (yet still pretty good, just not $11!) bagel sandwich from the restaurant in the station, and hop on the train.

We passed over the concrete-lined LA river, and I shot these photos out of the window of the moving train:

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May 8 2010

24 Hours in South Central

One of my goals on this trip is to always do something different.  More than half of the cities I’m visiting, I’ve never been to before, so in many cases, that will be a pretty easy goal.

However, my first stop was Los Angeles.  LA is a city I’ve spent a lot of time in.  I’ve only lived in San Francisco for a little over a year, but before that, I’d never lived anywhere else other than LA.

Specifically, the west side of LA.  Of the 25 years I spent in LA, 24 of them were in Santa Monica.  I lived in the valley for a few months, and I lived in Mar Vista for a year (which is a laughable mention since it’s a mile from Santa Monica), but rarely have I ever escaped my little beach bubble.  Even when I go back to LA, which I’ve done eight or nine times since moving to San Francisco, I pretty much always stay west of the 405.

This trip, I set out to do something entirely different.

I spent my time in South Central.

South Central has a bit of a reputation.  Even if you’ve never been to LA, you’ve heard of South Central LA, or the crips, or the bloods, or Rodney King, or the LA riots.

But South Central is a real place, with real people, and it’s history and people are intertwined with the history and culture of Los Angeles.

Yet I don’t think I’ve spent more than a few hours there in my entire life.  Combined.  That includes driving through, and I’m counting time spent on the 110 freeway (which cuts through) in this cumulative sum, and anybody who has driven in LA knows how quickly those traffic hours can add up.

My good friend Naomi recently moved in with her boyfriend near Hoover and Vernon.  They’d been bugging me to visit for months, but most of the times I’d come to town I was either working on a job, or if I was around on a social visit, I wouldn’t rent a car, preferring to stay in a bubble near the beach where I could walk or bike to visit my friends.

This trip though, I decided to change that.  Besides my previously stated goal of doing something entirely different, it was very close to the downtown core where Union Station is.

South Central actually has lots of really amazing Craftsman-style architecture, which spent decades disappearing from LA:

Before I even got there, Naomi and Dismost, her boyfriend, told all of their friends that I would be in town and would take pictures of their bike gang.  Not only did I have no idea what to expect, but I’d been hyped up to such a point that I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to their expectations.  They had planned a whole DAY dedicated exclusively to taking photos.  Yet, somehow I knew that this was going to be something special.

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May 7 2010

Union Station, Los Angeles

Did I mention that my train was running ahead of schedule?  One thing that seemed consistent with Amtrak trips I’ve read about or been told about, is that delays are very common.  Some trains are delayed for hours because of all kinds of issues, but the most common is because Amtrak shares tracks with freight trains and often, passenger trains have to wait for them to pass.  “Sharing” isn’t even the appropriate word, as the freight companies own the track and are required by law to let Amtrak run trains on their track.  This requirement seems to be a bit disdainful, and freight operators have no problem making Amtrak wait.  Most of the right-of-way from Oakland to Los Angeles was singletrack, and we passed a number of trains on the way down, so I can see how this could be a frequent issue.

On my trip, however, it was not.  I got to Union Station 45 minutes early.  Of course, I started taking photos immediately after getting off the train:

I made it about 100 yards, and while taking this photo of the ceiling, I was stopped by two sheriff’s officers:

“I’m sorry, you aren’t allowed to take photos in here”.

This was the first time I had heard of this policy.  I have taken literally hundreds of photos in LA’s Union Station over the years and I’ve never been stopped.  I could have argued with them, but I didn’t.

Before I left for my trip, I had sent emails to the press contact numbers for Amtrak. Honestly, I was hoping they’d love my idea and offer me and Jesse (a writer who was originally planning on joining me) free tickets, but it didn’t really work out that way.  However, my contact at Amtrak did offer to write an official letter that I could show to train crews explaining what I was doing and effectively acknowledging that Amtrak gave me permission to take photos.  I honestly didn’t think I’d need it as I’ve taken many trains before and have never had a problem taking photos.  But, I gladly accepted the letter, printed it out, and put it in my backpack.

Back in Union Station, I shrugged off the officer and told him that Amtrak had given me permission.

“Can I see your permit?”  The officer asked, rather sternly.

“Uh, yeah, sure”.  I said.  I rummaged around by backpack, found the letter, and gave it to him.  He looked at it, read a bit of it, looked at me, frowned, and handed it back.

“Thank you sir.  Have a great night!”

And he walked off.

I don’t know how long this policy has been in place, but not only was it recent, but it was enforced completely across-the-board.  Private security guards, LAPD officers, and transit police all stopped me in the few hours I was shooting in the station.  I was stopped seven times, sometimes one right after another.  A few times, a security guard simply said “okay”, and walked off after I told him I had permission, but other officers were more skeptical.

Maybe it’s the long hair.

More photos after the jump. Continue reading

May 7 2010

Day One: Coast Starlight

Since I set up this blog this morning, I’m already at the end of Day 2 of my trip.  Which means I’m two days behind on this blog.  My goal is to never be a day behind and, not only update this blog at least once a day, but write posts when the events of the day are still fresh in my mind and before I forget important details.

So, this is what happened yesterday.

I woke up really early in the morning, did a last check of everything I brought with me (as it will be the only stuff I’ll have with me for a month), and got in the car.  Liz dropped me off at the BART station on the way to work, and I got on the first train of the trip.  (although I’m undecided if I’ll be counting local light rail and subway trains toward the total number of trains I’ll be on this trip as it’ll significantly inflate the numbers).

Jack London Square is the major rail station in the Bay Area (there are others, but all Amtrak and most commuter trains go through Jack London), but yet the BART station is actually about a quarter of a mile away.  This was the moment I realized I should have packed a little lighter.  I only have a backpack and a suitcase with 9 days worth of clothes (meaning I’ll have to do laundry two or three times), and in some cases there are things that I’ll eventually need that just didn’t fit.  (A pillow comes to mind). I decided to take a bus.  The bus didn’t take me all the way.  At this point I realized I was going to be lugging this thing around for a month.

After all that, I still arrived early.  After picking up my 30-day pass and my tickets, I amused myself with taking photos of the seats:

Then I went outside and climbed up onto the bridge over the tracks.  I was up there for barely a minute when I saw my train coming:

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