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 6 2010

30 Days Begins

Just to set up the story a little bit:  I moved out of my house near San Francisco’s “famous” Haight-Ashbury district at the end of March, and recently put my deposit down on a new and amazing live-work spot in the Mission district which I’ll be using as a photo studio.  Problem is, I don’t move into my new place until the beginning of June.  So, I spent the month of April driving my lovely girlfriend Liz totally nuts by living at her place out in the east bay, so I bought some train tickets:

For $580, I can take twelve trains all over the country for a month.  There is a little bit more to it than that…  the restrictions come from the way Amtrak schedules trains and not from any fine print, but I’m sure I’ll talk about that in another post.

Starting from Oakland, I’m taking a train down the coast (the Coast Starlight) to Los Angeles, stick around for a couple of days, and then board a train to San Antonio, Texas.  I’m bumming a ride to Austin with my friend Nicole, where I’ll spend the weekend, and then hopping on a train from Austin back to San Antonio on Monday evening, where I’ll meet a train to New Orleans.  I’ll be in New Orleans for almost a week, and then I’m off to Washington, DC.  From DC, it’s New York City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, back to Chicago, then all the way across the top of the country to Seattle, down to Portland, and finally, a leg back to Jack London Square in Oakland.

Hard time visualizing? I drew on one of Amtrak’s rail maps with the brush tool in Photoshop:

The colors roughly represent what week I’ll be where, but I don’t have seats booked after I get to New York City.

What’s the goal of this project?  I wish I had a deeper meaning thought out, but for the most part, it’s because I can.  I don’t have to pay rent for the month, so I can afford to do this.  I’m a full-time professional photographer, so I can justify it.  Half the pins in that map I’ve never been to, and I’d like to fix that.  I’m also preserving Liz’s sanity so she can fervently watch the hockey playoffs without my constantly asking her what’s happening.

At the end of the trip, I’ll have a glut of images that I’ll do a few things with.  The more commercial images I’ll submit to my stock agency, Getty Images, or Getty’s microstock subsidiary, iStockPhoto, because ultimately they pay my rent and my bills.  (Those links go to my portfolios on the respective sites for those curious)  The more artistic and documentary images I’ll save for a likely art show and/or book.

Everything else I’ll figure out as I go along!