One helluva ride to Portland



I got more than I bargained for these last two days, on my ride back up to Portland from LA on the Amtrak Coast Starlight.

Yesterday began early, when my alarm went off at 6:00. I fed Ellie, showered, cleaned up, and packed. I locked up the condo, and started rolling downhill on the rig at 7:56. My goal was to make it to the station by 9:00, for our 9:51 departure.

I enjoyed a lovely bike ride in the morning sun, mostly on the LA River bike path. I did arrive at the station just shy of 9:00, and made it to the first class Metropolitan Lounge to check in. I was glad I had upgraded to the roomette for the whole duration of the trip; those were points well spent.

As I boarded from the rear of the train, I noticed that we would be towing two beautiful private rail cars. (Later, at dinner, I happened to look out the window as the train went around a bend, and discovered that we had added a third!) I hope that someday I get a chance to ride in one of those cars. A Facebook friend commented that sometimes the owners of those cars are willing to take on passengers, for a donation. I’m going to keep that in mind!

Once inside, I settled into my berth, excited for the journey ahead.

We departed exactly on time, but unfortunately had to stop within the first half hour, because a train ahead of us had fatally struck a pedestrian. This was certainly a sobering event, especially because within about fifteen minutes of the time the conductor announced it to us, my phone screamed with a “silver alert” about a recently reported missing elderly or impaired person. What a horrible day it must have been for whoever called in the alert, not to mention whoever was driving that train, or anyone else who might have witnessed the incident.

(Compounding the tragedy, the next day—today—our counterpart, the southbound Coast Starlight, also had a fatal collision with a pedestrian.)

Our resulting standstill, in Glendale, ended up being three hours—just two miles from the condo I had left at 7:56.

During the delay, our lunch service began. I was seated in the dining car with a woman from Olympia, who was returning from a conference in San Diego. We had an interesting conversation about her varied career path and her time living overseas. As it turned out, she also has two cats, and some upcoming travel plans. I gave her my card; maybe at some point I’ll do a sit for her.

Meanwhile, three Portland friends had reached out to me, nearly simultaneously, requesting sits in the next few months. What a cool synchronicity.

After lunch, however, things took a bit of a turn.

I wandered into the adjoining observation lounge car, where I always like to spend a good chunk of my ride, checking out the view and seeing if I can find spontaneous magical meetings.

I did enjoy some beautiful views.

But the peacefulness of the ride was marred for me by a 61-year-old man behind me, talking more loudly than I judged he needed to, for a total of about two hours. The man’s name, I soon learned, was Dan. (Not really, but I’ll call him that.) During this time span, Dan engaged in two extended phone calls, with the intervening hour or so taken up in his conversation with the 21-year-old young man a few seats down from him. (One “excerpt” from the phone calls: “… Yeah, and he saw some houses for sale in that area, and thought they looked really great. He was asking me, Hey, could you loan me half a million to buy one of these? But I was like, No, I’m not loaning you anything for that…”)

The young man seated near him, it turned out, had recently dropped out of college in order to become a firefighter. This pleased Dan immensely. He proudly related that he himself was a veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, and that his sons, now in their late 20s, had followed similar career paths as the young man. (“The younger one jumps out of helicopters.”)

I lost track of how many times I heard him say “Good for you. I’m proud of you!” but I would estimate it was at least seven or eight times. The young man seemed to appreciate the positive feedback, but it grated on my nerves every time I heard it. (Sir, this young man is a stranger to you—not to mention a sovereign being—and has not sought your approval of his life choices.)

I did my best to focus on the beauty in front of me, rather than cringing repeatedly as Dan held forth on a variety of topics, including authoritatively pointing out to everyone within earshot where Elon Musk’s launch pad was.

At 5:30, dinnertime came, and I was relieved to be able to leave the lounge and enter the dining car again. What cool fellow passengers would I meet there?

The first was a young man originally from Hawaii, now returning to Santa Cruz from a weekend in Santa Barbara.

The second… turned out to be Dan.

My heart sank, and my teeth set.

I was now going to be forced to engage in extended conversation with this gregarious self-appointed authority on life.

I ordered a complimentary vodka drink with dinner, my classic Amtrak cocktail. I had looked forward to loosening up with the drink to have a cool dinner conversation with a delightful dining companion or two. In this unexpected and unfortunate circumstance, though, I was still very glad to have the drink: within about ten minutes it took my disgruntled edge off, such that I was able to relax and even somewhat enjoy the conversation. Dan, of course, repeated himself quite a bit, unaware that I had already heard much of his shtick. I nodded politely. He was fascinated to hear about my nomadic cat sitting lifestyle, and seemed to especially admire that “You don’t have to answer to anybody. Good for you!”


The conversation somehow became tolerable, even pleasant. (Amazing what alcohol can do. Dan, for his part, started the meal with a double whiskey on the rocks, followed by another single shortly afterward.) The three of us talked about a variety of topics, and I found myself, to my great surprise, genuinely smiling and laughing.

Was this to be a poignant example of finding someone distasteful at first, but then actually having a face-to-face conversation with them as a fellow human being, and changing one’s perspective? I was struck that this was what the world desperately needs right now. And Amtrak’s dining car could be a venue to nurture such conversations.

At one point, I felt comfortable enough to bring up Johnny and his project to build the Japanese garden in the prison. Dan seemed duly impressed, though perhaps less effusive than some other people have been upon learning about it.

He then asked what I thought was the one single change we could make as a society to end all crime.

I thought for a moment, then said, “End trauma.” (Or maybe “heal trauma.” It was something like that. I felt very grounded in my answer at that moment—and I do think it is a solid answer—and I think the cocktail helped me to say it extra confidently, even to a former LAPD officer.)

Dan, however, brushed off my answer. He said something like, “You don’t even need to think about trauma,” implying that his answer was going to supersede anything trauma-related.

Our dinner was over, and we were asked to leave, as new passengers needed to be seated. Our dining companion, the young surfer, had checked out of the conversation a while ago, and was now headed back to his seat.

During dinner, Dan had offered to buy me another cocktail, which I declined. But he now wanted to continue our conversation in the observation lounge. I agreed, curious though skeptical as to what his answer might be to solve crime in the United States without addressing trauma.

As we made our way out of the dining car and into the lounge, he began his explanation by impressing upon me the importance of women. Fixing his eyes on mine, he said, “You are tremendously powerful. Tremendously powerful. You have a calming effect on us. We are brutish beasts, and you…”

He trailed off, lost in thought, as I began to realize that the conversation was shifting, and found myself laboring to keep my eyes from rolling visibly.

We found seats in the lounge, and with the new intensity in his eyes, he began discussing the decline of the nuclear family.

“Tell me what you think of this: One man, one woman, a stable marriage… and no undercutting each other in front of the kids.”

This was his solution to crime?

I value respectful dialogue, and I am curious to understand the beliefs of people with whom I disagree. I’m always hopeful as to whether people with seemingly opposing beliefs can find potentially constructive common ground. So I asked a few clarifying questions. I also said that I thought a stable two-parent family could indeed be a good basis for raising healthy and well-adjusted community members, but that I didn’t think it needed to be a man and a woman: “I think we should open your model to allow for gay and lesbian parents, too, since they can also raise healthy and well-adjusted kids.”

This did not sit well with Dan.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur for me, but I remember a few things:

Dan first brought up a particular sexual kink that he said gay and lesbian people practice, which he knew because of “seeing it” in his police work. (“They have”—he leaned in close to me, lowered his voice, and contorted his face—“orgasms… from choking!”)

I found this to be an odd and tangential thing to bring up, so I simply replied (with puzzlement probably visible on my face) “Straight people do that too,” which he said he had “never seen in all my years on the force.”

He then asked me to tell him if I felt more or less safe now, walking around a city at night, than I did 20 or 30 years ago. I could guess the answer he was looking for, of course, but the question did make me curious about my actual lived experience, and I wanted to answer honestly. So I looked slightly up and to my left, thinking back a few decades, so that I could give an accurate answer. He saw me thinking, and didn’t like the looks of it: contempt overtook his face as he said, “And don’t give me any of that, you know, politically correct…”

At this point, as he searched for the most scathing noun to use, I became very aware that I did not want to be in this conversation. This was not the conversation I had agreed to. It was clear that the questions he was asking only had one “right” answer, and it was also clear that I was not playing my assigned role in the script.

No… this was decidedly not the Amtrak lounge experience I had envisioned.

Out loud, I said, “I’m not enjoying this conversation.”

I don’t remember his reply, but I do remember that his voice grew louder and more combative as he delivered it, and I felt my face getting hot. I gathered my bag and stood up:

“I’m leaving. We’re done. We’re done.”

As I walked away, back toward my room, I heard him yell after me, “Yeah… that’s how you all are! Dumb as hell!”

Wow. Even just writing that now, 24 hours after the fact, I can feel my stomach tighten.

This is not the America I want to live in. I’m so disheartened. I don’t know how to fix it.

I had a hard time falling asleep after that, thinking about it all. I avoided the lounge the whole next day, today. (Fortunately, the views from my side of the train in my berth were beautiful, including Mount Shasta, which we saw in full late-morning daylight because of our delay, which had somehow increased by two hours overnight by the time I woke up just south of Chico.)

At breakfast, I was relieved to not see him in the dining car.

However, a little girl in the booth behind me was coughing and sniffling copiously, in a very contagious-sounding way.


As it turned out, though, I was seated with her and her mother at lunch (thankfully no sign of Dan again, though I knew he would be disembarking with me in Portland, then continuing on to one of his vacation homes on the Oregon coast) and the girl’s mother assured me that the child’s symptoms were a result of allergies, not a virus.

Perhaps the most surreal event of this journey, however, happened this afternoon after lunch. Once again I returned straight to my berth, avoiding the lounge car. I noticed a message on my phone from someone I barely know—a young man in a country on the other side of the world, whom I had met via English tutoring. After our initial meeting, about six months ago, we had had a brief chat about my travels, and then no further contact.

In his Facebook message, he said he had some questions for me on a “sensitive topic,” and would I be OK to discuss them with him?

Good lord.

Was he going to ask me about US foreign policy, or something like that? Was he going to ask me to answer for the actions of my government? My mind jumped to the most stressful hypothetical possibility.

Was I prepared to have a conversation like that?

No. In my current state, I definitely was not.

But could I say that? Is that just a privileged American cop-out, to avoid difficult conversations because we’re “having a bad day?”

This day did seem to be getting worse.

I debated with myself. Should I just ignore his messages? I barely knew the guy. And the messages actually seemed to be written in kind of an odd way, and I wondered if perhaps his Facebook Messenger had been hacked by a scammer. This has happened to several of my friends recently. Maybe the “sensitive topic” was some sort of pyramid or crypto scheme…?


I sat with it all for a moment.

I decided not to let difficult circumstances—even this recent “Dan trauma,” which I was still processing—make me shrink back from life.

I know that courage is important, even in small interpersonal communications. Choosing to just avoid more and more people shrinks the arena of my life.

At the same time, though, I did still want to honor myself and my boundaries.

So, I wrote back to this person, telling him I wasn’t sure if I was prepared to discuss a sensitive topic. I then related a brief version of my recent interactions with Dan.

The young man replied with such empathy and concern that I felt myself tearing up.


How powerful it was to be witnessed—for the first time, since I hadn’t shared my interaction with Dan with anyone else—and also supported. And not just by anyone, but by a near-stranger, from a totally different culture, halfway around the world.

I thanked him, and he reiterated his support.

And, he said he wasn’t looking to talk about religion or politics. He had questions about sexuality! His culture is much more sexually conservative than mine, and I don’t know what made him reach out to me specifically, but I was so relieved that this was all he wanted to talk about!

I actually welcome the opportunity to talk openly about sexuality, especially with younger people, in this era of ubiquitous internet porn (which turned out to be what he had questions about) so… wow.

Was not expecting that.

We had a respectful and informative exchange for about half an hour, until the train reached southern Oregon and my internet dropped out suddenly, cutting off the conversation rather abruptly. Fortunately, I had warned him ahead of time that this might happen, so hopefully he wasn’t too surprised or disappointed.

All in all, I would say that this was one of the most surreal 36-hour+ journeys I have ever experienced. It kind of reminds me of the gnarly-but-worthwhile acid trip I took almost exactly a year ago… and I feel about equivalently wrung out in its wake.

I now wonder what Oregon has in store for me this summer? I hope it will be lots of snuggly and easy-care kitties, lots of nature and forest walks, and lots of powerful magical meetings, both in person and around the world.

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