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eighty hours (pt. 3) by Alan Z. '23

notes from the third day

This is part three of a series, consisting of a lightly-edited compilation of notes from my cross-country train trip from Boston to San Francisco. If you haven’t yet, you should start by reading part one and part two.

Hour 45, 8:07 AM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: Denver, CO
train: #5, currently on time
listening to: 鱼丁糸, “I Don’t Care (鱼版)

Good morning! The sun is coming up over Denver, CO, and it is a beautiful day out here at the foot of the Rockies. There’s snow on the tracks, and the seats in the lounge car are very full as we prepare for the journey over the mountains. I am feeling rejuvenated after a good night’s sleep; I was out all the way from Omaha to just before the train entered Colorado, and then again from the border to Denver. We arrived at Denver some forty minutes early, and, although I considered going back to sleep, I ended deciding to get up and wander Union Station. I have come to the conclusion that, in fact, South Station is just bad; Union Station is beautiful, and has the added benefit that the more subway-like commuter rail tracks border the passenger rail tracks,01 ed. note: yes, South Station also services the MBTA commuter rail, and the tracks border each other, but the MBTA trains are just...less pretty. which is quite nice.

Out of a mild fear of getting lost or left behind, I attached myself to an old lady who was also getting up to stretch her legs; we had a lovely conversation during our walk, and ended up getting breakfast together at the only store open in the whole place. I had some miraculous french toast (8/10) and listened to her talk about her sons and her life’s many adventures, from Wisconsin to Berkeley to China. I thoroughly enjoyed her company, and am glad that I stayed up instead of going back to bed.

french toast with butter and fruit

She asked me an interesting question: “what is your one wish for this year?” I hadn’t thought about this question much, surprisingly; the turn-over from 2022 to 2023 has happened pretty softly, partially because I spent it at MIT, and partially because I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about the fact that 2023 is, in fact, my graduation year. After giving it some thought, I answered: “to make the most of this last year of college, with friends.”

It’s getting cold out here; it was 19° F02 -7° C when we walked out to the station, which was pretty uncomfortable. Fortunately, it is well warm enough on the train; I collected my things and moved to the lounge car once again, where I’m currently sharing a table with someone working hard and taking pictures. It is beautiful, and the conductor is providing us additional commentary, which is also nice. “We’re going to be passing through a bunch of wonderful neighborhoods, lovely [ponds?], and some very attractive salvage yards!”

person taking a photo of a river with mountains in the distance

I’m excited for today; it’s going to be a wonder of a trip.

Hour 47: 10:16 AM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: Fraser, CO (8550’)
train: #5, currently five minutes late
listening to: the sarcastic commentary of the train conductor (nothing)

I said it was going to be a wonder of a trip, and, oh. my. god. it has been. We wound our ways up the mountain; I eventually got my way to a backwards-facing seat at a table, allowing me to get better shots of the landscape. The forests were increasingly covered in snow, and our conductor provided us a lot of interesting commentary, from notes about geology to some relatively spiteful comments about Nebraska. When confronted about his prejudice by a person from Nebraska, he announced an apology, noting: “The people of Nebraska can only be described with words like ‘helpful’, and ‘hospitality.’ However, in [some year] the Cornhuskers were playing Colorado. The Huskers were up 40-3, and they still threw for a touchdown!”

Eventually, he quieted down, much to my chagrin but likely appreciated by the chef who was trying to get some sleep. At some point, we entered the Moffat Tunnel, a six-mile-long tunnel which spans the continental divide, and emerged upon a winter wonderland, full of heavy snow banks, mountains still present as far as the eye could see, and, of course, covered in ski resorts. It is just beautiful out here; I would recommend at least taking a brief trip on the train from Denver to Grand Junction if you ever have the chance. Wow, wow, wow.

ski resort on hill, with massive line

Inside the car, I’ve been slowly editing a poem and mostly just glancing around in awe, taking lots of pictures. There were a lot of people contending for seats in the observation car earlier, but it seems they have mostly gone; I’m not sure exactly where. Maybe they’ve gotten bored, or maybe they got off at the ski resort. In any case, nothing too notable. I think the funniest thing I saw was two gay couples sitting across from each other; the first couple was taking pictures of each other for Instagram, and the second couple immediately did the same.

What else? A seventh vote for Speaker of the House is starting. The train is going back down the mountain towards Grand Junction. There are tiny deer tracks on the frozen river. It is a beautiful day, and there is plenty of time for me to keep writing and looking around. I leave you with some other quotes from the train conductor.

(on rounding a corner) “This is one of those rare moments in your life where, looking forward, you can see exactly where you’re going!”
“Above the tracks, you can see where a developer is continuing the American tradition of destroying once-pristine wilderness for suburban sprawl.”
“It’s called Plainview [Siding], because if you look out to the right, you can see oblivion! We call that oblivion Nebraska.”

Hour 50: 12:50 PM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: ???, CO
train: #5, currently ??? minutes late
listening to: a kid arguing with an adult about a game they’re playing (nothing)

Since we’ve last spoken, I have mostly been asleep, unfortunately. I spent a little more time doing basically the same thing as before—writing and taking pictures—but I felt myself drifting in and out of consciousness at the table, and so, to avoid falling asleep in the observation car, went back to my seat and napped for an hour or two. Perhaps six and a half hours of sleep on a train is not quite enough to be rested. I awoke anew to a much changed landscape, which seems in my mind more typical of the American West, with shorter shrubs and redder rocks, although the snow has not eased up either. I had noticed some ranches of horses and cows before I had gone to bed, and they are now much more prevalent. The presence of elevation changes means that the landscape is still more interesting than, say, Nebraska (or Iowa, or western Illinois), but I suspect I will tire of it more quickly than the snow, which I will never bore of. We shall see.

I have no concept of exactly where we are along the route; I know we’re somewhere between Granby and Glenwood Springs, which are the two stops bordering this stretch of track, and I also know that we are still three hours short of Grand Junction, but there is no cell service anywhere out here; I had it, perhaps unsurprisingly, at the ski village, but my luck has finally ran out. I regret to inform you that I, therefore, cannot update you on the Speaker’s race. Instead, I can tell you that the aforementioned gay couples are still at their table, now judging the property value of the ranches that we’re going by. Delightful.

Hour 52: 3:13 PM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: passing De Beque, CO
train: #5, currently twenty-three minutes late
listening to: Do By Friday

We’ve gotten much further out of the hills and are starting to approach what I assume must be the plains or desert next, with rolling hills, short shrubs, and tall grasses. At the moment, however, the landscape remains thrilling; we are following the Colorado River out of the Rockies and towards what will soon be Utah. I have spent the past few hours as I spent the morning hours: editing my thesis. I’m very happy with the progress I have made, perhaps not in quantity, but in quality. I’ve also gotten another meal, which my body assumed was dinner—since it is 5 PM, Boston time—but is probably, in practice, lunch. Everything I had this time was had before, so it will not get a new rating.

I’m still in the lounge car; a girl is sitting across from me. She has just lost her glasses and is somewhat down about the whole thing, but has been calling people to cheer her up. The lounge car has once again emptied up; apparently Glenwood Springs was another resort town, and many folks ended up getting off there. I took a little break there to get some fresh air, before returning to my work. The folks who have remained at the lounge car tables seem to be more conversational than yesterday; a lot more people are chatting and playing games, rather than sitting at a laptop, working.

amtrak train next to station building, with mountain in the distance

my brief moment at Glenwood Springs

Otherwise, not much to say. The House is on a historic tenth vote, and I think it’s very likely that I will actually successfully outlast the Speaker elections. Despite arriving to Glenwood Springs late due to a signal issue and having to wait for the train going the other direction to pass us, we are scheduled to be on time to Grand Junction, so, as of yet, there is no delay; the trip will be 78 hours. Fingers crossed.


Hour 54: 4:53 PM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: McInnis Canyon
train: #5, currently on time
listening to: 鱼丁糸, “I Don’t Care (鱼版)”

I must correct a statement I made earlier; I will extend my recommendation for your trip at least through Salt Lake City, and perhaps further. After Grand Junction, I had thought the landscapes done for the day—after all, the next sight to behold must be the Sierra Nevada, right?—but I was quickly proven wrong. I had intended to return to my reading, especially since the day was getting dimmer and dimmer, but the views outside kept drawing my eyes from the page, until I decided it was better to just sit and watch. It is truly an incredible sight to behold, and I cannot help but wonder if I ought to return in the summer as well, to see everything bathed in a more proper light.

Inside the car, different people have been asking a person with a baby whether or not they can hold it for a while, which I have found both heartening and fascinating. These people are complete strangers! There must be something which establishes enough trust between them, and I am not sure if it is society at large, this particular train car, or this particular parent. It has been delightful to see a baby nonetheless, regardless of them being passed around.

Since I’ve got a bit of time, a few random notes which have come to mind. First, there were often long strings of wire against the cliffside when we were traveling across the Rockies which posed some questions. A conductor later said that they were used to detect whether a significant rockslide had occurred and where, which I think is pretty cool.

picture of a rocky cliff with snow, with lines in front of it

this is all that’s stopping your train from running into a rock

Second, you may have noticed the music selection above. I had earlier03 44 hours ago. mentioned a band called sodagreen that I like, with Chinese characters 苏打绿. Well, this song is by that same band! How can that be the case? Well, because of a trademark dispute after reforming, they had to find a new name, so they took portions of the characters from the original name04 they’re not quite <a href="">radicals</a>, but it’s not a bad analogy. to go from 蘇打綠 to 魚丁糸, which, under simplification becomes the characters above.05 I've chosen to primarily use the simplified in this post because it's the form I'm most familiar with; the process and politics of the two forms is not something we will get into here. The English transformation they chose to undertake went from sodagreen to oaeen, which I think is equally incredible. Truly, the height of pettiness.

Third—I had another point, but I forgot it while I was trying to look up a traditional Chinese keyboard.

Fourth: I remember it now! The first signs from the area of concern, i.e., Reno, NV, have been fairly positive. The California Zephyr which left a day before us was not slowed significantly as it traveled from Reno to Truckee, which is good. Additionally, I have it from my sources on the ground06 hi Paolo! that it has not snowed at all in Reno, which is even better. My only new concern, therefore, is that a winter storm warning has been issued for portions of the Utah hills, which we are about to cross. I think that as long as we get into Salt Lake City on time tonight, we should be okay on that front, but there’s six hours between then and now, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Fifth, we are now…eleven votes into the election of the Speaker? I am absolutely going to win this race.

Hour 57: 8:14 PM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: somewhere between Helper, UT, and Provo, UT
train: #5, twenty-one minutes late
listening to: a discussion that is going on three hours now (nothing)
reading: Willa Cather, My Antonia

It became pitch-dark very quickly after I finished writing the previous portion of this post; I watched the sky go dark, and then I spent a little while following the last gasp of the Speaker race for today. It has reached the point where my incredulity is starting to outweigh my disinclination to discuss politics in a public sphere; I am merely astounded by the fact that they had five recorded votes on the Speakership alone today, in a body of some 434 representatives.07 with one vacancy. They adjourned until tomorrow, which gives me some more time to make it to Emeryville; I chatted a bit with some folks about this, and then finally returned to reading My Antonia.

Throughout my reading, I zoned in and out of a conversation that was happening between two exchange students from ETH Zurich with one student from BYU. This was, admittedly, a bit of a struggle, since it had been going on since approximately the end of the last post, some three hours ago. They meandered through a number of subjects; some were more difficult to stomach than others, so I turned my earbud volume up. Those topics included a discussion of college admissions and the ACT/SAT (volume all the way up), the Mormon structure of missions (whatever; I am familiar via a number of my high school friends), the BYU social structure (volume back up). At some point, my earbuds died, which was tragic. They discussed international travel and food (great!), compared a number of fast food establishments as we went through the Christmas-decorated town of Helper (tolerable), continued on to an overview of Mormon history (somewhat squeamishly self-serving for me, given discussions I’ve had with my Mormon friends), and rules-testing the acceptability of various swear words in various contexts (completely unbearable). The cultural difference was completely wild, and the attempts to bridge the gap would have been very interesting, if not for my complete frustration; the last conversation included one of the Swiss students saying, “you can’t have sex; you might as well listen to songs about sex.”

image of amtrak sign reading Helper, UT, in thick snowstorm with buildings with Christmas lights in the background

helper, UT

They are now talking about the linguistics of Swiss German, which is somewhat more acceptable. My Antonia has been a breeze to read, which has helped, and whenever there are lights outside, we can see some snow falling, which is always nice. Thus far, the snow has not slowed our progression, which is doubly good; we will see if that stays around. I think this is the Winter Storm Warning that I had seen—so far, so good.

We’re an hour away from Provo, at which point the conversation will definitely end. I might switch to a different location when I begin working on something else before then, but, otherwise, there is at most an hour left to this conversation. It will be alright.

Hour 60: 11:08 PM MST, January 5th, 2023

location: Salt Lake City, UT
train: #5, thirteen minutes early
listening to: a now fortunately silent train car (nothing)

As always, this trip continues to surprise me as to the allocation of time. In some respects, with the end of the trip now some nineteen hours away, it is already certain to have been a disappointment. I had expected to be a lot more productive; lots of reading to finish, lots of writing to edit and create, lots of music to pore over and analyze. In other ways, it has been a good, worthwhile break; I have seen many things I could not have expected to see, and had a number of experiences and conversations that I could not have expected to have. I am not yet sure what to make of it, but there are still a few hours left to reflect, before we are thrust once more into that abyss called “real life.”

I stayed in the lounge car for the hour to Provo. At once, the discussion became more animated, with discussions of reparations and systemic injustice in the United States. I found it hard to stomach the trashing of nuance within the debate, but I was—very fortunately—rescued by a mother and her seven-month-old baby. We had a much more pleasant conversation about our journeys, at once both about the train ride specifically and the overarching journey of our lives. It was also delightful to watch the baby squirm and reach for anything and everything within its sight. I don’t know when I stopped thinking of babies as gross and started thinking about them as cute, but I am certain that change has manifested at some point during my MIT years.08 given that I came into MIT at 17, I think I can be forgiven for that. We also talked about learning, and learning languages, and all sorts of other light, pleasant conversation. I enjoyed it immensely.

She got off the train at Provo; I bid her safe travels and returned to charge my earbuds, after which I joined the 4W09 my subcommunity, or wing, of Next House! voice call.10 I texted in the chat; I am not so much a monster as to speak loudly in a public space. 4W11 and I refer to us as a collective because we are a cult. is going through a phase where it is super into a game called Redactle, where you slowly reveal the words on an initially blacked-out Wikipedia article. Someone made a version with custom link generation and multiplayer, and we’ve done hundreds of them in the past week or two. I played along for a few, before dropping off the call. I managed a few small things—emails and messages I’d been putting off—just before we got into Salt Lake City.

I think there is something about travel, perhaps its liminality, or the sense that one is always in the middle of something, which diminishes one’s productivity along the way. I have felt in the past few days a sort of consistently depressed motivation, which seems to prevent me from working at the rate that I normally do, even barring the distractions from other folks. On the other hand, it is this same liminality which allows me to feel uninhibited in talking to strangers, an experience which I think many people on this train have shared. We are passing by each other in a brief moment, even if that moment is some forty-two hours long, and so it is acceptable to have that brief moment of vulnerability; after all, it will be gone soon. And, besides, in this case, the journey is part of the experience. The destination hardly really matters; I’ll be in San Francisco for one full day before I fly back to Boston. It ought to be okay to be a little slower sometimes.

As we pulled out of Provo, the shadow of a mountain loomed behind the city lights, so soft you could barely make it out. The Salt Lake City station was considerably less impressive, probably because the coach cars are all the way out, exposed, at the end of an open platform, giving us a sense that we are in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There are a lot of tracks here; I am surprised to learn that Utah seems to have a fairly solid12 ed. note: apparently it’s a mostly single-track system on one line. unsure how useful it is (could be very!) but the trains certainly look nice and shiny. commuter rail system.

A little wave of exhaustion has passed over me, so I think I will do a little more reading and then be off to bed. I think I have thought most of the thoughts that will pass through my head today, so I will bid you good night a little earlier than perhaps I will actually sleep. I promise that nothing interesting will have happened in that meantime, or there will be some update beneath this. In other words, see you tomorrow.

  1. ed. note: yes, South Station also services the MBTA commuter rail, and the tracks border each other, but the MBTA trains are just...less pretty. back to text
  2. -7° C back to text
  3. 44 hours ago. back to text
  4. they’re not quite radicals, but it’s not a bad analogy. back to text
  5. I've chosen to primarily use the simplified in this post because it's the form I'm most familiar with; the process and politics of the two forms is not something we will get into here. back to text
  6. hi Paolo! back to text
  7. with one vacancy. back to text
  8. given that I came into MIT at 17, I think I can be forgiven for that. back to text
  9. my subcommunity, or wing, of Next House! back to text
  10. I texted in the chat; I am not so much a monster as to speak loudly in a public space. back to text
  11. and I refer to us as a collective because we are a cult. back to text
  12. ed. note: apparently it’s a mostly single-track system on one line. unsure how useful it is (could be very!) but the trains certainly look nice and shiny. back to text