Trying out the rails

A gentle vibe runs
quickly down the rails, the speed
of sound through cold steel.

There’s something classic about train travel. In the modern world, the US hasn’t figured out how to keep up with the rest of the planet in terms of rail travel, but we were the country that made the train a legend of long distance travel with our wide open spaces across a barely-charted west. It’s romantic. And I had never done it.

I was asked by many people how I would get back home once I finally made my 1,000 mile bike trip to St. Louis. So I just told them I’d take the train to St. Paul, then bike the rest of the way, and that pretty much settled it. Every now and then, the person asking had a few follow up questions, and I answered them as best I could. But I’d never taken the train before. And what’s more, the best information I had about taking my bike onboard was that I saw online that you could do so. It wasn’t until the day before I left St. Louis that I even figured out how this was supposed to work.

After a few days in St. Louis, I woke early for my 6:40 a.m. departure on the Amtrak train to Chicago. There was no direct line to the Twin Cities, so I had to connect to another train in Chicago, by far the biggest hub in the Midwest when you look at a map of available routes. For anyone who has never traveled by train, the first thing you notice is how casual the boarding process is in contrast to air travel. I imagine this may have been similar to how airports operated sometime prior to our current terror scare. Ticket in hand, I stood in line in the terminal until we were invited down to the track. While everyone else simply wandered onto the train, guided into each car by the conductor like a spout diverting a current, I was looked at with a little confusion. The conductor pondered a moment and sent me down to the next car. Having never ridden the train before, let alone with a bicycle, I looked at the stairs in the narrow doorway before me, and wondered how I was going to pull my fully-loaded bike on. My answer came quickly as the conductor made his way back to me, grabbed the front end of the bike, and helped me lift it onto the train. “There’s an empty space right up in the front. Just park the bike there and grab a seat near it,” he said. “Oh, here,” I said, as we finally made our way into the front of the car. “No sir, that’s a bathroom.” I saw the toilet as I pushed the bike another foot further down the hall, then looked back at the conductor who was pointing at the empty space before the front row of seats in the car that was normally reserved for handicapped travelers. “Oh, right,” I said, and just did as he told.

Sitting with my bike somewhere between St. Louis and Chicago.

Besides me and my bike, the car had about five more people on it, who were all part of the same group. It was the mayor of Red Bud, IL, a few city council members, and the city superintendent, and they brought with them a portable bar complete with all the fixings to make Bloody Marys and mimosas. They were headed to Chicago for an annual convention of city administrators, and were kind enough to make me a Bloody Mary, complete with a pickle and a few pieces of bacon.

Once in Chicago, I was instructed to go to baggage in order to get a tag for my bicycle. So I found the sign, waited in line, then did my best to explain myself to the man behind the counter who looked as if he were dreaming of better days.

“Wait, so how did you get your bike here from St. Louis?” he asked.
“I just brought it on the train.”
“In the car with you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s weird.” And he gave me my tag. “Before the train leaves, talk to the conductor and he’ll direct you to the baggage car.”

When it was time to board, I walked out onto the platform and saw what seemed to be an infinite expanse of metal: the famous two-story Empire Builder which runs from Chicago to Seattle. I brought my bike to the front baggage car, then found my seat in a car that felt as if it were a few miles back.

The ride was quiet, smooth, with only the occasional rattling sound and shift as the train worked its way across our little part of the Midwest. I sat by myself until the train stopped in Milwaukee. A number of people boarded, filling most of the seats in the upper level of the car. I began to recline in my seat, getting comfortable with the intention of sleeping most of the way across Wisconsin, when an old man walked up and asked if anyone was sitting next to me. I gestured that it was open, and he sat down. Jerry had been in Milwaukee for the past few days for the funeral of his former brother-in-law. And when you get to be his age, which I stared in disbelief when he said he was 85, funerals are simply something you expect to go to.

Jerry told me much about his life over the next six hours on the train. Despite being a black man who was living his prime years during the Civil Rights era, he had surprisingly cordial stories about his interactions with police. Perhaps it was his charm which disarmed them. When the porter came by to ask if we wanted to order that day’s supper menu item, the Salisbury steak, Jerry offered to buy me dinner. So I reached down into my stuff and pulled out the last two Super Flare IPAs from 4 Hands Brewery and offered him one.

There were a few beers that Jerry told me that he particularly liked, but his preferred vice was definitely weed. The only problem with modern marijuana was that you couldn’t just roll up a joint and smoke it anymore. The strains are too strong, so anything more than a few hits puts you over the edge. So I brought up the brothers I came across at a campground in southwestern Wisconsin a couple weeks earlier who had a pineapple express vape pen. He laughed when I told him I could hardly stand up straight after just two hits, and we both laughed when I got to the part of the story where I ended up eating all my trail mix after getting back to my tent.

“Next time I go out to Nevada to visit my sister, I’m going to have to look for one of those,” he said.

We ended up talking and telling each other stories until we arrived in St. Paul; his destination as well.  “Do you have a place to stay?” he asked. An old friend was waiting to pick me up at the station, so I had to unfortunately decline Jerry’s offer of hospitality, which was a break from the norm of my trip to that point. He pulled out a business card and put his cell number on it, and told me to let him know if I’m ever in a play after I move back to Minneapolis. When the train stopped, this elderly gentleman of 85 helped me carry my many bags off the train, and wished me good luck as I left for the front of the train to collect my bicycle.

Unlike my last passing through the Twin Cities, I felt like being more quiet this time around, so I made no announcements on social media about arriving. I found where Ashley was parked, and we managed to fit my bike into her small hatchback. She had recently put her house up on Airbnb, so she was perfectly set up for hosting guests. We caught up a bit over half a growler of gluten-free beer, and then went to bed. Then I slept for 10 hours.

Ashley got home from work early the next day. Being a fellow bicycle enthusiast, we decided to head out for a little brewery tour of Minneapolis and St. Paul, starting with Surly Brewery. We made an unspoken rule that there was room for only one beer at each stop so that we didn’t get too drunk too early. So by the time we hit the fourth brewery on the way back to her place, I still felt clear enough for her to explain the rules of Phase 10 to me, which we found at Sisyphus Brewery.

But my time in Minneapolis, and away from bicycle travel, needed to come to an end. The next day, I loaded back up after nearly a week away from my 50+ mile days, and set out on the bike again.

One thought on “Trying out the rails

  1. What a great story – there is nothing better than bikes and trains – and when you put them together you can go anywhere. The bike makes up for the shortcomings of the train (what to do about the “last mile”) – you just can’t be in such of a hurry.


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