Couchsurfing in Seattle

(August 9)

The westbound Empire Builder train into Seattle runs along Puget Sound.

Traveling overnight on the Empire Builder train from West Glacier to Seattle, I slept most of the way. Normally after sunset, I take my inflatable sleeping pad to the observation car and stretch out in the narrow space between the seats and the windows, but on this particular stretch, I was so exhausted from hiking the Highline the day before that I dozed off in my seat. I woke the next morning a little groggy and stiff, but right outside my window, the Puget Sound glittered off into the horizon. It was my first time back in Washington state since my 2017 writing residency at Willapa Bay AiR, and it felt good to be back on the West Coast, though I also felt a bit somber on account of it being the birthday of my older sister, Chelsea, who had died of cancer when I was 16, just before she would have turned 23.

Chelsea and I, probably 1984 or 1985

Seven years older, Chelsea looked out for me, especially during the volatile years prior to my parents’ divorce. My memories of early childhood are mostly violent and upsetting, but she did her best to shield me from what she could and to teach me how to fight. When I was five or six, she instructed my younger sister and me to stand on our parents’ waterbed and showed us how to protect our faces with our fists, bouncing from foot to foot so as not to become an easy target. Then she showed us how to jab, hook, and uppercut. These skills came in handy years later, when I was a freshman in high school, and a bully in her senior year decided she didn’t like me. For months, she called me names every time I passed her in the hallway, and then one day, she was waiting at the top of the stairs after lunch with several of her friends. I was by myself and certain I was about to be jumped, so I dropped my books and immediately punched her in the face. Her friends stood back and watched, and after that, no one messed with me. Earlier that year, Chelsea had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. The doctors couldn’t find the primary tumor and thus could not stop it from spreading.

We lived in rural, Southwest Ohio and never had cable, but when Chelsea’s health had declined to the point that she spent most of her time on the couch, we got a satellite dish so she could watch boxing matches. Her favorite was Lennox Lewis, and she would yell at the TV whenever he was fighting.

Like most of the adults in the area at that time, my mom had a factory job at Airborne Express, and one of her co-workers knew Aaron Pryor, who had recently been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. When Chelsea was dying, he came to our house, and we all talked at length about what it means to be a fighter. He signed a glove for her, and we buried her with it. Until a few years ago, I had completely forgotten that when she died, I wrote to him, but my memory was jogged when I came across the response he had sent back to say how sorry he was.

Chelsea with two-time light welterweight world champion, Aaron Pryor. I think this was early 1998.

It’s a strange thing to go from being a middle child to the oldest. For one thing, I lost the person who had looked out for me when I needed it most, and beyond that, her death shifted some of the most fundamental aspects of my identity. All of the stakes felt higher because my older sister was no longer there to rely on if I faltered, and my sense of responsibility was profoundly amplified. I helped my mom choose a casket, a dress to bury her in, and flowers. Then four years later, I assumed custody of my youngest sister when it became clear I was the person in the family best equipped at that time to do so. In many ways, I feel I’m as functional as I am now only because Chelsea looked out for me in those early years, and that knowledge carries with it–not guilt, exactly–but an enduring sorrow.

On any long journey, there are times when weariness subsumes you, and Chelsea’s birthday was the first such day on my trip. I felt it from the moment I woke up on the train and knew I was in for a challenge. After the Empire Builder arrived on schedule that morning in downtown Seattle, I found an ATM, withdrew some cash, and bought a coffee to get change for bus fare. I’d lined up a Couchsurfing host in advance whose home was a 45-minute bus ride north, but because I accidentally navigated to the Northeast portion of her street instead of the Northwest, I had to catch another bus and reached her neighborhood an hour later than anticipated. Her house was a steep, downhill walk 20 minutes from the bus stop, and in addition to battling fatigue from poor sleep, I was wincing along on legs that still throbbed from the 17-mile hike I’d taken two days before. Every step with my 30-pound pack reiterated my soreness and exhaustion, and to top it off, my skin was coated with a sticky layer of dust and sweat that had accumulated over five days of camping.

“I apologize in advance for the way I smell,” I texted my host before my arrival.

She respond to say that I was in luck because her bathroom had “the greatest water pressure you’ve ever experienced unless you’ve been doused by a firehose.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. I messaged A first from the list of possible Couchsurfing hosts in Seattle because 1.) her accommodations included a detached, private room with a real bed, and 2.) other surfers had spoken so highly of her in their reviews. When I arrived, I knew I’d made a good call as I walked into a small, gated compound and was greeted by two adorable Yorkies. From the time I was little, I’ve felt a strong connection to animals, and being around pets tends to make me feel at peace. So when the two tiny furballs emerged from the main house, snorting softly with excitement and wagging their tails so fast their little butts wiggled, I forgot my weariness for a moment and felt a wave of joy.

A walked me to a toolshed off the garage that she’d converted into a Couchsurfers’ paradise. On one counter, there was a bowl full of snacks, a book of house rules, maps, brochures for local attractions, and lots of memorabilia from and about Couchsurfing, including a funny New Yorker article and a book by Gabriele Galimberti called My Couch is Your Couch. The opposite wall was lined with what looked to me like every tool imaginable–“In case you need to fix anything,” she said. Beyond that was a door that led to another narrow room with a twin bed positioned between rows of shelves lined with hat boxes.

I plopped my pack on the floor, and A told me to get settled and come find her in the house when I was ready. “So I can show you your bathroom,” she said, handing me a set of keys.

After she left, I skimmed through the house rules, which among other things, instructed me to tell the neighbors, if they asked, that I was a friend visiting from out of town. I’ve gotten similar instructions from a few other hosts over the years. A lot of people just can’t comprehend the ethos of Couchsurfing, to the extent that one time, a woman told me that what I was doing was “incredibly stupid.” Another host’s father referred to his Couchsurfing guests as couch potatoes–a description that, although it made me laugh, I don’t find to be at all accurate. A, for instance, was a successful entrepreneur who had opened a men’s clothing store in Seattle in the 1960’s and then branched out into several other successful endeavors that had left her quite comfortable. Other Couchsurfers I’ve crossed paths with over the years include an inventor who made a small fortune improving some aspect or another of tractor design, a tech genius working who was working on driverless cars for Apple, and a business executive at Lionsgate.

After I familiarized myself with the rules, I mosied into the house with my shower bag. A was sitting behind a computer, crunching numbers, but she took a break to show me a luxurious little bathroom I’d have all to myself and the laundry room, which I’d read that I would be permitted to use once during my stay. (It was a good thing, too, because I was down to my very last clean pair of socks and underwear.) I gleaned from our short conversation that she would be busy with work most of the day and then out for the evening, and that meant I could shower at my leisure and then take a nap, which I desperately needed. Getting to know my hosts is normally one of my favorite parts of Couchsurfing, but in this case, I was grateful that A was busy. I scrubbed the grime from my skin, returned to the shed, and collapsed into a dreamless sleep for a couple of hours.

When I woke, it was late afternoon, and I walked a path I’d read about in A’s book down to Puget Sound. I texted a friend from grad school who had moved to Seattle a few years back and made plans to meet up with her the next day. Then around dinner time, I walked to a nearby shopping complex for ramen. The restaurant had spaced the tables out to follow social distancing protocols, and as I would notice in most places along the West Coast, people were following the mask mandates a lot more strictly than they had been back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Patrons removed their masks only to eat and then put them back on if they got up to use the restroom or leave the building. Having been vaccinated back in March, I felt relatively confident that if I did get a breakthrough case, it probably wouldn’t be catastrophic, but since I also knew I would be crossing paths with plenty of unvaccinated people on my journey, I was glad to see reasonable precautions being taken.

That night before bed, I put a load of laundry in the washer, and A showed me where to find the coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries in her kitchen for breakfast in the morning. I fell asleep in gratitude for the safe haven I’d found at A’s and got the best night of rest I’d had in recent memory.

Glacier National Park Without a Car, in the Rain

(August 8, 2021)

I woke up this morning around 5 AM to the sound of heavy drops splashing against the rainfly of my one-person tent. It’s the same tent I took on my solo, cross-country train trip in 2017, but that time, I somehow managed to get from Atlantic to Pacific and back without having to test its water resistance. It was still dark this morning when the storm rolled in, so I felt around the seams of the tent to make sure there was no water dripping in or pooling in the corners. It was still storming when I woke again at 7–warm, dry, and grateful not only that the rainfly was doing its job, but also that the storm might help to quash the Hay Creek Fire that had been burning in the park for the last two and a half weeks.  

I lingered in the tent awhile, wondering how long the storm would last. Since there was no cell reception to check the radar, I formed a mental plan as to how I would dress and break down my tent in the rain before making my way toward the Amtrak station to catch the Empire Builder to Seattle that evening. I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t keep your pack inside your tent in case a trace of some scent lingered that might attract an animal; since there had been a light mist before bed, I’d put the rain cover on my pack, just outside the door to my tent. So in the morning, I simply unzipped the door, pulled my pack toward me, and retrieved some moisture-wicking clothing and my raincoat. Once I was suited up, I ventured outside to the bear-proof storage bin where I had stored my toiletries, and then I trudged off to the bathroom to brush my teeth. 

Then I returned, deflated my pillow and sleeping pad, and rolled everything up. I tucked my eyeglasses away in their case to avoid the hassle of rain-fogged lenses and fumbled to put my contacts in without a mirror. Then I broke down my tent and stuffed the sopping heap into its case, knowing I would need to pull it out again for a good cleaning once I reached Seattle. I crammed everything into my pack and stored the tent in an exterior side pocket to avoid dampening the precious few clean underwear and socks I had left since I’d last done laundry in Minneapolis.

During a normal season, the Glacier Park Shuttle stops across the street from the campground, but since the Sprague Creek stop was not in service during the pandemic, I heaved my pack onto my back and slogged a mile from the campground to Lake McDonald Lodge, propelled forward in spite of my sore knees and calves by the promise of hot coffee and breakfast. (I’d hiked over 17 miles on the the day before, mostly on the Highline and Garden Wall Trails.)

For my 2017 trip, I’d brought a pair of heavy-duty, water-repellent hiking boots, but I opted not to lug them around this time because they were bulky and a bit warmer than I would have preferred for August. I’d decided instead to bring one pair of good quality rubber flip-flops and one pair of lightweight Brooks Ricochet running shoes, which had served me well on my various hikes and jogs up to this point. Since there was considerable overgrowth along the road to the Lodge and I would be carrying a 30-pound pack, I went with the sneakers. For socks, I wore one of my two remaining clean pairs: some lightweight Feetures I use often for running. Within five minutes, I realized the combination was not ideal, and for the third time already on the trip, I wished I’d brought more merino wool Bombas–the only socks I’ve found that are truly all-weather (thick enough to have adequate moisture-wicking properties while still keeping my feet cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter). A man driving a U-haul truck stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, but I figured wet feet were less potentially dangerous than a random man, so I declined. Luckily, I had just a short way to go, so I sloshed to the Lodge and changed into the Bombas, which in spite of being quite dirty made my feet feel dry and warm even though my shoes were not. (Fun fact: I later figured out that enterprising people had resorted to renting Uhauls in order to circumvent the rental car shortage.)

The restaurant take-out window by the lake. I ordered a coffee, a sausage biscuit, and a hashbrown. Seeing my pack, the server asked where I was headed. I explained that I had a train scheduled out of Whitefish at 9 PM, and he asked if I was walking. I shrugged. He raised a thumb and his eyebrows to ask if I was hitching. 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m taking the shuttle to Apgar, and I’m wondering if there might be a bus or something from there.” 

He nodded. “You look resourceful.”  

I nodded back. “I am.”  

He handed me the coffee and told me I could pick the food up at the window around the corner in five minutes or so. I moved aside, took off my pack, stretched my legs, and remembered what another server had said yesterday about how he and some friends wanted to take the train from West to East Glacier sometime. I thought I’d read somewhere that the East Glacier station was open only during the summers and West only later in the year, but I figured it was worth double checking. So I waited out the weak Wifi signal long enough to figure out that I could indeed change my reservation to depart from West Glacier rather than Whitefish, and I could walk two and a half miles along a bike path from the Apgar Visitors’ Center to the West Glacier Amtrak Station. Furthermore, the rain would be on lunch break from 11-12 AM. As much as I wanted to see Whitefish, the weather forecast made it seem like more trouble than it was worth. I reasoned that it was writing weather, anyway, and I could do that from any dry location with a power outlet. 

So after breakfast, I sat in the Lodge and wrote until around 10:30 and then caught the shuttle to Apgar Village, an adorable little outpost on the west side of the park that I regretted not having explored in nicer weather. I didn’t know how long the break in the rain would last, though, so I found the bike path and headed in the direction of the Amtrak station.

About a quarter mile from the West Glacier Amtrak Station, a small stretch of Going to the Sun Road was lined with some charming little shops and restaurants. I had quite a bit of time to kill before the arrival of the Empire Builder, so I ordered huckleberry pie à la mode from the West Glacier Cafe and settled in to write.

Huckleberry pie à la mode from West Glacier Cafe

That afternoon, I posted a photo of myself at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the day before, and although most of my Facebook friends cheered me on, a couple expressed concern that it hadn’t been safe for me to hike the Highline alone. My sense is that people usually mean well by this kind of concern, and it is true that under certain circumstances, I am less risk averse than many; it comes from having grown accustomed to volatility in my early childhood. When some of your earliest memories involve things like being hidden in a closet by your older sister so that you won’t get trampled by the fist fight happening in the living room, your adult brain becomes capable of a mental calculus a lot of people aren’t wired for. For instance, how might the risk of something like hiking alone compare to, say, the risk of being a victim of domestic violence? Might something as common as marriage actually be more dangerous, statistically?

Shuttle to the Sun: Glacier National Park Without a Car

(Aug. 6, 2021)

View from the shuttle on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park

The last time I took a rail pass trip, I spent over six months planning prior to the departure, but this time around, I had only a month and a half of lead time–a good deal of which was spent mapping out an itinerary that had to be overhauled at the last minute. Since I had covered some of the other expenses, the woman who was going to travel with me had volunteered to rent a car in Montana to get around Glacier National Park; however, I heard a couple of weeks before our scheduled departure that there was a rental car shortage, and I figured we might need a contingency plan.

After some research, I found that Glacier has a pretty great shuttle system that travels along Going to the Sun Road. This year’s stops were more limited than usual, and some of the campgrounds were closed–I’m guessing due to staffing shortages stemming from the pandemic–but it appeared to be possible to get around the park without a car. Further complicating matters was the fact that people were flocking to the park in record-setting numbers, and all of the accommodations that could be booked were. Still, I’d read that some of the campgrounds operated on a first come/first served basis, so I figured we would be able to find a place to pitch a tent.

Then the woman who was supposed to travel with me backed out, and I considered skipping the Glacier stop altogether. Instead, though, I decided to challenge myself and do something uncharacteristic by heading into the park without knowing where I was going to stay–figuring it out on the fly.


I took the Empire Builder from Minneapolis to East Glacier Park Village, where I stayed for a night and then used Blackfeet Public Transit to get to Browning, where I also stayed for a night. From there, I took Blackfeet Public Transit again from Browning to the Saint Mary’s Visitor Center, where I bought some overpriced bear spray and then caught the shuttle into the park. In the morning haze of the Hay Creek Wildfire, I hopped on the bus without knowing much about where I was going, and my cell phone service was not good enough to review which campgrounds were and were not open this year. (Sidebar: having travelled cross-country a few times previously as a Verizon customer before switching this year to Spectrum, I can assure you that Spectrum’s coverage is not as good as Verizon’s, in spite of the fact that Spectrum uses Verizon’s towers. With Spectrum during this trip, most of my apps were useless outside of major cities when I wasn’t connected to wifi.)

A view from Going to the Sun Road on a slightly less hazy morning later in the trip

Going to the Sun Road Road winds for about fifty miles between Saint Mary and West Glacier with just a guardrail to keep the cars and busses from plummeting down the mountainsides. The drop-off is so steep that as we zig-zagged through switchbacks, some passengers gasped and closed their eyes, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had died building, maintaining, and traversing the road since its conception in the 1920’s. (When I later Googled that question, the numbers didn’t seem that high in recent years, by the way.) As long as you’re not too scared of heights, the views are mesmerizing.

Shuttles along Going to the Sun Road travel in both directions most of the day, and in my experience, a shuttle traveling in the direction I wanted to go arrived every thirty minutes or so. Tickets had to be reserved in advance, though, and I did encounter several people who were unable to use the shuttle because they had not reserved tickets ahead of time.

For my first shuttle ride, I was a bit preoccupied with figuring out where I was going to sleep for the night, and I initially decided to get off at the Avalanche stop since I remembered reading that there was a good campground nearby. I asked the driver whether he knew if it the Avalanche campground was open, but he wasn’t sure. When I hopped off at the stop, I discovered the campground was closed this year and asked around for recommendations. One of the drivers heading back toward Saint Mary suggested I wait for a westbound bus to the Lake McDonald stop and then walk a mile or so to the Sprague Creek Campground. The shuttle stops in service this year did not correspond well with the campgrounds that were open, so a little walking would be necessary–something I normally love doing.

Though I wouldn’t call the road between the Lake McDonald shuttle stop and Sprague Creek Campground treacherous, exactly, it wasn’t particularly safe either–at least not for walking. The shoulder was narrow, and I could tell that visibility from drivers’ perspectives wasn’t great since the road was curvy. Where possible, I walked through the overgrowth along the side of the road, lugging the thirty-pound pack that held my tent and other supplies. When I arrived at Sprague Creek, I was greeted by a sign informing me that the campground was full, but I decided to venture in and see for myself.

At 8 AM each day, cars line up at Sprague Creek Campground, hoping to secure a site.

Inside the campground, I noticed several unoccupied tent sites situated in a circle with a sign saying they were reserved for campers without cars at a cost of $5/night. A family nearby told me the sites had been unoccupied the night before and pointed me in the direction of the camp host, who had left a note to indicate she would return later. I decided to pitch my tent anyway and left her a note to say I would move it later if there was a problem. Then I walked back to Lake McDonald Lodge to hop a shuttle east to Logan Pass, which I’d noticed on the way in was the stop luring most of the people off the bus, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about.

My site at Sprague Campground

Back at the Lake McDonald shuttle stop, I encountered a group of four women around my age who were also waiting for the bus to Logan Pass. They’d been hiking the last few days in the backcountry and were exuberant when they discovered that the camp store nearby sold cold beer. When they found out I was traveling alone, they adopted me into their group and told me about how a marmot had tried to steal one of their hiking poles. One of the women dove into some bushes and saved the pole, whose handle still bore the teeth marks to prove they weren’t kidding.

There’s something sacred about women traveling together, especially through rugged terrain, and I immediately felt a kind of kinship with them, albeit tinged with a small pang of envy. The beauty of traveling alone is that it facilitates meaningful connections with people you may not have gotten to know otherwise, but paradoxically, it can also make you feel your solitude more acutely. Sometimes both things are true at once.

On the ride to Logan Pass, the women fantasized at length about how good it would feel to take off their shoes and about everything they were going to eat once they got back to civilization. They had researched the park much better than I had and gave me a lot of pointers about good hiking spots. From Logan Pass, I could get to Hidden Lake or the Highline Trail, but it was too late in the afternoon to get to the best part of the latter: the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. They’d hiked past the glacier on a different trail in the backcountry and showed me some photos. I decided that I’d set out on the Highline Trail the next morning, and when I parted ways with the group, I headed for the Hidden Lake Trail.

Trail from Logan Pass to the Hidden Lake Overlook

From Logan Pass to the Hidden Lake Overlook, the hike is a little more than a mile one-way–just about all I had time for in order to catch the last shuttle back to Lake McDonald that evening. As a relatively seasoned hiker, I would call the trail easy, though the wind was quite chilly even on a sunny August afternoon. The path is well-populated, and the highlight for me was having my overpriced bear spray purchase validated when I saw a mama grizzly and her cubs at the overlook. They were far enough away that I had no cause to use the bear spray, but it was good to know I had it as a last resort if I were to encounter any others up close.

Grizzly mama & cubs at the Hidden Lake Overlook near the Logan Pass shuttle stop

On the hike back, I snapped a cute photo of two complete strangers having a moment:

Farther down the trail, I stopped these sweet ladies to show them the photo, and I promised them I would include it in my blog so that they could look back on it later.

That night, I returned to Sprague Creek, where the camp host gave me a warm welcome, and the family I had talked to earlier offered me a hot cup of tea before bed.

Navigating East Glacier and the Blackfeet Reservation without a Car

With the current rental car shortage, I wasn’t sure whether a stop at Glacier was going to be feasible, but after some research, I discovered inexpensive public transportation options in and around the park (more details on that later in this and the next post). As I was planning the trip, I also heard an NPR report that–after a full pandemic shutdown and very successful vaccination campaign–businesses on the Blackfeet Reservation were eager for tourists to return; that, combined with consideration for the train schedules, made me decide to stop first at the East Glacier Amtrak Station on my rail trip west from Minneapolis.

East Glacier Amtrak Station

As a woman traveling alone, I try to avoid traversing unfamiliar places in the dark whenever possible. Since the East Glacier train arrival was scheduled at 6:40 PM, as opposed to the West Glacier arrival at 8:23 PM, I figured East Glacier would be the safer bet–especially considering the train’s propensity for delays. Though the west side of the park is more developed than the east, there is a smattering of lodges in walking distance from East Glacier, and although I almost never spend money on hotels, I wisely anticipated that after 20 hours on the train, I would step off to find myself a little bit land sick–that feeling when you try to regain your footing on solid ground, but it feels like you’re still moving.

I anticipated my land sickness because I had gotten it during my last rail pass trip in 2017. I’d caught my first train of the day in the June gloom fog of a Santa Monica sunrise, and just before sunset, I stepped off the Coast Starlight in San Jose, feeling unsteady. I stumbled into the train station bathroom, mentally equating my vertigo and nausea to that I’d felt during the 2011 earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument. During the earthquake, I’d been in my basement office at the university where I taught in Fayetteville, North Carolina–around 250 miles south of the earthquake’s epicenter in Louisa County, Virginia–when suddenly I felt dizzy, like the ground beneath me was moving. The sensation passed quickly, and I remember being uncertain as to whether I was coming down with a stomach flu or whether there had just been a very minor earthquake. It turned out to be the latter. So when I stepped off the train in 2017, I thought perhaps there was a tremor, but it turned out to be nothing more than the memory of the train’s motion having imprinted itself on my bones. I’d simply grown so accustomed to the rocking that the sensation persisted for several hours after I stepped off the train, and I felt quite ill as I made my way toward my Couchsurfing host’s house in San Jose.

So since I knew this time around I wouldn’t have long before sunset and would probably feel a little land sick, I begrudgingly made a reservation for one of the overpriced rooms at Glacier Park Lodge, the only hotel in walking distance from the station that still had some availability. I figured that to make up for the expenditure, I could camp for the rest of my time in Montana and then Couchsurf just about everywhere else.

Glacier Park Lodge, as seen from the East Glacier Amtrak Station

When I stepped off the train feeling woozy with land sickness and a little stiff from sleeping on the train’s observation deck the night before, I knew I’d made the right call. The reviews of Glacier Park Lodge had mentioned that the rooms were woefully out of date for the price (an accurate assessment); however, I found the staff to be very friendly, and I was grateful in spite of the cringe-worthy price for a safe, comfortable place to sleep upon my arrival.

In the middle of the night, I woke and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I journaled in my notebook for awhile about my trip to Minneapolis and my experience at the George Floyd Memorial, which had been on my mind frequently since I’d visited a few days before. Eventually, I got out of bed and made my way to the Lodge’s restaurant, where I had granola, yogurt, and fruit. Then I spent the rest of the morning writing and set off that afternoon to explore the Blackfeet Reservation, where I had plans to pitch my tent at the Sleeping Wolf Campground.

Researching transportation options outside the park, I had come across Blackfeet Public Transit and had called to ask whether tourists were permitted to use the service. I learned that for a mere $5 fee per ride, someone from the Reservation would pick me up and drive me 13 miles to the campground, which was a just short walk from Browning, the main town on the reservation. Given that the price of the ride was so low and that I knew business had been slow during the pandemic, I made a point of tipping generously.

Tent sites at Sleeping Wolf were also very inexpensive–$10 a night–but only one other tent site was occupied, where the campers were packing up to leave. The RV section of the campground was more well-populated, but it was situated in a different part of the campground so that the tent section felt more secluded than I’d been expecting.

My little bitty backpacking tent, before I put the rain flap on

I pitched my little one-person, quarter-dome tent and then headed off to explore the Museum of the Plains Indian, just a short walk away in Browning. In one of the rooms, local artists were beading and painting, displaying their works for sale, and in other parts of the museum, there were examples of traditional dress and ceremonial items used in rituals such as the Sun Dance. When I asked whether pictures were permitted, the docent replied, “Well, we won’t be watching that too closely,” so I decided not to post any here. The museum is certainly worth a visit, though, for anyone interested in Native history and culture, as well as for those who appreciate fabric arts and beading. A short video I watched there, combined with a conversation I describe later in this post, piqued my interest in relations between the Blackfeet Nation and the National Park Service, and I’ve since done more research on the matter. It’s a troubling history to say the least, and at this point, I have only scratched the surface; what is clear, though, is that the history deserves wider recognition and inspection–especially with regard to the shady deal through which the U.S. government acquired the property in 1896 and the ways in which the subsequent establishment of Glacier National Park stripped the Blackfeet Nation of their rights and access to the land.

After my visit to the museum, I grabbed a quick dinner at the casino, returned to my campsite, brushed my teeth, and then fell asleep before the sun had set; for a few hours, I slept deeply. Then close to midnight, I was awakened by a large truck with a very loud engine pulling into a campsite nearby. At first I was merely annoyed by the lack of campsite etiquette (i.e., you should turn off your engine & headlights promptly if it’s late), but then several adult males started yelling over the engine noise in a way that set me on edge. I heard one of them yell, “Come at me, man,” and I couldn’t really tell whether he was kidding or genuinely looking for a fight. The ruckus went on for several minutes, and I figured the smartest thing for me to do was to stay put and be quiet. I figured that for all they knew, there could be some kind of Rambo in my tent with a sawed off shotgun, and I certainly wasn’t going to open my mouth and crumble the illusion of that possibility. Eventually, I think the camp host turned on a floodlight nearby, and I heard one of the guys say, “I don’t think we can stay here, man.” He yelled, “Sorry if we disturbed you” a few times, and then the truck sped off. To my surprise, I was able to fall back asleep quickly and woke at dawn, well-rested.

I walked again to the casino and bought a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee, which I cherished slowly while sitting on a bench in the warmth of the morning sun. Back at the campsite a couple of hours later, a driver from Blackfeet Public Transit picked me up to take me to the Saint Mary’s Visitor Center on the east side of the park. He introduced himself as Daryl, and about halfway into our forty-minute drive, I was so captivated by our conversation that I asked if I could have his last name and write about him on my blog.

Daryl St. Goddard is the great great grandson of Chewing Black Bones, a warrior and medicine man who led his band to the area now known as the Chewing Black Bones Campground. St. Goddard been driving for Blackfeet Public Transit for 19 years, and before that, he worked to help clear Going to the Sun Road each season as the snows melted.

“Dangerous work,” he explained, and I had a vague sense that it must have been based upon what little I had read about the road, but I couldn’t truly appreciate how dangerous until I was cruising along the cliffside about an hour later, watching one of the other passengers sitting closer to the guardrail gasp and clench her eyes shut each time we rounded a curve.

The view from the guardrail-side of Going to the Sun Road

I learned that during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, the tribe made an arrangement with the National Park Service to keep the eastern entrance to the park closed–a move that, combined with solid mask mandates and stay-at-home orders–helped to lower the number of cases on the reservation. Now, more than 90% of adults on the reservation are vaccinated, and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted in March to reopen the eastern entrance to Glacier. The arrangement has been complicated, though; for instance, St. Goddard mentioned that the tribe and the park service had reached an agreement prior to reopening that the park would require proof of vaccination from visitors. However, park officials had not followed through on that part of the bargain.

The morning was hazy, and I asked whether it was fog or smoke from the wildfire burning inside the park. He said it was smoke, that the wildfires had been becoming more and more numerous, the snows coming later and later. We were driving along Divide Road, and I noticed some sculptures on the mountainside. Daryl asked if I’d like to stop and see them.

“If you don’t mind,” I said.

He replied that he wasn’t in a hurry and swung the car around. As we approached the first sculpture, he explained that a man on the reservation, whose name he couldn’t remember, created the pieces from scrap metal he salvaged from old cars. I looked for a plaque or a marker with the artist’s name, but there was none to be found.

Sculpture on Divide Road with wildfire haze in the background

I learned that Daryl has four daughters of whom he is very proud: one is in veterinary school, another is a physical therapist, a third is a social worker, and I meant to go back into my notes to fill in what the fourth did, because Daryl spoke so highly of each of them, but I was scrambling to keep up and forgot.

Daryl spoke with the classic cadence of a Native storyteller, so it came as no surprise when he told me someone had recently made recordings of him speaking. There have been a lot of efforts recently to preserve the language and storytelling traditions of the tribe, and whereas children on the Reservation some years back were not permitted to speak the Native language in school, there is now a certain honor that goes with learning the language and thereby helping to preserve the culture.

Sculpture on Divide Road with wildfire haze in the background

As we walked among the sculptures on the mountainside, Daryl described a ritual whereby two members of the tribe who had been diagnosed with cancer stood in the center of a corral, with buffalo walking in smaller and smaller circles around them until eventually, the buffalo were brushing up against the men’s bodies while people sang.

“Buffalo carry a lot of medicine in them,” he says, “and there’s medicine in the songs.”

I was kind of hypnotized by the time we reached the Visitor’s Center, where I showed my National Parks Pass to get through the gate, as well as the shuttle ticket I had purchased in advance for Going to the Sun Road, but not once upon entering the park was I asked for proof of vaccination. Daryl asked me how much the Blackfeet Public Transit driver had charged me on the ride from the Lodge to the campground.

“Five dollars,” I said, “but that doesn’t seem life enough. You can charge me whatever you want.”

“Five dollars is right,” he says, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t even cover the cost of the gas.

How to Travel on Amtrak with the USA Rail Pass: 4 Brief Lessons

The concept of the Amtrak Rail Pass is simple: for $499 (or less, if you happen to catch a sale), you get “10 rides… over 30 days to your choice of over 500 destinations.” Planning your route is slightly more complicated, but this post will give you some basic knowledge and tips that should make the process easier and help you to get the most out of your pass. Currently, I’m in the process of planning my third long trip via rail pass, and though things have changed a lot since I got my first pass in 2009, the lessons I learned on those first two trips were invaluable when it came time to plan this one.

Lesson 1: Segments and Train Routes

Amtrak refers to each of your 10 rides as a segment. Again, the concept is simple, but when you factor train routes into that concept, things become more complicated. Amtrak has more than 30 train routes, and if Point A and Point B are not on the same route, you will have to switch trains, using up multiple segments. Let’s use the trip I’m currently planning as an example.

I’ll be leaving from Fayetteville, North Carolina (my Point A). Having taken all of the other major routes in the West on previous trips (the California Zephyr, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, Heartland Flyer, Sunset Limited, and Coast Starlight), I have my sights set this time on the Empire Builder, a route that runs from Chicago to Portland or Seattle with many stops in between. On the map below, it’s the northernmost route across middle America:

https://www.amtrak.com/content/dam/projects/dotcom/english/public/documents/Maps/Amtrak-System-Map-1018.pdf

If you’re traveling east to west, the Empire Builder route begins in Chicago, but since I have visited the Windy City many times already, I think I’ll skip it. My friend Cecy is joining me on this trip, and since she’s never been to Wisconsin, we decided we wanted to make our first stop in Milwaukee (Point B). The issue is that there is no direct Amtrak route from Fayetteville to Milwaukee, so in order to make the trip, we would have to change trains, using multiple segments.

In order to figure out how many segments you would need to travel between two destinations, you can download the Amtrak app, click the “Book” icon at the bottom of the screen, and type in your departure and arrival cities, as well as the date you want to travel. You can see that the search results below on the right indicate that you would have to take multiple trains between Fayetteville and Milwaukee, and the solid blue circle indicates the exact number of trains: in this case, 3–for a total of 3 segments. Please note that you can get the same information through the Amtrak website if you prefer websites to apps.

In the scenario outlined above, Cecy and I would have to travel from Fayetteville to Washington, D.C. on the Silver Meteor (segment 1), from Washington D.C. to Chicago on the Cardinal (segment 2), and from Chicago to Milwaukee on the Empire Builder or Hiawatha Service (segment 3). That would be great if we wanted to hop off the train and explore D.C. or Chicago, but I’ve already spent a lot of time in both cities. So that brings me to…

Lesson 2: Supplemental Forms of Transportation

Rather than eat up 3/10 segments getting from Point A to Point B, Cecy and I decided to get a couple of cheap, one-way plane tickets from North Carolina to Wisconsin. We’d gotten our rail passes on sale for $299, so the extra expenditure wasn’t prohibitive for either of us, especially considering we’d decided to save on accommodations by staying with various friends and Couchsurfing (but more on that in a later post). After much contemplation and browsing around, we decided to fly from Raleigh to Green Bay so that we could visit Door County, which I’ve been curious about ever since reading a description many years ago in John Villani’s 100 Best Small Art Towns in America. The plan is that we’ll spend a few days exploring communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline and then bus down to Milwaukee to begin traveling with our rail passes.

In addition to using supplemental forms of travel in scenarios like the one described above, you should also consider employing this method any time you’re traveling between two destinations that aren’t very far apart (e.g., Boston and New York). Keep in mind that if you pay full price for the rail pass, you’re basically paying $50 for each segment, so if you can avoid it, you don’t want to waste a segment on a short trip like Boston to New York, which right now would cost you only $29 a la carte on Amtrak and may be even more inexpensive by bus. Moreover, you don’t have to pick up where you left off, so even if segment 1 is Chicago to Boston, segment 2 can be New York to Miami.

Lesson 3: Arrival and Departure Times

When it comes to arrival and departure times, there are a couple of things you need to know: the first is that the timing of arrivals and departures may be inconvenient in some places, and the second is that for all the magical romanticism that comes along with traveling by train, delays are likely.

On a few occasions, I’ve taken the Amtrak from Fayetteville to Washington D.C. or New York City when the only available option was the Silver Meteor departing at 12:37 AM. The Palmetto is another train that travels north at more convenient times, but it sells out more quickly and experiences occasional service disruptions. I am familiar enough with Fayetteville to feel comfortable hanging out at the train station past midnight, but there have been times when 12:37 AM turned into 3:30 AM because of delays. You should also keep in mind that with the rail pass, you’re traveling in coach, and there is currently no option to upgrade to a sleeper car; the seats recline generously, but they’re not beds. I’ve figured out ways to make it work overnight (eye masks and earplugs or headphones help, for instance), but my sleep has not always been the best.

When it comes to inconvenient arrival times, I once had a trip scheduled on the Coast Starlight (perhaps the most gorgeous route I’ve taken to date) from Los Angeles to Martinez, CA (not far from San Francisco), arriving a little past 10 PM. When my Couchsurfing host in L.A. found out about the arrival time, though, he recommend that I make an earlier stop in San Jose instead. I was traveling alone, was scheduled to arrive after dark, and was unfamiliar with Martinez. I later visited the Martinez station during daylight hours and felt totally safe, but I still don’t know what it’s like after dark. In any case, I appreciated my host’s concern for my safety, took his advice, and stopped for the night in San Jose before heading up to San Francisco.

My view from the Coast Starlight during my trip in 2017

The last little snippet I’ll share happened in 2017 when I was traveling between Lawrence, Kansas and Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Sunset Limited, another gorgeous route during which a park ranger occasionally comes to the observation deck as you’re traveling through the desert to tell passengers about the cacti and whatnot. I don’t remember exactly what time I was scheduled to arrive, but I think I was something like eight hours behind schedule on account of a late departure and hot rails in the desert that made the train slow to a crawl.

My philosophy on train delays is that they keep things interesting and make me think on my feet, but if you’re not someone who enjoys modifying your plans as you go, you may want to consider another mode of transportation.

Lesson #4: Change of Plans

While train delays may occasionally force you to modify your plans, one of the lovely things about traveling with a rail pass is that Amtrak allows you to make changes to your route after you’ve booked your trip without incurring a penalty. During my trip in 2017, for instance, a couple of people I crossed paths with along my way described Pittsburgh in such a manner that made me want to drop everything and go straight to this city I’d never previously had any interest in. And I was able to do just that!

I think that technically, you are required to make the changes before the train is scheduled to depart, but I will say that in at least one instance, I was able to call customer support while I was actually on a train and modify my destination city. I don’t think it’s Amtrak’s policy to allow people to make modifications once a trip is underway, but if you have an extenuating circumstance of some kind, it’s possible that an agent could make an exception. I don’t think that goes for missed trains, though. If you miss a train and didn’t make modifications to your trip before it was scheduled to depart, it will cost you a segment.

Choo-Choo!

I took this photo on my last major Amtrak trip during the summer of 2017. I’m pretty sure it’s the Portland, Oregon Amtrak station, but feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m mis-remembering.

It’s been several years since I’ve kept up with my website in any kind of meaningful way, but since so much has changed for me in the last year–and since I’m about to embark on yet another epic train trip (this time to try and decide upon a new place to call home)–I thought this would be an opportune time to begin chronicling my journeys again. Recently, I was laid off from my job as an English professor at a small, private, liberal arts institution in the Southeast. I had deep roots there. In addition to being my employer for the last eleven years, it was my undergraduate alma mater. I love teaching and know I will miss my students dearly, but I also feel like my layoff may have been just the push out the door I needed. A variety of factors like declining enrollments and other difficulties posed by the pandemic have made this a dire time for many in academia. Having been a contingent, yearly-contract faculty member, I was one of the first to go when cuts were being made. In fact, seven out of the ten professors in my department were laid off, as well as a few non-tenure-track professors in other departments. We called ourselves the Monday Massacre Club on account of the Monday afternoon email we all received informing us of our impending termination. When I first finished skimming that email, I felt an unexpected, somewhat perverse wave of exhilaration at the realization I would no longer have a job tying me to my current home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I could move, finally: something I had wanted to do for a long time. Granted, I spent the majority of the next day crying on the couch; after all, I loved teaching, and even though Fayetteville has never quite felt like home, my sisters, nieces, and nephew are all nearby. Being here has enabled me to be close to them. But even in the midst of the shock, financial anxiety, and disappointment, I felt an undeniable sense of possibility. Plus the layoff wouldn’t be official until the end of the spring semester, so I was fortunate in the sense that I had some time to plan.

One of my deepest sources of disappointment upon hearing the news was the fact that I’d recently made some significant professional strides that my layoff threatened to undo: after a decade of teaching first-year composition almost exclusively, I’d finally been given creative writing classes, and I’d also taken over Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit that had been founded in the 90’s by Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, my undergraduate mentors, who later became my friends and colleagues. Michael and Robin retired from the university in the spring of 2020, when the reality of the pandemic was setting in, and in October, I hosted a virtual poetry reading in their honor. A little over a month later, when I found out about my layoff, I had just begun working on my first publication as editor-in-chief, a beautiful poetry collection by Crystal Simone Smith entitled Down to Earth. Since the press had operated under the umbrella of the university’s nonprofit status since its inception, I didn’t know what would become of it once I lost my job.

There were some minor technical difficulties early on (trickster energy, as Sandy Yannone called it), so the event actually begins about five minutes into the recording.

My connection to the press began in 2007, when I worked as an undergraduate intern on the publication of Roger Weingarten‘s Premature Elegy by Firelight, so my attachment to Longleaf was longstanding and deep. I wanted to preserve my mentors’ legacy and felt it would be a disservice to all of the authors whose work we had published over the years if I were to let the press fold or hand it off to someone who didn’t know it as well as I did or care about it as much. So I figured it was worth a shot: I asked to take the press with me when I left the university, and to my delight and surprise, the administration agreed.

For the last several months, I have been working to not just preserve but expand the press, and one of the lovely, unexpected blessings to come out of all of this is that it has given me a chance to work again alongside Mike and Robin, as well as Roger, and another poet named George Rawlins, whose fantastic collection, Cheapside Afterlife, is forthcoming from Longleaf. We’re re-incorporating as an independent nonprofit and re-envisioning the possibilities now that we’re transitioning away from the university and going out on our own. Whereas we previously operated as a regional publisher of authors in the Southeast, we’re now opening submissions for our full-length poetry book contest to anyone writing in English. We’re also hoping to house the press eventually within a community-integrated arts center of some kind, and toward that aim, I’m looking for an arts-oriented town or city to which to relocate.

I found out a few days ago that Amtrak was running a sale on 30-day rail passes for $299, so to those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve decided to scout out possible locations by train. I just bought the pass and will be planning out my route during the next couple of weeks.

The last time I took a trip like this was in 2017, when I spent a summer backpacking solo via Amtrak and Couchsurfing my way cross-country to and from a residency at Willapa Bay AIR. I’ve often wished I had blogged about that trip, so I’ve decided to do so this time around. Stay tuned to hear updates about my trip and the press. Long live Longleaf!