For most Americans living outside the east coast’s metropolitan areas, riding a train is an event. It is a luxury for those in surfeit of both time and money, and its inefficiency, especially in the vastness that is America left of the Mississippi, further relegates it to “vacation” status. There is a reason Disney’s monorail – an absolute bore of epic proportions – remains one of the most traveled rail systems in the world. If you are an American and you are on a train, then chances are you’re on vacation.
Mine, then, officially begins as I’m sitting on my backpack, fleece zipped up against the Baltimore chill on a Thursday morning, waiting for the 141 regional from BWI to DC’s Union Station while sizing up the Asian fellow next to me. He sits down on the bench, two shopping bags, a shoulder bag and wheeled overnighter beside him, and strokes a few black, wispy hairs hanging from his chin. Alan – his American name – is a Chinese MBA student in his first year at Penn State, and he’s returning from a Spring Break trip west where he visited LA, Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas, where he scored a pair of Timberlands at an outlet mall.
“How much do you think these cost,” he asks me. I offer up $60 and he responds by raising his eyebrows and gently fingering a small “Gore Tex” tag sewed into one of the seams. I do not bite, and stick with $60. “Eighty dollars” he says, and though I feign surprise, lips pushed out and mouth corners turned down, he has a bigger point to make.
“Do you know how much these cost in China?” I do not. “Two hundred dollars.” He then exposes the tag on the tongue’s interior, revealing the words “Made in China.” Alan laughs like this might be the funniest, most outrageous thing he’s ever heard.
A north-bound train approaches, interrupting Alan’s laughter, and he excuses himself as he stands up to take a picture of the oncoming engine. “My first American train,” he says, quickly snapping photos. He asks me to guess how many pictures he’s taken on his 5 day trip – Alan likes to make me guess things – and I err on what I think is the highside: “twelve hundred.” Alan pauses, then says “five thousand.” He follows with more raised eyebrows, sucking his tongue against his teeth in that Asian conversation filler that can indicate emphasis, assent, or the Chinese version of an American “um.”
After finding out I’m in the Army, Alan says he too was a Soldier, for ten years. He also says he was in “IT,” and I immediately peg Alan for a spy. I’ve been reading too much of The Atlantic lately, and am seeking adventure, so it is not a difficult leap for me to make. Alan doesn’t help matters when he opens his laptop to show me his vacation photos, his screensaver an SR-71 Blackbird flying over the Sierra Nevada’s. As any halfway decent spy, Alan must sense my shift in mood, and he explains away the rookie spy move with an “I like airplanes.” He asks me what he should do in DC, and I start into a list of museums and monuments he can see for free and over a short time period. The Smithsonian – there are eighteen, not counting the zoo – plus the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson memorials, the Viet Nam vets memorial, the Korean, one of my favorites. Alan listens politely and then asks “how can I get into the Pentagon?” I quickly tell him he’s not allowed, but my Walter Mitty imagination subsides as he begins cranking through his vacation photos. The incredible tediousness of other people’s pictures spans cultural divides, I conclude, and I think that if Alan is a spy, he is either awful or exceptionally good. He realizes the pictures are boring as well (“these are kind of boring”), and I think that if Alan wasn’t trying to hack into my computer, we might just be friends. May we achieve peace by boring the snot out of each other with left clicks and mouse pads.
I leave Alan at Union Station, after first taking a few pictures of him with his camera, and exit out the west side of the building to DC Metro’s new bike station, a small but beautiful glass building that looks like the breaching back of the Loch Ness. I go inside to take a look, and am greeted by a guy sporting a shaved head and a ridiculously good Mark Twain mustache that parts to reveal less than perfect teeth but a great grin when I mention the sifaka Lemurs, two-pound circus freaks that run in loping strides, arms longer than their legs and held erect above their heads whenever they’re on the move. They leap between razor-edged spires in the Tsinghy de Bamarah nature reserve in northern Madagascar, where the bike worker has told me he just returned from two years in the Peace Corps doing “environmental stuff” – compost, gardening, water recycling – and he’s staying in DC to continue his efforts. I wonder how hard it is to get to Madagascar, but then he’s pulled away by customers, and I suspect our conversation is as good as it’s going to get anyway. Besides, I can see the Irish Times directly over his left shoulder, and with a day to kill, it is calling to me.
The permanently sticky table-topped Irish Times is what an American dive bar should be: sedate, local, cheap and decidedly irreverent. Tacked up around the bar are what must be over a thousand patches from fire and police departments around the country, and though there is Guinness on tap, the only top-shelf liquor I spy is a dust-covered bottle of Tanqueray. The chalkboard specials are Meatloaf, $10.95; Cold Meatloaf, $8.95. I wonder if it will be free if I wait around until Monday. An oil painting of John Wayne in an Indian chief’s headdress and a Warhol knockoff of Margaret Thatcher acknowledging a crowd, Crime Wave scrawled above the painting, frame a television, where Georgetown is about to beat Syracuse in the Big East tournament, and the heated rivalry explains the gathered Thursday afternoon crowd. It is equal parts older drunk white guy and late-twenty yuppie black guys (Georgetown University: 6% black; Georgetown Hoyas basketball team: 82% black), but Syracuse is Syracuse and beating them brings many a DC foe together.
A DC dive bar is as good a start to a trip as anywhere else, but the next 72 hours do their best to dampen my spirit. I am flying on the cheap – free military rotators to Germany, and maybe Kosovo if I am lucky enough to time them right – and I am getting what I pay for. An eight and a half hour flight on a C-17, sitting upright on cargo-strap jump seats and facing south the entire time while my plane flies east; seven hours of German rigidity while I unsuccessfully attempt to get a cash advance on my credit card, sans a pin number; connecting commercial flights in Frankfurt and Zürich, where my lack of sleep and irritability get the best of me and I quickly tire of the uniformly cheap leather-jacketed, hair-metal band coiffured European youth. My imagination, too, kicks in, and I suspect they are all heavies for second-rate Russian mobsters. I don’t fear pleather-wearing western european youth, but I do Russian mobsters, second-rate or otherwise, and I put my nose back into my book.
Finally: a two am arrival in Thessolinki, Greece. The town was named for Alexander’s half-sister, and he himself was born near here, prior to making almost all the known world his own. Here too, I start my own adventure, mine north and west for ten days rather than east for ten years. There are still arguments as to what incessant need drove Alexander to leave his home in Macedon, where he stood to inherit a kingdom and a lifetime of luxury. Perhaps it was a determination to prove himself worthy to his father, King Phillip II; perhaps a need to justify his mother’s explanation of his birth as the product of the midnight visit of a God serpent. Regardless, I find common ground in the need to explore, the need to experience life in order to justify it, the need for anonymity in an effort to somehow improve upon the familiar.