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Swann's Way (pt. 1)

One night in the middle of my life, the archaic biology of my brain asserted itself and I realized that I had no desire for material and environmental domination or even for spiritual prowess. I wanted merely to live in harmony with all of creation, and to do so as a compassionate mother, as a person who, by pushing a whole new human being out of her own body, had learned to love. Then as now, I crave experience; like Jimi Hendrix says, I want to hear and see everything, I want to move through everything, but I also want to leave as small a footprint as possible. I want to approach the ephemeral. And so I realized, I had to give up my car and become a fully committed bicycle commuter.

It was five or so years after this realization that I met the man I will call the Navigator – a bike entrepreneur and maker space artist – as I first characterized him and as he can still be described. Certainly our relationship has evolved, but in the beginning we bonded on batteries. I was still using lead acid but he was already onto lithium. He knew how many watts a decent motor should put out. I just wanted to pedal. Before we jump ahead again – to the time when the Navigator and I launch our first Big Tour, which will be the subject of another bunch of blog posts – let me fill you in on something else that is super important to me.

About a hundred years ago, Proust’s Remembrance of Lost Time was published. It tells the story of a character, one Charles Swann, who lived my life in another gender, at a different age, in another country, in a different century, from a different religion, speaking another language. He fell hard for a simulacrum of beauty in the enormously tragic and futile way that the Russia of the Tsars fell for Communism and Dylan for Christ; and it all resonated so deeply with my own history of tripishness that 21 years ago I changed my surname to Swann. I didn’t use to be a Swann.

So, my decision 8 or so years ago to become – as nearly as possible – completely car-free was a kind of reparation for the failures of my past, my lapses in charity, my selfishness, my greed. (I’m sorry, Please forgive me, Thank you, I love you) My commitment to cycling is an ongoing, ever evolving, and continuously invigorating practice – a being in love with the weather, a being in love with the next seven generations of life on this earth, on this land that has been stolen and fought over and driven on and treated like a dead thing.

But now, finally, we’re at a good place. The Navigator and I are going to take turns telling you about the multi-state, 30-day adventure that we thought about calling Swann’s Way. It’s a story about trains, cities, family, folding bikes, white privilege, brew pubs, dancing, twins, and – yes – love. I don’t know, I guess I can be mostly emotional, because the Navigator will give you the facts.


The Navigator has electrified both bikes, Dahons, and we test them by riding into Ithaca and back. We pronounce them comfortable, seviceable, and powerful enough for that 18 mile journey. The problem is that Syracuse is about 50 miles away, so we will have to leave very very early on Saturday to catch our evening train, leaving time for at least one battery charging (we figure we can carry a set of spares to get us 2/3 of the way there). But since we will be coming from a camp-out, the leaving very very early part does not seem feasible, and frankly, the thought of carrying an extra set of batteries is also onerous, even for the strapping Navigator. We decide it would be better to ask a friend drive us to Syracuse in his car – why to start a journey with the worry of perhaps missing the first train? Our friend generously agrees to do that driving.

The Syracuse train station is the opposite of bustling. The young woman at the ticketing booth very kindly prints us two copies of as much of our schedule as she can – she cannot get the bar codes to print – and lets us know that one leg of our journey has been canceled and that she is booking us a workaround, which involves a bus out of Sacramento. OK. One man is already in the waiting area, working on his laptop, and he is a little hungry for company, so he engages us in his story and that gives the place a homey, lyrical feeling. The station’s janitor assiduously sweeps and even buffs every inch of the floor while we are there, which adds a different kind of music. While he cleans, as if because of Tourette’s, he keeps up a muttered catalog of all the offenses he has been subjected to and his disinclination to submit to more. The Navigator and I read some of our book, Second Place, by Rachel Cusk. First he reads a few pages out loud to me, then I read a few pages out loud to him. We are still in the early pages and Cusk’s narrator – M. – is still setting up all the characters.

The Navigator has not yet come to the point where he can fully appreciate the skillfullness with which M. improves the genre “novel.” At this early point he can only see parallels with Jane Eyre, which we also recently shared. Of course, standing up to a comparison with Jane Eyre is not for any sloppy piece of rehashed fiction – claiming a place next to Jane Eyre is a thing most novelists can only dream of, but Cusk makes it seem easy. She pushes Bronte’s narrator through not just strength, independence, and self-esteem, but all the way into an all-seeing, quasi-passive divinity. Her narrator engages with and survives the mystical power of Art, and she explores the mother-daughter dyad in great detail. We hadn’t gotten to it yet, but at one point Cusk hilariously critiques writers themselves in her portrait of M.’s potential son-in-law. Later, the Navigator too has an epiphany in his appreciation for the revolution that women’s writing presents when we watch Jennifer’s Body, in which writer Diablo Cody speaks to us through the genre “horror film.”

Literary criticism is not, however, foremost on our minds when the train pulls into the station. We are filled with admiration and praise for Amtrak: the train is on time! Now we will perform our first boarding with bikes! Back when we arrived at the station, we showed the following passage – excerpted from their own rules – to the woman at the ticketing booth; and now as we board the train, we reiterate it to the train attendants themselves:

Folding bicycles under the dimensions of 34" x 15" x 48" will be allowed onboard all trains in lieu of a piece of carry-on baggage. They must be considered a true folding bicycle.

We are not going to give Amtrak $30 a bike, or whatever it is they want, to put the Dahons in the baggage car. Our bikes are traveling with us in our car. The Navigator tucks them into their berth on the level of the entry and we move ourselves and our backpacks to the upper level where the wide, comfortable, gracious seats of our coach await. We are finally OFF!

Dark Night

I am remembering the bike storage area wrong. It is one way on this side of Chicago and another way on the other. The east side set-up has only one level and an enhanced “empty space” before the rows of seating starts. You put your big, train-sized suitcase (or in our case, our bikes) in this space and drag your hand luggage (in our case, our hiking packs) to the rack above your seat. Only the Navigator can explain why the two sides are different. If there were political differences, like the kind that used to separate Eastern and Western Europe, the Chicago River, as it goes through its special sanitary canal into the Mississippi, would function as some kind of Iron Curtain. But there are no political differences. Capitalism one side, capitalism on the other.

This first night on the train is actually difficult for me to remember in ways that have nothing to do with our trip, meaning specifically our decision to bring our bikes with us on the train and gad about on them between stops. It is a difficulty I forgot about until this evening, when I was once again confronted with the Navigator’s belief that he can single out a woman who is inappropriate chronologically, physically, spiritually, and intellectually and endow her with his worldly goods, his admiration, his time, and his devotion. This woman is not me and his continuous selection of these women is not even about me. I have thought it’s a lashing out at his ex, but I don’t know, maybe it comes from a place more honorable than that. Whatever else it is, though, it is a big middle finger to his actual children, his siblings, and to me. Tonight it was one woman; that night on the train, it was a different one. Always the fixation on people who will take advantage of him, treat him poorly. That woman is not me. I wake up in the morning after that first night’s sleep and say, “Let’s have a good trip, my love, but after that let’s go our separate ways.” I am not one to spend energy competing with brick walls. It is why I’m up tonight, typing.

Chicago Union Station is a busy, life-filled, navigable place. We heft our bikes out of storage, unfold them so that they roll, and get a delicious pulled-pork meal at one of the many dine-in/take-out restaurants. The train is only about an hour late, which is not enough to affect our connection to Wisconsin Dells, but enough to prevent us from stopping in to the Art Institute or visiting the King Spa with its renowned vaginal steam. This is a sitz bath of wormwood, mugwort, and dandelion just for ladies and our weary pussies. Just as well, time was short, really, since I’m not sure how the Navigator would occupy himself while I was in there. Maybe next time.

We pull into the Wisconson Dells! On time! Out come the bikes! We get photographed with them on the platform by a woman and her sister who have a gaggle of pre-teen and teen-aged children. Everyone admires us and our bikes! We are celebrities, and off we go to look for our hotel. The Navigator briefly considers stopping into the marriage chapel that this resort town has to offer; and I am willing, but they are closed, so we let it go. Our hotel is much less nice than it looks in the pictures on line, but still nice. We lock up our bikes and get dinner across the way (forgetting to name our hotel, which would have gotten us 10% off the price). At this restaurant, customers cook their own meals on a hot rock that the kitchen brings tableside. Yummy!

The next morning, from out of the greeny swards of delightful rural Wisconson comes our ride to the country. It’s 50+ miles to our destination, so we opt not to bike it for the same reason we opted not to bike to Syracuse. Next year with cargo bikes tough enough to transport extra batteries, we could even skip the train part and just bike any and all distances. With cargo bikes we could also bring our tent and camping cookware and stop at any rest stop to chew on daisy stems, loaf about, and re-charge the batteries.

Anyway, the roads are narrow and twisty, uphill and down. Our loving hostess warns us that these roads are not safe for bicyclists, but once we get to the hand-made house that is our destination, we do bike the 4 or so miles into town. I am so glad the Navigator insists we make this ride into town, because I am at first inclined to heed our hostess’s warning. This is the kind of ride I love best: feeling my blouse luff in the wind, sailing past gates made of decorative wrought-iron animal sculptures, looking for street names on road-signs, racing against a storm on the horizon with its rolling thunder thundering. It is so pleasant bike-wise and so beautiful soul-wise, that I am able to open my ears to the place’s murmur.

The place is saying, “Let us erase all differences between us and become one. As long as that one is a white, male, Christian man.” But there are Jews here in Trump country! There are Muslims! There are people like the Navigator and me who do not adhere to any of the religions created by the Middle Eastern desert fathers. And I thank all that is holy for the richly liberal traditions of Judaism in this place. And I thank all that is good for the effacement of the “T” on a Trump 2020 sign. I thank all that is collective for the Muslim-Christian-Jewish alliance that can be found even here, even as the public schools want to impose a Christian prayer on their pupils at start of day. But it’s a gratitude I have had to climb for, it is not immediate.

Maybe there is actually some merit in the comparison between the old Soviet empire and what is happening today in my country.

The Great Plains

We get back on the Empire Builder, which is scheduled to deposit us in Seattle 41 hours later. The train leaves in the early evening. It is just past mid-summer, and we are leaving the sandstone dells of Wisconsin, where Black Hawk temporarily held off the armed forces of the United States in the early 19th century. It is early evening. For a few hours we are treated to the green lusciousness of Minnesota and a very young Mississippi River, near Red Wing. We cross the Mississippi and drift off as we roll along, gliding over the land of 10,000 lakes, lulled to sleep by the train whistle. In the morning, we are treated to a golden, unobstructed view of the North Dakota sky meeting the North Dakota earth, where corporate U.S. farmers have monocropped soybeans, wheat, cattle, and sunflowers for so long that the goulash and sauerkraut beloved by Willa Cather’s Shimerdas in the 1890s is probably all imported from somewhere else. Marathon Oil, Continental, and Hess Bakken all operate oil rigs in North Dakota, and the sublime beauty of this even-keeled land is blemished by the detritus of that work. My heart clenches.

Ever steadily, we move westward, as inexorable as Manifest Destiny, uncomfortable with the amount of land our beloved country has inveigled and murdered for in order to secure it from its first inhabitants. This kind of theft, a respected corporate practice, is how our children’s children children are being robbed of authentic sustenance. Some people model their whole lives on the practice of this cupidity. No cajolement too dishonest, no lie too bold, no silence too deceitful. As night falls, so do our eyes and we miss much of the rugged beauty of Montana. In the wee hours, we slip finally into sleepy Spokane. Just past this landmark spot, near the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, we undergo an engine swap, because our little engine is deemed unfit to traverse the mighty Cascades, a range that includes famous 14,000 foot peaks like Mounts Ranier and Shasta and less famous 12,000 foot peaks like Mount Adams.

The long trip gives us plenty of time to think about train car design. We don’t have a chance to examine the sleeper cars, but the coach cars are built with 5 bathrooms on the bottom floor. OSHA requirements are 1 toilet per 40 persons. Since there are 84 seats per Amtrak coach car, 5 toilets might just be a tad too many. There is also a “lounge” compartment, presumably for the ladies to apply their make-up. We don’t see the justification for the lounge compartment and never saw anyone try to use it who wasn’t immediately disappointed by the lack of a toilet. Wouldn’t it be better to reconfigure the downstairs to include an exercise or yoga room? Or maybe space could be set aside for a meditation room, as exists in the Philadelphia airport? Actually, an entire exercise/yoga car could considerably enhance a long, cross-country trip.

Carry-on luggage is also stored on racks on the first floor. Stowing our folding bikes in these racks was on the mild side of difficult – they are not as deep as one would like and the ones above ground-level are awkwardly spaced. People who have 100 pound suitcases (yes they do!) struggle to hoist them in. Sometimes storage dribbles into another small room around the corner that has a few rows of seats, sometimes with travelers sitting in them. You can also see destroyer-class berths in that room, on top of which train personnel store their odd things. The are doors for getting off and on down there too, along with a stepping stool and some intercom equipment. When lots of people are getting off at the same stop, the passageway and the staircase leading to it becomes clogged. I wish I could suggest an alternate design!

The seats in coach are adjustable and capacious; and the curtains have windows. Every seat has an adjustable foot rest and a tray-table. Travelers can sleep quite well for the most part—but especially well if they travel through a state with legal weed, where they can stock up on cannabis gummies. Most people sleep covered in blankets or sleeping bags, for the cars are cold. Near the ends of the car and above the steps to the lower floor are lights that stay on all night. The other overhead lights that illuminate the space are only on in the daytime. Once we figured this out, we always aimed for seats in the middle of the car.

If you travel with your own food, you are not limited to the train’s snack bar. Coach customers cannot eat in the actual dining car, which is reserved for sleeping car customers. But you can get (free!) hot water from them every morning for the good tea you’ll bring, and they do sell a variety of beers. What if there were more opportunities for long-distance passengers to get out and stretch or to buy a hot meal without getting charged for another “segment”? Say, if you de-trained for fewer than 3 hours, getting back on the train to continue toward your original endpoint would not count as a separate ticketing event. If there were hotels or hostels or public houses along the route with rental bikes, maybe you could take a little spin, look around a little, get your heartbeat up?

Trains seem like a perfect solution to global warming. The planet is crying out for more rail service – whether cross-country like Amtrak or inter-city light rail, like they have in Japan, complete with the bullet trains. Seattle runs a campaign to reduce the greenhouse effects of a combustion-based lifestyle using the slogan, “Sacrifice a little to gain a lot.” We like that. We would like to see laws change to limit the power of cars, to make cars less dangerous; and we want to study the traffic laws of places like Denmark, to see what we can co-opt. We would like to try bringing our cargo bikes on the train, without having to shunt them into a baggage car or fold them up. As if.

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