Archive for November, 2007

When I was a kid, I would tape songs off the radio, or record the sound off the TV and make tape mixes. I’d wrap the tapes up, and put them away, only to be opened from the “me” of the future at the appointed time (which could be at any time). The idea was that I’d be sending myself messages from the past to change the future!

Not that I had any message in mind, you realize. The message would be in the music.

I don’t have very many of these Time Torpedoes left, but just the same I hadn’t opened one in a long time, and decided now was the time! I peeled off the “Danger! Bom!” paper and found myself looking at a blue and white labeled tape with no writing on it. Nothing to do but play it and find out!

I compiled a list of the songs here, for your amusement. Side B was the side that was ready to play, so I started with that:

Side B
Is There Something I Should Know – Duran Duran
Steppin’ Out – Joe Jackson
Slippin’ Away – Dave Edmunds
Be Good Johnny – Men At Work
Rock of Ages – Def Leopard
All Time High – Rita Coolidge
Rock of Ages – Def Leopard
Electric Avenue – Eddie Grant
Hello Goodbye – The Beatles

Side A
Who can it be now? – Men At Work
Lunatic Fringe – Tom Cochrane
Jeopardy – Greg Kihn Band
Abacab – Genesis
Wishing – Flock of Seagulls
Down Under – Men At Work
Electric Avenue – Eddie Grant
New Years Day – U2
Is There Something I Should Know – Duran Duran
Photograph – Def Leopard

“Save the Cheerleader, save the world?” Funk dat! Listen to Duran Duran, learn the secrets of the universe! So, what are you going to arm your torpedoes with? Who knows what effect you will have on the future? Thanks for the message, Past-Me. I’m gunna rock down to electric avenue. And then I’ll take it higher.

I pulled out a ten-dollar bill to pay for some last minute groceries, and I noticed it had been stamped on the edge with the information for an escort service, with a phone number and web address. For goodness sakes! The things people put on paper currency.

After I got over my amusement, I got to thinking, and I imagined it had to be a meaningful coincidence. A psychic message perhaps, but from whom?

The “Dark Goddess”, of course. That archetype that dwells within the unconscious of all humans on the planet. So I dug into some of my old collections of useless information to see what I could bring back to the conscious part of my ape’s brain. I figured she wanted me to remember some of my lessons from back in the day.

Then, for no reason at all, Britney Spears and her latest tune pops into my head. I get to thinking this must be part of the message. Then I realize little miss “gimmie more” is carrying the projections of people’s expectations of the Dark Goddess. This goes back to my Escapegoat theory, whereby certain people embody the community’s own repressed qualities so people can mock them and feel better about themselves.

What are the qualities of the Dark Goddess? Well, aside from the obvious (the naughty bits), she personifies instinctual behavior, music and dancing, drunkenness, the pursuit of pleasure, reckless abandon, procreation, madness, self-destruction, illusions over reality, and generic forms of darkness and chaos thrown in for good measure. Sound familiar?

The Dark Goddess is often symbolized by things like the moon and underground tunnels, or personified by supernatural figures like witches and mermaids. You can go all the way up to goddesses like Lilith or Tiamat, and all the way down to famous actresses or femme fatales. It just depends on what you are looking for. Hrm. Famous people. That could easily apply to miss “oops I did it again.”

The obvious interpretation is that the Dark Goddess was reminding me that she’s out there, in the shadows and darkness sometimes, but more than likely in broad daylight without anyone’s knowledge. Britney is out there too, suffering the scarlet letter of people with no guts and nothing going on (we’re all guilty, not just her). The Dark Goddess is out there doing her thing, what am I doing?

That question brings me back to a time when I was an ardent admirer of the Dark Goddess. I gave her a full access pass and a place to live. I drank from dark waters, ate from dark fruits, and lived in the wrong part of town like her. She’s a backdoor girl with a bad reputation, and she ain’t no man’s woman, but she would pay me a visit just the same. The Dark Goddess shares her gifts of regeneration and ecstasy with those who ask, and I asked every day. She would sing to me, you can call me anytime, on my hello-happy-line.

So that’s the message, give her a call. Maybe she misses me, or wonders if I’d forgotten about her. I heard tell once that the edges of the wrong side of town must seem like they plummet into the depths, because anyone who leaves never comes back. I dial the Dark Goddess’s hello-happy-line, and leave a message.

That night, I have one of those vivid and detailed dreams I sometimes get. I’m in a huge labyrinth of a building, a creativity warehouse as one occupant puts it to me. I see every conceivable kind of artist, engineer, architect, editor and student associated with creativity engaged in projects too numerous to mention. Writers working on stories for a magazine, paintings of every conceivable type being painted using experimental techniques or to develop a series for museums or shows. Lithographers, gardeners, graphic artists working on advertising, all in a setting of hallways and rooms littered with toys, decorations and tools of the trade. Whole acting companies work out elaborate blocking of scenery next to rooms where speeches are being given on the future of sculpture. I climb a wooden ladder out of a sauna where rock stars are meditating on new songs, and walk down an aisle of computer-automated typewriters working out a formula for theater performances. Everywhere, there are secret doors, concealed passageways, and understated niches like altars to the making of things for their own sake. Quiet places, loud places, lighted by fireplace or fluorescent bulbs, or sometimes nothing at all. It’s a Willy Wonka Factory of every artist’s dream.

I realize in the dream that I’m looking for my backpack. I’m carrying a sword and wearing a costume from some previous artistic pursuit that I’ve moved away from. I’m looking around, searching, and wandering the place. That’s when I run into the Dark Goddess herself, and I realize the creativity warehouse is hers, she runs it and makes sure that there’s always ideas and play to fertilize the minds and souls of people. She tells me that she called because I left my backpack at her place, and I ought to have it back again. I come out of my dream as if I’d only just closed my eyes, and I write down everything she told me.

The next day, K is at the new computer figuring things out, and I’m working on my book. We have the sliding back door open (with the screen closed) to freshen up the air a bit. Something appears at the top of the screen, and for a moment we both think Frankie has climbed the sliding door to get at a moth or something like that. But it’s a screech owl, trying to get in. It sinks its claws in the screen and stares at us for a moment, then tries to get in again. The owl flies off into the night, without ever having made a sound or damaged the screen, and K and I marvel at the critter visit we just experienced. Totally cool!

Owls are sacred to the Goddess Lakshimi, symbolizing prosperity. They are also animals associated with Athena, and wisdom. In some Native American traditions they are night hunters who see through deceptions and the sorcery of others. Owls often carry the spirits of the ancestors and their messages. But most of all, the screech owl is sacred to Lilith, another aspect of the Dark Goddess.

Yup, that’s the Dark Goddess all right. She’s in your fridge, eating your food.

As I mentioned earlier, I used to hate all cats with a passion. The time has come for me to tell the story of what made me hate cats so much. Why, why the hatred? Well, here it comes, and it ain’t pretty.

Back when I was living with my folks, post college graduation burnout, next door there is a house we came to call the Hell House, because the family that lived there were a psychological cesspool of dysfunctional, rancid energy. Fights, screaming, smashing things, littering. Name the drama, it happened there. One of the more unsavory mutations of that family lifeforce, while it inhabited the Hell House, was their chaos attribute of Infestation (Dumper Cats).

Specifically, they maintained a stable of cats in the general vicinity that ran loose at all hours. These cats bred with each other, attacked birds and squirrels, and invaded other people’s yards in large numbers. And, of course, they relieved themselves in other peoples’ yards as well, thus the nickname of “Dumper Cats”. Well, that’s not what they were really called, since the actual descriptive was a profanity. Use your imagination.

Since they were free to breed at will, plenty of yowling and mewing occurred at all hours. Yet the actual number of the cats didn’t seem to increase, although I always saw new arrivals with different shades. My guess is that the litters were sold off for extra income, with an occasional kitten kept over to replenish the stock when these cats inevitably fled or died from disease. Our only recourse was to have the super-soaker primed at all times, since the cats grew wise to the sound of the hose being turned on.

Perhaps it wasn’t so much the cats themselves, but what they represented. They were a visible sign of psychic contamination. The folks and I came to hate them with a passion, and reveled whenever we got a direct hit with the water. The family’s drama was bad enough, to have to suffer the invasion of your own personal space by numerous cats was a transgression. You’d be sitting in the backyard, enjoying the garden and the birds eating their seed or washing in the bath, when along comes a mottled white cat through the fence looking for a bird lunch. Peace and tranquility disrupted! You have to scare the birds while you scare off the cat, and your thoughts have been interrupted.

So all cats became known as Dumper Cats. Eventually, the family broke apart despite itself and the house was abandoned. For a long time it was a morass of psychological residue, and the cats wandered off in search of some other source of food. The house was bought by a nice handyman. He moved his family in, and fixed the place up so you would never guess it was once the Hell House. The Dumper Cats are ancient history. But it would be a long time before K would come along and show me the power of the non-Dumper Cats.

Feasting on food and fine victuals while celebrating with loved ones. Thanks for the sacrifice, Turkey With No Name.

037_spockStar Trek is dead, and it’s never coming back.

Seriously. The only person who may have really understood what Star Trek was about was Gene Roddenberry, and he’s passed on. I submit as evidence the decline of the Star Trek franchise after the man’s passing away. Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and all the ridiculous Star Trek movies after the first have increasingly failed to capture either the magic or the message of the original show. I can’t watch any of them without thinking about how unlike Star Trek they are.

It’s like putting Conan the Barbarian in place of Aragorn for Lord of the Rings.* You’re watching someone with the same name, but acting completely out of character for what you thought you were watching.

Star Trek as I originally “grokked” it, was about the exploration of problems in consciousness. It had nothing to do with outer space at all; it was all about inner space. Or, as Q very rightly put it, “the unknown possibilities of existence.” The external world of Star Trek seems to be the only thing fans have increasingly latched on to or developed, with all the techno-gadgetry, identity politics of different “planetary races”, and space battles most of all. Got to have space battles! People have gravitated towards the “mapping stars and studying nebula” aspect of Star Trek, and have shied away from the more difficult task of rendering the far out and the unknowable.

If the fans don’t get it, you can bet your two-hundred Quatloos that the studios and networks sure aren’t going to come within a hundred parsecs of the message. But that won’t stop anyone in a suit from trying to resurrect the franchise and give the aging fans one more shot at nostalgia to keep the money rolling in. Yes, it’s coming, the Foetal Scooby Doo version of Star Trek. A “reimagining” of the franchise, now that the old one has hit rock bottom, and the fans are left staring around like stunned fish after a depth charge.

Forget it people! Star Trek is never coming back. We’ll only ever see some space action adventure show with people named “Kirk” and “Spock”, shooting phasers at anyone who isn’t a member of the Star Fleet Empire. That’s all anyone will ever get now. The innovation and creativity of the original has been drained to a husk, and we’re just sucking corpse dust through that straw.

The vision has been lost. If it shows up again in our lifetimes, it won’t be in anything bearing the name of Star Trek.

So go enjoy the space battles. That’s what advanced, interstellar civilizations are based on, right?

* Oh wait, Peter Jackson already did that. Thugs in place of “high men”. I especially loved it when Conan!Aragorn chopped off the Mouth of Sauron’s head. Today’s heroes have to be dark and edgy, rather than courteous and courageous, otherwise they might be considered “sissies”.

I’ve been a big fan of Lost, the hit television show, for a while now. Unfortunately, I think that’s changed and I’m getting a divorce. The third season concluded this year, and I got to thinking a lot about what’s happened on the show, and where I think it’s going.

If you haven’t ever watched the show, I’ll try and summarize it. A plane on its way from Sidney, Australia to L.A., California becomes lost and crashes on a remote tropical island. About fifty people survive the crash and try to survive as best they can until rescue. The complication is that the island is inhabited by mysterious phenomenon like an invisible monster, voices in the wind, and strange apparitions. The past lives of all the survivors intersect with one another and are related by a cursed numerical formula. Each show focuses on one of a dozen or so “main characters” in the tribe of survivors, and their efforts to overcome some personal obstacle. Punctuated by the current action are “flashbacks”, where an aspect of the character’s past life is shown.

The show has presented itself as a puzzle deep in subtext and invited viewers to speculate on what might be happening on the island. In other words, what the “answers” to the “mysteries” might be. The writer/producers of the show have engaged in all sorts of evasive suggestions in interviews, numerous products have been put out to suggest “clues”, and the network’s hype machine has pushed viewer buttons saying “this is the show you don’t want to miss”. You watch the show, hoping to catch a vital clue and figure out what is going on. What did the billboard in the back of the character’s flashback say? How does the billboard’s message relate to several other similar clues we’ve seen? You know, that kind of thing.

If you haven’t watched the show and want to preserve some of the so-called surprises for yourself, read no further.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lost was a miniseries with a bunch of really good ideas that should never have gone beyond a dozen episodes, and that the creative team behind the episodes have exhausted those ideas and are not up to the task of making what’s left interesting. A lot of the happenings in the show rely heavily on context, so it’s really hard to come to any conclusion until you’ve had enough information to gain a certain amount of perspective. In retrospect, it’s easy to see where the major flaws were, and at what point the writers slipped up. I think Lost “Jumped the Shark” in it’s sixth episode, but it was so subtle, and the wipe out so prolonged, that it is easy to mistake later slip ups as the “definitive moment.”

To be fair, the flaws in Lost were there right from the very first episode. I took the time to revisit the first and second season, and compare and contrast their development with what came out of the third season. A lot of internet discussion has revolved around whether the writers have a plan and where the show is going, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter if they have a plan or not. There are only so many moves you can make in a story, even a long term one, before you run out of options. The story resolves in one way or another, whether or not you have a long-term strategy.

For example, Babylon 5 is often toted as an example of an “epic series” planned out from start to finish, but I think the whole thing is rubbish. Every story is punctuated with major events that push the story forward irrevocably. The shark has to keep moving or it dies, so to speak. You could condense the epic story arc of Babylon 5 (the Shadow war) to a dozen episodes. The rest is just story-of-the-week and fluff (that’s gamer talk for background material not immediately relevant to the story).

The same goes for Lost. If the writers had a plan, it wasn’t much of one to begin with and they’ve made so many tweaks to the outline that the original idea has been squashed to jelly. They’re just flying blind now. The “puzzle”, whatever it was, will never make any sense or strike home with any resolution the way say, the first season of Veronica Mars did (an excellent example of how to keep an audience involved in a mystery without spoiling anything until the end).

I think it is more likely that the writers had an outline for a miniseries with a bunch of mysteries that never had any solution, and they’ve been milking things out as much as they can. Unfortunately, as of the last few episodes of the third season they’ve run out of ideas.  They’re having to recycle old plotlines and revisit territory already traveled (Charlie dies again! The Others attack the camp again! Locke finds a Dharma station again!).

It’s sad. Lost had a lot of potential, but as so often happens in television, the corporate suits get their stupid hands in the pie and ruin the recipe. The writers for the show haven’t exactly risen to the challenge either. The quality of the episodes has gone down as the ideas lose their freshness, and the writing just hasn’t kept pace with that fact. I’ve had to watch the show that excited my interest and imagination slowly break my heart with every growing mistake and misstep.

The high point of the show for me was the fifth episode of the first season, “White Rabbit”. There are already several points that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but I think they are minor at this juncture. As I mentioned earlier, the flaws were there at the start, they just haven’t developed into actual cracks. The main integrity of the story’s consistency hasn’t been breached as of yet, and a lot of narrative momentum is going on to keep viewer interest high.

In “White Rabbit”, you have an amazing amount of stuff going on. The survivors suffer their first death due to the dangers of the island (someone drowns in a riptide), they are running low on water (on a tropical island that’s life or death), the pregnant woman has passed out from heat exhaustion, and group cohesion is starting to break down. Jack, the unofficial leader (who also happens to be their only doctor), has a temporary crack up and nearly dies in an accident after chasing his dead father around in the jungle. Meanwhile Locke, the guy everyone thought was a nut case, turns out to be the only guy who has an idea of how spooky and magical the island really is. He acts like a kind of shaman and gets the people with the next strongest leadership skills to keep everyone cool while he goes off in search of water and their cracked up leader.

Locke rescues Jack, then helps the guy get his head on straight. Jack continues his quest for his dead father, only in a more reasonable frame of mind. A dead father who may not be dead at all, because the island is special. Jack finds his father’s empty coffin (from a section of plane wreckage), near a cave with a large fresh water source. He works through some of his issues (though not all of them), and he finds it in himself to accept what people need from him. Jack makes an awesome speech and assumes the leadership role he was afraid of. At the end of the episode, you get the feeling that something amazing is happening, with all sorts of story possibilities popping forward. The episode is a thrilling mixture of real life danger and interpersonal conflict, with some of the creepiest ghost scenes I’ve ever seen on television.

Then you get the next episode, “House of the Rising Sun”, in which the story takes a disappointing turn. Last episode, Jack made an impassioned speech about everyone working together, and the need for everyone to find a way to contribute to the group’s well being. A day later, he’s decided to try and convince everyone to live in the cave he found, regardless of what people want. Never mind that no one knows if the cave is stable, or if it is a sometimes home for the polar bears that live on the island, or that there are two old corpses placed in little makeshift tombs in the cave near the water. It becomes a divisive issue, with half the group wanting to stay on the beach, and half wanting to go live at the caves.

I’m not even going to go into the problem of not following up on the crazy mystical stuff Locke brought up last episode, the lack of a funeral or mourning for the woman who drowned yesterday, or that nobody challenges Jack for leadership over this bumbling mistake. There are a dozen loose ends I could point to and get upset about. What I object to is that Jack’s behavior and subsequent poor decision completely nullifies everything he went through in the previous episode. His “new” leadership ability ends up dividing the entire group, and fails to organize them into any kind of mass labor necessary for survival.

All of this is glossed over or minimized into the background because the episode focuses on the character whose episode and flashback this is (Sun, the Korean woman with a Mafia father). Not that the focus shouldn’t have been on Sun, or that the story is done poorly (it is rather excellent), but I think the decision to negate Jack’s character development is a fatal mistake. It is this decision, I think, that creates the first crack in the integrity of the show. How can you take anything the characters do seriously, when their actions will be rendered meaningless in the next episode?

It’s hardly an immediately devastating blow. You keep expecting Jack to get back on track as a character, and you don’t have enough episodes under the belt to form any context. But it begins a precedent that the show never recovers from, and in fact grows steadily worse as the seasons drag on. By the end of the third season, every character on the show has experienced life-altering moments, made what should be irrevocable choices, or acted in ways that would get them clobbered by any reasonable group of people, only to return to the same person they were when they first came to the island. As a side effect, the things that these characters interact with also become meaningless. The ghost of Jack’s father? Never seen again and never explained. Locke’s mystical explanation for the island? Never followed up or referred to again. The cave? Abandoned at the end of the first season for no real reason. The water source? Tarps magically appear and are turned into rain collectors by invisible servants. The things in “White Rabbit” may as well have never appeared, for all the importance they had.

That, I think, is my fundamental problem with the show, and why I refuse to watch it anymore. Nothing matters. Nobody changes. I’m not sure that the puzzles even mean anything, if they exist. I’m still waiting, three years later, for Jack to fulfill the promise he showed in “White Rabbit” (among many other numerous stalled storylines). You could fit the character development of the entire cast in about six episodes, even though there have been over seventy episodes now! Everyone is still stuck in the “I can’t get over my issues” phase of the heroic journey, and consequently all we get is the characters eating dirt instead of facing consequences.

It’s a problem I think has become particularly endemic in today’s television programs. Networks make money off of shows that they can milk long term. They are afraid that if they have actual long-term storylines that resolve themselves, they’ll lose the audience share they are milking for ratings. The result in recent years seems to be a preponderance of what I call the “false tension rollback”. You build up a massive conflict in an episode with promises of major consequences, only to back down at the last minute, then spend the rest of the episode explaining how the characters got to that point. I’ve seen a lot of “promises” from Lost in the last two years, none of which have delivered.

Broken promises. Broken heart. These boots were made for walkin’.

I get the feeling that the Klingon attack cruisers are out in force right now.  Celebrating their version of Thanksgrabbing I suppose.  Shooting energy torpedoes everywhere like gangbusters and not worried about where the things land.  So it was that not even Michael Monticore’s cat fur deflectors could keep us from taking a direct hit on the main computer.  Specifically, K’s computer gave us the blue screen of doom and that was pretty bad news.

My science officer, Kool Kat, did his best to bring the damaged system back online, resorting to the system restore disk which had worked very well twice before in previous episodes.  Alas, the system restore failed to take hold, and the blue screen of doom started appearing even with the computer in Safe Mode.  In game terms, we had to move the status chit on our character sheet for the Computer from “damaged” to “destroyed”, rather than “repaired.”

Well, one can’t have amazing adventures in outer space on a starship without a computer.  At least, not without switching idioms in mid-season, which could prove bad for ratings.  And I don’t think turning a sci-fi show into a western exactly is what K and I signed on for on this channel.  So, Kool Kat looked at me and gave me the report.  Cue close up of me in the command chair with suitably appropriate music as I have to make a command level decision.  K’s Sims happiness bar is going down by the hour without her online MUD connection.

No decision, really, but nice and dramatic with heavy sighing and first-rate acting.  I call up the engineer, Captain Boozer, and tell him we need an infusion of Warp Power from the bank account.  You see, moving the quality chit for the Computer from “used” to “new” automatically moves the status chit to “operational”.  Captain Boozer doesn’t exactly like giving up the bank account Warp Power, but that’s an order!  Luckily, we manage to obtain something cheap without getting too horribly fleeced, Kool Kat replaces the old console with the new one, the character sheet is updated, and K’s happy level goes up.

I chalk it up to the science officer using his special ability of “Emergency Damage Repair”, and we get back in the action.  I take this as a hint I should fortify some of my own systems, and I make sure to burn a hard copy of my book work to date.  Not that I wasn’t maintaining multiple copies, mind you, but always good to keep one step ahead of demands, as they say.  Got myself some hot flash drive action for easy transfer and backup.  The old floppy to zip disc action wasn’t cutting it anymore.

My sensors don’t pick up any Klingon attack cruisers out there at the moment.  But be on the lookout.  They could peek-a-boo at any moment and fire you a nice juicy surprise!  Just another day in the neutral zone of life, so to speak.

Picking up where I left off, K and I experience four days in Portland generally having a wonderful time. Shopping, sightseeing, eating and drinking without much in the way of hassles. Of course, it’s hard to tell because just about anything “bad” has to measure up to the living hell we just experienced on the train before we get upset. We more or less blank out the horrible fact that we have more to come and live for the now. We laugh at our recent misadventure as if it were some tale told to frighten children, never mind that this experience would make the boogeyman hesitate, and it was as real as a kick in the teeth.

Having been to Japan, and traveled on the bullet and regular trains both overnight and day-trip, I found the Amtrak experience a shock. In Japan the trains run smoothly, are well maintained, and the experience is average at a minimum and very often pleasant. I wasn’t expecting the same level of quality as in Japan, but the appalling experience K and I got made me confused when I thought about it during our vacation. Does not compute. System failure. System failure.

We thought about ditching the train and buying tickets on a flight, which is what the folks recommended, but the prices for such short notice just weren’t possible on our budget, or so I rationalized. So how bad could it be, right? Well, in retrospect I think we were out of our tiny little minds and should not have been allowed back on that train. The shock of the three day hell ride warm-up had rendered us incapable of making rational decisions. It’s only money.

So, vacation is over, time to go back on the train. This time, we tell ourselves, it will be different. We are ready to kick butt and take names. We bought ourselves some card and board games for the trip, a cache of water and snacks, and a can-do attitude. We know it’s going to be bad, so it won’t be as bad if we go in with clenched fists and a furrow of concentration.

Epic fail.

All the usual nonsense is there as before. The gorge is as scenic as it was before, and this time we get to see some of the scenery we missed on the way in because it was early morning. The card and board games hold up a little to the racket, but not as much as we’d hoped. The fun just isn’t there to be had, regardless of the activity, because your brain never gets a break from the stress that becomes panic and fear. We’re starting to fall into the old reliable habits of sit, stare, nap, talk, when the intercom buzzes with the conductor’s voice and makes a pronouncement.

Apparently, there’s been a train derailment on the track up ahead of us. As of now, trains using this track are being stopped at either end. The passengers are being put into buses and shipped to the other end of the derailment to board another train. Oh, great. At first it’s absurdly funny, but then we start facepalming ourselves. We should have flown home. Welcome back to hell. The train stops at some nowhere terminal with about eight or nine buses waiting to transport the suckers who paid for this trip. We grab our luggage and cart it into the bus, where we grab seats and try to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.

The attendants help an enormously overweight woman with bad legs onto the two seats in front of us. She’s in incalculable pain and tears are streaming down her face. The chairs creak when she is seated, and something plastic breaks. The smell of coach enters the bus as several passengers with bad hygiene enter and take seats. The air system of the bus doesn’t work. Neither does the toilet, but that’s a surprise awaiting us half way into the journey through time and space in search of new ways to experience hell. Oh yeah, dinner is canceled. And our snack and water cache is in the outside lower cargo hold of the bus.

The journey takes nine hours, through Idaho and into Montana. So much for seeing Glacier Park again. The windows open only a crack. The woman in front of us spends the entire trip either crying softly to herself in agony or sleeping with a loud, heavy breath. At one point she has to go to the bathroom, an epic effort accomplished with the help of the attendants and several brave passengers. This is when the toilet gives out beyond any shadow of a doubt, and a steady sewer smell wafts into the bus whenever someone goes to empty their bladder because they can’t hold it anymore. K and I can’t sleep, we can only stare into space and wait for it to end.  There is no smell.  I do not hear the sounds of suffering.  Fluffy clouds.

The bus is noticeably more stable a travel experience than the train. No jolts or swerves or clickity clack doom bang booms. But the bus drivers are driving like maniacs, putting the pedal to the metal such that we are passing cars and trucks like the bus in the movie Speed. K and I worry the bus is going to crash and flip around, and we’re going to be crushed by the overweight woman as the bus catches fire. Since the sun started to set right about the time the train stopped to kick us off, there’s nothing to see.  There’s nothing like the wholesome experience of travel by bus.

After what seems like an eternity of stink and boredom, we reach the small town where the derailment took place. There are tons of work lights everywhere around the wreck. We drive by, and it looks like a cargo train derailed. The tank cars are strewn all throughout the track’s immediate area in bent and half-buried hulks of metal wreckage. The tops of the tanks have burst, spilling out grain in huge piles. We get the scoop from one of the attendants. The train driver was going 75 mph in a 45 mph zone, and jumped the track. I blink, because I recognize this town as one we passed through during the night on the way to Portland. I suppose the reason we didn’t derail is because we slowed down to stop at the station. Nice to know!

The bus ride is not over yet. We stop in a huge parking lot behind a series of strip mall eateries. Amtrak has decided to feed us all with a massive Subway sandwich eat-a-thon. K and I watch in shock and horror as people exit the bus and mull around like a bunch of wild animals. A group of attendants carry an enormous cardboard box from the store over to the center of the mob, drop it, and back away. Within seconds people swarm around the box and pull away whatever turkey or ham sub sandwich they can get their hands on. It’s like feeding time at the zoo. The image burns into my brain as if this were the apocalypse and we’ve just entered the Road Warrior dark future where survival is measured by how fast you reach the Subway sandwich box.

K and I each manage to get a sandwich after the immediate feeding frenzy passes, about ten minutes later. For Subway, this is pretty substandard fare, but it absorbs the stomach acid, and lowers the stress level. Here we are, in a middle-of-nowhere Montana town, at night, being bussed across the land like convicts in what can only be considered good value for the dollar. If this were a rare occurrence, I could take some solace in knowing that it was just the roll of the dice on the random encounter table. But the way in which the attendants and conductor handle themselves, I get the impression that this is normal operating procedure. The experience itself is horrible, but the way in which the basics are handled (passenger management, transportation, food) is efficient and matter-of-fact. These people know what they are doing. It’s a losing battle, but they are soldiers in hell, and they will make it through with these civilians no matter what the cost. Maybe they should be running the Iraq war, I don’t know.

We hop in the bus again, and the journey continues. If we’d had a thought, we’d have gone to the bathroom in one of the convenience stores or fast food joints. But now it’s too late. Nothing but a clogged toilet for relief now! Good thing we had some cokes before we left. By the time we reach the next stop down the line, our bladders are in emergency power mode. We disembark and hit the relief valves in the station. Our bus driver was speeding so hard we reached the station ahead of everyone else, and because of the way the road goes, only one bus can unload at a time. Thank goodness we didn’t have to go native, because that’s what would have happened if there had been a line.

The new train isn’t ready because apparently the previous passengers were only just evacuated, and the attendants of the previous train left everything a mess for the current crew to pick up on. The attendant for our new car volunteers us to help him set up the rooms of the car. We reluctantly agree, one because it means we can stow our baggage first, and two because it means we can get on the train before anyone else. We help the guy take out old bedding and towels and install new ones. Oh, did you think you were on vacation? In an alternate universe where nothing is what it seems? We do this for about an hour, then the guy goes off to make a report. He leaves us with his portable DVD player and DVD selection as a reward for our service. As I get ready for my turn to shower before the hordes descend, I go into the baggage compartment to grab some new clothes. I notice that the toilet on the second level is dripping into the baggage compartment and leaking right on our luggage! Wow.

We empty out our suitcases and move them to another compartment with a grumble. Luckily we caught the leak in time, before it penetrated the casing, but it’s still gross beyond belief. The other passengers start boarding the train, and I direct the ones in our immediate area away from the contaminated storage compartment. The trip has officially gone from bad mojo to epic horror. K and I settle down to watch some DVD action as the train speeds up on it’s appointed night train hell ride. Luckily, the outlet works and we don’t have to drain the batteries. We watch about six episodes of Good Times before we realize a secret of kung fu on a train – watch movies. I make sure to tip the guy my last twenty when I hand the DVD back to him in the morning. And look there, old reliable coffee and juice, just when I need an emergency infusion of sanity.

Our cabin is on the bottom level of the superliner, and we keep to ourselves there as much as we can. The air doesn’t work, so we have to leave our door open to keep some sort of current going, but that means we have to hear the noise of our fellow passengers who have the same idea. I honestly have to question the sanity of people who decided to let their kids travel with them in these tiny little sardine two-fers. The choice is noise and distraction damage, or bad air and sweaty grime damage. Either way, you are taking the damage on. Sleep is still bad. Even though we don’t get quite the same sway and weave as the top end of the train, it’s still there. Instead, we are closer to the wheels, where we get harder jolts and louder clickity clack dings.

By the time we get into Chicago, we’ve missed our original train connection and have to wait until tomorrow before we can go home on the last leg of our harrowing journey. Everyone is taxied off to various hotels to spend the night on Amtrak’s dime until they can make their connection. We end up somewhere in downtown Chicago staying the night in a hotel in some tall building. It’s a tiny affair, and the building is old, probably going back to the thirties, but K and I are so exhausted we can’t think. It’s a bed, and the clickity clack fear is only an echo in my damaged brain.

I don’t know, are rest stops worse when you just keep going back to the same old torture? You never become used to the panic and fear. You recover only enough for the horror to regain its freshness.

We are broke, so we have to walk twelve blocks back to the station through town. I think I end up carrying three different pieces of luggage. I must look like a mule. We’re starved and thirsty. Wish Amtrak had bought us a coupon for a free breakfast at McDonalds right about now. We get to the station, and are accosted by a street derelict who begins pestering me with questions. “What train you on? What train you on? WHAT TRAIN YOU ON? What time you leave? What time you leave?” It’s about this time I completely lose my mind and say, “Dude, just leave me alone okay? I can’t think right now! Aaa!” The guy gets defensive and says, “Get your head together, fool!”

Aaa!  Malfunction!

We make it back to the complimentary lounge for cabin passengers and I avail myself to a breakfast of cheap bagels and coke. Thank God corporate excess got something right. We settle in and wait for the train to come in and take me away from this vacation from hell. But it ain’t over yet.

The next train arrives, and we board it. This time we get the top floor of another superliner. I’m totally sick of this. Another night at the top of the tree swaying to and fro. This time the coffee and juice is not there. The current attendant is a guy who dodges us every chance he gets after he checks our tickets. We’ve packed our stuff back into our toilet-contaminated luggage now that we’ve had a chance to dry it off. What choice do we have? We settle down and wait for something to happen, like a meal or a bathroom break. Something smells. A burnt rubber kind of smell comes through the vent. We go outside and it’s also in the car. The smell is not to the point where you gag and choke, but at the level of perfect discomfort without immediately impairing your health. The smell fades the further back in the train we go, in this case when we go to dinner.

Once again at dinner we get shortchanged in choices, and the meals have gotten more mundane, or we have lost all hope and see things as they really are now, a mess of pre-prepared food material edible enough to keep you from starvation but little else. Our table companions end up being a couple with whom we have nothing in common and ignore us after the first few cynical exploratory social exchanges. Fine with us, I want to stare at my proto steak slime with imitation potato and unrecognizable gristle. I really would have preferred K and I having our own little table together and eating in private without the intrusion of total strangers you have to put up with for forty minutes and then never see again. It’s one of the few times we could actually stretch out and sit comfortably without the sardine effect.

Night falls, and the speed begins. We stoically try the sleep game again, but the swinging and swaying, combined with the loud noise and horn blowing produces the usual panic and fear. Only this time the burnt smell makes it even more unbearable, if that can be believed. Just when you think you can’t sink any lower, hell shows you the next level. K and I go through the usual panic and fear until we collapse from exhaustion and wake up at the crack of dawn announcement from the conductor that we bite the big one and have a lot more coming to us. I think I might be hallucinating from the smell.  We decide to skip breakfast and the shower, and instead sit waiting until our time on this hellride is up. We just don’t care anymore. Right now, the only thing keeping me alive is the faint knowledge that at some point in the future timeline of what ought to be mainstream reality, K and I leave this train and recover from the never-ending terror of hell.

The smell gets worse, and I complain to the attendant, who gives me a frightened look. He says it’s “nothing” and everything will be alright. He then speaks into his walkie talkie that “the passengers are noticing.” Noticing what?  The smoke drifting past our window, of course.  K and I gape at the smoke and try to think, but nothing happens.  Brimstone, anyone?  Like fries with that jack-up?  Then the couple in the Sleeper opposite ours start freaking out. “Damn, man, there’s a fire goin’ on in that car up ahead!” The smoke and fumes are getting pretty bad now, so me and K start rummaging through our luggage for something to break the glass with. The window does not open like it does in Silver Streak, and at this point I’ve had it with Amtrak, and it’s lousy service, crummy freak-out random encounters, slip-shod maintenance, awful food, and randomly determined fearful staff. May they all burn in hell, because we’re going to bust open the window and flee this nightmare before anything more happens to us. The panic and fear are so palpable, I can feel my stomach acid wanting to pop up and say hello.

Yeah, I know, we were on the top story of a fast moving train. That’s how insane we had gotten. But then something happens. The clock strikes at dawn, the rooster crows, and the devil has to close up shop for the day. The train slows down and comes to a stop. The conductor comes over the intercom and says we have stopped for a “technical repair” and that everyone should remain where they are. Yeah, right. But then the smell disappears and so does the smoke. The passengers are broiling like chicken soup on high. Then the train starts up again, and all is well. Fifteen minutes later, we pull into Union Station and disembark. Halleluiah.

My folks are there to greet us. K and I look like rat bags. They grab our smelly, spare luggage and help us escape the land of hell and drive us home, while we relate the story of our harrowing experience in small bursts. The folks laugh like leprechauns, and I realize it really is over, the war hell ride is OVER! I can go back to work and my everyday life and not worry whether I’m going to die for hours on end in a train sardine can filled with panic.

K and I recover from the shock and the fear, but I fear the memory of it has burned a scar in our psyche from which we can never recover. I will never willingly board an Amtrak train again. I hate flying, but at least it gets you from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time, and the suffering is minimal. Most of all, it makes me sad to see such a valuable institution as the railways in America reduced to such a pathetic shadow of its former self.

A few weeks back, I saw in the news a derailment of a train in the Northwest between Seattle and Portland. All passenger service had to be redirected by bus to their connections, according to the article. I could only think of a cardboard box filled with Subway sandwiches, dropped in the middle of a starving mob of people.

I was just talking to a co-worker the other day. She had returned from a cruise with her mom on one of those “tropical” packages. Now me, being one of those people who reads of cruise ships in the news and the kinds of whacky stuff that afflicts cruise-goers, I was of course interested to hear what she had to say about her experiences. One always reads of cruise ships losing a balance thruster and veering to the side, nearly knocking passengers off the deck, of outbreaks of unsavory diseases from the food or sick passengers, or of large scale failure of the toilet system. While my co-worker didn’t describe anything on that level of awful, her experiences were suitably “cuckoo” enough for her to render the phrase, “The Cruise Dimension.”

Ahhh. I know her tale well from my own travel experiences. Many of the things she related to me could easily have applied in some way to my own travel adventure. I’m talking about the Amtrak War Hellride that K and I went on one fine summer for vacation several years back. A tale so sordid and unbelievable it will take two posts to tell it properly!

We decided to visit Portland, Oregon and take the train there. Take the overnight from Union Station in DC to Chicago, then switch to the Empire Builder and take the two-day trip to Oregon through the northernmost United States. The Empire Builder stops through Glacier Park, Montana in the summer, and moves through the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side. What could go wrong? Sounds idyllic and romantic, right? Harmony joy train-ride, here we come!

For reasons of economy, we decide to travel in a Roomette, which is two seats facing each other with a fold out table in the middle. A bed folds out from the ceiling and the two chairs fold to create a bed. A little cramped, but up close and personal as this is supposed to be quality romantic time for K and myself. There’s air-conditioning/heating, light panels, and piped-in music. Whee!

See, there’s this movie Silver Streak, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, where Mr. Wilder plays a book editor who gets involved in a caper involving an international forgery ring. It has a pretty girl, murder most foul, and lots of absurd situations. It’s a pretty good mix of laughs and action, and it’s one of my favorite movies. Yes, yes, I’m getting stars in my eyes thinking I’m going to go on a train ride and experience the coolness factor of the movie in some way, right? Wrong! K and I are going to get the life-threatening peril and abject stress-out terror of the action, but none of the scenic beauty or comedy of this movie. Which, in a way is more realistic than the undefined fantasy.

I’d been on trains before, back when I studied in Japan and took several long trips around the country. The train system there is nothing short of impressive, so I was expecting, well maybe not as good, but a similar experience. How bad could it be?

So K and I board the train and reach our appointed sardine can. Whoa, smaller than the Amtrak 3D picture made it out to be. This is, well, very small and cramped. We stash our luggage and anipals where they will fit on the sides and at our feet, pull out the miniaturized table that might hold two sodas if they’re close together, and sit down on the rather uncomfortable fossilized cushions that will be a bed later tonight. Already I’m thinking we should have gone for a larger cabin, this is ridiculous. After one day of this we’re going to be crawling the walls!

I pull out my MP3 player and plug in the adapter. Both electrical outlets are dead. Good thing I brought batteries! K tries to adjust the air unit. No luck, the hot/cold dial has no effect on the trickle of tepid air coming out the vent. I try the music jack and get static in my headphones on all channels. The light panels work, thankfully. K tries the shades, even though it’s a cloudy day. We find out that the shades don’t work very well at keeping light out, nor do they move out of the way easily to allow light in. They work in a kind of nebulous Twilight Zone area of “almost but not quite” useful I find annoying.

We settle in for the ride, me with music and K with one of her new books on knitting. She’s brought a number of projects to work on, while I’ve brought some writing and drawing materials along. We plan to be artistic during this long trip, as we figure the ride will be conducive to quiet meditation and relaxation. Wrong! The first thing I notice is that the train jolts and makes a lot of noise as it travels over the tracks. The tracks must be in really poor shape to make such constant, annoying noise, and the train’s mechanical elements must be in need of repair to have no muffling effect on the jolts and swerves the train is making. I scratch my head, as this isn’t high technology railway stuff here. With over a century of railroad behind it, Amtrak should be at a Harley Davidson motorcycle level of tried and true tested design by now. It doesn’t bode well that the maintenance and upkeep is so poor.

Since we can’t relax or concentrate, we watch the landscape go by and make snide comments about how crummy Amtrak is. One thing I notice is that while we do pass some areas of nice natural beauty, we also pass a lot of decrepit old places. We go by an automobile and truck graveyard filled with rusty and broken frames overgrown with vines. Abandoned homes, burnt out old shells of factories, run down neighborhoods, and busted stone foundations. This motif is repeated all along the entire trip, and I can’t help but feel I’m seeing a vision of the United States as a third world country. Where entire sections of the country’s infrastructure have been left to deteriorate and crumble in silence. It’s a depressing sight, and it makes the journey less of a sightseeing expedition and more of a nightmare premonition of things to come.

Hungry or thirsty? Each car has an attendant who maintains a station with fresh coffee and juice. You want food, you have to hit the concessions stand in one of the observations cars, where they charge you outrageous prices for a candy bar. You can get microwaveable items or a sandwich, as well as beer or other drinks. In order to reach the concessions watering hole, you have to brave the coach cars, filled with smelly and obnoxious people, which struck me as odd as they also stand in the way between you and the dining car.

I have to admit that the coffee is really good, and the juice at least keeps you hydrated, which is important because the crummy air system seems to suck the moisture out of you without making you comfortable in any way. The coffee and juice station is going to be the only bright spot in what will be a horrific experience for us.

Now, when it comes time for a meal, breakfast/lunch/dinner whatever, the event is announced over the loudspeaker, which blares into your cabin like a holy terror on wheels. You can’t turn it down, it has one volume – loud. As K and I find out, by the time you traverse the half dozen cars to reach the dining car, the coach passengers are already in line ahead of you being seated. You are guaranteed a seat and a meal, but the coach passengers have already started making a dent in the food selection, of which there is a limited amount, so you might order say, the pizza only to be refused because it’s just run out. Meanwhile, the drunken jerk from coach who kept singing while you were in line at the concession stand is eating a pizza right across from you.

You also have to sit with total strangers at random. This is supposed to give you a chance to socialize and meet new people, but I find it only introduces me to people I find annoying and repulsive. For breakfast, K and I found ourselves sitting across from two stragglers put together at random. A white, conservative old woman and a young conservative black woman dressed so that only her face was not covered. Neither one of them made particularly good conversation to begin with, but once they hit the issue of politics K and I felt we were in a nest of rattlesnakes.

Come to think of it, that about sums up the general feeling of this trip by train. Being in a nest of rattlesnakes, in constant fear of being bitten. Nice, huh? Go Amtrak!

The food tended to vary in quality, but was generally speaking on the level of slightly-better than cafeteria food. It’s sometimes good, but most of the time it’s a little better than average. Nothing to smack your lips over. Breakfast tends to be the best, as it’s really hard to screw up something like eggs and toast. The concession food was on the level of average, at times threatening to drop to poor but not quite that awful. You can always count on a Snickers bar or a bag of Doritos giving you a dependable experience, but what, you going to eat that for six days of train travel? Get ready for gastric gripe as that delicious cafeteria food flows through your intestines like gravy on an incline.

The toilets on the train are nothing short of grotesque. Trying to balance yourself above the pit of despair while the train rocks and jolts, even in the tight quarters, is an exercise in panic and fear. The showers are tight quarters also, and the water pressure pathetic, but at least it’s hot. I would rate the shower experience as passable.

The attendants vary in service from “you don’t exist and I am in hell” to fearfully helpful, as if they are about to enter hell and want their last acts to mean something. This does nothing to dispel “The Rattlesnake Dimension” of train travel. K and I brought lots of fives and ones to tip the attendants whenever they helped us. We wanted to show our appreciation and be polite, after all. In all cases, the attendants accepted our money as if we were handing them a lit stick of dynamite. That floored me. I couldn’t help but imagine that they were all being watched by Big Brother and for every dollar they receive, they get an electric shock when they go on break. Speaking of which, they often seemed on break, and I’m not sure if the “page attendant” button really works, because it never once worked.

Then night falls, and the nightmare really begins. Your not-so-fun train experience goes from pathetic and uncomfortable, to Night of The Demon. See, after the sun goes down, the train speeds up because there’s no reason to go slow in order for people to view the trashy landscape anymore. Seriously, it becomes so dark you can’t see any detail out the window. As the train speeds up, the noise and jolts of the train going over the run-down tracks increases dramatically. And since you can’t see anything, you start to lose a certain amount of perspective, so that when the train swerves, it feels like the car is about to fall over for just a split second. This ratchets up the fear factor of the trip to unimaginable heights. The train begins to honk its horn regularly, so at times a jolt or swerve of the train is accompanied by a loud blare as if you are about to go careening off the tracks into the depths of hell. Reading, knitting, writing? Ha ha ha ha ha! Romantic cuddling? More like clutching each other in fear while praying you make it through the night.

The attendant comes by and sets up your beds for the night, then disappears before you can ask any questions. Well, K and I are definitely tired now, but sleep is impossible. Let me say that again, sleep is impossible. Lying horizontal while the train swerves, bumps and clickity-clacks like the sound of the hooves of the four horseman of the apocalypse? Closing your eyes while you bob and weave in your bed, the rope netting keeping you snug in your pod capsule? Drifting to sleep when every sound tells you that this is the last ride of your entire life? What drugs are you on, because I want some! Good Lord, I wouldn’t wish this on my enemies, it’s beyond cruel. Every waking moment is spent in mindless terror, and every waking moment lasts an eternity. You sweat bullets wondering when the nightmare will end, and this goes on hour after hour until you literally pass out from exhaustion due to terror.

This is the first day of the trip.

About half an hour after you pass out from exhaustion, the sun starts to come up and the train slows down. Half an hour later, the loudspeaker begins announcing breakfast for the various car sections. K and I shamble to our feet and make our way to the food queue like newly minted members of the living dead. By the time we have acquired a shower and a new set of clothes, the train is rolling into Chicago. We disembark and settle into the station for the layover until our sardine slot on the Empire Builder is ready. The food in the restaurants is an order of magnitude better, the walking around stretches our legs, and we call the folks from a payphone to let them know we made it. There’s a special lounge for the purchasers of cabin space, which we take advantage of. Plenty of comfortable furniture to sit on, free snacks and drinks, television, and a kindly, helpful staff. What, did I just land on Mars? I want this to be our train experience! And oh my God, real functional toilets that don’t look like they came from the mind of some mad scientist.

And to boot, I get to wander around the station where the finale of Silver Streak takes place. It’s a slight kick, and recovers me a few hit points of damage from the war hellride.

The wait is interminable, but at long last we board our new sardine can on a superliner, a train car with two levels to accommodate additional passengers and baggage. There is no increase in floor space, however. The train rolls out and it all begins again. This time it’s going to be two days of hell before we get any relief. I still hold out the hope that this leg of the trip will be different, that last night’s ordeal was just a fluke. But, I’m afraid my hopes are dashed against the rocks. The experience ends up being repeated along the entire length and breadth of this trip. I sure hope I get a vacation to recover from my vacation.

Now that the trip is getting out into the heartland of the country, you’d think the scenery improves, right? Nope. Still passing by the junkyard detritus of America. The landscape lacks trees of any size, and is mostly rolling hills and overgrown fields. Pretty unimpressive. It’s nice when we pass homes where the occupants have settled outside to watch the train pass in their lawn chairs. I get a good feeling out of knowing that our passage is a positive event, even if those folks have no clue of the monstrous horror within the iron horse as it toots by. The stops are somewhat picturesque at times. We get to stretch our legs for a few minutes, while K takes pictures.

We’ve discovered that you can catch brief naps during the day before cramps force you to wake up and shift around in the fossil chair. A second night of fearful sleep has turned us ragged and grumpy, but the day naps help. It’s not as if there’s anything historical, scenic or wholesome out the window. We’ve figured out that you have to hoard food and drink from the concession stand, because they don’t restock it regularly, oh no. They let it run dry and don’t replace it until they reopen every morning. You haven’t lived until you’ve fought the mutants for the last bag of BBQ Utz for the night. The previous drunkard has disembarked, but has now been replaced by a new guy who insists on the staff opening the secret Bat-stash of beer so he can have one last ticket to paradise city. The coach class did a run on the hamburgers, so dinner is reduced to slop meat sauce on garbled mixture of protein material, or pig knuckles on a hot croissant served with radioactive Chernobyl sauce green beans.

Oh yeah, because we’re on the second story of a super-liner car, when the train speeds up for the night, the swerves at the top of the train are worse than for the single car. Imagine being at the top of a tree swaying in the wind and you’ll get the idea. Panic and fear receive a bonus to their roll, so the stress level amps up beyond any reason. K and I suck down the wine we smuggled aboard, hoping to pass out drunk and at least get a decent sleep at the expense of a hangover, but it fails. Something about the Terror Train makes getting drunk impossible, and you go straight to throbbing headache with dulled reflexes, which makes moving about something of a fun house in terms of trying to stay sane. Curse the fates all you want, you still have to stay awake in fear until you don’t. Suicide? What if that doesn’t work? Nothing else seems to work, and what if it makes things worse? Remember, panic and fear in “The Rattlesnake Dimension”. No hope, only fear.

Glacier Park, Montana actually turns out to be scenic. We coil and twist through the mountain range, and get grand views of forest and valley. The stops are nice. Unfortunately, the track switches and we get a beautiful view of a cliff wall from then on after. And since we didn’t come upon it until the evening, the sun soon sets and we can’t see even that. The train speeds up, and we’re barreling through twists and turns at breakneck speed with the horn of hell blaring the final crash at any moment. We run out of snacks and water/soda, which is a minor emergency as right now the last battle at the concession stand is being fought. But we’re too worn out right now to care. The only thing keeping us sane is each other’s company. We can’t do anything other than sit, stare, nap or talk. The train makes anything else practically impossible.

Another night of “stay awake or die” passes, and we wake to the train entering the Columbia River Gorge. Now this mother-scratcher is scenic! The place looks like it hasn’t been totally devastated by humans, nor is there the ever-present sign of decrepitude I kept seeing. Just picturesque beauty and nice, unobtrusive signs of human habitation. Despite a gnawing hunger and thirst, K and I are too tired to go to breakfast. Thank the Maker for the coffee and juice station. The only sign of humanity in the entire damn train. The end of this leg of the ordeal is in sight, and all we can do is think about how it will soon be over. The wait is excruciating agony, especially when the train has to stop for a brief service check in Vancouver. So close!

We arrive, and stumble off the train with our luggage looking like a pair of refugees. The station is a nice, small, old school structure downtown. We are so out of it, we don’t call a cab and walk six blocks to the rental car agency, stash our stuff in the trunk, and walk to an actual café where we grab a vegetarian meal. Everyone is smiling and gossiping, having a good time. It’s like we just walked into happy land, and we’re so stunned we can’t talk. We eat with the slow weariness of victims. A random person walks by us on the street and asks if we’re okay and need help. I start shaking from shock. It’s too much, the lack of panic and fear. I get a tasty burrito and coffee into my stomach and I start to respond. K and I are alive, and it’s real vacation time.

But four days later we must face the unthinkable again, only worse, for another three days. Hell just got an upgrade, but we wouldn’t know that until later.

The folks have been going through piles of old photos for organization, and I spotted one that reminded me of my attempts to raise a genuine, honest-to-goodness “dinosaur”.  My folks took a picture that is better left to the imagination.  But first, we must travel into the Wayback Machine.

I’m nine years old, hanging out with Pa at the local Seven-Eleven to pick up a newspaper.  I spot a clear plastic container with a nest and a large candy jawbreaker “egg” labeled as a “Pterodactyl Egg”.  I recall a small folded instructions sheet on how to raise your very own Pterodactyl, but I may be mis-remembering.  I convince Pa to buy me the thing, and back at home I read the instructions and get excited about raising my very own live Pterodactyl.  This is many, many years before the arrival of Jurassic Park on the mainstream.  But I’m nine years old, I don’t have to understand how on earth someone managed to mass produce real Pterodactyl eggs for home use.  I have to get busy raising my new pet!

My folks know better than to get in the way of my creative projects when I’m on a roll, so they let me make a nest of pillows and blankets in front of the televsion set.  Yup, I have to sit on that egg to warm it up and get that little Pterodactyl going.  Unfortunately, the instructions don’t say how long you have to sit on the egg for it to hatch.  But it shouldn’t take long, right?  In the meantime, I make myself a pair of Pterodactyl wings and a pointed headpiece so that my new pet will feel more at ease with his or her new family.  I can hardly wait!

The last of the late night programs finish up and the television programming goes off for the rest of the night.  For all you younger people out there, before the advent of “Borg Cable Boredom”, the half dozen local channels would go off the air around the late AMs to the National Anthem.  You would get static until they resumed operations several hours later.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Poltergeist, that’s where the scene with Carol Anne looking at a static television would come in.  Now it’s all shows all the time.  Anyway, it’s bedtime and I have to keep the egg warm, so I pile on the blankets and go to sleep right there, with my arms around the mound to keep the warmth coming.

Inevitably, I have to accompany the parental units on a grocery run or some other errand, so I worry about keeping the warmth up on the egg.  My folks assure me all will be well, so I leave the blanket pile on and when I come back I resume my “sitting” on the egg.  After a few days of this, I start to get impatient.  Where’s that darn dinosaur?*  What’s taking it so long.  I re-read the instructions and talk about it with my folks, who suggest it might not be a “real” egg, but a gag gift and just a hunk of candy.  Brain cells start to calculate, and I start questioning whether it’s actually possible for a candy egg to hatch a real live baby “dinosaur”.  Denial sets in, but my hopes are crumbling.

I decide I have to check the egg out.  While warm, the jawbreaker shell is still nice and tough.  I shake it and nothing rattles.  Okay, even though I might be killing my new pet, I’ve got to see if this thing is for real because I’m getting tired of sitting on the darn thing.  So I take Pa’s hammer and smash it open.  I figure if I come across the mangled remains of a “dinosaur” I can always go back to the store and get another.  Sure enough, hollow center, but no Pterodactyl.  I’m crushed.  All that time wasted trying to raise a unique pet for a crummy piece of candy.  And I hate jawbreakers too, so I’m not even going to get much in the way of sweets from the pieces.  What a rip-off!

Yup, that picture is of me sitting on my nest wearing my construction paper outfit.  Back to the present, I’m thinking about what the effect might have been on my brain stem, and I think about my fondness for Pterodactyls.  From the Japanese monster movie Rodan, to Pee Wee Herman’s puppet buddy, there’s an attraction there that runs very deep.  I’ve heard it said our failures motivate us, and in this case I believe the phrase applies.  When I think about that time, the memory of my matter-of-fact, childlike belief that I was really going to hatch a real live Pterodactyl from a piece of candy is still fresh.  It’s scary, because I have that feeling and the feeling of disappointment that came after to compare with.  Both feelings stare me in the face.  It’s like that time I saw the Batmobile in an earlier post.  There are moments in your life where reality as you know it threatens to take off into the fantastical and it’s only the disillusionment that brings you back to objective life.  We really are sometimes just a step away from other worlds where who knows what might happen.

I start thinking about that movie The Illusionist, where the young Eisenheim’s failure to disappear with his childhood love motivates him to master his gift and create a masterful trick.  The magician is the person who plays with those two worlds and brings forward magic.  Not necessarily magic in the sense of a power, such as the ability to fly or make a rainstorm, but a reminder of the vast mystery of life.  The kind of performance that kindles the imagination and makes you whole.  I’m thinking my misadventure with the Pterodactyl egg, while foolish, was also spontaneous and imaginative.  Coyote the trickster was sending a message to the future that day.

* I realize Pterodactyls are not considered true “dinosaurs” these days, but I’m not digging into that can of worms today.