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Letters from an American, January 19, 2024

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Adventures in travel

We were dropped off at entrance to St. Paul’s union depot about eight in the morning, despite our awareness that the train was already delayed approximately 45 minutes. As we sat in the cavernous hall, along with a growing number of passengers, I researched the internet for information about the status of the train.

Amtrak itself does not seem to publish a real-time map of the system, but several enterprising (and low-budget) sites exist for this purpose. The appropriately named railrat being my new go-to. I appreciate the quick load times and mostly text-based information, however all the news was bad. The delay times grew longer and longer between data refreshes.

After a text message update from Amtrak (“we’re experiencing delays”), I considered heading back home to grab the van, but was able to determine that the train had in-fact left St. Cloud and was chugging our way. There were updates on railrat of the speed dropping to zero that impacted the growing delay, and I could only guess that the great Empire Builder was being forced to wait as freight trains sharing the tracks were moving in and out.

Before too much longer, at least, the train did arrive at St. Paul’s Union Depot. A long line had quickly formed in anticipation, and general announcements were made to the group. Looking back at the line one could only imagine what this hall looked like in the hey-day of train travel out of Minneapolis and St. paul, with multiple platforms serving the upper midwest.

Clearly the conductor had worked on his comedy routine as he explained the boarding procedure. Have your barcode out when you get to the front. If you don’t have your bar code out you will be sent to the back. If there were groups of 3 or more traveling together, come to the front so that they could efficiently assign the seats in coach.

Immediately two older folks and their dog walked to the front. The conductor reprimanded them with enough volume so that the entire line could hear, “No, your dog does not count as a person in your group.”

Person number four in line could not produce his barcode quickly enough, and then phoned a friend to discuss. He was directed to the back of the line. We approached the scanner, and were told “car four, and make sure they know you’re getting off at Glenview”.

We found two seats in coach quickly. I chose the left side of the train so that we could view the river on the way down. (Counter-intuitive because the river is on your right as you sit in Union Depot.) My memories of the last couple Amtrak rides quickly flooded back. The seats are in rough shape. The carpet, rougher. One of the reading lights doesn’t work. One of the tray tables, stuck in place. One seat missing a foot rest. For what we spend on a mile of rural highway resurfacing it seems that we could get some upholstery in here.

Nonetheless, the seat is comfortable and we get organized. Books, laptops, games, headphones and snacks come spilling out of our bags as we settle in. Pretty soon, the train starts moving. “It’s so smooth!” Elena exclaims.

The first couple stops and hours pass quickly. Since we were approximately 3 hours late in departing, lunch is served before we leave Minnesota. We are seated in the dining car with a graduate student attending UI Champage-Urbana for Computer Engineering. He’s from China. Can’t find an internship for the summer. “Is the job market good?” I think it is, I reply, not really knowing. We learn that he took the train from Chicago to Seattle and back for his winter vacation from school. We all order the burger. It’s quite tasty. I have the last Stone IPA in the dining car before they shut down the service.

The snowfall has picked up as we cross into Wisconsin, but we continue to chug along. Despite promises to “make up some time” in route, I determine from railrat that we are basically holding steady. Around the Wisconsin Dells, the troubles begin.

I had previously noticed an odd shudder in the train, seemingly when they were attempting to accelerate on the straights. We are clearly moving slower as we pull away from a most recent small station. An announcement is made that we are experiencing “a little” difficulty with the engine and they “can’t get it past notch 5”. “Possibly an hour to milwaukee” After the next stop in Columbus, WI, the train remains motionless for an exceedingly long time. At 5:03pm, the power drops out. The ventilation and accessory power stop. Attempts to reboot the systems are apparently made as the power comes on and off several times. An announcement or two are made, I’m guessing from the engine area, based on the ambient noise surrounding the unknown speaker. What I could only describe as a “hot mic” catches the following: “got a fault on the engine, it won’t move”.

Approximately two hours later, the train lurches violently several times as it attempts to start moving. I consider putting on the long underwear I brought along explicitly for the purpose of trudging across a wind-swept Wisconsin cornfield in a snowstorm in the event of an engine failure. There is no cell signal. Madison is 25 miles to the southwest. We could probably hitch a ride as soon as we find a road. As vague apocalyptic thoughts past through my head, the train starts moving, slowly at first and then with more purpose. Judging by the occasional vehicle I can see through the blizzard, we’re moving approximately 40 miles per hour.

A cell signal returns quickly enough and I get back on the site. The simple html and text once again loads instantaneously, even on 1 bar of LTE. (Did I mention there is no wifi on this train?) Railrat confirms the mental calculations I had made. We are about four hours behind schedule, now expected to arrive at 10pm. We’ve missed pizza night. The reserved uber ride from the glenview station is canceled until we have a better understanding of the arrival time.

At 7:12pm One of the Amtrak attendants gets on the PA to ask every to pray that we make it to Chicago. The amish man seated across from me loudly munching on a duffel-sized bag of popcorn dutifully lowers his head in silent assent.

Perhaps the call to prayer works in our favor, because with little additional drama, the train arrives to the Milwaukee station and slows to a stop. Immediately, all hell breaks loose.

“Assistance to the platform, we have a situation” crackles across the radio. A moment or two later, a wildly more urgent announcement. “We need some immediate assistance outside car 15, we have an emergency!”

Passengers in our car pile towards the windows trying to determine what is happening. The bystander effect kicks in, and I wonder for a moment if I should head closer to the situation, whichever direction that is.

Before I can leave my seat, another announcement. “The police have been called.” I can see one of the Amtrak employees carrying a piece of luggage and escorting someone off the platform. A terse announcement over the PA. “Please everyone stay calm, nobody is to leave the train. We have a serious situation outside.”

I can see a police cruiser pull up and park as if the driver is completing their behind the wheel training. A new, calmer person is on the PA: “I just wanted to get on and de-escalate the situation since the term “emergency” was used. We are waiting here for a new engine so that we can safely complete the remainder of the journey to Chicago. It will take approximately 30 minutes to get the new engine placed on the tracks and hooked up. We deeply apologize for the delays and appreciate your patience. Also, there was a brawl outside and the police were called.”

I consider asking if we can get off so that I can take a $250 Uber ride the remainder of the journey. I also consider renting a car, but all of the car rental locations are closed. The still blustery and snowy conditions do not inspire confidence in those options. Neither does the next announcement. “The new engine is here and we just need to cut the front engine off, hook up a few cables and we should be on the move. Should be about fifteen minutes” We’re currently running 6 hours late.

It is within an acceptably fuzzy 15 minute that we do indeed begin rolling. Clearly the tracks between Milwaukee and Chicago have seen some recent maintenance and repair. The engine pulls hard and we are quickly moving 75 miles per hour. (I had downloaded a GPS app at some point to check on our speed.)

Carl (from the Café car) gets on the PA. I had made a previous comment to Carl, while picking up a beer from the Café car, that this had been quite the adventure in my cheery Minnesota small talk way. His gaze of cold realism fixed on me as he said, “I’m just wanting to get home to my family.”

Carl’s mood has clearly lifted with the new southerly speeds. “Once again we apologize for the delays on our journey. At this time, everything in the Café car is complimentary. Everything except alcohol, which will NOT be served.”

Not one to turn down free food, I leap into action. So do at least two thirds of the trains passengers. Luckily I had beat most of them to the door, and was down in the stairs in a flash. Six or seven others were in front of me, grabbing everything they could see like a Kay-bee toy run. Elena pulls up next me as we take a candy bar, an asian noodle salad, and a diet coke for me. I look at Carl and say “thank you, hope you get to see your family soon”. He nods and hands me an ice-filled cup for the Diet Coke.

The North shore continues to whiz by the window. Now lit with suburban Chicago glow, I can see the snow has stopped. An announcement over the PA, Glenview is next. I’m still hopeful for what train travel in this country could be like. We grab our bags, nod to our fellow passengers and head for the exit. Two college-aged women are discussing their similar majors at different institutions. They are getting picked up by friends for late-night eats. Each makes this journey often, neither has experienced anything like it before.

It’s midnight as we stop in Glenview, more than 12 hours since we boarded and about 16 hours since we arrived to Union depot. It was an adventure, and we made it safely. Unfortunate to report upon, but I would still do it again. Not this weekend though, since our return ticket on Amtrak was already cancelled due to the storm and cascading crew displacement. Next time, I guess. Just now, as I finish the typing this story from the floor of O’Hare International Airport, a text buzzes on my phone. “Your flight is delayed.”

The quotes in this story are true to the best of my recollection. Names have been changed. The Amtrak employees we met were all working hard, despite the broken system.

new party

I wonder if we’ll ever get a new political party out of all the current mess.

Fetterman is an interesting case:

Fetterman, Breaking With the Left on Israel, Rejects ‘Progressive’ Label

“Can’t it be possible that it’s really appropriate to stand for both?”

That quote is out out of context – but the sentiment is there… all of this stuff is more complex than most of our public discourse has time for.

skiing at Afton Alps today

I just took quick notice of the fact that my climate change-related posts increase dramatically each winter as the warming of the planet is felt here in Minneapolis more than other places in the country.

They tell us that it is a “brown” Christmas about 30% of the time for as long as records were kept, however, I think that conflates the lack of precipitation with the warm temperatures. My phone tells me it rained about .4″ today – that should’ve been good enough for 4-6 inches of snow, but instead, we got mud and big ruts on the hill where the kids were practicing.

The impact on my kids’s (and my) psyche is pretty strong. The sound of rain all last night on the roof did not make for an easy wake up to go skiing this morning.

Four Takeaways From the COP28 Climate Summit

It took 28 years of climate negotiations for world leaders to agree to wean the global economy from the principal source of climate change: the burning of fossil fuels.

Great. They’ve been working on this almost as long as I’ve been blogging.

In the meantime – as I told the kids this morning, we need to keep on loving the things we love to do outdoors so we don’t lose the reason to keep up the fight for the climate.

Happy Thanksgiving 2023

As I sit here at my computer, there is so much to be thankful for. My family, friends and neighbors. Our careers and schools. Our city, and state and country. I’m thinking today about the many people in our country who might be celebrating Thanksgiving with much less, or not celebrating at all. And then, when I expand my thinking beyond our borders and seas, to the people in other countries who are searching for a better life, or who find themselves entangled in conflict, likely through no fault of their own. It’s a lot to comprehend.

I hope we’re still moving towards a future where the arc towards peace, safety, self-determination and freedom is as apparent and attainable as it is for our small corner of the world. Elections matter, the world over, and we’re seeing those outcomes play out, sometimes delayed, sometimes immediate. Nobody really reads my blog anymore, but I hope for anyone who does, that you are informed, involved, and take the responsibility of voting seriously.

I believe it is ultimately the free people of the world who can affect the change within our governments necessary to create equitable conditions for everyone. We won’t get there through violence, hate, intimidation, but simply through our love for each other and a mutual respect for our common humanity.

Twenty…. one? years of this blog…

I saw a post recently on another long time blog celebrating their twentieth, or possibly twenty-fifth year of writing continuously on their blog.

That struck me and I checked on my blog, twenty-one years ago I started this thing. (It was a post about our then puppy, Yeti)

I can’t even come close to saying that I’ve written here “continuously” but I am marveling at the thought that this blog is basically still working.

With all of the obsolescence (planned, or not) out there in technology, to keep something running for twenty plus years does deserve to be celebrated, I think.

A fair bit of nostalgia for that simpler past on the web has been creeping in for me, once again. I miss a lot of the old sites I used to frequent, and the conversations that were happening. Perhaps a sign of getting older, perhaps it was actually better in some way back then. I know that feeling I felt back in the early aughts is still out there, but at least for me, my day-to-day revolves around all of the people right in front of me, physically, and it feels like there is far less time to connect online…

favorite music of 2022


My year in music marked a big return to mostly well-known albums and songs. Listening, and relistening to many of my favorites from 2021 and before. I’ve been reflecting on why this is. It might be sign of my getting older? Perhaps I’m listening to new music in Spotify and I don’t know actually what I’m listening to? (Algorithms, etc).

Whatever the reasons, my “Top 10 Songs” for 2022 as tracked by spotify only contains one song released in 2022! (Wild by Spoon). When I read Pitchfork’s Top 50 Albums of 2022, I honestly could say I knew only one of the top 10 albums.

Ah, but what does it really matter if the music is new? Great music is great music and here are a few things I really enjoyed this past year:


We went to several great concerts this year. It was great to be hearing live music again.

Plains concert at First Avenue, November 18, 2022

Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Jess Williamson crushed this concert, playing some of their solo stuff, their songs as Plains and a few covers as well. Concert Review

The War on Drugs concert at The Palace February 16, 2022

I Don’t Live Here Anymore was one of my favorite albums over the past two years by far. This concert, coming out of the COVID lockdowns was just a happy, joyous, overwhelming moment. We grooved out hard and then got super tired and had to head home. We didn’t quite have our concert legs under us as of yet. Set List

Mt. Joy concert at Stubb’s in Austin – November 5, 2022

To celebrate our 20th and 21st wedding anniversaries (COVID put a damper on #20) – we headed down to Austin for the weekend. First time there! Mt. Joy is a new to me band this past year (the influences of a teenage daughter!) and this show, the last night of their tour, was a gem. Outdoors, ethusiastic crowd, really nice Texans, good food.

Jason Isbell at First Avenue September 24, 2022

This concert was amazing. The band was so fired up and the crowd was electric. It was a gift to have the opportunity to go to this show on the night that they received their star.

There were several other fun and amazing concerts this past year: The Wild Hearts Tour at Surly Festival Field. The National at Surly Festival Field. Golden Smog at First Avenue. Ryan Adams at Austin City Limits. The Elovaters at the Ford Amphitheater in Vail, CO (an especially beautiful setting).

I love live music.


Despite the spotify Top 10 songs not being a lot of new stuff – I did love a bunch of new albums from the past year:

Gemini Rights by Steve Lacy Honestly, I’m intimidated by this album. I can’t write intelligently about it. There is so much happening. I keep listening to it. He is clearly a genius.

Wet Leg by Wet Leg This debut album was super fun. Bummed I missed the concert at First Ave.

Every Shade of Blue by The Head and the Heart I loved their first album and “Virginia” was a constant fixture on our family playists.

Palomino by First Aid Kit I’ve been a fan of their since their first album – it seems like everyone else caught on in town here because tickets were impossible to get.

Lavender Days by Caamp #daughterinfluences This album connects through time for me… I can envision myself, freshman year in college, just completely jamming out to this one.

Cruel Country by Wilco Of all the Wilco albums, I would not say this one is my favorite, but the esteem with which I hold Jeff Tweedy and the rest of Wilco continues to grow. It makes me happy knowing they’re out there making music.

A few other Music favorites:

Okay, I’m an unabashed Taylor Swift fan now. She is on heavy rotation in our house.

I also love the new Blends feature in Spotify. It’s been great connecting with my family and friends over shared favorites and discovering new songs.

Do you get goosebumps when you listen to music? I was surprised to learn that this doesn’t happen to everyone! (~50% of people?) The song Phoenix by Big Red Machine gets me every time. Right at the beginning, and then as soon as Justin Vernon’s voice comes in at the refrain.

There’s more, to be sure. Despite not listening to a lot of new music this past year, I listened to a ton of music. Looking forward to more great music in 2023.