Route 66 revisited
Rumbling slowly out of the Chicago terminal on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief with 5 other artists bound (ultimately) for San Francisco, I can’t say that I expected any kind of a life changing journey. The train-based paint trip, En Train Air, certainly seemed from the outset to be a novel notion, but not one that was too terribly different from anything else I’d done in my life. I mean, I’ve spent the greater part of my art career on the road with artists painting what this glorious world has to offer. And it’s not like we were going up the Amazon in canoes, but this lumbering rail-bus adventure ended up being not what I had anticipated at all.
Backing it up a bit, I had been thinking about this trip idea for some time, but, not being a planner of any sort, I lacked the capacity to make it happen. I wrote Amtrak a few times searching for advice or encouragement or I don’t know what, but I never heard back. I knew that the artist Charlie Hunter had a thing for trains, though I had no idea how big his thing was. He is a train enthusiast without equal. If you took the guy you knew when you were a kid who had assembled an entire train-city at HO scale in his parents basement and made it all life-size, that would be Charlie. He had a plan in no time. We had a team assembled within a week with the amazingly talented artists Jason Sacran, Aimee Erickson, Shelby Keefe, Charlie Hunter, Randy Sexton and also me.
Below: a couple of the highly portable gouaches completed on the trip.
Anyone can book a ticket and hop a train, it’s not hard, but a cross-country paint trip is a bit different. Rule #1, get a tribe of artists that are both fun to be with and self-sufficient. You will be in close quarters for a while, you need to really enjoy each other’s company. Rule #2, get the most organized and type-A person to do all the planning. Rule #3, pack really light and portable.
It’s not fancy, not exactly first class but then again not second class either. It’s the journey, as corny as that sounds, the experience is the thing. From the very moment we walked into the Art Deco train station in Chicago I knew we were in for a different experience. This wasn’t a trip to Italy or China to gain insight into another culture, it was a trip through the greatest country, our country. And frankly, I had become somewhat estranged from the motherland, I needed to experience it this way.
In Europe train travel is very common, it’s woven into the infrastructure of the economy and inter-town connectivity. Here, it is somewhat passe´, we are always in a hurry and the one thing you can’t be on a train is in a hurry which is truly the beauty of it. As we began our trip in our own cabins, playing every train related song we knew (Kingston Trio has quite a few), the decompression process began. Sure, we could have all sat there and stared at our phones and counted the likes on our Instafeed waiting for the first stop to happen, but that defeated the whole point. We sang old songs and looked out at the things you don’t see when you are driving and certainly don’t see when you are flying. It was a long, gorgeous horizontal stream of gritty America.
The vantage point from these traveler trains is up high, somewhere in the area of a second floor balcony and while it often parallels the major highways, you see what you cannot possibly see from road level. Driving, your eyes are pasted to the road ahead, that old pickup truck with crappy furniture tethered with twine poised to drop a credenza in your path. The train viewing cars have a movie theater-like exposure to the world. Out of Chicago, rolling toward La Junta, CO we experienced vast farmlands as far as the eyes could see. My experience of farming is what is in front of me in the spotless produce section of Publix. Now, when I read news about some tariff war that will affect American farmers, I have a face to put with the aftermath. Suddenly the thing that was way off my radar became connected to sweat and blood, mortgages, equipment leases and college tuitions. Now I’m paying attention to the things I never thought about.
This particular train line is something of a lifeline for the small towns along the long route across the US. In the same way that the Greyhound line was for us growing up in 60’s Florida, the only form of mass transportation up the I-95 corridor (besides the train, of course). But it is currently at risk of being cut.
More decaying townships appeared than I can count. I’m familiar with junkyards, even attracted to them for the abundance of visual concepts they hold but the idea of personal junkyards, something middle-America has a thing for, I had not seen before. Entire communities where every backyard was piled high with crap and stuff. While a fascinating insight into life in the elsewhere, this was tough to see. I had to wonder what it was like to live in these little towns.
Charlie, having scheduled trips on this line for the last 15 years, knew where all the good detritus was and would call out, “decrepitude alert, right side in 5” or similar and we would all set our iCameras pointed to that direction.
Train sleeping is not for the slumber impaired. While it moves with a remarkably gentle rocking sensation, there are the occasional bumps and honking trains that hurtle by 4 feet away at a speed of 160 mph (relatively) in the opposite direction. Rule # 4, Melatonin. I will say the private cabins are cool as shit and I would totally recommend you get the ones on the upper level, preferably on the side of the train that is away from opposing train traffic. Whatever you do, if you share a cabin, do not claim the bunkbed unless you like the sensation of wearing a metal straightjacket.
Throughout all the daylight viewing opportunities the team stayed side by side, glued to the windows, waiting for the next visual treat or dilapidated adobe church which had surely been built in the 1870’s, to go whizzing by. I did not want to miss any of it. The iPhone works great for many things, just not things like oxide red cliffs off in the distance, so either bring a long lens or, Rule #5, just look out the window and be present.
And there is an actual dining car! The food was surprisingly good; steaks, fish, pasta, alcohol if you drink, coffee, tea, dessert, the works. If you buy a cabin ticket, lunch and dinner is included. Sometimes you would be placed at a table with two strangers where you would have an unexpected conversation with someone new. It was all so retro. When the dining car was closed there was a snack bar downstairs… all the creature comforts of a 3.5-star hotel whistling along at 80 miles an hour through the southwest desert. Bathrooms were communal and standing to pee at 3 am is apparently hard for everyone.
Below: Some late night train fun as we created fake album covers for each of the other “band” members.
The entire point of this trek was to visit and paint the small towns. If you are inclined to give it a go, reduce your gear to two bags, clothes and paint gear, Rule #3 again, pack light and then edit what you can do without. Make sure everything has wheels. When you do visit a town on this tour, book a hotel if you are staying overnight. The train passes through only once a day in each direction and the stops are literally 5 minutes to get on or off.
Towns like La Junta, Raton, and the like do not have Uber, some of them didn’t even have pedestrians… nobody walking around. I never felt unsafe, it was just sort of oddly quiet in that Twilight Zone episode 1 kind of way, where was everyone? I never felt weird out painting but then I never painted alone. Aimee E. and Shelby K. would just go wandering off by themselves so, if they felt okay, you will too. The people we did meet were exceedingly welcoming, if not a bit chatty.
Each small town brought new discoveries of life lived in these struggling-to-be-a-rising-phoenix communities. Some of them, Raton, NM for example, would be ideal for the introvert artist looking for an affordable home and studio rent. Trinidad, Co is a treasure trove of paintable stuff and also a cannabis supermall if that’s your thing, and thriving because of it.
For the artist looking for new painting opportunities, there are many. Each town should be experienced for two days in order to absorb and pick spots. If detritus is your drug of choice your will find it in spades in the old buildings, grain and train depots. Lamy, NM is a 5-layer chocolate cake of train stuff, it’s the Monhegan of machinery. The La Posada Hotel in Winslow, AZ (yes, that Winslow, AZ) was a wonderful trip back in time and right there on the tracks. Charlie H. is putting together a how to schedule your own trip on this line and that will be posted on his website, but for now you can view the 2019 itinerary to get ideas at www.CharlieHunter.art/CalendarEnTrainAir.
For the hop off, paint and hop back on artist, I’d recommend the Amtrak line that goes from San Diego, CA up the coast to San Fran and beyond. The scenery is unbelievable and the trains run through more than once or twice a day.
There is something about this trip I’m still trying to put into words that I think everyone should experience. Maybe it’s a reconnection to days gone by or a re-grounding to this magnificent country and its people, the realization that the world that is currently my bubble of dense buildings, traffic, Starbucks and WholeFoods is not the world everyone lives in. There is a kind of Kerouacian aspect of discovery and ego realignment that comes from experiencing the country in this way.
To quote the Greek philosopher Nike, “Just do it.”