One of my goals this year is to try to better connect my academic work (both research and teaching) with “the real world” I used to inhabit and still follow from my perch in the Ivory Tower. I’ve done a little of this since taking a faculty post at Northeastern, mostly through blog posts for the business school or interviews with the university’s journalist team (click here for a full list with links to the articles). It’s been fun, aside from people telling me I should be focused more on research (sigh…).

Despite that criticism, I want to have broader impact than just in academic journals. In fact, I think it would be a shame if everything I discover is accessible for such a small (and honestly often narrow-minded) audience. So, I’ve decided to reactivate and repurpose my dormant blog, previously created to allow family and friends to follow the cross-country, mobile writing retreat I took via Amtrak last year.


The plan is to drop thoughts (at least weekly) about what I’m working on, thinking about, or teaching - hopefully in a manner that will be enjoyable and useful for the masses. We’ll kick things off with some recent thoughts on the U.S. Government shutdown negotiations. Although this will be a repeat for some, I really want to start here and highlight the interesting responses my article created. As a teaser, I’ll note that my favorite response was a physical letter from someone across the country who apparently couldn’t rest until I was aware of a flaw in my logic.

Given that I’m teaching several courses this semester, the bulk of posts over the coming months likely will be related to content we are covering in the classroom (the teaching schedules will give you a preview of likely topics) . But, you should feel free to drop me a line and request a topic if there is something you are interested in hearing more about.

Mobile Writing Retreat – Day 9 (Omaha to Chicago)

This was supposed to be another early train out (5:14 am), but as of bed time, the train was already 2 hours behind schedule (knowledge gained thanks to the Amtrak employee on vacation in Glenwood for telling me the app had updated scheduling info). I still set my alarm for 4:00, as “trains can make up time,” according to the app and texts (they’ll send you updates as your train nears your station). I was starting to feel the effects of the travel, the food, and the strange sleep cycles (yeah, okay, probably the endless stream of IPAs, too) and was actually thankful to be able to hit snooze for another 2 hours when I initially awoke to learn the train had lost another hour.

The other great thing about minimalist travel is that packing takes approximately 5 minutes. It’s amazing. Still, having next to nothing and all of it on your back creates a sort of panic every time you start to leave a hotel room. I can’t possibly have everything, right? Even with the added weight of the bourbon bottle and a gift I’d grabbed for Jen in Glenwood, I still had to convince myself that I wasn’t leaving anything behind.

When we finally boarded the train, it wasn’t as quiet as my early morning ride out of Provo. And, the natives were restless. The train kept getting delayed. And people kept getting angrier. For a large portion of the trip, we kept catching up to a freight train. We’d stop, and it would keep going, but their pace is slower. So, we’d catch it again before too long. Obviously, passing is somewhat implausible. Also, freight trains apparently have priority, which means that when we ended up next to one at a station, it got to pull out ahead of us. Adding to the frustration is pretty much a complete lack of views. This pic pretty much represents everything you see from the train in Iowa.

Miles and miles and miles of corn...

Miles and miles and miles of corn...

That’s it. A lot of corn. Some fields have taller or shorter corn, but that’s essentially the only variation. For the first part, I tried to focus on writing. At some point, I needed a break, and took my ear phones out. It was then that I noticed just how bad it had become. There were kids in front scream laughing and kids behind scream crying. A guy, presumably trying to keep his sanity but simultaneously eroding that of others, was singing “it’s easy like Sunday morning. Somehow, a couple people were sleeping through all this, because the occasional snore could be heard. I took a lunch break and ate in the observation car, where crazy had extended. There was a woman playing the ukulele and singing, and two guys next to me discussing their brief interactions with gang life and whether Fireball or Everclear shots were preferable at the end of the work day.

I returned to my seat to overhear a guy complaining to the Amtrak attendant that he wanted his money back and asking that they stop the train if we passed a horse, because he was confident it would get him to Chicago sooner. I turned to the woman next to me and laughed, asking her if it had been like this the whole way (she was on the train overnight). She explained that it had been a long trip, and that I had missed a guy getting escorted off the train during the night for transporting marijuana.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my rhythm slowed somewhat after this. The crowd wasn’t entirely to blame. I also had switched projects and was working on a substantial re-write of a paper based on some feedback from an editor. It was an informal review and she had hand-written her comments. So, it took me over an hour just to decipher what she had written. Between this and trying to digest the comments, I only managed to edit 1,583 more words before we hit Chicago, but the degree of progress made it feel almost as productive as the blitz in Omaha.

A later arrival at least provided a great evening view upon exiting the station.

A later arrival at least provided a great evening view upon exiting the station.

Upon arriving in Chicago, I did what everyone should do. Enjoy enough deep dish (accompanied by a local beer) to put one into a food coma. It takes 45 minutes for Giordano’s to make a personal deep dish pizza, but it is well worth the wait.



Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 8 (Omaha)

The late departure time meant no dinner reservation (if I haven't mentioned, you either request or are assigned a time to eat in the dining car for dinner; breakfast and lunch are first-come, first-served). Fortunately, they were still serving. So, I and the other late additions to the sleeper car meandered down as soon as we were underway. 

I enjoyed Amtrak's "land & sea" dish (not sure why they didn't just go with surf and turf) as well as some great conversation with folks from Iowa. If you think my trip is crazy, one of my dinner companions celebrated his retirement by heading to France for a few months (his wife stayed behind to work), before embarking on cycling trips from Denver to Des Moines, as well as across Southern India (yes, the country. I did not leave a couple letters off the state name). The conversation covered kids, careers, philosophy, and other family tales, and was so fulfilling that we chatted until the servers needed to shut the car down for the evening. 

I returned to my quarters to discover an additional feature of my roomette - a "closet" where I could hang both of the shirts I brought with me. Hooray for minimalism! I decided writing was out of the question and proceeded to the cafe car for a nightcap. There, I witnessed a guy in line ahead of me apologize to the server. I'm not sure what for, but I am confident it was the reason he was no longer allowed to purchase alcohol. I avoided eye contact with him so as to ignore the inevitable request that I make the purchase for him (I'm not sure how he thought that would work, given that the server was literally directly in front of us), made my purchase, and retreated to my quarters to read and sleep.

However, sleep did not come easy tonight. Unlike the mountainous terrain that I'd been traveling, Eastern Colorado and Nebraska were largely covered at grade, which meant road crossings. A lot of them. And, what happens at road crossings? The train blows its horn several times. This might have been mitigated by earplugs (I have none), but the sleep might not have been much better, as these crossings and other track transitions rattled the train laterally quite a bit. As a result, I spent most of the night lightly napping between fog horn like blasts and jolts like those experienced in the back car of an old roller coaster. 

I arrived in Omaha and made it my mission to make up for both the lack of productivity and REM sleep. I talked the Hyatt into letting me check in early for a shower and a nap. AMAZING! They let me in so early that I still had time to enjoy breakfast before heading out to explore Omaha. My first stop was a laundromat. Despite having sink-washed the undies in Glenwood, nothing else had received a proper was. Thus, in efforts to avoid offending the olfactory systems of those I'd be encountering in the coming days, I trekked over a mile in the 95-degree heat to a less than stellar part of town to get a wash done. It was here that I discovered another benefit of minimalism. Doing your laundry consists of a single load. Even better was the location of an outlet above the folding table. So, I was able to work while everything that I wasn't wearing was getting ready for the second half of the journey. 


From there, it was on to lunch at (you guessed it) a brewpub. The pic above was just in the lobby. The IPA was a given, but I asked the bartender for her recommendation. In fact, this is something I'd been doing everywhere I went, with excellent results. I highly recommend it. I typically go with "what do you like" or "what are you most known for;" both tend to get great results.

I wish I had been keeping tasting notes on all the local beers I've had

I wish I had been keeping tasting notes on all the local beers I've had

After downing the beef tips power bowl (I mean, you have to have some form of steak in Omaha, right?), I continued my work from the laundry session until the laptop battery died. Then, it was time to walk uptown to visit the home of the College World Series. It's an impressive facility, but my options for actually getting inside were past my level of comfort. Still, it was fun to see the park, and especially the banners hanging for each team that had made it to Omaha this year (one set pictured below). 

Auburn was soooo close to getting their banner up here. 

Auburn was soooo close to getting their banner up here. 

I wandered some more to Creighton's campus, where I crashed the library with the intent of working. Instead, I guzzled water and cooled off. Drained, I knew productivity was beyond reach and decided to return to the hotel for a nap. Refreshed, I continued editing the document I'd been working on and then headed out for dinner at a distillery next to the hotel. They also brew their own beer, but I stuck to sampling their whiskey collection (they also make other spirits) and decided to buy myself a bottle as a "souvenir" from the trip. 


Following dinner, it was time to give the document one last read and ship it off. No new writing today, but a complete documented edited gave me a sense of accomplishment, as did the word count - another 4,071 edited. 


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 7 (Denver)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pop asked for location information in the heading to aid the “old people” reading. I guess he couldn’t remember what day I was on after I fell behind on posts. So, two things. First, Location information included. Second, As the trip is winding down now, I’m planning a morning and evening post every day until the whole trip is documented.

The productivity of the prior two days in Colorado did not continue into Denver. I ventured from the hotel to a local coffee shop for breakfast and to update the blog. After that, I felt like I needed a change of scenery and moved to yet another local brewery (I’m telling you, they are everywhere now) for lunch. This one was named for former Sheriff Ned Wynkoop, who was apparently known to always be in possession of three things: a bowie knife, a revolver, and a cold beer. Rumor has it he still has an outstanding bar tab of $157 (not sure if that includes 100+ years of interest or not...).

I had intended to write there, but one thing I have learned on this cross-country trek is that productivity often is dictated by the longevity of one’s laptop battery. With no outlets in sight at the end of my lunch and second pint, it was time to wander. I had hoped to explore the U.S. Mint, as there are only 4 active coin-producing locations in the country. Trivia time. Can you name them? As a hint, they are signified on coins by a single letter (i.e., a min mark). Sadly, they are closed on Sunday.


So, I kept wandering to the collection of art museums, deciding to take in the one dedicated to Clyfford Still, considered by many as the pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Strangely, other than a summer teaching at UD Boulder, he had no ties to Colorado. It wasn’t quite clear how they landed his collection, but it was interesting to see a gallery of this size dedicated to a single artist – a requirement of Still’s beginning later in his career to better see how the different pieces fit together. An added benefit was the chance to see how his work changed drastically over his lifetime. I am partial to his earlier works (like the one pictured below).


I didn’t realize it until later, but my meanderings had taken my down the “Wall Street of the Rockies,” as 17th apparently has been dubbed. According to a medallion in the sidewalk, the Silver Panic of 1893 nearly crippled it, but gold from the Cripple Creek mines ushered in a new era of prosperity. Flush with gold, they decided to flaunt their riches by replacing the copper top of the State Capitol with gold leaf in 1908.


As the day wound town, I settled in at Union Station, which has to be one of the nicest train stations in the country. The top floors consist of hotel rooms, while the station floor has a number of trendy spots for coffee, food, and beverages. It could’ve been a great place to work, but again, without any battery power or an outlet near an available table, productivity was inhibited. So, I accepted that the word count wouldn’t move, because by the time I got on board it would be time for dinner (which was with some great people from Iowa) and then bed.


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 6

No ghosts to report. Not that they weren’t there; I just slept soundly and didn’t hear anything. But, as we should do with everything, I’ll trust the internet that they’re real.

I returned to Sacred Grounds for coffee and breakfast. Criticize my lack of variety all you want, but when you need to work remotely, and you know there is a table with a power strip readily available, you don’t take chances. My repeat visit yielded the intended results, with 443 new words added and another 2,624 edited, not to mention an entire reference section built for a paper. Perhaps I should just stay in Glenwood!

Also, I realized an error in the prior post – I watched England’s win today. Apparently, you lose track of dates when you don’t keep up with your posts and are traveling the country with no concept of time outside of when your next train is.  

I was cutting it close on time for the next train but then got a notice that it was running late (a trend?). So, I was able to enjoy one last meal in Glenwood before departing for Denver. I edited another 2,035 words on the train, while also enjoying more amazing views.

Rafters enjoying the river (mooners not pictured) 

Rafters enjoying the river (mooners not pictured) 

In particular, crossing the Continental Divide from west to east is amazing. It’s reported to be the single most impressive view from a train in the United States, and I’d easily rank it in the top 5-10 overall that I’ve seen. Try to imagine coming out of a tunnel at a couple thousand feet of elevation where the mountains meet the Great Plains. The juxtaposition of the two terrains is incredible, and after traveling along rivers between mountains, the first glimpse of the expanse of land is breathtaking. Roughly ¼ the state of Colorado is visible from this point. A pic won’t do it justice, so you’ll have to imagine it or (better yet) book that leg of the trip for yourself.

If you do book this leg of the trip, be forewarned that this is the PG-13 segment, as it is apparently tradition for those enjoying the river to moon the train as it passes.

To top off the day, a friend from grad school drove up from Colorado Springs to meet me for dinner. Thanks, KRMD! We capped the evening with a drink at a bar in one of Denver’s growing number of trendy establishments. Despite only a few people in line ahead of us, it took more than 20 minutes to get a drink, due to the orders in front of us consisting of the craftiest of craft cocktails I’ve seen. Seriously. The bartender was adjusting ice cubes with oversized tweezers. I appreciate the dedication to your work, but at some point, it does become excessive.

Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 5

Today, I woke with the intent of building on the momentum of yesterdays’ productivity, but I wanted to get in some fun and exercise first. So, I went for a run along the river…

Running along this was a great way to start the day

Running along this was a great way to start the day

That extended into a hike…

Looking back down the path on my way up to the cemetery 

Looking back down the path on my way up to the cemetery 

to the Linwood Cemetery, where I paid my respects to the legendary John Henry Holliday, better known as “Doc.” For those of you unaware of this great native Georgian, you are banned from the blog until watching Tombstone to gain an appreciation of this hard-drinking, gun-slinging philosopher, best known for leaving dentistry to team up with Wyatt Earp to mete out justice.  

Doc's marker - they don't actually know the exact location of his grave

Doc's marker - they don't actually know the exact location of his grave

The hike was short, but steep, and I was glad to have Doc’s grave as an excuse to stand still and take a breather before beginning my descent. I worked my way down, along the river, and back up to the hotel on the other side, barely beating the addition of the heat to the grade and elevation’s assault on my pace. After just a few miles, I understood why this environment, paired with a legendary coach, positioned the University of Colorado as one of the greatest cross-country teams ever (I highly recommend Running with the Buffaloes for more on them).

I settled in at the Sacred Grounds coffee shop (second in name only to Deja Brew elsewhere in town) to generate another 596 new words and send a manuscript off to some co-authors (finally, a feeling of legitimate accomplishment on the trip!). Then, I meandered a few blocks for lunch. Apparently, remote professionals aren’t as common here, as my “Can I work here for a bit” inquiry was met with a confused “You want a job?!” from the bartender. After sorting that out and fueling myself with a sandwich and probably my 10th different craft IPA for the journey (I think there is a brewery in every town in America now), I wrote up a review for a journal and submitted it for another notch in the productivity belt. For this, I rewarded myself with some exploration around town and a nap before spending the evening chatting with visitors at the hotel bar. It was here that I heard, for the first time in my life, the question, “Have you seen any ghosts yet?”

The building in the distance with the two towers is the Hotel Colorado

The building in the distance with the two towers is the Hotel Colorado

Apparently, the Hotel Colorado is a hot bed for paranormal activity. It’s an impressive building, having opened in 1893 with much fanfare and $850,000 price tag (the equivalent of $22,641,768 today – but I’ll note that I doubt it could be built for anywhere close to that). In subsequent years, it earned the nickname White House of the West by hosting Presidents Hoover, Taft, and Roosevelt (of the Teddy variety). In fact, legend has it that the name for the favorite among children’s stuffed toys originated here with the gift of a hand-sewn bear from the staff to the president. Later, the hotel would play host to a famous mobster, as well as the Mayo brothers (of the clinic fame) during their investigation of the healing properties of the hot springs (NOTE: the springs also drew Doc Holliday to Glenwood, as he hoped it would help with his battle against TB).

Hot Springs Pool - slightly different vibe than what Doc and the Mayos were seeking. 

Hot Springs Pool - slightly different vibe than what Doc and the Mayos were seeking. 

Less touted, and without a newspaper clipping adorning the walls like the above, is the hotel’s claim to the site of the deadly end of a lover’s quarrel. The room where the murders took place has been converted into storage, apparently forcing the ghosts to roam the halls. Interestingly, the after(night)life crowd has grown over the years, with reports of apparitions playing ball, smoking cigars, riding the elevator, and generally annoying patrons between the hours of 2:00 and 4:00 am. Among the most-reported areas for ghostly encounters? My end of the third floor. Armed with that knowledge, I retired to my room for some sleep (I hoped).

Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 4

I have found my groove!

Today began with another early morning alarm (3:45am) so I could catch the train to Glenwood Springs, CO when it rolled through Provo at 4:35am.


Because I was departing early, the B&B left me a to-go breakfast in the fridge downstairs. I brewed a cup of coffee, grabbed the breakfast bag, and stepped out into pre-dawn Provo for a second straight day. The train was delayed about an hour (not sure why) but that gave me time to eat breakfast before boarding.

When the train finally arrived, I boarded what looked like a scene from a gas-attacked passenger car – bodies everywhere. Seriously. People were spread across coach seats in some of the most uncomfortable positions imaginable. Personal belongings were strewn across their bodies and the floor in front of their seats. And the place was eerily quiet. But, as alluded to in the opening line, this was a blessing, as it provided the perfect environment for writing. No, not necessarily the bodies everywhere, but the lack of chatter and people bustling about – only the clacking of the train along the tracks. Even better, as the sun rose, people kept snoozing, presumably the result of their difficulty getting quality sleep in coach seats (validation for my sleeper car decisions). So, I got to keep working in quiet, but with the added benefit of views like this all to myself.


As a result, I was able to edit 2,289 words and crank out 763 new words – all before 11:00am. To celebrate my productivity, I spent the next hour taking in the beauty of Western Colorado from the observation car lounge.


I returned to my seat for the home stretch, where I enjoyed a conversation with a cattle-ranching couple who had boarded while I was in the lounge. I learned about the ranching business until we pulled into Glenwood Springs, where I disembarked and was immediately reminded of why I wanted to move out here after college (and often during, if I’m honest…).


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 3

As the sun rose, I was able to abandon my makeshift workstation at the ReMax office in favor of an open coffee shop. While I waited, though, I saw a few more people than I expected out and about before dawn on the morning on the 4th of July. First there was the woman walking to work that looked pleased she wasn’t the only one out and about at 4:30 in the morning. Then, there was the municipal worker who passed me twice while lugging maintenance equipment around in a wheelbarrow, each time laughing like he couldn’t believe some idiot chose to get up this early. Finally, there was the multiple rounds of the bike cops, who clearly were trying to figure out what I was up to. I saw one talk into his shoulder-mounted radio each time they made a pass, and imagine he was saying something like, “No. He’s still just typing. No. We’re not sure why, but we don’t think this is the type of crazy we can investigate.”

Y Mountain - Provo, UT

Y Mountain - Provo, UT

After ingesting coffee and laboring over a massive spreadsheet (see above) for a while (NOTE: no writing today – just data and reading), I wandered up to the Brigham Young University campus. Given it was a holiday and everything was locked down, my plans of crashing a building and working were thwarted. The place was pretty deserted. Still, the walk around even just a small portion of campus was impressive. Really well-maintained and an impressive path system with serene spots like this walk through the trees along a creek.

BYU Campus Walk

BYU Campus Walk

Despite having been up for almost 7 hours, no lunch places were open yet. So, I took in some of their 4th of July parade until I began my assault on the local cuisine. First stop was J Dawgs, a local purveyor of exactly what you’d think, and really nothing more. I had the polish with sauerkraut, banana peppers, and special sauce.

At J Dawgs, you have a choice between polish or regular beef.

At J Dawgs, you have a choice between polish or regular beef.

Next, I checked into my bed and breakfast, cleaned up, and then headed to a bar (more on that in a minute) to work until it was time for supper. I’d been told by some BYU insiders that I needed a pastrami burger, and they were right. Tommy’s hit the spot, as did the “fry sauce” – still don’t know what’s in it, but it was good. The burger, though, consists of a beef patty topped with a slice of provolone cheese melted between two slices of pastrami. Mmmmmmm.

How is the pastrami burger only a thing in Utah?!?!

How is the pastrami burger only a thing in Utah?!?!

After that, I returned home to read and wind down and catch some sleep before the 4:35 am train (yes, I arrive at 4:35 one morning and left at 4:35 the next – this is pretty much what you can expect from long-haul trains. So, if you don’t like mornings, pick a different stop than Provo, UT).

But, before we bring this entry to a close, I’d like to share the highlight of the day. Some of my favorite parts of traveling are the times when you can get a little deeper into the local culture. Typically, I have found this takes place in watering holes – especially those that are not likely to attract outsiders. In Provo, I found such a location in the City Limits Tavern. The place was dimly lit coming from the sun-soaked sky outside, and it took a minute for me to realize there were only a couple people inside – none drinking craft beer. The few who joined our “crowd” while I was there opted for PBR tall boys, save the gentleman with the ponytail. He had a Corona and a glass full of limes, which confused me. Does this guy love limes that much? Does he use a new one after every sip? Then, I realized he was going solo through a bucket of Corona. That’s just to give you the vibe of the place, with the cherry on top being the bartender’s “NO BRA CLUB” t-shirt.

So, now that you have a feel for the vibe, let’s get to the point. I was introduced all around and involved in pretty much every conversation, which ranged from racial tension in America to the most impressive skateboarders. Same people. I kid you not. Anyway, at some point later, the topic of drugs comes up. A “gentleman” to my left speaks – from experience – on the dangers of substance abuse, which is impressive. That is until he starts to talk about his interaction with the judge at what sounded like the conclusion to his pre-trial diversion program (which he referred to as “graduation”). Apparently, the prosecutor was coming down hard on our friend, but the judge stepped in and vouched for him. They had known each other for 8 years (I gather this was not through supper club, but rather a more “professional” involvement) and the judge spoke of our friend’s growth over this time. To which our friend replied, “That’s right. You might see me back in here for something small like fighting, but I’m done with drugs.” This would’ve been humorous enough, except that he added to the bar patrons, “It’s just weed and beer for me from now on. And maybe the occasional mouthful of shrooms. But nothing else. I’ve learned my lesson.”


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 2.5

Well, dinner wasn't great, but it could've been worse. There was a sweet potato gnocchi special last night, but when I ordered the server said, "That's straight up nasty." I thought he was joking and waited for him to correct himself and tell me it was amazing. Instead, he just stared at me. I asked if he was serious and he replied, "I'm not messing with you. That is disgusting." So, I opted for the butternut squash risotto instead. 

A blurry shot of the dining car - oops, train was bumpy here.

A blurry shot of the dining car - oops, train was bumpy here.

The dining car is community seating, which means introverts need to be ready for some small talk - at least for part of the meal. The staggered reservation times meant I was joined by two women on a mother-daughter trip about the time I was ready for dessert. We chatted while I ate some cheesecake, and then it was time for me to return to the roomette for some work. Progress was a little slow. I tend to work better in the morning than at night, and struggled to get into a rhythm. I tried posting the Day 2 article, but it turns out cell service is pretty spotty (read: nonexistent) in the middle of nowhere, NV. Given that I touted the iPhone-as-hotspot during my first leg of the trip, I want to amend that tip for anyone thinking of doing something like this. Make sure you have everything you need downloaded and accessible without the internet, and don't hesitate to post or send something if you have a signal. 


After surrendering to the northern Nevada dead spot, I finished up the sets of new items from the night before and then tried to write. After failing to gain momentum, I went to watch the sunset from the observation car, and then for a nightcap in the lounge/cafe below. Pro tip: you can BYOB if you have private accommodations, but not anywhere else on the train. Drink in hand, I returned to the roomette to find my bunk had been made (he attendants provide turn-down service). It's nice not to have to worry about setting up the sleeper, but it did happen a little earlier than I expected. Determined not to make that an excuse to skirt work for the evening, I ground out a meager 562 words before realizing that the time change across the Nevada-Utah line meant that I head better turn in and collect as much of the 5 hours of sleep time available to me. 


Sleep was intermittent, as the ride was rocky and the room was a little warm and stuffy (I'm pretty confident the climate control knob doesn't actually connect to anything). Still, I actually felt pretty rested when I woke at 4:00 am. I freshened up and hopped off the train at 4:30 and walked into town to find everything closed (not surprising). So, I created a makeshift workstation where I found a plug outside a realtor's office. Here's hoping a coffee shop opens soon!


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 2

As I write this, I am rolling out of Reno, NV and headed for Provo, UT (NOTE: the conductor yelled “All aboard!” this time, which made it feel like a legit train trip). As a result, there is not writing update, as I spent the day exploring Reno. Work will happen this evening after dinner, included with my roomette (which is probably small enough to make Tyrian Lannister feel claustrophobic).


Meal times are assigned, and I drew the “senior special” at 5:00 pm. So, the plan is to write this, grab dinner, (UPDATE: finish this), and then get to work. I roll into Provo at 4:30 am and if I can find a coffee shop I’ll probably do a writing and overnight “bonus” update for Day 2. Until then, here’s a recap of Reno, which likes to refer to itself as “The Biggest Little City in the World.”


My initial assessment of it was that it should be referred to as “Sad Vegas.” Why? Well, I can’t imagine rooms on the Strip advertising $39 per night or a place that will give me 3 squares for less than I paid for lunch on yesterday’s train.


Beyond that, I’m pretty sure the Bellagio staff don’t have to utter the phrase, “take a left at the Quizzno’s Subs” when giving directions to the room elevators. Additionally, the place just seemed deserted, which made it difficult for the “Play Beer Pong Anytime!” claim to be true:


Still, I managed to win $80 in twenty minutes at single deck blackjack (pretty much the only casino game I understand and have the guts to try), which made me start thinking, “Hey, Reno, you’re alright after all.” At least, that is, until my fantasies of paying for this trip in one night of blackjack vanished as I dropped that $80 and another $100 in the next 45 minutes. Oh well, at least I got to play the world’s largest Pac Man game on the way to bed!


I retired for the night, so I could wake up and get a run in before it got too hot. Running through town along the Truckee River provided a strange juxtaposition of the beauty of nature (in the river) on one side of me and the sadness of humanity (in the still sleeping homeless people) on the other.


I spent the rest of the day exploring University of Nevada-Reno’s campus, visiting a new local watering hole/pizza joint, and popping into a pawn shop to see what people hock when they’re down on their luck. I saw the guitars, watches, and rings that I expected, but I discovered a new low point in life, during which you need to pawn your power sander or drill. The saddest part of this discovery? The number of power sanders and drills in this pawn shop. I counted at least a half-dozen and dozen, respectively!


Again, no writing stats for the day, but hopefully this post helps convey some of the fun that can be had during a mobile writing retreat. Hopefully, I’ll have good writing progress to share in the morning from Provo.


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 1

All aboard!

Actually, I never heard anyone yell that. Also, for anyone not familiar with train travel, here's a primer for you to lead off the Day 1 recap. 

I had been tipped off that cross-country train travel might provide a level of crazy that would tempt me to set aside the academic writing in favor of documenting the "interesting" people I met and observed along the way. Day 1 did not disappoint. In fact, T minus 15 minutes did not disappoint. As I sat there with my backpack, I watched a growing mass of people assembling with seemingly more stuff than I moved from Tallahassee to Boston (and perhaps almost as much as my brother-in-law seems to take takes on a 3-day trip to NYC). Oh, and how best to describe the crowd? Picture your last trip to the DMV. Put them all on the platform, but make them less angry and more confused. Needless to say, this was not the business class crowd I've grown accustomed to between Boston and New York. Things I saw before we even got on board: a family (carrying on a cake, it seems, among a dozen other pieces of "luggage") fight over the functionality of the Amtrak App, a guy so excited about the train's arrival that he was sprinting up and down the platform to snap pictures and videos between leaps and shouts of joy, and almost everyone attempting to board the private car at the rear of the train before being told that they probably didn't have enough money to pull that off. 

Private Car Dining and Observation

Private Car Dining and Observation

Boarding lines are segregated by destination and ticket type (e.g., coach or sleeper), and seats are assigned as you board. Remember the crowd I described on the platform? Yeah, it's a good idea to be aware of who's standing around you in line. Fortunately, I wound up seated next to a nice young lady who seemed relatively sane, until I learned she was going straight through to Chicago (a 2.5 day ride) in a coach seat. Everyone else was pretty decent, save the guy up one seat and to the left who methodically tapped the top of his 7-up can 87 times before opening it (public service announcement, this does NOT reduce the odds of your drink foaming over upon opening) and proceeding to play oldies music at full blast on his iPhone. This was mitigated by (1) my earbuds and own music selection and (2) one of the best parts of train travel - the ability to get up and leave your seat as you please. 

Aside from semi-annoying neighbors, there are plenty of other reasons to leave your seat on a train. You might want to go to the dining car during the specified meal service for a warm sit down meal. Want to eat outside the specified times or would rather just grab something quick? No problem, just head to the cafe car, which is essentially a 7-11 - if, that is, 7-11 were moving 50-80 mph and charged airport prices.

An over-priced, but mobile, 7-11

An over-priced, but mobile, 7-11

Not hungry, but still want to get away from your seat? Just head to the observation or sight-seeing deck, situated on the second level of the cafe car, where you can plop down for hours in a seat facing the large viewing windows.

Finders keepers seating in the observation deck (unless you leave for more than 15 minutes).

Finders keepers seating in the observation deck (unless you leave for more than 15 minutes).

As an added bonus, if you're traveling between Sacramento and Reno, the California State Rail Museum has a staff member on board giving a moving history lesson. Although I didn't take advantage of this until the very end of today's leg of the trip (I was trying to get my writing done!), I did manage to catch some nice views of the Truckee River (see below) and learn that we passed along the stretch of track where the first train robbery took place along the newly transcontinental completion. Apparently, they lost $40,000 of gold and Wells Fargo bank notes, only to get robbed again 80 miles down the track. Sucks for the second set of robbers. 

Truckee River from the observation car

Truckee River from the observation car

If you don't want or need to leave your seat, no worries. The views are still great from the upper level of the coach car, and the seats are crazy roomy. They have good recline and a fold-out foot-rest if you want to get into prime nap position. Or, if you need to work (like I did for much of the trip), there's plenty of space to crack open a laptop and start grinding (NOTE: I was surprised there was no wifi on this train, and thankful my iPhone serves as a personal hotspot). The seats are so roomy that when my neighbor wanted to leave, I was able to get up and let her out without moving my laptop or folding up the tray table.

Ample room, and great scenery, for writing.

Ample room, and great scenery, for writing.

This brings my ramblings to a close and that means it's time to share my initial thoughts for using a train as a means for a mobile writing retreat. So far, so good. I'm on an 8-segment rail pass (issued in coach class) and only chose to upgrade (to sleepers) on the overnight segments. Work wasn't as fluid as when I've snagged a table in business class on Boston - NYC trips, but I was able to get a fair amount done. It's perhaps slightly more distracting than a bustling coffee shop, but if you have earphones and are practiced at blocking out the surrounding movement, you should be fine. One clear advantage for the train over the coffee shop is the dynamic and often picturesque views. Sure, you could find a cabin or resort or hotel with an amazing view, but there's something about rolling through the changing landscape of the country that seems to get the creative juices flowing. 

On that note, I am happy to report that I cleared my 2-page goal of new writing on one project (768 new words), outlined the next section of that project, generated a few handfuls of items for a new survey measure I'm working on, and read a paper I need to review for a journal. Not too bad for a 7.5-hour workday (train travel time) on Day 1, especially when you factor in time for my overpriced lunch, a brief nap, and a little over an hour in the observation car. 


Mobile Writing Retreat - Day 0

Tomorrow, I embark on a cross-country train trip from Emeryville, CA to Boston, MA. Why?


Mostly because I can. I’m fortunate to have a tenure-track faculty job with no teaching responsibilities in the summer that require I be physically present on campus. So, given that I can work anywhere during the summer, it seems a little foolish not to actually do so. The past two years, I’ve done a little traveling to see friends and family, but failed to saddle up for anything that could classify as taking advantage of my untethered time, much less as an adventure. This year, I decided I was going to make it happen. Why a train? Well, trains are way better places to get work done than planes. Which brings us to reason number 2.

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Also because I have a lot of writing to do. Despite the best-laid plans to get things off my desk during the school year, I succumbed to the temptation of trying to take on too much and inevitably wound up playing triage with my writing (and data analyses…and collection…). As a result, I need to buckle down and get things done. Campus is slower in the summer, but there are still enough people and interaction that it’s not a place to take writing to the next productivity level. Sure, I could try to hole up in my home office, but there are always home projects. So, I decided I needed a writing retreat — with a twist. Instead of venturing off to a remote cabin or a fancy hotel, I decided I wanted to make the train my (literal) mobile office. I could work my way across the country while working my way across the country!


But “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Again, the main goal is to get some work done while enjoying one of the best perks of my job. However, to really enjoy it, I know I need to do more than just sit on the train and write. So, although it is possible to train across the country in 3 days and 8 hours (you only have to get off once if you take the California Zephyr and change to the Lake Shore Limited in Chicago), I’m going to stretch it to 13 days. I’ll stop in 7 places I’ve never been to (or haven’t been to in quite some time) to do some exploring. The train will be the office (and the bedroom for a couple of overnight legs), and the rest of the country will be my playground.


But wait, there’s more! Well, actually less. The final part of this journey is a continuation of my experimentation with minimalism/essentialism. No, I’m not selling, donating, or trashing the bulk of my possessions when I get back home (at least, that’s not the plan), but I am using this trip as a chance to further cultivate a spirit of simplicity. I’ve been limiting myself to a single backpack for all trips since January of this year. So far, that’s been a few 2 to 3-day jaunts and a 1-week trip. Now, I’m trying to extend it by making the cross-country trek with the same backpack (see below for all gear laid out on my hotel room bed). Clearly, I’ll need to figure out some laundry plan along the way, but I’m pumped up about pushing myself even further with this.


I’ll publish an update each day with an assessment of how the “minimalist mobile writing retreat” is going (and whether I’d recommend it), with word counts, lessons learned, and the like.