Sleeper Train Bucket List: Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle

Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.

It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.

Service / Route

The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.

A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.

Photo credit for cover image.

Finding weird and wonderful album covers

Since I just repaired our turntable I’ve been going to record stores to expand our collection. So far Princeton Record Exchange (PRX) in Princeton, NJ and Generation Records here in New York have been my favorites. PRX is well worth the trip if you’re starting a collection because they have so many classics for under $10 and Generation has a great budget jazz section and some unique stuff on the walls.

In some cases, I’ve taken a chance and bought great music and at other times just took photos of odd and interesting covers that I didn’t buy. Here are some photos from the last few weeks:

Home baking Japanese shokupan (white bread)

In Japan they have this really fluffy, Wonderbread-style loaf that they call shokupan. It’s basically freshly baked white bread except more exotic because the recipe is from Japan. I’ve been into baking lately so I decided to make my own.

When I was starting out I used a recipe from Ethan Chlebowski and another from Kitchen Princess Bamboo. I actually preferred the latter, even though it didn’t include egg or the additional tangzhong step, which is a roux made from flour and water.

I even bought this book about shokupan at Kinokuniya, the local Japanese bookstore. It has great instructional photos and takes the most intensive, handmade approach, but the recipe is still roughly the same as below.

Here is the rough recipe with the ingredients listed as a percent of the flour, by weight:

  • Bread flour
  • Milk and water (68-72%)
  • Sugar (5-10%)
  • Salt (2%)
  • Yeast (0.3-1.3%)
  • Butter (5%)

Mix ingredients until they come together into a ball. Add in butter, knead again. Once the dough comes together in a ball and passes the “windowpane test“, proof it for an hour. After that, shape the loaf by rolling it into a loaf the length of your loaf pan (think of the shape of a cinnamon roll, only fatter).

Once the bread has risen nearly to the top of the pan, bake it for 25-28 mins at 390 F or 30 mins at 375 F.

These recipes sometimes include egg, dried milk, or other additives. Some recipes use a tangzhong, which is a roux made from flour and water, though I’ve found it makes the dough even stickier than normal.

I tried several methods for working the dough:1. Our vintage Sumbeam mixer. The dough climbed the hooks and ended up inside the mixer, which took hours to clean out. I don’t recommend it.2. By hand, in a bowl or on the counter. High hydration dough sticks to everything, particularly your hands. I may try this again but it was a mess the first few times.3. The food processor. This was recommended in Bread Illustrated from America’s Test Kitchen and it actually works well as long as the dough is around 70% hydration or lower.

The biggest adjustment when making bread is the waiting. The first rise is roughly an hour, then you shape the dough and put it into the Pullman loaf pan and wait another hour. That’s the bare minimum. Some recipes have two rises or even rest the dough overnight, which lets it rise more slowly and develop more gluten and flavor.

After all the waiting, we’ve had some great bread lately and I will keep making more.

Brewing coffee in a vintage steel vacuum pot

Maybe two or three years ago after returning from Japan, I decided I wanted to try replicating the siphon coffee that we were served for our first breakfast. I some research and found out that they used to be very common in the US before auto-percolators took off in the 1960s and were known as vacuum pots because the brewing process created a vacuum, in the bottom chamber, drawing the brewed coffee down into it. I then bought a Nicro Model 500 off Craigslist with the metal filter, figuring it would be less prone to breakage than glass and easier to clean than a cloth filter, which is the style that is used today in Japan.

The problem is, I could never make good coffee. The water wouldn’t heat up to the suggested 205 degrees and it would clog instead of draining.

Then, this past month, I tried it again and it made excellent coffee. It was complex, deep, clean, and even warmer at first sip than a pour-over. I used:

  • a light generic breakfast roast
  • a 17.5:1 ratio
  • a grind size similar to pre-ground drip coffee
  • 900g of water, enough for three mugs of coffee
  • no temperature measurement, only turning down stove and waiting for water to stop bubbling in the upper chamber
  • coffee steeping for around a minute, then turned off gas and let coffee drain

Full brew time was somewhere from 5-7 minutes.

I started thinking how I might have lucked into such a good cup and I realized that a big batch, high ratio, drip grind generic coffee, and no temp control is probably how the device was meant to be used in a 1950s kitchen or diner, where there wouldn’t have been fancy grinders, temp probes, or even time to fuss over the coffee like I would with a manual pour-over.

Fresh off a few great cups, I tried brewing an Ethiopian light roast and it went right back to clogging from all the fines. I guess to use this siphon, I have to keep my coffee styles from the 1950s as well.

For those of you interested in more historical detail, I was able to find old manuals to research my process, and old advertisements to roughly date my coffee pot at this site.

A philosophy for hiking lighter

Ultralight hiking is a mix of enlightenment and consumerism. It is semi-philosophical, encouraging hikers to “carry less and travel farther”. Less weight on your back means more miles and more comfort. Through the power of round numbers and online bickering, the limit for “ultralight” has been set arbitrarily at 15 lbs of gear, prior to food and water, known as a base weight. This has been further revised down to 10 lbs, depending on who you ask.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of this base weight can turn into a shopping spree of replacing functional yet heavy gear with lighter items in order to reach that elusive threshold. This gear acquisition functions as a kind of stand-in for the fun of actual hiking or camping, since it’s done from your computer while sitting indoors.

My goal with this article is to lay out the most useful steps I found for reducing the weight of what you carry without getting into obsessive territory. These are my tips, in rough order of savings.

Weigh everything

First off, weigh everything that will go into your pack and log it. Lighterpack is a hugely popular site for building a library of camping gear and cataloguing it by weight and it’s also free. I know this sounds obsessive, but it is an indispensable way to see the “big picture” of everything you’re carrying. When replacing gear, it lets you easily see the potential impact to your back of trading up to something lighter.

Key tool:

Carry less water

When I realized that 16oz of water weighs (surprise!) one full pound, I started to question whether I couldn’t carry a bit less and gather it along the trail. That change in philosophy included buying a lightweight tubular Sawyer Squeeze water filter where I formerly relied on Iodophor iodine solution for all water treatment. This change allows me to carry 64 or 96 oz of water when I formerly carried around a gallon.

Key gear: Sawyer Squeeze water filter

Lose the boots

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that hiking boots are no longer the shoewear of choice on the Appalachian Trail. Nearly everyone going long-distance hiking now uses trail runners or hiking shoes, i.e. footwear with good tread and the weight of a running shoe. I suppose it was just following the crowd that made me never question boots before now, because I was definitely an early convert to ultralight running shoes back in highschool.

I bought a pair of Brooks Cascadia (1.6lb/pair) and dropped 2 lbs when compared to my old Timberland Pro Goretex-lined hikers (3.6lb/pair). The Cascadia have a solid tread and padded sole, though they rely on breathability to wick water rather than waterproof fabric. Even though I’m giving up the Goretex, there’s a good chance my feet will be similarly dry, since my heavy lined boots used to make me sweat.

Key gear: Trail running shoes

Lighten your pack

Given the amount of gear I used to carry, I loved my 80-liter Kelty Redcloud. Though once I weighed my gear, I realized I could save roughly 4 lbs by trading my trusty old Kelty (6.5 lbs) for a lighter backpack. I ended up choosing the ULA Circuit (2.5 lbs). The Circuit has a 65-liter capacity, which is more than enough for my slimmed-down gear profile.

The Circuit has a lighter belt and frame, though is functionally the same as the Kelty. There are many others like it. Lighter options exist without a hip belt or frame, similar to a large school backpack, but I like the weight distribution of a frame for food and water carries.

Key gear: Lighter backpack (sub-3lbs)

Switch to down

When I started on this quest to upgrade my gear, my number one wish for an upgrade was my sleeping bag. I had had my previous bag since my Scouting years and it was synthetic, of unclear warmth, and huge. Even as a kid I was jealous of the Scout Dads with their lofty down bags.

I traded up to a down sleeping bag, the lightest that I could find under $300, which at the time as the Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag. Many others that go ultralight end up with down quilts which are essenially zipperless sleeping bags that wrap around and attach to your pad. My Hydrogen is 800- or 850-fill down, which is a measure of loft. Higher is better and lighter per unit of warmth, the cheapest bags will use 650-fill while high-end ones will use 900 or 950.

My sleeping pad had been a Thermarest Ridgerest foam pad for as long as I have been camping. These pads are very light but also not very padded. For the sake of comfort, I traded up for a Thermarest self-inflating pad. It’s my one trade up in weight but also in comfort.

Key gear: Down sleeping bag

Pop a new tent

A tent is one of those nice items that can be split in half if you’re couples camping. For us that meant splitting up a Marmot tent weighing over 6lbs. At the point I was looking to replace the tent I was in full-on immersion into the r/Ultralight group and so decided I would try out the Durston X-Mid 2P sold on It offers a good balance of durability, weather protection, and space, all while coming in under $300.

The Durston tent weighs a hair over 2 lbs, for a savings of nearly 4 lbs, but there’s a catch: many long distance hiking tents are made to utilize hiking poles as the supports for the tent. I got mine from Fizan and they weigh in at 10 oz, which makes the tent package a bit closer to 3 lbs. These are just about the lightest poles that are still usable for hiking, though there is the option to buy a set of simple foldable tent poles, which would weigh 6-8 oz.

Key gear: Sub-3lb tent and trekking poles (if applicable)

Lighten your stove

As a former Scout, I grew up using Coleman stoves and lanterns. In fact, I still use them for car camping, I have the big green briefcase stove and the matching green lantern. For backpacking, I had the Coleman Peak One stove. This was all overkill for hiking.

Backpacking meals are mostly re-hydrating food, so what is needed is a simple way to boil water. Early in my upgrade process I purchased a butane-propane stove from Snow Peak which, even with its case, weighs only 4 oz. I paired it with the inexpensive Stanley Adventure cook set and nested it inside, using the locking lid to secure the stove inside the pot.

I’ve since learned that many hikers use an alcohol stove, wind screen, and titanium pot for even further weight savings, though the ease of my butane-propane canister and minimal weight savings means this upgrade will have to wait for another day.

Key gear: Isobutane canister or alcohol stove


In order to draw some comparisons between all this new gear, I made some rough estimates of cost, weight saved, and the price per pound saved:

Sleeping bag: ~2 lbs saved / $200 = $100/lb saved

Tent and poles: 4 lbs / $320 = $80/lb

Backpack: 4 lbs / $260 = $65/lb

Shoes: 2 lbs / $100 = $50/lb

Stove: ~1.1 lbs / $30 = $27/lb

Water: 2 lbs (32 oz) / $30 = $15/lb

Total: 15.1 lbs saved / $940

Among hikers there is often a lot of debate around the “Big 3” of tent, sleeping bag and pack and what to choose. Not surprisingly, in my exercise those were some of the biggest weight savings, though they were much less cost effective than upgrading my shoes, stove, and [carrying less] water.

Admittedly, I’m messing with the numbers a bit by assuming I would carry 32 oz less water if I used a filter on-trail, but this exercise is a good example in diminishing returns. Those smaller items requiring a change in approach saved more weight, per dollar, than fancy gear-focused purchases.

Biking in New York is better since CitiBike

For the last few years, Paola and I have been proud annual members of CitiBike, New York’s bike share program. It’s completely transformed the way we get around the city. It’s the quickest way to get crosstown, period, and it’s less per month than the cost of a single tax ($169/year or $14/mo+tax, as of May 2019).

Here’s a bit of history: Way back in 2012-2013, I was in Washington, DC and the local Capital Bikeshare was arguably the most successful bike share program in the US. I was a member and would use it occasionally, mostly for times when I didn’t ride my bike to work but wanted to get somewhere quickly.

New York launched big in, with 6,000 bikes and hundreds of docks in Manhattan and Brooklyn in April 2013. This move instantly made it the largest system in the US (Here’s a bit of history). I was following the news and was a bit skeptical that New York would be able to launch a program as good as the one in DC. In a sense, I was right, at least at first.

When I tried the system later that year, I found broken and unresponsive docks and I checked out a bike that had a loose steering column, i.e. the handlebars were ready to come off. Sure, the system was big, but it seemed to be facing some serious growing pains. This wasn’t the kind of system that I’d trust as an annual subscriber because it just wasn’t reliable.

In October 2014, the month after Paola and I moved to New York from DC, CitiBike came under new ownership and hired Jay Walder, former MTA executive, as its CEO. The company turned a corner almost immediately. The backlog of broken bikes and docks was slowly being addressed (incidentally, this is called asset management, and it’s what the MTA has been dealing with as well).

We gave CitiBike another try the following year and were kicking ourselves that we didn’t try it earlier. It turned 20-minute walks into 10-minute bike rides and it turned getting to work crosstown from a slog on crowded sidewalks into a breeze, comparatively, on crowded roads. Even better, it took bike riding from a leisure activity that required carrying bikes up and down three flights of stairs to just another thing, like coffee and a muffin, you can pick up on the street on your way to work.

As any urbanist will tell you, we dedicate too much space to moving cars instead of moving people efficiently. We now use a sliver of that underutilized road space, effectively the half-lane between the parked cars and the standstill traffic. Protected north-south bike lanes have been slowly introduced on 1st/2nd, 5th/6th, B’way, and 7th/8th/9th Avenues. As part of the L train shutdown along 14th Street, the city DOT has put in protected east-west lanes on 12th and 13th Streets.

All of which is to say, biking in New York is not bad, it can be a pleasant experience, and it’s getting better year over year. Especially for short trips in good weather, it’s both quick and cheap, much better than watching a taxi meter run while stuck in traffic.

Thanks to everyone at NYC DOT and CitiBike for keeping things running! I suppose the best way to show thanks for everything is to use it, so I’ll see you all out there.

John Muir was right about Yosemite

Back in grad school, I was teaching assistant for a course called History of the American Environmental Movement. Each semester, I would grade perhaps 70 to 80 essays, including a section on John Muir, an advocate of preserving nature for nature’s sake, and Gifford Pinchot, who advocated responsible conservation of resources for human use.

While Pinchot was the rational business-minded one, I considered John Muir the passionate activist, one who had the writing skills to make the “tough sell” of protecting faraway lands from development.

John Muir said this about Yosemite, which was the first land in the US set aside specifically for preservation:

“It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

I always figured Muir was just a spiritual writer who connected in a different way with nature. This line about nature being a temple, I took that as hyperbole and as a metaphor. I was wrong. Muir was right.

After one visit to the Valley, Yosemite speaks for itself.

There is a temple in Yosemite, and it’s formed by the cliffs themselves. In the Valley, the interplay of light and shadow off three thousand-foot cliffs creates the sensation of being in a giant hall of worship.

The sun filters through a slight haze, making everything in the far distance look like a backdrop from a movie. As you wind down the mountainside into the Valley, breathtaking views in the far distance materialize in more-than-life-size miles as you realize you’ll be standing in the middle of that movie.

We are often awestruck by the magic of the “golden hour” before sunset. In Yosemite, this awe-inspiring moment lasts all day. Light shifts and transforms on the Valley walls from sunrise to sunset, as you’re surrounded on three sides by sheer granite faces too close to let sun stream through in full.

While Yosemite’s landscape is unique, the sensation of sun streaming through clouds, reflecting off the natural landscape is not. It’s what we felt in Storm King, in the Hudson Valley, which explains why the painters of the Hudson River School made their way West to capture Yosemite’s natural beauty on canvas. Their paintings, in part, encouraged thousands to move West.

Though as much as John Muir can rhapsodize in verse or as large as the Hudson River School painters may paint their larger-than-life portraits, it has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

A perfect cup of coffee requires a perfect grind

Whenever I find a particular beer that I love, I take note and try to replicate it myself. Lately I’ve been trying the same with coffee — I love Blue Bottle, and I’ve been trying to replicate the taste of their pour-over coffee for the last few months. It’s been quite the journey, which actually started out over a year ago when I began roasting my own coffee.

Isolating the variables: Technique and water ratio

First, I bought an East African blend that would have the subtle flavors of the coffee used by Blue Bottle. These coffees often have a sweetness and fruit flavor that is distinct from more balanced Latin American coffees. This blend smelled great when freshly ground, but in the end the coffee didn’t quite turn out how I expected. It was somehow both sour and bitter, and didn’t have the flavor I expected.

There are plenty of guides out there (here’s a good one), and Reddit has plenty of discussion of the best water ratios, pour-over techniques, and brewers. So much discussion, in fact, that I figured that technique must explain why I wasn’t getting the right results.

I had a nice new Hario V60 brewer, a gooseneck kettle, and a scale, so I started trying nearly every approach suggested, starting with water-to-coffee ratio: 12.5:1, 15:1, 16:1, 17:1. Then I tried water addition and blooming (pre-wetting the coffee to release CO2): 2x coffee weight for the bloom, then adding remaining water, then I tried 3 equal water additions. I tried swirling the water, then I tried swirling the entire brewer.

No disrespect meant to the coffee nerds that developed these processes that surpass even the arcane technique needed for a “perfect pour of Guinness”, but none of them gave me the results I had tasted previously.

Unfortunately, the instructions to grind finer or raise water temperature if your coffee is under-extracted and sour, or to do the opposite if your coffee is bitter, don’t apply when your coffee happens to be both sour and bitter simultaneously!

It turns out the fine coffee dust produced by my Hario Skerton hand grinder was a big problem. In fact, I wasn’t getting a much more consistent grind than the cheap blade grinder it was meant to replace. Those coffee “fines” tend to over-extract, producing burnt or bitter notes. Then the larger coffee particles were under-extracting, producing that odd mix of sour and bitter.

That was my issue to solve, so I tried one last-ditch idea.

Isolating the variables: Grinding the coffee

Nearly ready to give up, I went to the professionals. Variety Coffee, one of the dozens of local third-wave coffee shops in the area that roast and sell their own beans, ground me a bag of coffee to suit a pour-over brewer. I’m pretty sure they used the industry standard EK43. The next morning, I could smell the coffee from its hiding place in Paola’s backpack, it was so strong.

I pulled out the pungent roast and followed the pour-over instructions printed on the back of the box: 24g coffee, 50g bloom, 250g remaining water, a 12.5:1 ratio.

The coffee was excellent, rivaling anything I’d had at a coffeeshop.

The employee at Variety had insisted that this excellent coffee would keep for the next two weeks. Color me skeptical, but I took him at his word. The coffee remained pungent and wonderful through the end of the weekend, roughly 3-5 days.

Two weeks later, it’s still good, though it’s lost the overwhelming sweetness and fruit notes. Incidentally, Prima Coffee talks of a similar drop-off around days 4-5 that matches my observations.


Freshness and a consistent grind solved my coffee issues, though to get that consistent grind I had to go to a coffeeshop with a machine that cost a few thousand dollars. Plus I had to grind all my coffee at once, which left me using stale coffee after a few days.

My next challenge is going to be finding a grinder for home that has the same results without the price tag so I can have consistently fresh beans when needed. Stay tuned for that discussion.

Our first and hopefully not final Frontier flight

The price was shocking: $285 for two round-trip tickets from Long Island to Orlando, Florida for Christmas. At this late date, every other airline was nearly $400 or more for one ticket! The last straw was when I realized that United, the cheapest “normal” option, was now charging for carry-on bags in Economy.

There’s always a catch – and there was a catch or two, including a new airport even further away than usual – but why not? Every other airline is charging a-la-carte these days. I figured for half the price it was worth a shot.


Here’s the cost breakdown for the full round-trip:

Airfare: $285 ($142.50 x 2)
Carry-on: $70 ($35 x 2)
LIRR to Ronkonkoma: $55 ($13.75 x 4 one-way off-peak fares)
Taxi to/from airport: $20 ($5 x 4)
Total: $430

Frontier Airlines?

Originally founded as a regional airline out of Denver, Frontier is an ultra-low cost airline that flies to over 50 destinations across the US and several other neighboring countries. The airline runs flights back-to-back without any spare airplanes, pilots, or time, which we found out the hard way.

It’s part of the new wave of charge-for-everything airlines and on top of its low base fee it charges for carry-ons (in addition to checked bags). Its seats, from our experience, resemble picnic chairs and are non-reclinable and without any seat-back entertainment.

It was cheap and safe, though read on for the details.

The trip

The biggest difference between the usual JFK departure is the time spent on LIRR and cost of tickets, though with hourly service to Ronkonkoma and additional service during rush-hour, it wasn’t an inconvenience.

Departing on the 3:55pm off-peak train from Penn Station, we arrived to Ronkonkoma, which is adjacent to MacArthur / Islip Airport by 5:30. Taxi-shuttles wait at the station exit to ferry passengers to the airport terminal for $5 a head. A seamless transfer really, even better than the JFK AirTrain.

By this point we were an hour past JFK, but given that we usually budget an hour to get there and $10-15 for a peak ticket on LIRR and AirTrain, this trip wasn’t much longer or more expensive.

We were at the significantly less congested security checkpoint by 5:45pm. By now you’ll notice that most of our travel “success” stories, this one included, involve skipping security or customs at JFK.

The bad

The first message arrived to us while on the train to the airport: our 7:15 flight was now delayed until 8:35. Not the best, but ok. By the time we got to the gate, they were expecting a 9:30 departure. Once we boarded the plane, we sat for another hour before takeoff as they fixed the lavatory and filled out paperwork.

Total flight time: 2 hours 20 minutes. Total delay: 3 hours 15 minutes.

Upon arrival in Orlando, possibly due to the unplanned 1am arrival, our plane was at some obscure and far-away gate that took a bus and a shuttle train to reach the main terminal.

The return

Returning from Orlando to Islip, we arrived to the airport, hustled through a daunting security line in 30 minutes, and arrived to our gate for an on-time departure.

That is, for Frontier, on-time is an hour late. We waited in the plane for an hour while a faulty overhead bin lock was secured with packing tape and the requisite paperwork was filled out.

Arriving to Islip, we caught a taxi and made the 9:11pm train back to Penn Station with time to spare. Ronkonkoma has hourly train service, even on nights and weekends, which beats pretty much everything except the A train, plus it’s nicer than the subway.


Frontier got us to our destination cheaply and safely, though not at the same level of comfort or predictability as really any other carrier we’ve flown, low-cost carriers included. It was fine for the short hop to Florida, and made sense for the savings alone.

In the end, Frontier even apologized to us for the 3-hour delay by sending us each a $50 travel voucher. The catch is, we have to use it on Frontier!

We’ll give it another chance, but we won’t use the airline for any cases in which we have to be comfortable for a long time, catch a connection, or be on time for anything, e.g. our “extreme getaway” flight to Barbados that we did on JetBlue.

Transcending time in a New York cab

It’s 4:20 in the morning and I can see the stars. This is a bit glamorous, I think as I flag down a taxi on a nearly deserted Third Avenue below our apartment.

I have had plenty of early morning flights, but this will be my first pre-dawn departure since moving to Manhattan over three years ago. I imagine the Chrysler Building winking down on me from further uptown, sprinkling me with moonlight New Yorkiness for being hip enough to be up at this hour.

The night before, I imagined in my mind’s eye recapturing a few minutes of lost sleep as the taxi took me to the airport at the speed of Robert Moses’s dreams, 1960s-era highway speed. That was a dream.

Back in reality, something is wrong: we are headed downtown. LaGuardia Airport is uptown or over, being that it’s in Queens. We are heading south, though the driver seems totally certain of it.

After second-guessing myself several times, I finally ask, “Why are we headed downtown?” The driver responds, “This is super secret shortcut, we take the Williamsburg Bridge. This saves twenty minutes.” Trusty Google Maps said the entire trip would be 23 minutes.

My thoughts are the only other vehicles on the road. Indignation: This guy has no idea where he’s going. Doubt: Don’t second-guess a cab driver. He’s a professional. Self-doubt: Am I too nice? Is this how Canadians feel? Resignation: I’m stuck here, just relax. You planned for spare time.

At this point we have crossed the East Village, turned left onto Houston Street and are now ascending the Williamsburg Bridge. The driver assures me this is a shortcut once again as he accelerates. As if to prove himself right, he keeps his foot on the gas well past the 45-mph speed limit: 50, 55, 60, 65, 70, 72.

Our presence expands to two bridge lanes as we challenge the laws of thermodynamics. New York drivers “take the lane”. This is normal, right?

Wrong. Suddenly, honking as we’re passed in our right-hand lane. My brain turns on and activates its next emotion: Fear.

We are a pinball sent ricocheting up the expressway. The concrete retaining walls guide our path. I hope he’s better at pinball than I am.

I am sure the driver will activate the Flux Capacitor and my wristwatch will start running in reverse.

Moments later I check my phone: He’s done it, he has transcended time. The last hour has actually only been 15 minutes.

We continue to exist in two lanes, for stability, I assume, as I gird myself for takeoff. Hours or minutes pass. Not soon enough we angle off towards the airport and promptly pull up at the wrong gate.


Wait, this guy doesn’t know directions? He knows the super secret shortcut. He has the flux capacitor. Reality begins to creep in, though it’s still black as night outside the window.

We make the rounds of the entire airport to circle back around to the proper gate at a reasonable pace. It’s 4:50am. The light of day has still not shown on any of this adventure.