A version of this article originally appeared on our Patreon in March 2021. Want to support Milwaukee Record and get exclusive articles and podcasts? Click HERE. Thanks!

I don’t know if it’s possible to pin down exactly when the COVID-19 pandemic “began” in the United States, but for me, it began on Thursday, March 12, 2020. That’s the day when everything fell apart—the MLB and the NBA put their seasons on hold that day, and a ton of Milwaukee events and shows canceled or postponed. It was weird. It was scary. It was something I witnessed entirely by staring at my phone while on a 21-hour train trip from Milwaukee to Denver, Colorado.

You see, I was headed to Denver to pick up a vehicle my father-in-law had recently bought for us. The plan was to hang out with my in-laws on Thursday, and then drive the vehicle back to Milwaukee the next day. The drive home would be made more tolerable with a night’s stay with some friends in Omaha, Nebraska. It was going to be a fun, relaxing solo trip. I couldn’t wait.

And then…stuff happened. There were some rumblings about the “virus” on the short Amtrak trip from Milwaukee to Chicago, but by the time I switched trains at Union Station and settled in for the bulk of my trip to Denver, things had gotten out of control.

So I began taking notes.

Why? I dunno, it just seemed like the thing to do. I never really used them for anything (other than the beginning of THIS piece), but with the year four-year anniversary of the pandemic upon us, I figured it might be…interesting? to share them here.

So here they are, raw and unedited notes (and photos) from the beginning of a pandemic. They should give you some idea of the weird headspace I was in that day—or, at the very least, how weird and lonely and kind of lovely it is to ride the train by yourself for 21 hours. You should try it!

March 12, 2020

2:45 p.m. Just past Naperville, IL

Old couple in lounge car. Woman: “I’m writing a letter to my sponsor child.” Man: “You remember all that French?” Woman: “I’m surprised at how much I remember. I have to look words up. I couldn’t remember the word for ‘sorry.'”

Baby crying and coughing in dining car

Fewer than two dozen on train (California Zephyr)

Baseball canceled between Chicago – Naperville

Slew of concerts canceled from MKE – CHI

Now turn off phone

Mid-March landscape. Mud, bare trees, beat-up backyards. Overcast.

Barren fields. Ass ends of factories. Water treatment plants and retaining pools.

Garbage fires

Wet, recently melted snow. Trailer parks and creeks. Graffiti. No people. A pony and a small llama.

Drunk at 1 p.m. back at CHI Union Station. Guy at bar was talking about the “virus.”

Red-haired hipster sleeping next to me. Not many Mennonites on this trip. Strange.

Smoke breaks are now “fresh air breaks,” which is funny

3:42 p.m. Princeton IL

“Taffy” by Jenny Lewis

“California Zephyr” by Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard

Netted trampolines

Tarped above-ground pools

Check online at 4 p.m. Everything closing.

4:30 p.m. Galesburg

Make dinner reservation for 5:30 p.m.


Burlington 5:20 p.m.

Mount Pleasant IA 6 p.m.

Chicken and mashed potatoes, Budweiser in a can

$32 w/ tip

Harry Dean Stanton, “Hands On The Wheel”

Ottumwa IA @ 6:40 p.m.

Announcement: “We hope you’re enjoying your trip on the empty California Zephyr!”

Young guy with his wife + young son. Wearing gym shorts, sandals, colostomy bag. Hair pulled back in a bun. Everyone coughing.

Osceola IA @ 8:10 p.m.

Stop. A family and two children (boy + girl) waiting outside in the dark. One woman has iPhone w/ light on, waiting to film. They wave goodbye to someone boarding. Everyone disappears into the night.

Omaha @ 10:30 p.m.

Two kids in their seats somehow have piping hot cups of ramen soup. How?

Sleep. Wake up the next morning and watch the sun rise while eating Chicken in a Biskit. Here we go.

And that’s it! Ending on Chicken in a Biskit! Typical! Thanks so much for your continued support, Patreon pals! And I’m serious about taking a solo train trip when this thing ends. It really is the best.

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I am not handling this well

I did not handle this well