It won’t be long, now, before I hop on my next train heading across the country. I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr for Chicago, then the Capitol Limited into Harpers Ferry. It will be round-trip this time, and I can hardly wait.
My last ’cross-country train trip, in 2014, got off to an extremely unpredictable start, on a couple of levels. First of all, the night before I was to begin my long-planned journey in Emeryville, CA, I got a call from the Amtrak folks. When I picked up the phone, I heard only a recorded message that was both cryptic and unnerving. The message, in its brief entirety, was, “All or part of your train trip is being rerouted and you will need to take alternate transportation.” Click.
There was no hint about the nature of the problem, what the “rerouting” would entail, and how I would arrange for the “alternate transportation.” Would I need alternate transportation all the way to the East Coast??
Well, my fingers couldn’t dial the customer service number fast enough, and the scenario turned out to be perhaps one of the lesser of all possible evils. There had been a rockslide in Colorado that was preventing the Zephyr from being able to arrive in Emeryville on time, so all passengers would be bused to Reno and would catch the train there. This meant that I would be on an interstate bus for 6 hours rather than sipping a mimosa in the observation car at 9 a.m., leaning back to watch the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains out the windows of a train.
I wasn’t happy about losing nearly the entire first day of my trip to a hot bus ride with no amenities, but a phone call I received when we made a pit stop just outside of Colfax gave me an abrupt lesson in reality. One of our closest friends, while bicycling to work that morning, had been hit by a car and was in the Trauma Center at San Francisco General with severe injuries: two skull fractures, three broken ribs, two pelvic fractures, and a broken clavicle. I felt devastated about the timing and offered to come back once I hit Reno, but everyone agreed that that would be pointless. It was strange, though, that I was about to be cheerily setting off on an adventure while my friend was lying in a hospital so seriously hurt. (That story ended well, by the way. Thank goodness.)
Once I got settled onto the train in Reno, it was nearly time for dinner, and this was the part about train travel that filled me with the most trepidation. It wasn’t the cost; meals are provided “free” for sleeping car passengers. Nor was it the quality of food; I found, to my surprise, that much of the food I was served on Amtrak was passable, if not good. No, what caused my nerves to fray was the specter of dining with strangers.
I’ve mentioned before that my idea of hell is a locked room with Joni Mitchell piped in through the walls and only couscous to eat. But I neglected to mention that my experience of hell on earth is going to a gathering at which I don’t know anyone. I fear coming across as ignorant or half-baked, and I fear being the world’s biggest bore. When I was much younger, my friend Kay and I admitted to each other once that after nearly every social event, we would drive home alone and, while rehashing the evening’s events in our mind, we inevitably would just pound on the steering wheel and repeatedly scream out “I am such an —hole!” to no one in particular.
On Amtrak, you make a dinner reservation for whatever time slot you want, but when you get to the door of the dining car, you wait there to be seated. And you have no choice about your dining companion, especially if you happen to be traveling alone. It’s a scene that fills me with absolute dread.
What I discovered, though, was that sharing a meal with complete strangers turned out to be no problem at all. In fact, it was an experience that would generally open my heart and mind to people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.
The reason is this: Seated across a table from someone on a train, you have the most utilitarian opening line in the world: “Where are you headed?” It’s a question that applies to every person on the train, and the answers are always different, always intriguing, and always conducive to follow-up questions. It’s a ready-made conversation, and you don’t have to worry about ideological arguments or about feeling uneducated. You don’t have to look alluring. You don’t have to be hilarious. You don’t have to be clever, slick, or twee. (I just wanted to throw in that last word because it always makes me giggle.)
On top of that, almost everyone on a train is happy to be there. They haven’t been irritated by long lines at the train station. There is no such thing. They don’t have to worry about being admonished to stay in their seats if they get up to use the restroom. They’re not afraid that at any moment, one errant bolt with a tiny flaw is going to pop off the train and send them plunging 30,000 feet to their deaths. (Okay, that’s me on a plane.)
Train passengers have nothing but time on their hands.
On the first and only other train trip I took, back in 1984, I met a young woman named Behan who was originally from Turkey but had been living in Rhode Island for three years. She sat down across from me to smoke (yes, people, this was 30 years ago!) and we struck up an instant friendship. (It probably didn’t hurt that, as my diary entry says, she was “luck of lucks, beautiful – and I mean startlingly beautiful.”) Behan taught me the rules of backgammon, which we played incessantly when we were not in the bar car swilling whiskey. Another passenger said to us, “You two girls are having the most fun of anyone on the train!” I recall that when my contact lens cooker (again, this was 30 years ago!), with lenses inside, was removed from the bathroom for some reason, she helped me out of my (literally blind) panic and hysteria by going through the train asking every single person if they had seen the cooker until she finally located it with a porter. Oh, and Behan had this funny story about trying to drive on the icy roads of Rhode Island for the first time and just sliding from one side of the road to the other. She also told me with a straight face that it would be so windy in Chicago that I would need all of my heavy luggage just to weigh me down!
Anyhoo, getting back to 2014, that first night in Reno I was seated across from Deborah and Dan, a very nice couple from Florida. They were first-time train riders and had gone to North Dakota to see a 42-year-old female friend graduate from law school. I don’t know what kind of work Dan did, but Deborah was an independent contractor who set up new Ace Hardware stores all over the country. Neither of them ate pork or shellfish because they were trying to follow the Book of Leviticus.
On another occasion I dined with a young father and his 5-year-old son. He was employed by Apple (the dad, not the 5-year-old – although who knows these days?), and his particular mission was to work on battery life. I thought he meant developing a longer-lasting battery, but he explained that he was working with developers to get their apps to stop cavorting in the background and draining so much battery life out of iPhones.
An 84-year-old broad from Chicago – a seasoned gambler – told me that she doesn’t wager at home but takes a “vacation” once a month to play the slots at gambling meccas like New Orleans and Reno. She conceded that it’s an inevitably losing proposition, but she chalked the losses up to “entertainment.” And she’d been taking the train ever since 9/11 robbed her of her desire to fly. She was a spry thing, with a lined face but clear and youthful blue eyes, and long gray hair tied back behind her neck. She spoke wistfully of the passing of the “fellow [she] lived with,” so there had been a man (but no husband, apparently) in her life. Before her “vacation” in Reno she had been out in San Francisco visiting her 37-year-old grandson, who, she said, was serially unemployed. He was formerly a “portrait artist” but then became a rabid adherent of his own interpretation of the Bible and decided that portraits are an abomination.
The only people who weren’t really friendly were a surly Frenchman and his wife (or perhaps she was a mistress – let’s make the story interesting!), but I will choose to presume that they couldn’t speak English. They never even looked in my direction. So I chatted the entire meal with my seat partner, a gentle, cherubic-faced man from Minnesota who said “Oh, my” all the time when registering interest, approval, or wonder. He had traveled across the north, taking the Empire Builder into Portland and then the Coast Starlight south to see his sister, who was performing in the Modesto symphonic choir. Who knew Modesto had such a thing? He was making his way home via the California Zephyr, just to shake things up.
Not all of the passengers take their meals in the dining car. To save money, they might buy things like burgers and sandwiches from the café car downstairs. Or they might bring their own food. In another blog I mentioned Pearl and her son Benny. Pearl bought her own snacks from home – things like peanut butter crackers and the like – and I noticed that she also would take a nip in the evening from a suspicious-looking bottle she carried in her oversized straw purse.
I met lots of these people in the observation car. Harvey, a guy from the outerlands of Chico, loudly held court, not necessarily to anyone’s delight. I found him to be a curious diversion. He was one of those guys who live off the grid. A handyman by trade, he had really grimy hands and a dirty bandage on his finger, just like Neal Cassady. He said that he liked to live in a place where he could shoot his handgun. Harvey was heading to Harpers Ferry to help shore up his son, who had fallen on hard times, and then to take his daughter on a six-week train trip. He seemed to have a big heart, despite his off-putting persona. He insisted on declaring how much he loved “Modern Family” – “even the gay guys.” He even sort of took a young man, who was traveling alone, under his wing.
A woman named Cheryl – who, along with her husband, used to work for the National Park Service and knew what she was talking about – often took it upon herself to correct the Amtrak employee who was giving us an intermittent audio tour over the loudspeaker. One day as we glided along the Colorado River, Cheryl told us that frequently the rafters and kayakers out there will moon the trains. I made what I considered to be a lame joke about how they should call it Moon River and got a surprisingly big laugh. Someone mentioned Andy Williams and I informed the entire car about Jerry Butler’s much more beautiful version of that song. As much as I love Andy Williams’ velvet voice, Jerry Butler will make you WEEP. He will break your heart.
Then there was the very old old-timer with a passion for the rails, who lived in Grand Junction but had taken the Zephyr to Sacramento, only to turn around and head immediately back.
One evening as I stood in the door of the dining car, waiting to be seated, I saw that there was a table of three with an empty seat. It looked like two teenagers with dreadlocks were at the table, along with a man who could be their father. “Oh, God, please don’t seat me with dreadlocked teenagers,” I silently prayed. “Don’t put me with the teenagers! They will think I’m uncool. They’ll have nothing to say to me! They’ll be reciting rap lyrics!” See what I mean about our biases? Well, sure enough, I got seated with the Dreadlock Family. And oops, it turned out that one of the alleged dreadlocked teenagers was actually the mom, and she was probably in her forties! The teenager was totally silent and sullen; so, what else is new? But the parents and I got on famously. The mom, a special ed teacher, was a big sports fan and had season tickets to the A’s although her heart was with the Giants. The dad worked for a company that laid natural gas pipes and patiently explained to me why modern plastic pipes are so much better than steel pipes, especially in earthquake-prone areas because of plastic’s flexibility. We actually yakked for so long that we got in trouble and were kicked out by the conductor because other people were waiting for our table. So much for me and my dreadlock phobia.
As I got up from the table to head back to my sleeper for the evening, I thought I heard a young man singing up in the coach section. His voice was so full of pathos and lament that I turned around and headed in his direction, unable to help myself. It turns out that he was a cowboy, complete with Stetson and work shirt. I heard later that he was headed to Colorado. But at the moment all I heard was the guitar he was strumming and the old blues/folk song he was singing:
“I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train;
I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train;
I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain.
I know you, rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone . . .”
Ok, folks, get out your handkerchiefs ’cause I will be on hiatus for a few weeks. I seem to be coming down with Vacationitis, along with Mangiapasta Syndrome and probably some kind of blight or canker. Talk to you down the line!