I was hoping for yet another dream trip when I took Amtrak last month from California to the East Coast and back. But the day before I boarded the first train, a god-awful microbe boarded me and rendered me virtually unable to speak, not to mention saddling me with a bad cold, a rattly cough, and an angry sore throat all the way to Maryland. The return trip, thankfully, would be much better. As usual, I took a notebook (yes, and a real pen!), and I thought I’d share some of those scribblings with you here, in this ’cross-country train travel primer.

 

October 4, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound from Emeryville to Chicago, day 1)

Long-distance Amtrak passengers can travel in one of two ways: by coach, or in a sleeper car. Coach travel is the most economical way to go. For about $230 (if you get your ticket well in advance) you can ride the rails from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, D.C. The trip takes four days and involves two trains: the California Zephyr runs to Chicago, and after just a few hours’ layover, the second train (the Capitol Limited) departs for D.C. Not a bad price, really. But you have to be willing to sleep in your reclining seat (or grab a few winks in the observation car, if you don’t get chased out). There’s no question, though, that the seats are leagues better than those on an airplane; they’re comfortable, wide, and long (plenty of legroom), with leg and foot rests, eating trays, reading lights, and electrical outlets.

bedroom-1
Amtrak bedroom

The other option is to get a room in a sleeper car. Generally, there are two choices: a roomette or a bedroom. Both have fold-down bunk-style beds, but the bedrooms also have a combination shower/bathroom. (The other two options are the “family bedroom,” which is wider and has room for two children in addition to the adults, and an ADA room – both located on the lower level of the train.) Restrooms and a huge shower room, accessible only to sleeper car passengers, are also on the lower level. All meals are included. These days I opt for the bedroom. It’s a perk, I suppose – and a necessity – of being, shall we say, “seasoned.”

bedroom-3 bathroom

So, how do you pack for a train trip? Well, let me just start by emphasizing that most of the coach seats and sleeper cars are on the upper level on long-distance trains, and to get there you have to ascend a narrow, twisting set of stairs. There is very little room in which to maneuver, and unless you’re a linebacker, you probably don’t have the strength to carry a heavy, loaded suitcase directly in front of you. So most people leave any heavy suitcases downstairs where they will cheerfully await them when they disembark, and they carry a lighter, soft bag up those treacherous stairs on their back. I learned this tip from my friend Leon Emmons. I did not follow his advice when I made the trip in 2014, and the attendants (formerly called porters) had to schlep my corpulent suitcase up the stairs like sherpas because there was no way I could do it. So this time I got smart. I bought a wheeled backpack. That way, I could throw it onto my back as I went up the stairs but could also wheel it along behind me in the train stations, etc.

This idea was very good, but it would have been more brilliant had I not filled the backpack so full of unnecessary items that it was almost heavier than my suitcase. I nearly snapped my lumbago. I wore my turquoise “train outfit” today and brought two or three no-iron train shirts and miscellaneous socks and underwear. That would have been fine. But I also felt that I needed my SF Giants orange polo shirt to wear during tomorrow’s wild-card playoff game with the Mets. I also packed peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and chocolate-covered almonds for snacks. And I had to have a hairdryer (gotta look good), a huge sundries bag, and about 30 types of drugs for my virus. Of course, I was laden with gadgets like my phone, an iPad, my brand-new camera, and an iPod (which my sister Janine says is “so last-millennium”). And I brought a jacket because I didn’t know what the temperature would be like. All of these came in handy. But to top it off, even though I downloaded books onto my iPad, I insisted on bringing Springsteen’s new hard-cover autobiography, which must weigh 5 pounds. And finally, for who knows what reason, I packed a bottle of vodka. Now mind you, I really don’t drink vodka. But I did the same thing for my last train trip, and both times I never once opened the bottle. What is wrong with me???

***

So, what are the “bedrooms” like? Well, they’re sufficient but small, and they require a certain amount of flexibility and limberness. On last year’s trip, I was assigned to room A. Little did I know that room A is legendarily difficult to navigate. Its design is a bit different from the other rooms, with the bathroom situated so that if you need, say, to get up in the middle of the night, you have to crawl down to the foot of your bed and roll directly into the bathroom. There is just no room to even stand up. So when I made reservations for this trip, many months ago, I called rather than book online because I wanted to specifically ask not to get room A. And it turned out that that request was not a problem at all. (In fact, I suspect it may be quite common.)

The two beds are bunk-style, and when folded back up each morning the bottom bed becomes a couch. There is also a little table and chair, a sink, a trash can, and the bathroom. The shower faucet is almost directly over the toilet, so many people just sit on the toilet, with the seat closed, and take their showers that way. It’s easier to sit down when the train is barreling along and you don’t want to be thrown pell-mell into the shower controls. That could cause, in the words of my friend Mark Houts, “quite the contusion.”

Riding Amtrak is not good for people who have any expectations whatsoever about service and amenities. For example, sleeper cars are supposed to come with bottled water, soap, and shampoo. Only once on my six sleeper-car train trips did I ever get shampoo. Usually, but not always, I got soap. In some cases, I had to ask my attendant for water every single day, while on other occasions there were cases of water outside the rooms near where the juice and coffee are set up for sleeper passengers. Basically, it’s all just – as the kids would say – random.

I’d like to mention, too, that every sleeper car includes an array of buttons that do not work. There are all kinds of knobs and levers related to temperature and air flow, and none of them makes a whit of difference. There is also a button called “Music Control,” and I’d love to know what function it ever served, because now it serves none at all.

***

I wanted to get an observation car seat before we got to Sacramento this morning. The observation car is open to everyone and is terrific because it has ceiling windows and is often a place for genial conversation. Unfortunately, because my throat hurt so much, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone in the observation car. There were definitely some chatterboxes there. One guy who lives in Santa Rosa said that he drives into Guerneville every day to do a radio show that is “part 60s soul and mostly 50s doo-wop.” I think he might be “Papa A,” a regular on KGGV-FM.

There was some discussion about whether a person should be allowed to save a seat in the observation car. The conductor’s announcement when we first boarded noted that no seat-saving was allowed. But one woman kept making an issue of it, asking people around her whether they agreed with the rule. She wanted to save a seat for her husband for at least an hour(!), and she disagreed with the rule. I firmly believe in the rule (quelle surprise!) and I wondered who on earth she thought she was, but my near-laryngitis kept me mute, which was about making me crazy.

***

For dinner, an attendant comes to the sleeper cars first to take reservations, and I typically ask for the earliest time because I am constantly hungry. I was really worried this evening because of my laryngitis and the catch in my throat and my congestion; it was all enough to terrify any self-respecting healthy person. But no one shrank away in revulsion, and I was at least able to eke out a question or two, although there was no way I could form a complete sentence and talk about myself.

I sat next to a very young woman named Michaela, who was getting off in Elko. She’s from the Sonora area near Yosemite but is moving to Elko with her fiancé. She’d typically taken buses before (including one to Idaho), but said trains were much better. Across from me were Lori and her husband. They’d formerly lived in upstate New York but had recently moved to Florida. Although they must have been at least in their fifties, she was super hip and had a nose ring plus all manner of chains and other metallic accoutrement on her left ear. They’d been out visiting her son, who lives in Santa Clara and used to work for LinkedIn. Because the New Orleans-to-Florida tracks were completely damaged in Katrina, they couldn’t take a southern route but had to take the Zephyr east to Chicago, the Capitol Limited to D.C., and then a third train to Florida.

Dinner choices:

  • Thyme-roasted chicken
  • Spice-rubbed cod
  • Signature steak
  • Chinese noodles
  • Vegetarian lasagne
  • Creamy tortellini with pesto

The food is free for sleeper car passengers, who have to pay only for alcohol and whatever tip they want to leave. The herbed chicken was excellent and came with a baked potato (fair) and green and yellow beans (cooked to absolute death). The chocolate lava cake for dessert was outstanding, though. The couple across from me had the Signature steak, which seems to get high marks from everyone. I may try it tomorrow.

After dinner, Karen (our attendant) came by to set up the bed and to remind me that we’ll be in another time zone tomorrow morning, so I set my watch and camera. All time zone changes on this entire trip happen in the middle of the night, conveniently.

washoe-county-nv_moon
Washoe County, Nevada

 

October 5, 2016 (California Zephyr, eastbound to Chicago, day 2)

I had a terrible night because of my horrendous throat pain. But, not completely daunted, I got up at 6:30 and donned my Giants polo shirt and earrings to bring my team luck for the game later today. One of the attendants, who complimented me on my turquoise train shirt yesterday, exclaimed, “Nice sweater! You’re just a fashion extravaganza!” Ha ha ha!

***

We stopped for about 20 minutes in Grand Junction, Colorado, so I got off to stretch my legs and then took the opportunity to get some hot tea in the café car (well, a cup of hot water with a Lipton tea bag on top of it).

grand-junction-co-4
Grand Junction, Colorado

***

You can have dinner brought to your sleeper if you want, and tonight I decided to do that because of my near-total voice loss. Unfortunately, the Signature steak arrived nearly raw. I hated to do it, but I had to call my room attendant and protest (using more gestures than speech). The chef then personally brought a new meal to me and said that mine had been put on the wrong tray. Well, I have to say, the steak was utterly delicious, with a sauce to die for! For some reason I had to buy a half-bottle of red wine because they did not have it by the glass as they do in the dining car. I drank one glass and saved the rest. That’s how ill I was feeling!

Leon and Julie both texted me throughout the Giants game with updates. The Giants won with Bumgarner’s pitching and a Conor Gillaspie homer! Now they play the Cubs. I’ll be fine if the Cubs win and take the whole darned Series. They’ve waited over a century, for goodness’ sakes.

 

October 6, 2016 (transfer from California Zephyr to Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 3)

I’m so bummed not to be able to talk. In the observation car this morning I heard one conversation about the Cubs and another very intellectual discussion about jazz between two obviously knowledgeable fellows. Dang!

passengers-2

We got to Chicago a little early, so I had 3-1/2 hours to kill before our 6:00 boarding time. Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge – which is open to sleeping-car, business, and Amtrak Select passengers – offers drinks, snacks, wi-fi, and comfortable furniture. Today’s snacks were just Chex-Mix type things, and they were a bit too spicy for me; I tried them and immediately was overcome by a paroxysm of coughing. But the unlimited cold orange juice made me feel better.

We boarded at 6:00. I didn’t want a dinner reservation, so I just had peanut butter crackers. Not a very nutritious day.

There was a horrible burning-wires smell in the train shortly after we boarded and one of the conductors (a woman!) walked through the train and told me that an engine had quit working and they had to do a last-minute repair. The beauty of this is that when she mentioned the failed engine, I did not panic. I did not start to cry. I did not hope that there was a priest on board who could give me the Last Rites. I did not have to prepare myself to plunge 30,000 feet to my agonizing death. No, I was not on a plane. I was on a safe, hospitable train. I thought nothing of a bad engine. Ah, the Zen of it all.

 

October 7, 2016 (Capitol Limited, eastbound to Harpers Ferry, day 4)

TIP:  To avoid constantly being thrown from side to side as you walk through a train, you need to employ a bit of a Charlie Chaplin walk. Watch the conductors, and imitate them as they point their toes outward and sway from side to side while they move down the aisle. That way you won’t bruise your boob in every doorway, or go sprawling across a diner’s lap. Not that I’ve done any of that.

between-elkhart-and-south-bend-in-1
Near South Bend, Indiana

I had a hard night. It was freezing in the room and I actually had to wear my North Face fleece jacket all night! I noticed in the morning that I had no soap, so I had to unscrew the hand soap dispenser from the sink. Then, to make matters worse, I discovered that the plastic cover was up on the toilet paper holder when I took a shower, so the entire roll of paper was soaked through. From that point on I had to use the sandpaper Kleenex. Luckily this was the last day, and it was a short one; I arrived at Harpers Ferry around noon.

***

This blog post is about train travel, so right now I won’t go into the time I spent with my wonderful friends in Maryland. Suffice it to say that I had a lovely time, and I only wish that I could have talked more with my friend Ellen, who put me up in her home and helped nurse me back to life while I could only croak at her. She even had to translate what I was saying one time for a waitress! But I was better by the time I got to Baltimore, and I spent some of my best days that week jamming with my friends Julie R. and Lauren, who play folk music together. I even got to drum with them at a gig. Someday I will try to put into words the joy of making music with other people.

***

 

October 17, 2016 (Capitol Limited, westbound from Rockville to Chicago, day 1)

The closest Capitol Limited station from Baltimore is Rockville, Maryland. I didn’t realize that the Rockville station has no restroom and, as it turns out, no signage at all indicating that it’s an Amtrak station. I freaked out (again, quelle surprise!) but Julie R., bless her heart, figured it all out for me. The train was supposed to stop for only one minute(!), so I was worried about finding someone to store my huge suitcase below the sleeper car, but they were very efficient, actually called my name, and loaded my bag while I boarded. Carlos, my attendant, had already made me 6:00 dinner reservations. I was really looking forward to eating in the dining car and speaking with other humans!

galesburg-il_man-at-station-1

I had dinner tonight with the world’s nicest couple, from Michigan. She (Nancy) just “retired” as a PT, although she still does occasional contract work. He taught middle school for 30+ years. They spend their winters warming up in south Texas, near Brownsville (he has a brother there). They have three or four kids and a couple of new grandchildren. She had just heard that her daughter, who sleepwalks, tried to step over her husband in bed and woke up as she was crashing to the floor and breaking her shoulder. Too bad Nancy was on the train trip and not there to help her! Oh, and they told me that Brownsville is apparently the grapefruit capital of the country. Who knew that?

I had the steak, creamy mashed potatoes, the usual mixed vegetables cooked to death, a salad, a roll, a chocolate dessert, and a glass of cabernet.

 

October 18, 2016 (transfer from Capitol Limited to California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 2)

I slept deeply last night. I’d been dreaming that I had bedbug bites all over my toes, but I woke up when we pulled into a stop. I peered out the window and saw passengers pouring off the train, so I sprang out of bed and actually yelled out loud, “Oh, my God, we’re in Chicago already!” only to calm down, look at my watch, and note that it was 4:45 a.m. Then I saw that the station sign said “Toledo.”

***

In Chicago’s Metropolitan Lounge, this time, they started putting out wine bottles and veggies and cheese at around noon. I was worried about my nervous stomach, though, as always and decided to forego anything until I got on the train.

room-e-sign-2

We boarded at 1:30. I was the first one into our car. After I plopped myself in the room, I tore into a bag of Dove chocolate-covered almonds and shoveled peanut butter crackers into my mouth like a ravenous jackal. And it was right about then that the drama began.

A woman and her husband, who had been behind me in line, were trying to navigate their way down to their room (A) at the other end of the sleeper car. But the woman could not get her legs to operate at all, so two conductors had to get her up the narrow, steep, twisty stairs. Her husband Bill was completely useless because he paid no attention to her pleas for assistance. It turned out that she had multiple sclerosis, and I don’t know whether she was having a surprise attack or whether she was always unable to use her legs. In any case, after they got her up the stairs, one of the conductors was needed elsewhere, and it became clear that she would have to drag herself painstakingly along the floor, down the entire length of the aisle.

(I heard Bill say that the ADA room had been booked by someone else and that he had called in advance and was told that the aisle would accommodate her walker, which it clearly did not.)

Now, here’s where I was faced with a choice, and where I fell somewhat short. As I mentioned before, I had booked bedroom E a year in advance so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the dreaded room A. But I thought this woman could greatly benefit from my room, since she was already approaching it and it would take her forever to crawl down to room A at the other end. Not to mention the humiliation of the experience for her. I hemmed and hawed internally and cursed the whole situation and cursed my own inaction and selfishness, but finally, as she was just past my door by an inch, I forced myself out into the hallway to ask the conductor whether I should switch rooms with that poor woman and her husband. Surprisingly – and I have to admit that I was relieved – he told me that the couple’s belongings were already situated in room A and that I should not attempt to make the switch.

I still don’t know that the conductor was acting in everyone’s best interest when he made that decision. He came back later, thanked me for making the offer, and said, “You don’t want room A. It’s small and undesirable, and it wouldn’t be fair to you to switch.” In retrospect, it seems to me that he should have been thinking more about the woman with MS than about me or what was “fair.” Not to mention the fact that there were two people who were going to be in that room, one of whom was disabled and would not be able to leave the room for any reason until she arrived in Sacramento two days later. It took the woman thirty minutes to crawl to her room. I think this will haunt me forever.

***

After I got over that trauma, I was eager to get down to the Zephyr’s observation car and possibly speak, with actual functioning vocal cords, to a fellow passenger. And much to my surprise and amusement, who should be in the car, down in his customary seat at the end, wearing his customary camouflage hat, but the Chico guy from 2014! Harvey! He was loudly bloviating as usual, and I took my seat at the other end of the car. But no one sat near me, so I was alone with my thoughts.

Younger man with Harvey
Harvey in 2014
harvey
Harvey in 2016

***

I was also eager for dinner, and I decided to bravely sample the tortellini. I have to say, they were al dente and pretty good! They were strangely topped with those bland overcooked veggies, but I still enjoyed the meal.

My dinner companions were Les, a bald man whose accent I immediately picked out as Philadelphian, and Barbara, a reed-thin woman with pigtails, an abundance of wrinkles, and red rheumy eyes. Les is heading out to visit his daughter in L.A., but he’s going to get off in Emeryville and kick around San Francisco for a week first. He used to work for the railroad, first as an accountant but then as a computer guy in the 1950s, using keypunch cards. He never went to college but worked his way up to a fairly high supervisorial position. Barbara is from Virginia and goes out to visit her son – a biogeneticist – in Mill Valley every year. For some reason she spoke in barely above a whisper, so it was hard to hear her. She did say that the previous night she had dined with a “crazy” woman who assumed that all food on the train was all-you-can-eat and free for everyone!


October 19, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 3)

Paul, our nice attendant – who, by the way, is also a PGA professional – came by as we were pulling into Union Station in Denver to tell us that the dining car was open, so I flew down there to beat the Denver rush. I had scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, a biscuit, and coffee – all good. Clara and Jack, two 80-year-olds who had lived in Reno for 40 years, were seated across from me. Both of them were in terrific shape. I’m beginning to think that 80 is the new 50! At first I was slightly put off by him, because he seemed to be constantly correcting me or “teaching” me something, albeit in an extremely pleasant way, which was unnerving. Well, it turned out that he was an emeritus professor of philosophy, so I suppose his lifelong propensity to teach was exerting itself. I found myself not only nodding but subtly indicating to him that I already knew what he was trying to impart by answering “right,” or “yes, indeed,” or “I’ve been there.” Because he was born and raised in Chicago, I thought it might interest him to hear my one-minute condensed story about Myra Stratton, the Chicago nun with Alzheimer’s whom I’d befriended and whose life I had researched (https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/10/02/finding-myra/), but although he smiled a lot he didn’t seem particularly interested. Clara was the one who asked me questions. She was a law librarian for a national judicial education center, so she knew about the Center for Judicial Education and Research (part of the Judicial Council of California, where I used to work). She had librarian hair – neck length, bangs, a straight and simple cut – and no wrinkles whatsoever! Jack interjected that there is no judicial education for trial judges “anywhere,” but I pointed out that, at least in California, there certainly are minimum judicial educational standards. I don’t know where he gets his information. Oh, and apparently he teaches a class in “reasoning” to judges. Whatever! Anyway, they visit their son in San Francisco frequently and of course Jack had to tell me all about the Bernal Heights neighborhood as if I had no clue about it. But he really was a sweet man. He had trained at one point to be a pastor, so he had that serene manner about him.

rockies_grand-county-co_colorado-river-5
Colorado River

***

The train is really an introvert’s dream. At times – sometimes for hours while going through the Rockies – there is no online connectivity at all (no wi-fi on the long-distance trains). WHAT??! How on earth do people survive? Well, they read, listen to music (perhaps on their so-last-millennium iPod), watch the scenery, think. Or write. When I got back to the sleeper, I continued reading The Girl on the Train – which, by the way, I think is highly overrated. I figured the whole thing out from almost the very beginning, and normally I am completely flummoxed, confused, and in the dark about everything.

At one point over the Rockies, Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero” and then the Mills Brothers’ “The Glow Worm” played on the iPod. The train rushed through a long pitch-black tunnel and I danced crazily to both of them. No one could see me. For those of you who don’t know “Glow Worm,” it’s a song that just makes you happy.

***

pinecliffe-co-4
Rockies, Colorado

At around 11:30 I headed for the observation car. The more scenic side was completely full, with Harvey down at the end as usual. And, just as in 2014, he was talking about his guns. Mainly about calibers. At first he had a young woman caught captive, and he was telling her that he’d taught his nephews how to assess wind direction before peeing outside. He also mentioned that he’d tried to get his daughter to pee outside as well, but she’d have none of it. (Well, duh, Harvey!) Then he roped a really old codger into his conversation, and the two of them had an amusing “discussion” during which they didn’t respond to anything each other said!

The next victim was a sweet, small man whose only interjection was that he believed in the Bible and eternal life. Harvey responded that he disagreed about the Bible but made it a point never to discuss religion or politics because it always ended in animosity. He showed a sensitive side, too, talking fondly about his college-age daughter and mentioning that he and his sister were both adopted. His ex-wife, he said, was a “mess,” a former singer who messed up her life when she was on the brink of a contract with RCA. And he himself, he admitted, had made mistakes with drugs and alcohol in the past. He said that he’d never lied to his wife, but that there were things he omitted (it was her fault, he claimed, because she didn’t ask!).

There were some Mennonite couples in there, too, as well as a group of mentally challenged adults. Definitely a diverse bunch!

***

I saw a bald eagle as we glided by. And that reminds me. There’s a new Google television ad with four hipsters on a train paying no attention to what is outside the window but instead giggling gleefully over the virtual reality headsets they’re wearing. That commercial makes me absolutely apoplectic.

***

rockies_grand-county-co-15
Rockies, Colorado

Dinner tonight was the chicken again, but this time instead of being herb-crusted it was in a terrific chopped-tomato sauce. And I want to bathe in that chocolate lava cake with the warm caramel center. My dining mates were Joleen and Ned (a couple from Kansas) and Matt, a young, extraordinarily handsome man from Australia with reddish hair and a trim beard. He recently got out of the Australian navy and is currently driving trucks. The navy wants him back, but he’s at a crucial crossroads, not knowing how he wants to make that decision. Of course, I urged him to follow his heart and be neither swayed nor flattered by persuasion. He comes to the U.S. every year and makes it a point to take at least one train ride per visit. He said the Australian trains are six times as expensive as Amtrak, are only for rich tourists, and are decidedly not worth it. Joleen and Ned have been married for 52 years and live in Kansas, where their families have been for centuries. Ned said their family tree is really a “family shrub.” He had been in public education for 50 years, starting out working stockrooms and sweeping floors but ending up teaching, coaching, counseling, and eventually serving as a high school principal and then assistant superintendent. He claimed that he and Joleen are the only two people in Kansas not voting for Donald Trump.

rockies_garfield-county-co-5
Rockies, Colorado

Afterwards I decided to spontaneously head down to the café car and ask for a hot toddy. After all, my friends had been recommending it to me during my bout with this awful cold, and even though the cold is all but gone, my voice is hoarse and catchy, and I still have a slight cough. The guy gave me a cup of hot water, a container of honey, and a mini-bottle of Jack Daniels. I plopped down at a table in the observation car and the man across from me looked over and said, “Ah, you have the makings of a hot toddy.” So I ended up talking with him and his wife a while. They were headed west to go to an annual reunion of soldiers who had shared a tent in the Vietnam War in 1965. These four guys and their wives had been getting together every year for decades.

 

October 20, 2016 (California Zephyr, westbound to Emeryville, day 4)

Around 4 p.m. today (and so far, miracle of miracles, the train is exactly on time!), I will disembark in Emeryville, be put on an Amtrak bus to the Temporary Transbay Terminal in San Francisco, and then need to get a cab home. Stressful!

[Note: I ended up doing just fine getting home. But I have a confession to make. There was only one cab waiting at the bus station when we got there, and I literally ran past Joleen and Ned to get to it. I needed to get to the west side of town through rush-hour traffic, and it was going to be a long trip for my weary bones. I can’t be nice all the time, can I?]

sierras_kingvale
Kingvale (Sierra Nevadas)

As we pulled into Reno, the dining car announced “last call” for breakfast, so I zipped down there. The oatmeal with raisins and honey sounded like a good plan, but they were out. So I had my standby of scrambled eggs, grits, a biscuit, and coffee. Across from me was a young couple from Idaho who had just finished moving themselves (in four 1,000-mile trips!) to southern Utah to be near his 77-year-old mother. He had long-ish hair and looked almost exactly like John Tesh (remember him?), and she looked a little like the Piper character from “Orange Is the New Black,” except worn around the edges. To me she looked a lot older than he did, but I’m not great with ages. They were taking three trains to go visit a friend in Spokane, then were riding a motorcycle down to San Francisco, and then were heading on to Atwater in southern California, where they would be visiting her daughter and new grandchild. Mother and daughter had been estranged and had not spoken in four years but had had some sort of breakthrough. He was a truck driver and was clearly very smart. He said he’d spent two years in a Holiday Inn Express in Nevada, walking across the street each morning to work, trucking fuel somewhere (he was a “fuel specialist”), returning to the motel at the end of the day and falling asleep, only to do it all again the next day, for 70(!) hours a week. It was a lonely job and he got to know the hotel workers better than any family member or friend. He was kind of mesmerizing – a fluid, brilliant storyteller. Next to me was a 30-something, short-haired, tough and stocky blond woman who’d grown up in New Jersey but moved to Berlin and was living there as a freelance translator of architectural and museum materials. All of us tentatively ventured into the realm of EU, German, and American politics. We lingered a long time. It finally eked out that all of them were against Trump but rarely discussed issues with friends or families because of the potentially damaging rifts that could result. The German woman made a couple of inflammatory and denigrating remarks about Americans but I held my tongue even though my blood pressure spiked and I almost threw a clot. Sometimes it’s best to just listen. It’s interesting to hear what Europeans think of us anyway.

***

I’ve been spending my final hours listening to music. The most recent songs have been:

  • Desperadoes Waiting for a Train (The Highwaymen)
  • Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (Kris Kristofferson)
  • Samba Pa Ti (Santana)
  • Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
  • Girl from the North Country (Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash)
  • The Waiting (Tom Petty)
  • Riding on a Railroad (James Taylor)
  • Rise to Me (The Decemberists)
  • Seven-Year Ache (Roseanne Cash)

For some reason, “Seven-Year Ache” makes me cry today. It was such a dream to play music with my friends in Maryland, and it upsets me to live so far from some of the dearest people in my life. At one time they all lived in California; why did they have to move away? I vow to myself to forever stay in touch. Hang on, hang on, hang on to the people you love.

***

Many people, when I tell them about traveling by rail across the country, say that instead they would like to take “the train that goes across the Canadian Rockies.” But that is a different experience. It is an elite tourist train that touts its “luxury and comfort beyond compare” and, by the way, puts you up in a hotel at night.

This is not my aspiration. I love Amtrak. Amtrak is a passenger train; more than 30 million people a year climb on board. It doesn’t cost $5,000. It allows the average person to get from point A to point B. But it remains constantly in political danger, and I continue to urge people to ride and support the passenger rails. They are a bridge for all of us.

I don’t want to be in a hotel. The amenities might not be perfect, but being on a train is like being in a moving cottage with beautiful picture windows and the great American expanse passing in front of your eyes. I want to be falling asleep to the rhythmic rumble of the wheels and to the periodic squeaks, squeals, and groans, the random hisses, and of course the low-pitched whistle of that powerful locomotive.

We need these trains. They are honest. They are for everyone. They are longtime survivors of a simpler time. They honor the past and they honor our country. And they make me feel safe.

Hang on, hang on, hang on.

11 thoughts on “The rhythm of the rails

    1. Thank you so much, Carole! I’ve written a couple of other posts about Amtrak, too. You can see a list down the left-hand side. Also, you can click the “follow” button if you want to “subscribe” to the blog. You would then get an e-mail whoever I post anything new. 🙂

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  1. Well I’m just now getting around to reading this blog post and it was well worth the wait! I didn’t want to read it in a rush (since I normally read it at my desk at work, lol)…so today was the day! I’m just killing time until noon when I can rush out of this dreadful office and drive to Louisville to see you guys!! 🙂 And you’ll be happy to hear I’m listening to this amazing playlist of yours counting down the minutes! Abraxas is my favorite Santana albums…maybe even one of my top 10 albums ever…so of course I will be taking your musical advice from here on out! Love ya Paula! Can’t wait to see you!

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  2. Hello Paula- Once again, another great blog! Keep going on these train trips. You meet the most interesting folks, and then WE get to hear all about them and your trip in general. I WANT to go with you one of these days!!! Glad you finally had your Hot Toddy. Harvey sounds like a trip! His daughter is missing out on learning how to pee outside. It is not only fun but can be very USEFUL at times (you know, don’t ya?). My two most memorable times of pissin’ outside was; 1. Summer 1985, about 3 AM; I peed over the campfire to put it out. Had to! No bucket of water. 2. Summer 2016, Fishing in Alaska, on a very small boat; I was offered many cans of Coors Light starting at 4 AM (I was A-Ok in saying yes because I learned the practical skill of whizzing outside as a young doe. Well, eventually had to pee! Duh! No problem. Did so in the back of the boat over a 5 gallon bucket. Interesting sound….beer piss forcefully echoing as it is hitting plastic and swirling to the bottom of a bucket! And oh, by the way, I was the first one to catch the King Salmon that day!

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  3. Ron and I died laughing picturing your sprint to the cab at the end…
    “Samba Pa Ti ” is one of my favorite songs…ever…
    And we are more resolute than ever to go on a long train trip. And have the steak.
    (By the way, I do believe you are the only living human who I have ever heard use the word, ‘corpulent’).

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  4. Paul’s, we continue to enjoy your blog….it’s great……someday, we hope to read about your adventures traveling to the coast of Oregon.

    Warm Regards,

    Tony and Kay

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  5. For some reason I cried at the end, but I’ve been weepy a lot lately. I have so loved my Amtrak adventures, too. The ones I’ve been on have been pretty full so maybe there’s hope. They’ve all needed renovation or perhaps just modern cars, but nonetheless it’s a fabulous way to see our beautiful country. I’ve yet to spring for a bedroom, but you’ve convinced me to do so for my next trip in June. Love that you bring the Vodka. Cracks me up.

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  6. Very interesting. As usual I enjoyed every word.

    Guess I’ll start my day now. I have five stuffed toys waiting for me to make them whole again. Charly ‘plays’ with the toys seeing how fast she can destroy them. This dog has been quite interesting. Totally different than any of our other dogs. Straight from the Berkeley SPCA she is by far the smartest dog any of us has had.

    My first dog, Jacques Louie Phillip, has been shown up by Charly. He got first place in an obedience class. I should have gone further with his training, believe he could have done good in a dog show, but I was simply way to busy to take it on. >

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