For they looked in the future and what did they see They saw an iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land All up through the seaports and into their hands
– Gordon Lightfoot
A remarkable American event occurred nearly 150 years ago on April 28, 1869 – something that was considered to be an unimaginable feat at the time.
On that day, during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world, a group of men laid down 10 miles and 56 feet of rail in the high ground of Utah in less than 12 hours.
We may not be able to appreciate it fully today, when automation and technology have reduced most tasks to the push of a button. But in those days it was a feat of human perseverance, brute strength, endurance, planning, ingenuity, guts, cooperation, and commitment. It was a record that would never be broken.
Construction of an expansive rail system spanning the continent was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s most pressing goals. By the 1860s railroads were up and running in the east, but they came to an end near Omaha, Nebraska. From that point, it would take four months for anyone to make the trip west to California by stagecoach or wagon train.
The overall plan was that the Union Pacific Railroad would construct tracks heading east out of Omaha (well, technically, Council Bluffs, Iowa). Its counterpart would build a railroad from the west that would meet the Union Pacific in northern Utah.
The logistics of building the western segment over the Sierra Nevada mountains were considered to be prohibitive, however, both physically and financially. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in fact, had visited northern California and declared that laying down tracks over the Sierras would require the work of none other than “giants.”
But the collective hubris of California’s “Big Four” rail tycoons – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Potter Huntington, and Charles Crocker – led them to pool their amassed fortunes and take on an enormous gamble: financing a railroad that would face the challenge of traversing some of the most challenging geography in the country as it headed towards its terminus at Promontory Point, Utah Territory. And so the Central Pacific Railroad was born.
Work on the Transcontinental Railroad by the two powerful railway companies went on for six years, and the Central Pacific had a much tougher time of it. Crossing the Sierras was backbreaking, and the weather and topography proved to be formidable adversaries. The snow was deep, the gorges steep, and the mountain rock nearly impenetrable. Imagine tunneling through the Sierras by hand. To create each tunnel, two men would work an entire day to pound holes 5 feet into the rock using only hammers and chisels. Then other workers were hung from the rock faces and suspended in baskets while they stuck black dynamite into the holes, lit the fuses, and were frantically yanked to safety before the explosives erupted. More than a dozen tunnels were blasted through the mountains. And of course grades needed to be carved and bridges constructed.
The Big Four neared bankruptcy. But the work continued, and eventually the exhausted Central Pacific crew broke through and descended into the Nevada desert.
At this point, I’d like to note that both of the companies involved in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad hired immigrants for the hard labor. About 8,000 of the railroad workers were employed by the Union Pacific and were primarily of Irish, German, and Italian descent. The majority of the laborers (13,000), however, were Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific. These guys were, reportedly, extremely hardy and committed workers. They built Buddhist shrines to tend to their spiritual well-being. For their physical health, they wisely arranged for deliveries of rice, dried vegetables, dried oysters and abalone, pork, and poultry, so their food was healthier than the meat-and-potato staples of the other workers. And because they drank boiled tea rather than untreated water, they tended not to fall prey to the dysentery and other infectious diseases that roared through the camps. Of course, they were paid far, far less than the white workers. And to make matters worse, although meals were included in the white workers’ salaries, the Chinese men had the cost of their food deducted from their wages.
Still, they persisted.
As the Central Pacific guys were moving across the Nevada flatlands, the workers of the Union Pacific were slapping down track at breakneck speed as they headed west out of Omaha towards the Great Salt Lake. And at this point the effort became a race, of sorts – a rivalry to determine which group of workers could lay the longest amount of track in the fastest amount of time. That is when Charles Crocker of the Central Pacific Railroad made the claim that everyone thought was foolish: that his men could put down 10 miles of track in a single day.
At 7 a.m. on April 28, the sprint began. The plan, as executed, involved bringing in 16-car trains loaded with rails, bolts, spikes, and other materials needed for two miles of track. All 16 cars were then miraculously unloaded in eight minutes, “cleared with a noise like the bombardment of an army,” according to Erle Heath, associate editor of the Southern Pacific Bulletin. The emptied train would be hauled immediately out of the way and a new loaded train pulled into the appropriate position.
Enter those little iron handcars we’ve all seen in Buster Keaton movies. A keg of bolts, a keg of nails, a bundle of fish plates, and 16 iron rails would be loaded onto a handcar, each of which was manned by six Chinese laborers and their white boss. On flatlands and uphill grades, the handcars were pulled by two horses in tandem. On the downhills, they went sailing along at full tilt, with one man serving as brakeman, the horses galloping alongside until they reached level ground. Keep in mind that while all of this was happening, the empty handcars returning from their position were on the same track. So as the fully loaded cars came whizzing toward them, the guys on the empty handcar had to leap off, hoist the car off the rails, and then put it back on again after the full car had zoomed by without slackening its speed.
Then came the Irish rail handlers – an elite crew of only eight men who actually laid down all the track. And on the tough grades and curves, the rails had to be bent through the sheer force of heavy hammers. Each rail was 30 feet long and weighed – get this – more than half a ton. By the end of the day, each of these guys had lifted 125 tons of iron.
After the rail handlers came the spikers, the bolters, the guys who “surfaced” the tracks by shoveling ballast under them, and finally the tampers – at least 400 of them – with shovels and tamping bars. Foremen on horseback raced back and forth along the tracks.
“It could only be compared to the advance of an army,” said Heath.
But it all went down smoothly, at the rate of about a mile of track laid down every hour. All in all, in that one day the workers placed 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and other material for a total of 4,462,000 pounds. Ten miles and 56 feet of rail in one workday.
It brought the Central Pacific railhead within four miles of the eventual connection, a month later, with the Union Pacific railroad at Promontory Summit.
On May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad opened up for through traffic after Leland Stanford, using a silver hammer, drove in the historic Golden Spike connecting the two railroads at Promontory Summit. (Side note: the spike was actually gold-plated, because real gold is too soft.) Both the hammer and the spike were connected by wire to the telegraph line, which would enable the hammer strokes to be heard as clicks at telegraph stations throughout the land. The entire country was listening in. But there were technical difficulties, as the story goes, so the clicks were actually “sent” by the telegraph operator. Uh, oh. FAKE NEWS!!
In the end, about 1,900 miles of rail were laid for the Transcontinental Railroad, with tracks reaching as high as 8,242 feet (at Sherman Pass, Wyoming). Estimates are that fully a quarter of the American labor force worked, in some capacity, to build that railroad.
And it would now take only a week for goods and people to travel from coast to coast.
As with all “progress,” the emergence of the national rail system was not without its drawbacks. It permanently disrupted the way of life of many Native Americans, for one thing. And the railroad barons, driven by greed, exploited their workers.
But intercontinental train travel allowed the restless and growing American populace to find their place in whatever part of the American landscape captured their hearts. It provided a way for poor Southern blacks to migrate northward and westward. It offered employment to thousands. It allowed farmers to transport their goods anywhere quickly. It was the face of the Industrial Revolution.
Labor Day was not yet a holiday when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. But we celebrate it today to honor the labor movements of the late 19th century that were borne out of the suffering of workers who toiled under truly harrowing conditions, with 12-hour workdays, unsafe labor conditions, and paltry wages. Some of those workers were children as young as 5 years old.
Let us be reminded, on this first Monday in September, of the sweat of our ancestors who made possible for us the comforts with which we are living today. Let us be grateful for the miners, the lamplighters, and the stevedores. And let’s think about those railroad workers grinding their way, under the most difficult of conditions, to give us the gift of mobility and freedom.
This week I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr, as I do every couple of years, and traveling across the country by train. To this day, the Zephyr – which goes from Emeryville to Chicago – runs on a part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, from Sacramento to Winnemucca, Nevada.
When I get to the eastern shore, four days later, I’ll be spending time with my Maryland friends and playing music with two of them in a Baltimore coffeehouse.
The name of our band?
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
“Boy, hardly any days left of school. This year went by so fast it’s hard to believe. And thinking we only have one year left at this great school just tears me apart. Skipping [a grade] has taken away one year of my youth. I have been thinking about waiting a year before college. Heck, I’ll only be 16 and just a baby. I’ll be sucking my thumb while everyone else is walking already.”
“I sure love music. I used to listen to KLOK, but I don’t too much anymore because they play too many oldies, which I hate. But KYA has the good rock and roll. The current songs I like are ‘Sweet and Innocent’ by Donny Osmond and ‘Timothy’ by the Buoys (which is about cannibalism).”
“The Blanchettes came over for a pheasant dinner tonight [with their two sons, Butch and Carl]. A couple of weeks ago when we were at the beach, Butch and I went out pretty deep in the water and when he said ‘Better hold my hand’ I thought he was getting fresh or something, but he wasn’t. Now he’s in the ‘in’ crowd. [My sister] Janine was telling jokes like a book called ‘Music Theory’ by Clara Net. Ho ho. But here’s a good one offered by Carl: ‘Hole in the Mattress’ by (ready?) Mister Completely!”
“I don’t feel too bad today. I made it through OK. Only threw up 4 times. My temperature was up to 102 degrees and climbing, but I took an aspirin and it zooped down to 100.6. But my stomach was in agony & I thought I was in a furnace. It’s funny how under these conditions your mind kind of leaves your body and wanders around on its own, while the mortal body will only lay and suffer, and hope for an end to the torment.”
2/25/71: “I had a murderous Chem test today and I’m beginning to get very worried. So far I have about a B-, and if I don’t bring it up I may wreck my 4.0 average. And I just CAN’T do that! It’s practically my life!”
Next day, 2/26/71: “I got the highest at our table on the Chem test [yesterday]. But it was only 41 out of 50. I hope he gives us some extra credit this semester or I’ll really just BOMB OUT!”
“Mr. Curtis came up to me today and said that he was shocked that I wasn’t taking Algebra II. However, baby, NO AMOUNT of coercing from him will prompt me to take it. I cannot stand math (except Geometry, which I love) and do not wish to burden my schedule with a course I do not like!”
“Today was rather unusual. I got to school at about 8:40 as usual, but inside it was dark. When the bell rang the power was still out and they wouldn’t let us in. We knew that if the power was off for about an hour, they’d let us go. So we stood outside and prayed until, at 9:30, the glorious words came: SCHOOL IS DISMISSED!”
It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .
The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.
I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.
It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)
We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law. 😉
Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.
Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.
“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.
The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.
Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.
I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”
Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.
“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)
“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”
In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.
Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.
Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.
Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.
I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.
I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.
I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.
I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.
Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.
We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.
I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.
I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.
We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.
I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.
I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.
I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.
I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.
In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.
At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.
Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.
So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.
I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.
When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.
As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.
“Triangle Acres,” it read.
I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof. But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.
I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.
“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.
“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”
Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”
His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.
There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.
Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.
Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.
I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.
But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.
This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.
“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”
To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.
So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
A few weeks ago, the Chronicle’s outdoor writer Tom Stienstra published a column that was a real blockbuster for me: one of Black Bart’s hideaways may have been discovered in the Sunol Regional Wilderness.
I was about 7 years old when I first learned about Black Bart in a thin little book called Stagecoach Days, a Sunset publication that Wells Fargo Bank gave away to its customers. A few years later, when I frequently insisted that my younger sister and I “play school” and that of course I be the teacher, Stagecoach Days was one of my two “textbooks.” (The other was the Bible. The sole reason I chose them was that they were the only books in the house of which we had two copies.)
Black Bart was an outlaw who robbed stagecoaches in the late 1800s, shortly after California’s great Gold Rush. I became obsessed with him for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was a “gentleman bandit” of sorts. Second, he was known to have left poems at his robbery sites, and one in particular became part of my repertoire. As a youngster and a bit of a loner, I took to memorizing things, and I could recite the states and their capitals, all three stanzas of “O Captain, My Captain,” the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, assorted Kerouac quotes, and the entire Gettysburg Address. But my favorite piece of literature that I committed to memory was one of Black Bart’s poems. You’ll have to wait for it.
Born in England in 1829, Charles Boles (later Bolles, or Bolton, depending on his alias du jure) emigrated with his family to America when he was two years old. Not much is known about his childhood on a farm in upstate New York, but we do know that as a young man he and his brothers joined everyone else and their brothers in heading to California for the Gold Rush of 1848, hoping to strike it rich. Some were fortunate, but many came up empty. The Boles Brothers were in the latter group. They made two unsuccessful trips, and two of his three brothers actually died in California.
We also know that Charles fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, marching with Sherman through Georgia and suffering life-threatening abdominal wounds at the Battle of Vicksburg. Though his wounds were considered to be so bad as to preclude his ability to continue fighting, he rather heroically went back and served on the battlefield for three full years before being honorably discharged.
Charles eventually married and raised four children in Illinois and Iowa. But it seems that his stint in California had created in him an unshakeable urge to gamble, and he periodically would leave his family to mine for gold, at first in Montana and Idaho and eventually back in California. During this period he sent his wife a letter, recounting an event in which Wells Fargo agents tried to buy out his share of a small mine he was tending in Montana. When he refused, apparently the bank agents somehow cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon the mine. His conviction that he had been wronged caused him to tell his wife that he was going to “take steps” to exact revenge. The poor woman never saw him again, and at this point she just assumed that he had died.
But he hadn’t. And gold fever still infected his bloodstream, so he headed back to California with one last hope of striking it rich.
In those days, stagecoaches were often used to transport passengers, mail, and valuables to and from areas not served by the railroad. Enterprising robbers realized that they had a convenient opportunity to simply travel to areas through which they knew the stage would be passing and quickly hold up the helpless driver and passengers without leaving a trace. They often would select a spot through which the stage would be traveling laboriously – e.g, up a steep hill – and spring out from the bushes, brandish their rifles, demand the loot, and scram out of there in very short order. The greatest bounty they could get was the box of money that companies like Wells Fargo transported to pay the workers who labored in their mines.
During the period 1870 through 1884, there were 313 attempted robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wells had the money to hire some very accomplished detectives, though, who did a fairly good job of solving these crimes. Five miscreants were killed during the attempts, 11 were killed resisting arrest, 7 were hanged by lynch mobs, and 206 were ferreted out and sent to jail. Only 84 robberies were “unpunished,” but many of them, it turns out, were committed by the same person.
During this time, Charles Boles was living in San Francisco. He lived a rather highbrow life despite not necessarily having the means to do so, since all he appeared to own were some unsuccessful mining interests in the hills. He attended the theater and concerts, ate at the finest restaurants, wore natty clothes, and always sported a cane. The cane was fashionable rather than functional; he was in terrific shape, walking many miles a day. He reportedly never took a drink in his life, always carried a Bible with him, and was generally a respectable, quiet man who eschewed profanity and was not prone to any kind of excess other than his unending tendency to take a gamble.
Beginning in 1875, Wells Fargo stagecoaches traveling through California’s Gold Rush country would be hit 28 times by the same bandit. Some say he was afraid of horses and others say he simply couldn’t afford one, but in any case he walked to and from his crimes and carried a shotgun that he never fired, which was a good thing because it was so rusty that no bullet could have successfully traveled through its muzzle. He wore a flour sack with two holes cut out for the eyes, and he sported a linen duster (which is a long coat). Unfailingly polite, he never harmed a passenger; in fact, if they handed over their money or jewelry, he would insist on giving the items back to them. All he wanted was Wells Fargo’s money. And he was highly successful, netting thousands of dollars a year.
For me, though, the most delightful thing about the bandit was that on a couple of occasions he would leave poems at the site, like this one:
Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morrow; Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow;
Let come what will, I’ll try it on
my condition can’t be worse
and if there’s money in that box
’tis munny in my purse
— Black Bart
Black Bart was the name of a fictional character who had appeared in a story called “The Case of Summerfield” that ran in the Sacramento Union in the early 1870s. That man, though, was a vicious villain and certainly didn’t resemble the gentleman who was robbing these stagecoaches. But the name sounded ominous, and the robber didn’t mind the fear it instilled in the public. He probably also thought the moniker would evoke an image that was such a far cry from his public persona that it would throw detectives off the trail.
The story goes that at his first holdup, in July 1875 in Calaveras County, Black Bart asked the driver to please “throw down the box” and shouted over his shoulder into the woods, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys.” The driver, on seeing several rifles pointed at him among the trees, swiftly threw down the box as ordered. Then, after the bandit disappeared, the driver discovered that the rifles in the woods were just meticulously crafted sticks.
It was at the scene of his fifth crime that Black Bart left the poem that I have memorized, and it makes me smile every time I repeat it (bear in mind that Stagecoach Days conveniently did not include this particular poem):
I’ve labored hard and long for bread
for honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
you fine-haired sons of bitches.
Black Bart committed his last robbery on November 3, 1883. A man with one of the greatest first names in the world – Reason McConnell – was driving a stagecoach out of Sonora alongside a 19-year-old boy named Jimmy Rolleri, who had just been gifted a new rifle and was out to do some rabbit hunting. At the bottom of a place called Funk’s Hill, Jimmy jumped down from the stage to look for rabbits and Reason continued up the incline. Black Bart leaped into the road at the summit and, as was customary for him, politely asked for the express box, which was bolted to the floor in an attempt to thwart such robberies. When Reason pointed out this situation, he was ordered by our robber to step down and unhitch the team, at which point Bart himself jumped up and started working on the box with a hatchet. Meanwhile, Reason slipped away and got Jimmy’s attention, and somehow three or four shots were then fired at Bart with Jimmy’s new rifle. The local newspapers reported that the driver had fired all the shots, but Jimmy’s family members insisted that after Reason missed the first two, Jimmy disgustedly snatched the gun from him and slightly wounded the bandit in the hand. (Apparently there is some evidence that Wells Fargo later gave Jimmy a fancy inlaid and engraved rifle.) In any case, only one of the shots grazed Bart, who took the $550 in gold coins and 3-1/4 ounces of gold dust worth $65 and got clean away.
Or so he thought.
Wells Fargo detective J.B. Hume was quickly dispatched to the scene, and there he discovered a black derby, magnifying glasses, field glasses, and a handkerchief, among other things. And in one corner of the handkerchief was a laundry mark.
Ultimately, Detective Hume and his associate Harry Morse traced the laundry mark to San Francisco and, after visiting 90 laundries, finally learned that that particular mark was used by a fine gentleman named C.E. Bolton. Mr. Bolton took frequent trips into the hills to check on his “mining interests,” but he always came back to his boarding house in San Francisco – which, by the way, was directly across from the police station. In fact, he often dined with the gentlemen of the police force and expressed an acute interest in that nasty outlaw Black Bart.
Detective Hume filed this report:
“Bolton, Charles E., alias C.E. Bolton, alias Black Bart, the PO-8 [“poet,” get it?], age 55 years; Occupation, miner; Height 5 ft. 7-1/2 inches; Color of hair, gray; color of eyes, blue; gunshot wound on side. He is [a] well educated, well informed man, has few friends. He is a remarkable walker, has great strength, endurance.”
Charles pleaded guilty to the one crime and spent four years in prison at San Quentin. During that time he sent a number of letters to his wife, professing his love, expressing remorse for this crimes, and asking her for forgiveness. She apparently responded that she would be willing to take him back, but when he was released from prison, he vanished.
He was the most successful bandit in the history of the American west.
There are countless rumors, folktales, tall tales, old saws, fables, and fantasies about what happened to Charles after he was released. Three Wells Fargo stagecoach robberies took place shortly thereafter, but no one was ever caught, and there was no tangible evidence linking Charles to the crimes. In one story, however, Detective Hume somehow tracked him down and offered to pay him a lifetime pension out of Wells Fargo’s money if he would just, for the love of God, stop ripping them off. Some say he moved to New York City, where he spent his last days. Others speculated that he went back to Montana to try more mining. The most popular story seems to be that someone saw him boarding a steamer and heading for Japan.
So, who were the “fine-haired sons of bitches” to whom Charles directed his antipathy? His hatred probably didn’t emerge during his Civil War days; in researching this piece I learned that it was common among Confederate soldiers – but not among Union soldiers – to aim their sights at companies that appeared to have too strong on a grip on the economic machinery that ran the country. No, most likely it happened when the Wells Fargo agents used their power to unfairly force him off his own mine. So his particular grudge was probably against that one company. And perhaps the wealthy money-lenders could afford to keep their hair fine? I don’t know. Maybe someone can look that up for me.
I know that it’s wrong of me to harbor any feelings of admiration for a criminal. And just because he stole from a massively wealthy company does not mitigate the crime. I learned this early on from my mother. When I was in college, my friend Jeanne and I concocted a scheme by which we could talk endlessly to each other, long-distance, for free. In those days, of course, it cost a ton of money to make a long-distance call, and there was no way my parents would have paid the bill for such a luxury. (Plus they completely distrusted Jeanne because she wore wire-rimmed glasses.) But Jeanne was working as a telephone operator on the East Coast, and she had access to credit cards held by large corporations. So I would find a remote, unoccupied phone booth somewhere, and I would somehow place a call to her, through an operator, that allowed me, without charge, to give her the number on the phone in the booth. Then I would hang up and she would call me back using a random corporation’s credit card number.
As I type this, I am absolutely appalled at myself. But back then I thought that it didn’t matter because those big companies had unending funds and they would never miss the paltry amount it would cost them. I was so clueless about what I was doing that, in fact, I went home and cheerfully told my mother all about the scheme and how clever we were and that we would never get caught. Very calmly, but while undoubtedly choking back her complete disgust, my mother explained to me that stealing is stealing. It took all of two minutes for her to point my moral compass away from south and back to true north, where it has been ever since.
Still, I will always secretly admire California’s gentleman bandit, and I will forever appreciate the way in which he poetically told those fine-haired sons of bitches that they had stepped on his toes for far too long.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?]
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.
I have spent many exhausting and frustrating years recommending to my nieces and nephew, as they entered college, that they sign up for a course in Entomology. That’s right – bugs. I’ve emphasized strongly and repeatedly that the course would prove to be a transformative experience. For me, it actually provided confirmation of the existence of God. I am completely serious.
But no one ever listened to my advice, no one ever took the course, and to this day I continue to be appalled.
So I am now going to take up another cause in hopes that one person – just one! – among my legions of readers will adopt my counsel. Here it is: Watch the “CBS Sunday Morning” show.
This charming TV show was recommended to me by my friend Gigi, who shares with me the desire to shut out the disturbing elements in life and ferret out the poignant, the generous, the beautiful, the artful, and the heroic. The 90-minute program, hosted by the delightful Charles Osgood, features beautifully written and filmed vignettes about regular people, some of whom have done extraordinary things in very simple ways. The stories are folksy, sweet, emotional, informative, and always eminently respectful of their subjects, no matter how eccentric.
My all-time favorite piece on “CBS Sunday Morning” was about 10-year-old twin boys whose love of the game Battleship turned into a trip to the aircraft carrier Yorktown in South Carolina, which resulted in their learning about a still-living World War II sailor with whom they became instantly enamored. Even talking about the man made them burst out crying. “We want to hear what his voice sounded like, we want to touch him, we want to know him a lot more,” one of them said through his tears. The story is about how their surprise meeting with the 90-year-old sailor changed all of their lives. I blubbered through the whole thing.
[You can watch the story at the link below. If you can get through the short video without crying, please leave a “comment” to that effect and I will immediately declare you to be a hardhearted fussbudget.]
I was catching up on my “Sunday Morning” shows last week when I was particularly captivated by a story about fossilized wood that is pilfered every year from the Petrified Forest in Arizona’s stunning Painted Desert. This was a familiar subject to me because in 2001 I was conscripted to actually return a piece of petrified wood to that same area.
In the fall of that year, I decided to drag Julie on a month-long road trip down nearly the entire length of Route 66. The whole thing came about because I had fallen obsessively in love with the new, retro-looking Thunderbirds that had just been released, and I was determined to get one. Frustrated with the prohibitively long waiting lists and outrageous dealer markups in California, I had the brilliant idea to call some dealers in Kentucky. Kentucky is Julie’s native state, and we were out there often to visit her family anyway. It turned out that at a dealership in Versailles (pronounced “Ver-SAILS” in Kentucky), lo and behold there was no markup and no waiting list. So we put in our order, and I came up with the plan to drive the car back home to California on Route 66. We would take our time, spending a few weeks cruising appreciatively down the historic road that had been the conduit for so many Americans searching for better lives.
Not all that many decades ago, Route 66 (or “The Mother Road”) was the main travel route for people crossing the country. It became official in 1926 when, with the automobile establishing itself in the minds of Americans as their ticket to freedom and prosperity, the U.S. government decided to create a comprehensive network of interstate highways. As Bobby Troup wrote in his famous song, it “winds from Chicago to L.A” and covers 2,451 miles, eight states, and three time zones. It begins in Illinois, drops down into the verdant state of Missouri, clips a corner of the Kansas plains, plows through the Oklahoma dust, then heads straight west out of Oklahoma City through the Texas panhandle, over the long stretches of desert through New Mexico and Arizona, and into California at around Barstow, where it snakes its way through the orange groves of southern California until it ends at the Santa Monica pier.
Route 66 was the great trail that brought people west. Black Americans fled the nightmarish Jim Crow south; poverty-stricken Dust Bowl families set out to find work on California’s farms; and after World War II young soldiers and their wives, bolstered by the GI Bill and national optimism, packed up their infant boomers and went looking for housing and employment. In the more prosperous years that followed, people with cars and leisure time and a decent income took family vacations to see more of what this country had to offer than they could find in their hometowns.
What a great time it was for travelers back then. They could start their day with a heap of flapjacks, eggs, bacon, and hash browns for about a buck, washed down with a piping hot mug of coffee brought to their table by a smiling diner waitress. Then they would spend the day on the road, stopping in each small town to buy local crafts or let their kids play on the kitschy amusements set up as lures in front of each store. Take your photo next to a giant Paul Bunyan statue! Ride on a big blue cement whale! See the inside of a totem pole! At the end of the day, hungry and tired, they would pull into a truck stop and fill their stomachs with flame-cooked burgers, fried chicken, and milkshakes or ice-cold Coca-Colas, followed by enormous slabs of berry pie heaped with fresh whipped cream. Another hour or two of driving straight west into some of the most glorious sunsets they’d ever been lucky enough to see, and it was time to stop for some very sound sleep at one of the ubiquitous, neon-lit drive-up motor courts that had popped up along the road.
Unfortunately, the quaint, friendly cross-country stretch that was Route 66 suffered a terrible blow in the 1960s and 1970s, when the 42,000-mile national interstate highway system was built. Interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15 would essentially parallel Route 66 but bypass all of the small towns that had grown up along the route. Slowly, those towns withered and died as the “big slab” (as many called the interstate) promised travelers the ability to traverse great distances in far less time. Chain motels, chain restaurants, and chain gas stations replaced the colorful lodging and eateries along the route. People lost their livelihoods and moved away from their homes. In 1984, the last bit of Route 66 was replaced near Williams, Arizona. An era had ended.
Fortunately, some individuals, organizations, and state legislatures have stepped up in recent years, restoring old buildings and maintaining sections of the old road. Nostalgia-seekers and people with time on their hands are heading back down Route 66. There are parts of the road that are long gone, forcing travelers to hop on the freeway for miles at a time, especially in New Mexico and Arizona. But stretches of the old road do remain, and there are refurbished diners, gas stations, motels, and roadside attractions – not to mention museums – to be enjoyed. I highly recommend it. It’s almost as much fun as entomology.
Before we headed out on our own Mother Road adventure, my guitarist friend and bandmate Dina M. – a transplanted New Yorker – told us that she had purloined a piece of petrified wood from the Petrified Forest at least a decade earlier when she had moved out to California. In the Petrified Forest, it is absolutely illegal to remove anything because of the numerous ongoing scientific experiments that are conducted on the fossils there. Wood becomes petrified when mineral matter seeps into buried trees and, over the course of millions of years, eventually replaces all the organic matter, turning the wood into a fossilized stone. That wood/stone can reveal an entire geologic record about the passage of time.
So, consumed with guilt, Dina asked us to do her the favor of bringing the wood back to its home so she could be relieved of the crime and the emotional burden once and for all. We agreed, and we brought that little rock (it couldn’t have been more than 6 inches in diameter; we called it “Little Dino”) with us from California all the way to Kentucky and then back west as we meandered along the length of Route 66. It was 50 miles off the route and out of our way to go into the Petrified Forest, but well worth the detour – for Dina’s sake, for Little Dino’s sake, and also for our own amusement, edification, and overall sense of self-congratulation.
The petrified wood in this forest can be 225million years old, and signs about the federal penalties attached to removing the wood were everywhere. Although we were bringing contraband into, not out of, the place, I remember sweating like a drug dealer when we passed through the entrance gate and had to undergo the ranger’s interrogation about what we had in the car. Then, once into the park, we could find only groups of large rocks that completely dwarfed Little Dino, and he was going to look supremely out of place. But we had no choice. Holding the contraband clandestinely in the inside of my jacket, I awkwardly tossed it a full 3 inches and it landed among its new boulder family, where I presume it lies to this day.
This whole caper is caught on film, thanks to Julie’s persistent cinematography. The link to the 4-minute clip is below:
For the “CBS Morning Show” story, the reporter met with a park ranger who displayed his collection of remorseful letters written by petrified wood thieves – many of them children. These people, like Dina, had carried guilt around with them for years, and their letters accompanied the pieces of wood they were finally returning. (You know, the postage on some of those boulders must have been astronomical!) As I watched, I began to get miffed. I thought that I should have been interviewed. After all, the show likes to feature people who do extraordinary things, but instead the story was showcasing the criminals who had taken petrified wood out of the park – not heroes like me who had gone out of their way, nearly 1,000 miles from home, just to bring back a 6-inch rock.
My attention was starting to drift when, at the end of the story, the reporter casually mentioned that the rocks that are sent back to the park are simply stored away because they cannot actually be put back. When I heard that, I snapped quickly to attention. The ranger explained that no rocks can be introduced back into the area because the scientists conducting their careful studies could inadvertently pick up something that had no reason to be there and the study results would all be totally botched.
Uh-oh. Oh, no. Now we’ve got to go baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!