The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.
As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears
The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.
“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.
From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.
Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.
Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.
Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain
Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.
The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”
“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”
Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.
I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”
In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”
The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.
“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.
Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”
Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.
At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.
Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.
It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.
I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.
Happy Fourth, everyone.
The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law
O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life America, America, May God thy gold refine Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears America, America, God shed His grace on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea
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.
4/2/72 [age 16]:
“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”
4/7/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”
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!”
A number of years ago, both of my ears spontaneously plugged up at the same time, and all I could hear was an internal roaring wind. This lasted for days. I wasn’t prone to seeing doctors then, but I had no problem complaining about my plight to everyone around me, and someone suggested that I follow the instructions of an old wives’ tale. To wit: I should heat an onion in a 400-degree oven, slice the onion in half, cover each piece in a towel so as not to inflict any burns on myself, and hold each piece to an ear, thereby allegedly drawing out whatever it was that was clogging up my hearing. Although I’m not normally one to experiment with alternative remedies, out of desperation I gave this a shot.
It didn’t work.
I was just about at the end of my rope when my old friend M.L. happened to call. M.L. (her name is Mary Lynne, but some of us just use her initials) is a now-retired career military officer and nurse practitioner, and she was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs at the time. I didn’t miss the opportunity to whine to her about my ear problem and recount my failures with all the suggested remedies, including the onion that I was still holding in my hand.
“Paula, first of all, put down the onion,” she ordered.
“Now, I want you to go to the drugstore and buy some Sudafed. The box will tell you to take one or two, but you should take four.”
That scared me. “But drugs always have super-adverse effects on me,” I argued. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Just be quiet and listen. Take four Sudafeds. You’ll feel like shit. But your ears will open right up.”
Nurse practitioners always know what they’re talking about, and she was positive and convincing. So I went to the drugstore, bought some Sudafed, took four, felt like shit, and my ears opened right up.
Such are the curative powers of Lieutenant Colonel Mary Lynne Bement.
I like to take a train trip every year, and a few weeks ago I embarked on my excursion for 2017. I had decided to ask M.L. to accompany me because she was visiting her legions of friends on the West Coast anyway, and we’d always talked about doing a train trip together. I thought we should start out small – i.e., not a full ’cross-country run – because neither of us was certain it would work. This would be new territory for M.L., and she didn’t know whether she could be cooped up for a long period of time, unable to participate in her usual hikes, climbs, triathlons, and heaven knows what other super-athletic events in which she’s typically involved on any given day. I was unsure, too; I’d always ridden alone, and M.L. is a loquacious extrovert, full of restless energy, who could be easily bored by my cautious reserve.
So I suggested the Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. The entire length of the route spans two days of travel, but we would board in Oakland in the morning, disembark 12 hours later in Los Angeles, stay in a hotel that night, and come back the following day.
Beginning in Seattle, the Coast Starlight winds south through Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, and Klamath Falls and then into California through Mt. Shasta, down to Sacramento, and into Oakland, where we would board. After that, it churns through the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys, kicking up dust in agricultural land before it hits the coast at San Luis Obispo. After a few hours hugging the gorgeous California coastline, it heads inward after Santa Barbara, continuing through Ventura and Van Nuys before terminating in L.A.
Although this route is touted for its views of the California coast, my love for the Starlight is all about the Parlour Car, a luxurious passenger railcar from the mid-19th century that was considered to be the gold standard at the time and that remains in existence today only on the Coast Starlight.
The Parlour Car is elegantly beautiful, rich with wood and brass and burgundy velour. It has its own little bar at the end of the car, padded swiveling chairs for observation, six dining tables with white tablecloths, decorative gold sconces and etched glass logos, a lounge area, and a tiny “library” with books and games. And it has a multitude of uses. At any time of day you can just lounge in its cushioned seats and watch the scenery roll by. At lunch and dinner, it offers a special menu for passengers who might not want the dining car offerings or who might not want to sit with strangers (in that car, there is no mandate to fill the tables with four people). Downstairs, amazingly, passengers will find a movie theater, where I once saw McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner as a real-life high school track coach in the central California valley. And then there is my favorite Parlour Car activity: the afternoon wine-tasting.
Generally, only the sleeper-car passengers are allowed access to the Parlour Car, which initially appeared to be an obstacle for me because our trip would run (if on schedule) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we would have no practical need for the extra cost of a sleeper. But here’s where my sterling train smarts came into play. Amtrak – whether wittingly or unwittingly – provides an incentive for passengers on non-overnight trips to purchase a sleeper. The cost is only an extra $50 for two people. But all meals are free for sleeper-car ticketholders, so M.L. and I together would get 6 free meals, plus access to the Parlour Car, for that amount. Sleeper-car passengers get free water, juice, and coffee, too. It makes financial sense, doesn’t it?
We plunked down the dough.
M.L. grew up in a large family in Avon, New York. She was a mischievous but extremely likeable kid who kept everybody laughing while she ran around smoking a pipe and regularly getting sent to the office for too much yakking and horsing around. When she was about 13 she ditched class so that she could spell out, in the snow, “Class of ’82” in the school courtyard. The school was built in an L shape around the courtyard, so the antic had its intended effect of luring every single student to the classroom windows. Another time in high school she decided to grab onto her friend’s car door handle and “ski” alongside the car while the friend spun doughnuts in the schoolyard snow. “Mary Lynne!” she heard over the school loudspeaker. “Report to the principal’s office right away!” She and the principal were well acquainted.
The local constables periodically showed up at the Bement family’s front door, but those were simpler times, and M.L.’s antics were those of a lively and playful kid, not a delinquent. When her family couldn’t afford a live Christmas tree, she illegally whacked one down on public property behind the schoolyard and had it all decorated by the time her mother got home from work. When she and her friends concocted some homemade bows and arrows – built with saplings, twine, and some stiff weeds – to shoot at cars, one of the drivers didn’t take a shine to the notion and got the police involved. Officer Pete Piampiano (or “Pipi-anno,” as the kids called him) was the one who nailed her for painting graffiti on a local bridge. And then there was the time, before she had a driver’s license, that M.L. noticed a student’s car parked in the school lot with the keys left in the ignition. The car – which belonged to a girl named, of all things, Pinkie Dodge – was calling M.L.’s name, of course, and she “borrowed” it, drove it around the lot, and left it in a different parking spot. But she got caught and Pinkie pressed charges. M.L. made a formal apology, though, and Pinkie’s family backed off.
M.L. says that despite all of her shenanigans, she never got into any real trouble. The reason, she claims, is that she was “so good at making formal apologies and then lying low for a while.”
As she grew older, M.L.’s mischievousness would evolve into an endearing playfulness and a fervor for life that would imbue every experience with meaning and a sense of adventure. There was a certain hardiness in her family. In his early days, her uncle Frank lost his job for protesting against the Vietnam War when he was a teacher in New York; he fought to get his job back, won, worked one day, and then resigned – all out of principle. After that, he worked for the Transportation Communication Union and, coincidentally, retired from the railroads. Her aunt Katie was a nurse and served as M.L.’s muse and inspiration. And her mother Mary raised five energetic children by herself from the time her husband left when M.L. was 12. It was not easy in those days. Among other things, Mary owned a fabric shop, worked as a bookkeeper, did wallpapering and child care, and served as a deputy town clerk – all the while keeping tabs on her young ones and making sure they grew up with the right values.
When M.L. graduated from Plattsburg State with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she enlisted in the U.S. Army on something called a “Direct Commission,” which enabled her to “walk in” as an officer. She wanted to serve the country, and she looked forward to the promised retirement that would be in store at a relatively young age, but mostly she did it for the adventure, she says – to explore the world. And to have a “double career” as a nurse and an officer. One of her friends begs to differ, however; she claims that M.L. announced at the time that she was going into the military simply to avoid the prospect of interviewing for a job!
We met when she was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco from 1987 to 1993 (a plum assignment!), but she also spent a great deal of time elsewhere in the country, along with stints in South Korea and Honduras and time spent getting her nurse practitioner degree in New York. Her most challenging year in the military, though, was 2009, when she was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. She was handed a taxing assignment as the Officer in Charge of the medical component of Warrior Forge, an ROTC leadership course for about 1,000 cadets from around the country. At the same time, she was also dealing with a horrendous personal tragedy, and in the middle of it all she was asked to prepare to deploy to Iraq. “But I didn’t hesitate,” she told me.
Shortly after completing her deployment in the Iraq War, M.L. retired as a Lt. Colonel with 23 years of service.
One last thing: Organization and planning are not M.L.’s strong suits, because they take a distant back seat to her practice of living intensely in the moment. When M.L. retired in 2010, she and her two dogs left Fort Lewis behind in September, pulling a little orange teardrop travel trailer behind them as they headed east for home in upstate New York. She was expected home within a couple of weeks. Along the way, as she was passing through South Dakota, she was so delighted and distracted by the wildlife, the rugged environment, and the salt-of-the-earth people in that state that she ended up staying awhile. And by awhile I mean weeks. This happened so frequently that eventually she found herself barreling along a dark highway in upstate New York as she tried to make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
We caught the Amtrak bus at the Temporary Transbay Terminal early on Tuesday morning, and it took us to the Oakland train station. As always there was confusion about where to catch the bus, on what platform we should stand to wait for the train, when the train would actually arrive, etc. Communication is not Amtrak’s strongest asset. But as if she were still responsible for her troops, M.L. ran around sniffing out the accurate information and reporting it back to the assembled group. She would always address people by calling them “my dear,” which I realized was a respectful way to show humanity for someone. She uses that term of endearment for anyone, young or old, male or female. It makes everyone feel good. I’m sure it was cultivated from her years in the medical profession, but I know that M.L. was born with the qualities that she says are critical to successful nursing: empathy, patience, and compassion. Her mother passed on those qualities by example, but M.L. also just has natural warmth and sensitivity.
When we boarded the train, we stowed our bags in the roomette and waited for our room attendant to come by. One attendant is assigned to every sleeper car, to help passengers with turning the bed down at night (which we wouldn’t need) but also to answer questions, help with luggage if necessary, and keep the room stocked with things like bottled water. When our guy Michael came around and shot the breeze with us, M.L. pulled out one of her Ben’s Bells handmade ceramic “Kindness Coins” and handed it to him with a flourish. “Here you are, my dear,” she said. “For your kindness.”
We had breakfast almost as soon as we boarded, and we had no tablemates because the train was late getting in and there were no other passengers still eating. In the dining car, passengers are seated so that the entire four-person table is filled up, so most of the time – when I’m alone – I’m sitting with three strangers. While we were gobbling up our “free” meals, M.L. told me that around Watsonville we would probably have the privilege of seeing Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a natural sanctuary that most people don’t have the chance to see casually because no roads run past it. I did not know this. Elkhorn Slough is a tidal salt marsh 7 miles long that is home to more than 300 kinds of birds as well as sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions. Amtrak runs right through it. It’s a privilege to be able to see it from the window of a passing vehicle, so we headed to the Observation Car to spend the afternoon taking in the sights.
As I’ve mentioned, the best part of the afternoon on the Coast Starlight is the 3:00 wine-tasting in the Parlour Car, open to sleeper-car and Business Class passengers. For a mere $7.50, you can participate in an attendant-led tasting of three wines. You can also buy a cracker-and-cheese plate, which I never pass up. Typically, so few people participate that it’s like a personal event during which, in addition to learning about wines, you can ask all kinds of train-related questions if you want to. The wines themselves can be red or white, mediocre or delicious. It’s a gamble, like much of the Amtrak experience.
Michael was our server, and he served a chardonnay, a cabernet, and a Malbec, talking nonstop about wine-making as he poured. He seemed to know his stuff, and when M.L. mentioned the “ice wines” of the Finger Lakes region in New York (where she currently lives) he seemed to know all about them. Ice wine, I learned, is frozen on the vine itself. After the usual fall harvest, some of the grapes are left on the vine to continue maturing throughout the winter, which raises their sugar content. In turn, the soil content contributes the right amount of acidity. Each grape, by the way, produces only one drop of the sweet wine. The Finger Lakes region is perfectly suited to the very delicate creation of ice wine because of the combination of rich soil and sub-freezing climate. I munched on my crackers, sipped my wine, listened to these two give me a viticulture lesson, and eyed the farmland out my window a bit blurrily.
At some point during the day, it became clear that we had been stopped for a long time. Two hours, in fact. A shopping cart on the tracks had gotten lodged under the train. Thank goodness the owner of the cart was not in the vicinity. But the incident did mean that our arrival time in L.A. would be pushed back considerably.
It didn’t really matter. We had a nice dinner with a couple of young honeymooners from Alaska. The young woman had a lovely name (Sarai), sported myriad tattoos and piercings (but none of those earlobe-disc thingies, thank goodness), and told us she manages a social program for kids with disabilities. She and her new husband used to work together but now he’s a landscaper. Both of them were engaging, attentive, and fine-tuned to life’s details. How delightful that they had decided to spend their honeymoon on a train. They’re going to have a long life together.
On Wednesday, M.L. and I boarded the train heading back northbound at about 10:00 a.m. after having spent the night at the Miyako Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The air conditioning in my room was functioning at only about what must have been 10 percent of its capacity, because I absolutely boiled and hardly got a wink of sleep all night. I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that had I slept on a train, I would have had a peaceful night’s slumber. The train whistles, the squeaks and hisses and rumbles, the jostling of the car never seem to keep me awake. But that night in the hotel was a killer.
I was raging with hunger as soon as we boarded the train and M.L. agreeably assented to my fervid wish that we grab the earliest lunch reservations. Our tablemates were Jim and Bonnie Blue. That’s right – Bonnie Blue is her first name. I vaguely remembered a song with “Bonnie Blue” in the lyrics, and it turns out that “Bonnie Blue Flag” is an 1861 Confederate marching song. Our Bonnie Blue, however, was born and raised in Orange County, which put to rest my internal contention that I had detected a faint southern accent in her voice. The two of them have two children. One son has cerebral palsy, and Jim and Bonnie Blue have devoted their lives to caring for him while keeping him at arm’s length as much as possible to nurture his independence. Mathematically brilliant, but hamstrung by his physical limitations, he actually has become a successful professional gambler. The other son – in the sad process of divorcing his wife, who left him for another man – was just diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Jim and Bonnie Blue, however, have retained sunny dispositions and love train travel so much that they deliberately racked up thousands and thousands of miles on their Amtrak credit card when they had their business. Now they ride the rails for free everywhere, and they keep trying out different routes to help them keep their minds off the challenges their sons are facing.
We looked forward to our wine-tasting in the afternoon, but for some reason the rules had changed. When we arrived at the designated hour, we were told by the bartender that we had to have reservations – even though there had been no such restriction the day before. Amtrak’s rules and procedures are extremely fluid. And this bartender was dead-set on not serving us because, she said, she feared that there would not be “enough glasses.” Of course, my eyes kept resting on one of the tables that was set with glasses but never used. This kind of inconsistency and illogic is the kind of thing that sets my blood boiling. I was an instant, seething grouch. M.L., on the other hand, chatted up the woman (although I noticed she did not bestow a Kindness coin on her!). The woman didn’t budge, but the tenor of the conversation was calm and friendly. Perhaps that is why M.L. has been a leader and I have not. When I sense an injustice, I want to hit someone upside the head with a mallet. M.L. set a beautiful example of how to be patient and respectful and keep one’s cool.
And also how to turn lemons into lemonade.
“You know, instead of spending our money on the wine-tasting, let’s go get some ice from the café car,” she suggested. “I brought a teeny bit of bourbon in my suitcase, and we can have a cocktail back in the roomette.”
The café car is downstairs below the observation car. It serves snacks, sandwiches, microwaveable meals like hamburgers and hot dogs, and all kinds of beverages, ranging from Coke to juice to beer to hard liquor. We got ourselves some ice in plastic glasses and repaired to the roomette.
(By the way, only sleeper-car passengers are allowed to bring alcohol onto the train, although there’s no question that M.L. would have flouted that rule had we been in Coach.)
I poured myself a full glass of water over the ice, then gingerly dropped in a smidgen of bourbon.
“What on earth are you doing?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s not enough bourbon! Your proportions are all wrong!”
“You mean, this won’t work?” I asked.
“Paula, that’s like putting an eye dropper of bourbon in a pond of water! It couldn’t give a buzz to an ant!”
We whiled away the afternoon talking about everything from sports to families to our medical conditions. (Gotta get that in!) The fertile valley earth, the laborers in the field, the pristine coastline, the languid sunbathers – all of them rolled by our windows.
We got pensive. M.L. told me that she was starting to realize that she is more nostalgic for the Army than she thought.
“I can well imagine,” I said. “It was all about youth, adventure, travel . . .”
“And all the camaraderie,” she added wistfully. “The camaraderie is what I miss the most.”
We delved a little bit into politics. One of my unending lamentations is the lack of rational discourse about political policy today. And when I say policy, I don’t mean frivolous, half-baked ideas. I mean well-thought-out solutions to our national – and global – issues. Instead, all we do is micro-scrutinize and insult each other.
I’m sure my brow was furrowed.
She clinked my glass. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said. “With a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.”
Our last meal on the train was our dinner with Michael and Kay on Wednesday evening.
Michael, a young tech industry worker from Irvine who had just gotten a job with Hyundai, was taking his mother on a trip to San Francisco. His mom – a very beautiful, primly dressed older Asian woman – wasn’t speaking at all. When the waiter came, in fact, Michael ordered for her while she just nodded. I assumed that she didn’t speak English, and, although I addressed the two of them when I spoke, I didn’t pursue anything with her because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. M.L., however, finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided that our internal conclusions might be wrong. So she looked directly at Kay.
“My dear,” she asked, “tell me this – have you been to San Francisco before?”
Kay smiled broadly and answered the question perfectly. From that point on, we had a full and lovely conversation about everything from movies to the economy. The sun set and we were all throwing our heads back, laughing.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Congress is still going back and forth about cutting funding for Amtrak and effectively dismantling the country’s passenger rail system. The current budget proposal seeks to maintain funding for intercity commuter service in the Northeast corridor and a few other high-passenger runs while eliminating the service for others. Estimates are that 144 million people in 220 communities would lose local access to trains. Incredibly, 23 states would lose all access to Amtrak passenger rail service, and another 12 would retain only partial access. Funding for long-distance trains would be eliminated altogether. The upshot: passenger rail service would be preserved for only the wealthiest communities.
I’ve learned so much on trains. They’ve provided me with rich instruction on the vast geography of our country as well as the wide-ranging humanity of our fellow Americans. I feel like cutting access to Amtrak would be akin to cutting funding for institutions of higher learning.
On this trip I learned how to properly mix bourbon and water. I learned about ice wine and Elkhorn Slough. I learned about people with disabilities. I learned from M.L. how to look people in the eye and treat them kindly and without judgment.
And I learned to just chill out.
Thank you for being my friend, M.L. Thank you for your service. And thank you for teaching me that, with a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.
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 1971 and 1987.
4/17/71: They told me I have to go fishing tomorrow. But I hate to go! Why? 1) Hay fever, 2) Getting up early, and 3) They never get any fish! Why don’t they let me stay home? Then we all could have a good time. 4/18/71: Since they decided to go to Lexington [Reservoir], I got to stay home. I played basketball with Ted and Bruce Tambling, and Frisbee, too. Then the whole family came home. Naturally they only got 1 fish. I played catch with Marc, and played basketball and hide-and-seek at Ted’s. It was fun having two lunches today. At 10:30 I had a ham sandwich, potato chips, and root beer, and at 2:00 I had a salami sandwich, potato chips, Coke, and licorice.
“Now, about Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher, who was on maternity leave] — what she tried to teach us was okay, but I did not like how she did it. She is almost completely humorless. Now we have a substitute. It’s always hard to get used to a substitute anyway, but this one is really wierd [sic]. She is about 23 years old and 5’2 or 5’0 inches tall. But remember when I said Mrs. Dossa was almost completely humorless? Well, this one is COMPLETELY HUMORLESS!”
“Mom is very great. Today she turned in my library books while I was at G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. I appreciate everything she does. Anyway, she is making me a skirt that I’ll be able to wear with my G.A.A. sweater. I was trying it on today when I suddenly remembered how LONG the last skirt she made me was. Now, I am not the kind who likes to wear mini-skirts to school or even come close. I really am very reasonable when it comes to that. But I hate wearing skirts down to my knees. All my dresses are a good length but for some reason Mom FLUBS UP on the skirts. They look like I’m a grandmother!”
“Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher] came back today and we gave her a WARM welcome (you’ll get the pun). Mary Pasek and I turned the heat up to 90 degrees and she didn’t even notice it when it got really hot later on, we heard. A kid turned it down. Mrs. Dossa was still rather sick and it probably felt good. We’ll have to do it again sometime. It was reminiscent of the time when Mary Blasi and I turned the heat up so high during an art show in the St. Victor’s library that the tape on the pictures melted and they all fell off the wall.”
August 15-20, 1971 [from my week spent at the Santa Clara County Fair with my friend Colleen, who was in 4-H]:
“There weren’t too many hippies there. Wednesday I got to try out a waterbed. Wow, are they cool. You move constantly, but I guess you could get seasick. I also watched a milking contest with DJ’s and a milking machine. I played free Bingo for two hours and Sharon won a $7.50 carving set but I only won a can of Stridex [acne pads] and a can of hairspray. The only clumsy thing I did was to spill Kool Aid all over an exhibit in Fiesta Hall.”
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.
It won’t be long, now, before I hop on my next train heading across the country. I’ll be boarding the California Zephyr for Chicago, then the Capitol Limited into Harpers Ferry. It will be round-trip this time, and I can hardly wait.
My last ’cross-country train trip, in 2014, got off to an extremely unpredictable start, on a couple of levels. First of all, the night before I was to begin my long-planned journey in Emeryville, CA, I got a call from the Amtrak folks. When I picked up the phone, I heard only a recorded message that was both cryptic and unnerving. The message, in its brief entirety, was, “All or part of your train trip is being rerouted and you will need to take alternate transportation.” Click.
There was no hint about the nature of the problem, what the “rerouting” would entail, and how I would arrange for the “alternate transportation.” Would I need alternate transportation all the way to the East Coast??
Well, my fingers couldn’t dial the customer service number fast enough, and the scenario turned out to be perhaps one of the lesser of all possible evils. There had been a rockslide in Colorado that was preventing the Zephyr from being able to arrive in Emeryville on time, so all passengers would be bused to Reno and would catch the train there. This meant that I would be on an interstate bus for 6 hours rather than sipping a mimosa in the observation car at 9 a.m., leaning back to watch the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains out the windows of a train.
I wasn’t happy about losing nearly the entire first day of my trip to a hot bus ride with no amenities, but a phone call I received when we made a pit stop just outside of Colfax gave me an abrupt lesson in reality. One of our closest friends, while bicycling to work that morning, had been hit by a car and was in the Trauma Center at San Francisco General with severe injuries: two skull fractures, three broken ribs, two pelvic fractures, and a broken clavicle. I felt devastated about the timing and offered to come back once I hit Reno, but everyone agreed that that would be pointless. It was strange, though, that I was about to be cheerily setting off on an adventure while my friend was lying in a hospital so seriously hurt. (That story ended well, by the way. Thank goodness.)
Once I got settled onto the train in Reno, it was nearly time for dinner, and this was the part about train travel that filled me with the most trepidation. It wasn’t the cost; meals are provided “free” for sleeping car passengers. Nor was it the quality of food; I found, to my surprise, that much of the food I was served on Amtrak was passable, if not good. No, what caused my nerves to fray was the specter of dining with strangers.
I’ve mentioned before that my idea of hell is a locked room with Joni Mitchell piped in through the walls and only couscous to eat. But I neglected to mention that my experience of hell on earth is going to a gathering at which I don’t know anyone. I fear coming across as ignorant or half-baked, and I fear being the world’s biggest bore. When I was much younger, my friend Kay and I admitted to each other once that after nearly every social event, we would drive home alone and, while rehashing the evening’s events in our mind, we inevitably would just pound on the steering wheel and repeatedly scream out “I am such an —hole!” to no one in particular.
On Amtrak, you make a dinner reservation for whatever time slot you want, but when you get to the door of the dining car, you wait there to be seated. And you have no choice about your dining companion, especially if you happen to be traveling alone. It’s a scene that fills me with absolute dread.
What I discovered, though, was that sharing a meal with complete strangers turned out to be no problem at all. In fact, it was an experience that would generally open my heart and mind to people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common.
The reason is this: Seated across a table from someone on a train, you have the most utilitarian opening line in the world: “Where are you headed?” It’s a question that applies to every person on the train, and the answers are always different, always intriguing, and always conducive to follow-up questions. It’s a ready-made conversation, and you don’t have to worry about ideological arguments or about feeling uneducated. You don’t have to look alluring. You don’t have to be hilarious. You don’t have to be clever, slick, or twee. (I just wanted to throw in that last word because it always makes me giggle.)
On top of that, almost everyone on a train is happy to be there. They haven’t been irritated by long lines at the train station. There is no such thing. They don’t have to worry about being admonished to stay in their seats if they get up to use the restroom. They’re not afraid that at any moment, one errant bolt with a tiny flaw is going to pop off the train and send them plunging 30,000 feet to their deaths. (Okay, that’s me on a plane.)
Train passengers have nothing but time on their hands.
On the first and only other train trip I took, back in 1984, I met a young woman named Behan who was originally from Turkey but had been living in Rhode Island for three years. She sat down across from me to smoke (yes, people, this was 30 years ago!) and we struck up an instant friendship. (It probably didn’t hurt that, as my diary entry says, she was “luck of lucks, beautiful – and I mean startlingly beautiful.”) Behan taught me the rules of backgammon, which we played incessantly when we were not in the bar car swilling whiskey. Another passenger said to us, “You two girls are having the most fun of anyone on the train!” I recall that when my contact lens cooker (again, this was 30 years ago!), with lenses inside, was removed from the bathroom for some reason, she helped me out of my (literally blind) panic and hysteria by going through the train asking every single person if they had seen the cooker until she finally located it with a porter. Oh, and Behan had this funny story about trying to drive on the icy roads of Rhode Island for the first time and just sliding from one side of the road to the other. She also told me with a straight face that it would be so windy in Chicago that I would need all of my heavy luggage just to weigh me down!
Anyhoo, getting back to 2014, that first night in Reno I was seated across from Deborah and Dan, a very nice couple from Florida. They were first-time train riders and had gone to North Dakota to see a 42-year-old female friend graduate from law school. I don’t know what kind of work Dan did, but Deborah was an independent contractor who set up new Ace Hardware stores all over the country. Neither of them ate pork or shellfish because they were trying to follow the Book of Leviticus.
On another occasion I dined with a young father and his 5-year-old son. He was employed by Apple (the dad, not the 5-year-old – although who knows these days?), and his particular mission was to work on battery life. I thought he meant developing a longer-lasting battery, but he explained that he was working with developers to get their apps to stop cavorting in the background and draining so much battery life out of iPhones.
An 84-year-old broad from Chicago – a seasoned gambler – told me that she doesn’t wager at home but takes a “vacation” once a month to play the slots at gambling meccas like New Orleans and Reno. She conceded that it’s an inevitably losing proposition, but she chalked the losses up to “entertainment.” And she’d been taking the train ever since 9/11 robbed her of her desire to fly. She was a spry thing, with a lined face but clear and youthful blue eyes, and long gray hair tied back behind her neck. She spoke wistfully of the passing of the “fellow [she] lived with,” so there had been a man (but no husband, apparently) in her life. Before her “vacation” in Reno she had been out in San Francisco visiting her 37-year-old grandson, who, she said, was serially unemployed. He was formerly a “portrait artist” but then became a rabid adherent of his own interpretation of the Bible and decided that portraits are an abomination.
The only people who weren’t really friendly were a surly Frenchman and his wife (or perhaps she was a mistress – let’s make the story interesting!), but I will choose to presume that they couldn’t speak English. They never even looked in my direction. So I chatted the entire meal with my seat partner, a gentle, cherubic-faced man from Minnesota who said “Oh, my” all the time when registering interest, approval, or wonder. He had traveled across the north, taking the Empire Builder into Portland and then the Coast Starlight south to see his sister, who was performing in the Modesto symphonic choir. Who knew Modesto had such a thing? He was making his way home via the California Zephyr, just to shake things up.
Not all of the passengers take their meals in the dining car. To save money, they might buy things like burgers and sandwiches from the café car downstairs. Or they might bring their own food. In another blog I mentioned Pearl and her son Benny. Pearl bought her own snacks from home – things like peanut butter crackers and the like – and I noticed that she also would take a nip in the evening from a suspicious-looking bottle she carried in her oversized straw purse.
I met lots of these people in the observation car. Harvey, a guy from the outerlands of Chico, loudly held court, not necessarily to anyone’s delight. I found him to be a curious diversion. He was one of those guys who live off the grid. A handyman by trade, he had really grimy hands and a dirty bandage on his finger, just like Neal Cassady. He said that he liked to live in a place where he could shoot his handgun. Harvey was heading to Harpers Ferry to help shore up his son, who had fallen on hard times, and then to take his daughter on a six-week train trip. He seemed to have a big heart, despite his off-putting persona. He insisted on declaring how much he loved “Modern Family” – “even the gay guys.” He even sort of took a young man, who was traveling alone, under his wing.
A woman named Cheryl – who, along with her husband, used to work for the National Park Service and knew what she was talking about – often took it upon herself to correct the Amtrak employee who was giving us an intermittent audio tour over the loudspeaker. One day as we glided along the Colorado River, Cheryl told us that frequently the rafters and kayakers out there will moon the trains. I made what I considered to be a lame joke about how they should call it Moon River and got a surprisingly big laugh. Someone mentioned Andy Williams and I informed the entire car about Jerry Butler’s much more beautiful version of that song. As much as I love Andy Williams’ velvet voice, Jerry Butler will make you WEEP. He will break your heart.
Then there was the very old old-timer with a passion for the rails, who lived in Grand Junction but had taken the Zephyr to Sacramento, only to turn around and head immediately back.
One evening as I stood in the door of the dining car, waiting to be seated, I saw that there was a table of three with an empty seat. It looked like two teenagers with dreadlocks were at the table, along with a man who could be their father. “Oh, God, please don’t seat me with dreadlocked teenagers,” I silently prayed. “Don’t put me with the teenagers! They will think I’m uncool. They’ll have nothing to say to me! They’ll be reciting rap lyrics!” See what I mean about our biases? Well, sure enough, I got seated with the Dreadlock Family. And oops, it turned out that one of the alleged dreadlocked teenagers was actually the mom, and she was probably in her forties! The teenager was totally silent and sullen; so, what else is new? But the parents and I got on famously. The mom, a special ed teacher, was a big sports fan and had season tickets to the A’s although her heart was with the Giants. The dad worked for a company that laid natural gas pipes and patiently explained to me why modern plastic pipes are so much better than steel pipes, especially in earthquake-prone areas because of plastic’s flexibility. We actually yakked for so long that we got in trouble and were kicked out by the conductor because other people were waiting for our table. So much for me and my dreadlock phobia.
As I got up from the table to head back to my sleeper for the evening, I thought I heard a young man singing up in the coach section. His voice was so full of pathos and lament that I turned around and headed in his direction, unable to help myself. It turns out that he was a cowboy, complete with Stetson and work shirt. I heard later that he was headed to Colorado. But at the moment all I heard was the guitar he was strumming and the old blues/folk song he was singing:
“I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train;
I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train;
I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain.
I know you, rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone . . .”
Ok, folks, get out your handkerchiefs ’cause I will be on hiatus for a few weeks. I seem to be coming down with Vacationitis, along with Mangiapasta Syndrome and probably some kind of blight or canker. Talk to you down the line!
In early 2014, I developed a plan to purchase what I considered to be a “train outfit.” I had decided to take a dream trip on Amtrak from San Francisco to the East Coast, where, as it happens, three of my good friends live within a few miles of each other in the state of Maryland. I would be on the train for four days, and although I was content to dress like my slovenly self for three of those days, for some reason I wanted to look feminine and sophisticated for at least a 24-hour period. And because “feminine” and “sophisticated” are not adjectives typically ascribed to me, this would be a bit of a stretch. To help myself out, I turned to the TravelSmith catalog, and I finally settled on a lovely turquoise microfiber “big shirt” to be accompanied by a white microfiber tank top and white pants. The trip would be in the spring, after all, and my understanding is that one is allowed to wear white pants after Memorial Day. I would accessorize the ensemble with matching aqua earrings that my sister had made for me. I could really see myself breezing through the cars in a supremely confident fashion.
(I am posting a picture of the general outfit. Obviously, the young woman in the photo is not me, and she is wearing black pants which is clearly a mistake. She is, though, hanging off the side of some sort of transportation, so she clearly agrees with me that this is, for all intents and purposes, a “train outfit.”)
Originally I thought I would describe my entire, wonderful Amtrak journey in detail in this blog, but it occurred to me that droning on and on about it might give my legions of readers a good reason to drop their heads and snore. So, fast-forward to day two of the trip. (Day one was a fiasco involving a six-hour bus ride to Reno, but I can save those details for another post.)
I was in the observation car that day when I met a woman named Pearl. (That is not her real name, and I didn’t think I should post a photo of her. And she is not one of those two characters in this blog’s featured photo. They were just fellow denizens of the observation car.) Anyhoo, Pearl lives in San Francisco, and she was heading back to visit her relatives somewhere in the Midwest. One of the first things I asked her was how she’d found herself in SF, and she told me she had moved west when she realized that she was not going to survive financially where she was living and that California offered a lot more in the way of support.
Sigh. This is where my bias started to kick in. I started to make internal assumptions about Pearl, and I wondered if she was taking advantage of California’s legendary largesse.
To be perfectly honest, one of my shortcomings is that I can form a strong, stubborn opinion early on. But I’m also willing to listen and then completely change my mind. For example, when my former band Three Hour Tour decided to insert “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges into our setlist, I gnashed my teeth and whined like a baby: “Too vulgar, not our style, gross, loud, and just plain VILE!” Three months later, I declared it to be my favorite drum song of all time.
So, I decided to suppress my rush to judgment and ask Pearl about her story, even though I was continuing to assume that she was on the dole and sucking away the taxpayers’ money. Well, it turned out that she had three sons. Two of them were out on their own, including a military medic who had just gotten back from Iraq. But her youngest son, Benny, was 31 and autistic, and, although fairly high-functioning in some ways, he was totally unable to care for himself. After her husband left her, Pearl had gone to work as a paralegal, but the cost of home care for Benny ate up most of her earnings. In fact, she began to see herself heading for abject poverty. So she moved to San Francisco, where she could get enough assistance to enable her to support herself and her son. She did sell her car, which meant that she and Benny had to haul their Costco groceries on the bus back to their small apartment in a questionable part of town. But at least they were able to live on the money she earned through In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) for working as her son’s caregiver. I was starting to see that California’s largesse was, in some instances, a godsend for people who were struggling to manage the daunting challenges they had been handed.
I ended up spending a lot of time with Pearl, and one morning she asked me if I could do her a favor. She and Benny were in the coach section of the train, and Benny was pestering her because he wanted to know what a sleeper room looked like.
I had gotten a sleeper room because I really did not want to travel four days across the country sitting upright in a seat. I was very fortunate, of course, to be able to afford the luxury of a bed (loosely defined) and bathroom (even more loosely defined). Pearl and Benny had no such good fortune, and they would be together, never losing sight of the other, sitting upright in their seats for days. (I will say, though, that Pearl looked like a million bucks. She wore – and slept in – the same outfit every day: a neon orange suit, festooned with all kinds of fun costume jewelry. She felt that a respectable person should dress for the train.)
So Pearl asked me if I could show Benny my accommodations, and as soon as the word “sure” barely escaped my lips, she whirled around and scampered off to the café car to get a burger, which threw me into a sudden and severe state of panic.
First of all, I have the worst sense of direction known to humankind. We all know lots of people who claim to be similarly handicapped, including, I would guess, a good proportion of the people reading this blog. However, I firmly believe that my particular affliction is unparalleled. In fact, it is legendary. One time I was dining with a group of co-workers at the California Pizza Kitchen on Van Ness when I found myself (shudder!) having to get up to use the bathroom. When I emerged from the restroom, I could not for the life of me figure out how to get back to my table, and I found myself out of the restaurant entirely, in a back alley with a bunch of construction workers. When I got back to the office, I was recounting the story about the construction workers to my friend Kate H. and she said it sounded “like the plot of a porn film”!! That line will make me laugh until the day I die.
The thing is, Pearl had asked me not only to show Benny my accommodations but also to bring him back to the coach section to find her! Ordinary people would think nothing of this, but it was already a challenge for me to find my own way around on the train. To be honest, I was never really successful at it; I just went lurching from car to car until I found myself in, for example, a place with tables and silverware, which I would then cleverly deduce was the dining car. One evening I headed back to my sleeper and threw open the door to what I thought were my accommodations, only to find that it was the porter’s room. And he was in there. I stammered my mortifications and lurched away to find my own room.
My other source of anxiety was the fact that I was unsure of myself around an autistic person. At the time, Benny might have been the first autistic person I had ever met. Would I know how to behave? Would he like me? Would he express emotions in uncomfortable ways? Would he ask me math problems I wouldn’t know how to solve? Would he suddenly curse me out as had happened to me once when I worked with a writer with Tourette Syndrome? (“Your articles are very sweet and graceful,” the writer had told me. “F— you!”)
But I swallowed my anxieties and carefully led Benny back to my room. He absolutely loved it and took photos of just about everything. He did nothing unusual and didn’t curse at me. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all until I got him back to his coach section when I luckily spotted Pearl’s neon orange outfit. “Okay, Benny,” I said, relieved that we had found our way. “There’s your mom. You take care now.”
He hesitated. “I want to tell you something first,” he said. “I love the way your blue shirt matches your eyes. Did you know that there are many shades of blue? There’s periwinkle, cornflower, royal blue, midnight blue, turquoise, powder blue, sky blue, baby blue . . . .” Five minutes later, he finished with “. . . and cerulean.”
He actually said “cerulean.” I didn’t remember that one from my box of Crayolas.
“But yours are more like sapphire blue,” he said. He smiled and put both of his hands on my face. “And you are absolutely beautiful.”
Well, not really. But it didn’t matter. I floated back down the aisle in my glamorous train outfit. Meanwhile, Benny and his devoted mother continued on their journey, bound together forever. God bless and protect them both.