Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Riding the Rails

Each Amtrak sleeping car has its own attendant, kind of like flight attendants. For the first leg of our trip Cathy and I were on sleeping car 631, room 8, and Curtis was our designated attendant. The Zephyr line launches from Emeryville, about 2 miles from where we happily lived in Berkeley, so we were the first lucky folks to check into a sleeping car. As we walked towards the train car we asked the attendant standing outside the entrance if it was the right car. He smiled and said, “It sure is, and you must be Cathy and Chris!”

It was our man, Curtis, of course!

He took us to our room, a cozy, incredibly compact space and gave us the low down:

This is the call button. Pull it if you should need anything.
There’s water and juice always available down at the end of the hall. I keep the coffee going from 5 am until 11 pm. If you need any before 5 am, go ahead and make it yourself.
Let me know when you’re going to dinner and I’ll come by and turn your beds down for you.
There are 3 bathrooms in the lower level of this car. There is one upstairs and I usually ask people to try and avoid using that one because…well, the downstairs bathrooms have vents and the upstairs one, which is right next to my car, doesn’t…so you can imagine…
That’s a closet, there’s another light and here’s a place to hang your coats.

Compared to the salty old dogs who worked the dining car, Curtis was genuinely easy-going, attentive and fully apprized of the abundant riches offered to us on our train.

The train pulled out of Emeryville about 20 minutes after we had boarded. Cathy and I pressed our noses up against the begrimed windows of our cubbyhole and watched Berkeley pass by. Mostly we saw the backside of buildings, almost all of them tagged. This last fleeting glimpse of Berkeley was like a fresh batch of bittersweet. It was a beautiful day, in the mid-60’s, and here we were, suddenly and surreally, riding on the California Zephyr back to Chicago. We made the right decision, right? I felt terribly maudlin, saying goodbye to the back of Cody’s Books on 4th street.

We took the train to feel the distance. Airplanes, we both decided, are too unforgiving when it comes to letting go of community- to saying goodbye to the intimacies of the geography surrounding the place you had only just begun to call home. It’s too instantaneous and disorienting to leave one home and abruptly arrive 4 hours later to the prospects of a new one. Berkeley, sometime over the last 6 months, had finally come to feel like our home. Leaving it didn’t come easy. We wanted stillness and the chance to connect to the great expanse that lies between Berkeley and Chicago. We wanted to see the Sierra’s and the Rockies up close and to ride through those endless cornfields of Iowa while they lay enshrouded in a heavy crust of February snow. We hoped it might reveal something we both wanted- some affirmation and solace.

On the first night I awoke somewhere a few hours outside of Salt Lake City. It was a full moon, so I could make out most of the terrain, which sprawled out in prostration to a horizon superfluous with mountains. We were in that folksy terrain known as the middle of nowhere, big empty spaces infused with a poetic brand of absence. At what looked to be 5 or so miles away, I thought I saw a line of fires. Who’s out there? Not fires, but lights- placed in a straight line, one after another every few miles or so. The military? The train was long enough and our sleeping car placed far enough in the rear of the train, that when the track curved I could see the engine headlights permeating into the darkness. I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I kept thinking I should be listening to the new Harold Budd CD I had brought along with me. Those wide open ghost chords that Budd plays, with all their lovely thunder and heartache, would have fit this landscape perfectly. But I was too groggy, feeling small and displaced, and soon that initial jolt of awe was worn back down to sleep. I awoke briefly in Salt Lake City. I thought I saw the temple. “Fry sauce, it’s a Mormon thing,” I remember thinking.

We also took the Zephyr because, like many, we had long coveted the desire to take the train cross-country. This is known as the romance of the train. But trains take time, and unless you have a lot of it, traveling by such means is going to take a big bite out of your vacation. Nobody but the hardcore train enthusiast is looking to make travel by train the entirety of their vacation. We, however, had time. We wanted time. We wanted time to be slow and offer up majestic landscapes and to act as a balm on our wistfulness. We brought books, magazines, CD’s, DVD’s, paints, pens and a bottle of wine. We wanted to feel all that time intertwined with all that space.

It was surprisingly cheap to take the much beleaguered Amtrak. Comparable to flying, albeit much longer. The food was better and you can see more, though most of the windows on the train were filthy. This was unfortunate given that quite a few of the people taking the Zephyr are on it to enjoy the natural beauty of its route. It would have taken all of a hour or two for one person to have properly cleaned the windows, but as it was, they were dimly coated in grime at the start of the line in Emeryville. Can we include window washers in that next budget? The sleeping rooms, as I said, were small and hadn’t been remodeled in over 20 years. They had a funky charm, however. There was a lounge car made explicitly for viewing, with large windows on its sides and overhead. On the first leg of our trip a docent boarded the train at Sacramento and offered us occasional deep fried nuggets of history. All meals served in the dining car are communal, meaning they’ll seat you next to strangers who might be Amish. There were a lot of Amish riding the rails. We sat with 4 different couples, none of who were Amish. Here are a few of the things we talked about or listened to others talk about:

Scuba diving (the first couple was really into scuba, and it’s all the dude wanted to talk about. The subject would change but he’d always bring it back to scuba)
The latest film version of Freaky Friday
Kansas City
The Da Vinci Code

Who rides the Zephyr? Lot’s of old-timer’s and those aforemtioned train enthusiasts who will tell you that Amtrak is a nice way to travel but doesn’t hold a candle to those European trains. Those aforementioned Amish take it too. And people afraid to fly. The couple who won tickets at a holiday dinner party raffle, they took it too. Us.

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