Reverie by Rail

31 May

I took my first Amtrak adventure when I was fourteen, a largely miserable affair that should have led me to swear off trains for all eternity. My mother and I went west to visit some family friends who had decided to give themselves a little culture shock by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Ogden, Utah. We made a national tour out of it, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Salt Lake, and then on out to Sacramento and up the West Coast before heading back to Minnesota. It included obnoxious people, five near-sleepless nights, and a newfound hatred for freight trains. And yet, in spite of it all, it won a convert.

The first leg was a fairly quick jaunt from Minneapolis down to Chicago, though even that start was inauspicious, with the train rolling in a few hours late to the dismal station in St. Paul, one that has thankfully been put to rest since. The route follows the Mississippi and visits Wisconsin Dells, and there are docents on board to enlighten riders in the glass-encased observation car. It went smoothly enough, and after a night with relatives in Chicago, we were ready for the westward leg of our adventure.

The next day we set out on the California Zephyr, plowing across the prairie and readying for our first night on the rails. Unenthused by my seat, I tried to relax and sleep in the observation car, a window-filled car where one can stretch out across several chairs in a feeble imitation of a bed. That night is etched in my mind thanks to a loud teenage girl holding a deep, meaningful cell phone conversation with some distant friend. “Hello? What? Hello? What?” she bellowed for several hours on end, desperately seeking service as we wove across Iowa and Nebraska.

I woke the next morning in the gloom of eastern Colorado, a desolate stretch of factory farms and cattle ranches. There was a chance to get out and wander a bit in Denver, where the sun poured down through a high-ceilinged station. The train then began its steady meander into the Rockies, and before long, it snaked in and out of tunnels and clung to the side of the Colorado River gorge, us and I-70 and the moon-happy river rafters all flowing along. I ate the best peach I’ve ever had in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in time we were closing in on the State of Deseret. We spent a week in the Beehive State, climbing mountains east of Ogden and venturing down to do some August desert hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.

The adventure really got going on the way west from Salt Lake. We’d planned to meet some friends from the Bay Area in Sacramento when the train arrived in the early afternoon, but the freight train-induced delays began somewhere in the dusty wastes of Nevada. We sat on the tracks in the town of Sparks for eons, but that did little to prepare us for an endless wait atop the Donner Pass just across the California border. To be fair, it was a beautiful spot to get stuck, but as the delays mounted and the obnoxious guy further down the car got progressively more drunk, I began to find a little sympathy for the Donner Party and their decision to sink their teeth into the more useless members of their party.

We finally came to Sacramento just before midnight, over nine hours past the scheduled arrival time, and with just forty-five minutes to make our connection north to Portland. But no, it couldn’t be that easy: there had been a tunnel fire somewhere up the route, and the train wouldn’t be going through. My mother said some words I’d never heard her say before, and we were bundled on to a bus headed for Eugene, Oregon. It was a miserable ride made even more miserable by the need to stop in all the small towns along the Amtrak route north into Oregon, many of which are not along a convenient major highway. Still, it was a sight to awake from my fitful night’s sleep to Mount Shasta looming over us in the morning sunlight, and the coach rolled on through Klamath Falls and past Crater Lake through the endless forests, and once we finally got back on the train to Portland, I managed to catch a Yankees-Mariners game on a travel radio. (Remember those things?)

The last leg of the trip, on the Empire Builder back to St. Paul, was a blur; I have only vague memories of the Columbia River gorge, Glacier, and Havre, Montana. We mercifully slept through North Dakota before bringing our odyssey to an end. One would think I would have learned my lesson after that one. Yet as time passed the absurdity of the story became an object of laughs rather than misery, and when I was going to school in DC, an idea wormed its way into my head:  Amtrak is the perfect way to cart a lot of cargo across the country without a car or excessive airplane baggage fees, isn’t it?

That bright idea would take a little fine-tuning, as my freshman year roommate can attest. At the end of the year, I was somehow compelled to try to pack my entire life into two monstrously heavy boxes for the ride back to Minneapolis. The terrified taxi driver helped me get them out of the trunk, but the Union Station porters refused to even touch them, so I somehow managed to heft the two of them—well over two hundred pounds in total—on to a decidedly inadequate cart and get them to the counter, where a sympathetic ticket agent waited patiently through one of the less dignified moments of my life, full of sweat and panic and miserable pleas. My two large boxes, battered by their adventure from one end of Union Station to the other and hopelessly over the weight limit, were summarily broken down into ten Amtrak baggage boxes. I spent another unexpected night in DC and went out on the train the next day.

Years later, I’m still using those same Amtrak boxes to cart my junk around when I move. And once I got it down, the train ride between DC and Minneapolis became a delight. Amtrak’s schedulers wisely time sleep for the Indiana and Ohio bits of the trip. Head east, and one wakes to the mists of the Ohio River and the steel mills of Pittsburgh; head west, and the lights of the Steel City are the last thing one sees before nodding off. The Maryland-West Virginia leg is especially pretty as one heads west, snaking along the Potomac and through historic Harpers Ferry before coming to picturesque Cumberland, Maryland for sunset. The western route always dumped me in Chicago early in the morning, and sometimes I’d meet up with family or old friends during my layover; other times, I’d just wander the canyons between the skyscrapers, maybe foray down to Buckingham Fountain, and, in one memorable instance, pass out on a stone bench in a garden next to the Art Institute. One other memorable journey had me on an alternate route out east that wound through the hills of West Virginia, a frighteningly slow race between the train and Hurricane Irene to DC. My boxes and I all made it ahead of the storm, and my roommate had some hurricanes and dark-and-stormys waiting for me as we bunkered down at the start of my senior year.

Amtrak’s greatest romance comes in its people, who all come together in a place where time matters little. We’re all stuck together, we have nowhere to be, and talk flows freely. Yes, there’s the occasional clod, but they’re cause for commiseration for the rest of us, free to roll our eyes and laugh at the shrieking self-righteous homeschooler or the Mexicans who fail to understand that the coach is meant for sleeping after midnight. I paid the price for the dining car dinner once every trip, and it never disappointed. My best seatmates were a British couple on holiday in the U.S., and we talked for hours on matters great and small as we climbed into the Appalachians. There was also the personal trainer for former New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagle Steve Smith, who rearranged his medicine balls to let me into a seat and joined me in watching some old Duluth East hockey DVDs, marveling at the spectacle.

The observation car brings out even more conversation. I once sat with a Canadian guy on a month-long train journey with his son, and a couple traveling back along routes they’d visited as kids, with vague memories of the parks along the way. One lady shared her love for Jane Jacobs, and an eccentric grandmother gushed about some flower festival that I—the horror!—had never heard of. There are often Amish, using the lone long-distance form of travel available to them, always showing a delicate mix of reserve and curiosity when confronted by us moderns. I had a number of drinks bought for me—a debt I’ll have to pay forward someday—and whiled away many nights with people I’d never seen before and will never see again before settling in my seat, scrawling a few meditative lines in a notebook (interspersed with stream-of-consciousness curses directed at anyone in the car who wouldn’t shut up) before the train’s steady rumble lulled me to sleep. For days after each ride, I feel that gentle rocking when I settle in to bed at night.

It was only fitting that Georgetown’s senior ball took place at Union Station, giving us a chance to waltz about its grandiose halls, dressed in the opulent costumes its riders might have worn in a bygone era. Or maybe it was all just a dream after all? A few days later I was on the train home one last time, slamming beers with a jolly man from South Bend and penning one last reverie by rail. Amtrak has its share of ills, as recent crashes and funding crises show all too well. But its allure lingers, that escape from time into a shared journey past so many of this country’s marvels, and the timelessness should keep the dream going for years to come. Anyone else ready to climb aboard?

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One Response to “Reverie by Rail”

  1. Ruth Olson May 31, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    this is just great Karl. I laughed out loud when I read the part about the delay at Donner’s Pass. Our 3 granddaughters tell us the train trip out to DC when they were 13,12, & 11, that this was the most best vacation they ever had

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