amtrak adventures

planes, trains, and automobiles…in order to complete the holy trinity of travel this year, i needed to take a train. i suppose if one were literal about these things, BART might count, but that’s not nearly as romantic as amtrak. a train in the wild-west sense of the word needs to move across great open spaces, connecting points in the great american frontier. with these notions in mind, i decided an amtrak to colorado for christmas would be the perfect way to end my year of travel.

i imagined myself carried by a sleek silver bullet, gliding across open plains and slicing through snowy mountain passes, the gentle mantra of the tracks providing a soothing backdrop for my journey. time to read, time to think, time to do nothing, if that’s what i chose to do. i would find camraderie in fellow passengers seeking similar comforts, and i would arrive at both my destination and my home rested and fulfilled.
at least, that’s how i remembered the train…

the reality of amtrak travel requires that you tilt your head slightly, look at it from the viewpoint of, say, David Lynch. there are some interesting factual wrinkles to add to this tapestry that traverses the continent.

fact 1: if you’re not in a sleeper car, you can forget about getting something passing for a good night’s sleep.

unfortunately, i haven’t completed my studies as a yogi yet, so my ability to fold myself into a small box has yet to be perfected. if i were cynical, i would say that a crack team of ergonomic engineers spent years designing seats that were just uncomfortable enough to prevent sleep, but i try to be positive. one other thing – always remember to bring a pillow; those postage-stamp sized pieces of foam they pass out are just to keep you from drooling on the seats.

fact 2: children, as much as they love the train, also love to scream. there will be at least one of these children in your car. corollary: if there is no screaming child in your proximity, there will be someone who snores with vigor.

this fact is pretty self-explanatory. it usually applies on long plane trips as well.

fact 3: people often combat boredom with alcohol or other controlled substances.

books are my chosen weapon against the specter of boredom, and they are in the arsenal of many other passengers. however, there will almost always be a vocal group of drinkers capable of drowning out any readers. observational or active boozing can make for an interesting trip, though, so i won’t count this as all bad.

fact 4: despite advertisements to the contrary, train food isn’t, really.

bring a bag of food – sandwiches, crackers, cookies, small peeled carrots, leftover barbecue. whatever you bring on the train will likely taste better and cost less than what is served in the dining car. as a side note, you can be guaranteed that whatever feast you choose to order in the dining car will arrive minus one key ingredient. the menu offering warm pancakes tells bald-faced lies. do not believe it.

but that’s enough cheerful cynicism…through bleary eyes, bad food, and occasionally loud neighbors, i enjoyed my trip a great deal. the landscapes were as the romantic vision had advertised, i met some really interesting people, and i got to enjoy some solitude while watching the world pass by my window.

the california zephyr leaves emeryville, passes up through Tahoe and the sierras, then crosses nevada and utah on its way to colorado. recent rains had left a white blanket across the sierras and much of the west, so the sights were spectacular. snow glistens and flickers with a million star-like grains when you pass by it at high speed; it’s completely hypnotic. the tracks move through areas unreachable by the highway, so you’re given a glimpse of the west that can’t be seen any other way, save trekking across large areas of land and possibly facing the fate of the donner party. ghost towns dot the landscape, and the conductor often provides color commentary about their origins and their fates (usually a steady decline into the junk heap of obscurity as the railroad lost its importance).

as we moved towards colorado and my destination, we passed near Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands. distant stone monoliths were visible, giving a hint of the majesty of the landscape of the southwest. we carved our way into canyons that were home to eagles, wild geese, herons, and the occasional duck or two. ice floes jostled for space in the cold blue colorado river; winter’s teeth were just beginning to bite. sun rose over the utah desert, moutains dusted with snow like powdered sugar, bathed in the red glow of the west waking to another day. the 25-hour ride and a few minor discomforts were small prices to pay.

i’ll write about my visit with mom in another entry, since this one has already passed my standard diarrhea-of-the-keyboard length.

maybe you’re wondering why i referred to ‘The String Cheese Incident’ in the title. if you’re not, you can skip the punch line, but if you are…on the return trip, the people satisfying fact 3 above were sitting right in front of me – a group of five, with newly made friends in other cars to add to the mix. a bunch of 17-year olds from glenwood springs, colorado, were on a mission to see a marathon concert featuring ‘The String Cheese Incident’ (TSCI) in SF. they had been saving for months, and this trip was the payoff. TSCI is a bluegrass band that inspires a following like the Dead or Phish (i had never heard of them – i couldn’t tell if this made me feel old or not). these kids fit the bill; tie-dyed t-shirts, backpacks, and a hearty party attitude were theirs in spades. budweiser for breakfast, mgd for lunch, an odwalla bar and a green herbal chaser for dinner…these kids were unstoppable. they were also a lot of fun. positive attitudes, plenty of laughter, and their ability to poke fun at themselves for being the loud party kids, made them a welcome addition to the trip.

i remembered those times when as a teenager and college student i did my own interpretation of their pilgrimage. i watched the landscape go by, and while i felt like those years were far behind me, i thought of the interesting and unknown years to come. it was a good trip, and it will continue to be.

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