"Everyone's a rail fan. Some people are just quieter about it than others."
That's what a gentleman said to me when I asked him if he was a railfan. Diehards are easily recognized by their casual identification of a location that is to the casual observer, nowhere.
But I loved the truth in it. Trains are special. A road trip, the classic American vacation is fine, but the train version is far better. A dining car, the chance to walk around, no sleepy drivers, easy bathroom access - all of the inconveniences of car travel are gone. Even a familiar path is different from the tracks.
He works for Burlington Northern, and he grew up in Wyoming. So, he comes by his knowledge from more than mere fandom. He tells me that the switch we've just passed is the path to Cheyenne. We talk about Amtrak, and the perennial battle to keep it alive in Congress. The track we're on used to be on a regular route between Denver and Seattle, but it was dropped despite ample ridership because somebody in Washington had to make a budget cut. He tells me about the towns in Wyoming that used to rely on the train in winter, that are unaccessible by road when the train can still get through. Not many people can tough it out.
Amtrak doesn't suffer from lack of ridership. What vexes it is an upfront, obvious subsidy that has to be explicitly renewed each year. Highway funding does not require reauthorization, and the need for highways is obvious even to the dullest Congressman. Airlines are barely profitable even though they don't pay for their own airports or runways. Amtrak, forced to get by on crumbs, rents time on the tracks from the freight companies, which run their cargoes first, making Amtrak trains late and slow. The tracks are functional, but they're not the sleek, smooth tracks of Europe that permit bullet speeds. Even at 50 MPH, the train rolls and jerks from side to side as it travels.
Why are we the only industrialized country without a solid passenger rail system again?
Our detour through Wyoming is supposed to be the less pretty way, but the landscape is still dramatic. Though I've travelled all over the western United States, I've never been to Wyoming, so I'm looking forward to seeing what's out here.
We left YearlyKos via Amtrak, on the California Zephyr. What was once considered a grand building, Union Station, is now undersized and overcrowded for the amount of duty it does, in need of air conditioning and with every square foot within the terminal and food court areas in quite active use. Lines are long; their computer systems are clearly antiquated compared to what we've come to expect in an airport.
However, it is not long before we are boarding our full-to-the-brim train with a diverse assortment of other Americans.
We walk into the 'gate' and finally to our respective track, #12. It is an awesome sight to see these enormous engines up close. Our double-decker train towers beside us.
We've sprung for the sleeper car - not the most deluxe accomodations, but a tiny compartment, maybe 5' by 8'. This space can be made into two large facing seats (with optional tray table) or into two beds, one over the other. There is an impressively tiny closet (two hangers included), some bottled water, an electrical outlet, and a glorious picture window where we can watch America glide by.
We get a special treat - we're in the very last compartment on the train, so we also get the rear window view. This also puts us far from the whistle, which is probably good, because in the midwest there are quite a lot of crossings.
I am embarrassing us both by taking a gazillion pictures.
The sleeper car also includes all of our meals in the dining car. In fact, the sleeper counts as 'First Class', somewhat to my surprise, and later, amusement. You make reservations for meals, because there's only about a dozen tables. And, as a party of two, we always are partnered with another party of one or two. This turns out to be one of my favorite aspects of the trip, because we get to have extended conversations with people from all walks of life, from all over America. We talk to a man who has made a short trip to run his grandson home to Chicago from Iowa, and we talk about water issues and farming and land prices. He's clearly a regular: the dining car attendant knows him by name. We meet a couple with a farm in Nebraska, tourists from England, a lovely elderly woman from Chicago travelling to visit her son in the Bay Area. We're all having a good time.
Although the midwest part is supposed to be "boring", I feel like a kid in a candy store (maybe it's all the corn-syrup-to-be), snapping pictures, my face pressed to the windows. I haven't been to this part of the midwest in any appreciable way, and everything is new to me. I drink in the green fields, the rivers, the towns, and try to record the memory they create with my camera. Any question that Illinois is a corn state? No. Corn, and soy. Sometimes you see a stray corn plant trying to pop up among the soy. Near Chicago the farms are flat, but as we pass Princeton, the fields are pleasantly rolly. It's beautiful country.
We cross the Mississippi River. It's maybe less dramatic than I expect (we're still in its northern section, after all), but there's still a fine bridge and an enormous rail yard on the Iowa side, in Burlington. I snap a picture of a rail car full of corn syrup for fellow Kossack OrangeClouds115. I know she'll appreciate it.
We stop in Ottumwa, Iowa - the home of MASH's fictional Radar O'Reilly - for a smoking break. There's no smoking on the train, so there's a list of towns where the train stops for 15-20 minutes and passengers are allowed to disembark and mill about on the platform. I don't smoke, so I stretch my legs, take in the weather, and try to get pictures of our train. It's hard - too big and too close. I don't want to stray too far, stuck in an unfamiliar town with only my camera for company.
I fell asleep that night in Omaha, Nebraska.
I wake up at dawn the next morning, eager to see what's outside our window today. We're in Colorado, middle of nowhere, just our tracks and an occasional string of rail cars to keep us company. This is the flat, dry side of Colorado, where the plains are long and empty, covered with scrub.
We arrive in Denver. The train has to back in, and so a conductor comes and opens the rear door to our car so he can act as a spotter for the engineer. He is good-natured about the line of polite but eager tourists behind him, peering around him to take in the view. We take turns snapping pictures and everyone is having a good time. We're kind of sorry when we arrive and he has to close the door again.
This is easily the best station aside from Chicago. The station is near the stadium and several other big destinations. The signs are new and this is clearly a thriving place. We pull in next to a Ski Train, which in the winter takes skiiers straight to the resort. As part of servicing the train, men with absurdly long squeegees wash every window. I appreciate that.
At Denver, we start our detour. Instead of proceding west, through the heart of the Rockies, we skirt them to the north, through Wyoming. It's an easier, faster route (which is why it was the first one built, the Transcontinental Railroad route), and we'll arrive in Salt Lake City well ahead of schedule. I am happy and sad. I am excited about riding an unusual route that we'd otherwise never see, but I'm sad we won't go through the Rockies as planned. Oh well - we'll just have to come back and do the Zephyr again!
I enjoy watching a small river that is next to the tracks in Wyoming. It's carved a 10 foot bed for itself, and you can see the geology develop: it bends around to make an easier course, then ends up in a horseshoe shape, and as the channel gets deeper it finally breaks through the horseshoe and goes straight again. The marks of the previous bed are still apparent. Science is everywhere.
There is one remarkable rock formation as we travel across the north section of Utah, before rejoining the regular route in Salt Lake: the Devil's Slide. These parallel pinnacles of rock make a path from the top of the mountain to the bottom, right next to the tracks. The conductor announces this well in advance, and everyone is buzzing around the train looking for the best view. It's like a party. I exchange email addresses with a fellow passenger so I can send her the picture I took.
Dinner is in Salt Lake City. We're there for a couple of hours; one couple elects to get off and have dinner in the city. We are just a little too nervous about leaving all our worldly possessions on the train while it leaves our sight, so we stick with the dining car. The food isn't amazing, but it's better than I expected. The menu doesn't change but there are enough different choices that it works out OK.
We chug out of Salt Lake City, from the highly populated section near the dramatic mountain side, where you can get to snow and skiing in just 30 minutes, to the east side of the lake, where there is no vegetation and no population. Water is like that. In the midwest, water, and towns, are everywhere, at regular intervals. In the west, towns follow the water, and there won't be any more appreciable water along our journey until we get to Reno, on the far west side of Nevada.
Winnemucca, Nevada, is our next smoke break stop. We're also changing to a fresh crew. It seems an odd place to station people: why not Salt Lake or Reno, where there is actual population? We can get off here, but the conductor announces that the platform is short here, and so everyone needs to disembark through the coach cars at the front of the train.
When I get off, I laugh.
By "platform" they mean "patch of asphalt." And by "station" they mean "bench with a rain cover next to a dumpster." While I walk around outside, I see the crew toss trash bags into the dumpster. Definitely the least impressive station on the trip - but, in its own way, perhaps the most memorable.
We reach the Truckee River, and now we're in familiar territory. I have been in the Sierras many times, and here, east of Reno, we parallel I-80 as well as the Truckee. I'm used to seeing the tracks from the road, not the road from the tracks. We climb the hill to Donner Summit, and go through the remarkable snowshed tunnels. This is amazing territory. I always marvel that people came through this route with wagons and oxen. Even today, with a superhighway making the path obvious and smooth, that would be a serious feat. The boulders and rough country to either side of the road used to be right in the way. The first travellers used winches to traverse this path. The hard labor of thousands of people, working with pickaxes and dynamite and shovels, still eases my way today. Thanks.
Once we pass Donner Summit, it's not long until we're back in urban California, which is extending its mighty tentacles into formerly remote and rural towns like Truckee and Auburn. And as we sit on the tracks on the north Bay, near Suisun, waiting for the drawbridge to close that will admit us to Martinez, I'm happy and sad. It's been a great trip, and I'm sorry it's over. But I'm happy, because train travel isn't as dead as I thought. Indeed, the station at Martinez is bustling with commuter trains connecting Sacramento and the Bay Area. Even in California, we are starting to have trains again.
We returned home from our trip relaxed and relatively ready to return to our lives after two days of quiet leisure, reading, writing, and generally having no obligations. In contrast, had we flown back on Sunday, we would've travelled all night to get home and been trying to work on Monday, exhausted and cranky. The train was the way to go home, for sure.
I will have to use them more often.
Crossposted from MotherTalkers.