Friday, August 22, 2008

(Mostly) Untouched Wilderness: July 22-23

We made our way through the Rockies slowly, overlooking beautiful, wooded valleys with rivers running along the bottom. The beauty was mostly lost on me, though, due to conditions described in the previous post. I finally remedied my seating situation early in the evening when the Exasperating Family went to dinner in the dining car. With some urgency I checked out the next car for open seats. There were quite a few, so I moved my stuff to a free two-seat combo. The reason I moved while the annoying people were away (as all good Midwesterners should know) was because I didn't want to take the chance of offending them. Ah, the joys of Minnesota Nice.

The new car was much quieter and more relaxed, but there was a price to pay for this serenity. The new seat's effect on my posterior was akin to sitting on a burlap sack bare-assed. All the seats on that car possessed the same mysterious quality of abrasiveness. However, it was still a small price to pay, so I tried to enjoy my new, calm surroundings.

The scenery was wonderfully stark, the high, dry plains and barren hills dotted with brush. For one of the few times on the trip I kept a Real Time journal, meaning I wrote about stuff as it happened or as I saw it out the windows. I'll switch to the present tense to give you a sense of the immediacy of these observations: (It's almost like you're there!)

6:51 pm (Grand Junction, CO): This wild country has been tamed. By an oil refinery. What vision & boldness must've been required to think, "Ya know what this majestic, untamed wilderness needs? A big, ugly, smelly oil refinery." Without sleep, I become even more of a voyeur. Approaching tunnel with picture-perfect portal, as if we were about to enter the Mines of Moria.

Being extremely tired, I did a lot of reading instead of the writing I'd meant to do. I had 2 books that I'd purchased for the trip: A People's History of the World by Chris Harman and My Custom Van by Michael Ian Black. The former was fascinating for me, as a leftist history buff. The latter was an hilarious collection of absurdist essays. If any of the following diary entries amuse you, credit Michael Ian Black. He was my inspiration. By the end of the day we were in Utah. That night I got at least 6 hours of sleep, thanks to my exhaustion, even though I had to switch sides repeatedly & my neck was quite sore in the morning. ("That's what she said!" As far as I'm concerned, that joke is an evergreen.)


7:54 am (Nevada?): The girl kitty-corner from me is still trying to sleep, like many folks in the back half of the car. (This is the last car.) I've gotta hand it to her. She's determined to get her 8 or so hours of sleep. She's also English. Coincidence? (Yes.) I picked up a sausage, egg & cheese bagel from the mini-cafeteria. The exceedingly courteous (& probably gay) attendant politely popped my bagel in the microwave and set a cup of ice in the cardboard tray for my (27%)cranberry juice. (Engineer announces copper wire was stolen from signal boxes, causing another 2-hour delay last night. Now 4 hours behind sked.) It was the kind of breakfast you could purchase at any respectable gas station, but when I carried it back to my seat (with very little trouble thanks to the amazingly secure cardboard tray) and took a bite out of it, ya know what it tasted like? I'll tell you what it tasted like: America. Can we come together as a people & demand our gov't guarantee the right to ride on a train staffed with at least one sassy, fat, affectionate, black woman? I think we can. If democracy cannot deliver on this promise, then what good is it really? A passenger commented on the coolness of the A/C, and our conductor responded, "I like it cold. There are only a few things I like hot, but I'm not gonna tell you what they are." She got many laughs for that one. I wonder what the 50's version of that exchange was, between a black worker and white customers. Probly very similar.

9:38 am: A middle-aged couple was sitting in lawn chairs in a tiny town. I wonder if they make it a point to watch the Amtrak trains pass by each day. That'd be pretty sad, esp. when you consider they'd have to call or check the website b/c of Amtrak's chronic tardiness. There was a guy waving at us in a bigger town. My thoughts: "We're more important than you & we're going places more important than this." (I can be a real bastard sometimes.) I salute these modern-day pioneers, these latter-day frontiersmen & -women who brave a forbidding landscape & stake their claim to a barren plot of unforgiving land. What moves them to choose such a harsh life? One thought & one thought alone: They have a lot of old cars & pickups & they need a community where they can leave their vehicles in the backyard w/o the neighbors complainin'.

10:34 am: Just saw a huge "BM" on the side of a hill. (I mean the letters "B" & "M", not what they stand for.) Could that be the most laborious, painstaking scatological joke in history? No, the name of the town below is Battle Mountain. Darn. The 50's-era grocery stores & restaurants & motels were in good shape & apparently still in business. I guess its remoteness keeps the chains away, except for the Flying J truck stop. The place looks like a throwback. The main drag ran along the tracks, but I didn't see a train station. I'd like to visit that place. It looks like what Cambridge(, MN, where I lived thru 1st grade) must've looked like in the 50's & 60's.

We passed a couple ghost towns and half-ghost towns in Colorado and Utah. They were scattered collections of shacks, trailers and rusty vehicles, likely choked off in recent decades by the death of their rail lifeline.

Despite the burlap-sack seats, my new car had electrical outlets, so I could plug in my laptop and type the first entries in my travelogue. There was no WiFi on any of the trains I rode, as far as I knew, although I didn't check in the Lounge/Sightseeing/Observation cars. On this train, the California Zephyr, originating in Chicago and terminating at the San Francisco Bay, I didn't check out the Lounge or Dining cars at all, mainly due to fatigue and the pleasantness of my seating location.

At some of the stops they'd let us get off, stretch our legs and (for some of us) fill our lungs with that "sweet Carolina smoke." (Name that episode.) I disembarked a few times, but stiffness was not a problem. (I wonder how many of my less mature readers are giggling right now.) We picked up many old people in Reno, not to stereotype seniors as gambling addicts. But they are.

From Nevada's desert, riven by canyons and spiked with mountains, we climbed into the Sierra Nevada, where we stayed until we were well inside California. The slopes were cloaked in towering pines. We rolled lazily through Gold Country, peering at the peaks and old prospecting camps our tour guide pointed out over the PA. There was no hint of urgency to make up the hours we'd lost on the High Plains. It seemed like we could've gone much faster. The grade was gentle and the corners generally loose (as opposed to "tight").

I called my 2nd cousin (or 1st cousin once removed or just my dad's 1st cousin) Bob Foley a couple times to give him updates on our ETA. After Sacramento, the train whooshed through the rest of the journey. I "de-trained," in Amtrak parlance, at Martinez in the East Bay at midnight, 6 1/2 hours late. Bob and his wife, Pat, were walking across the platform to meet me. They're in their 60's. Bob is at least 6' 4". Pat is at least a foot shorter. They hugged me and drove me to their house in a Lexus.

On the way home, we got stuck in frozen traffic. Bob turned off the engine twice because his tank was low. After a few minutes of fear that my trip's delay-curse had struck again, the cars and semis started moving. There was a bunch of debris on the road that resembled cardboard and an intact hatchback on the shoulder, but no sign of a serious accident.

My utter fatigue limited my conversational creativity. When we arrived at their house in Danville, I was struck by the suburban splendor of the neighborhood. Their abode was a spotless model of refined, upper-middle-class taste. I climbed into the gorgeous guest bed past the point of tired, heading toward wired. Sleeping in such a comfortable bed after two days and nights in a train seat was a little disorienting, but it didn't take me long to fall asleep.

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