Amtrak Adventure 2004 part 1… NPR Foreshadowing

This morning I woke up to the sound of NPR on my clock radio and I smiled the kind of smile you do when you know it’s going to be a good day. Between snoozing and waking I heard about delays and flights being canceled at O’Hare and Midway due to the heavy fog. “Fog never stopped a train,” I thought to myself and smiled even more as I hugged the pillow even closer. As I lay there, listening to the latest about the suicide bombers in Iraq, a more domestic story caught my half asleep ear. The California Zephyr train that had been trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for 14 hours in a huge blizzard had finally made it through and was finishing it’s journey to California from Chicago.

Now I always thought that National Public Radio spoke to me in ways that the more mainstream news did not, but that was spooky. In a few hours, I would be heading downtown to Union Station to get on that very train to follow the Zephyr from two days before into the same snow covered mountains. Sometimes it’s not nice to smile at the misfortunes of the poor air travelers.

For some reason I called up a Denver NPR radio station on the internet and listened for a few minutes. I knew I would wake up tomorrow in Denver and thought I might see what frequency it was in case I wanted to listen to my usual morning show. When the weather came on, I had to laugh. Not only was I heading into the remains of a train stopping blizzard in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the announcer said there was a snow advisory for the Colorado Rockies tonight that we’re making our way toward. 12 to 18 inches. Could be an interesting trip.

Quite honestly though, that’s the mindset you have to get into when traveling by train. Now that I was a bit more of an expert at train travel, I was ready for anything. Still though, I have to say that taking a quick 15 minute taxi ride from my apartment in Lincoln Park to Union Station downtown is pretty relaxing compared to the same taxi ride to O’Hare that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. I’ve been in one of those hour and a half cab rides to O’Hare, forever glancing at my watch, and wondering what I was going to do when I missed my plane.

Once again, my departure was as smooth and as easy as it could have been. The same mere one person in front of me when I checked my larger bag at the Amtrak baggage counter instead of playing the kick the luggage game all over the floor at O’Hare while weaving through an unending line of grumpy air travelers.

No metal detector, no shoes off, no ruining my film with an x-ray machine. Well, technically I don’t have film with me on this trip because I’m shooting digital, but still. I didn’t have to worry about my smart cards getting reformatted. So there. No it was just a little wait in the Metropolitan Lounge, and then a walk down the length of the train to my sleeping car. It’s a long train. First the engine, then the baggage car, then my car, the first of two sleeper cars, then the dining car, the observation lounge, several coach cars and then the mail cars. It’s a looooonng train. And we left on time. No sitting on the tarmac waiting for clearance.

My little room this time is on the lower level. Room 14. The last time I rode on the upper level, so it will be interesting to see if there is any difference in the ride, especially at night when I’m trying to sleep. Last time, it took me a night to get used to the rocking back and forth, but by the second night, I slept like a baby. Maybe on the lower level, there will be less rocking.

It’s been gray and foggy all day, but as dusk begins to descend somewhere in western illinois, the fog has lifted and the clouds are thinning and I think we’re on our way into a beautiful sunset. I can see the mist gently hanging above the fields as the temperature begins to change for the evening.

I was hoping I’d get my same sleeping car attendant from the trip out west last year, Jullius, but no such luck. However, Issac seems like another great guy and as is customary for me, I slipped him a twenty as he was explaining the functions of my room. Jullius took great care of me last year after I did that and I’m sure Issac will as well. All these older guys have been working these trains for years and you just get a sense of history when you ride with them.

It looks like my traveling companions on this trip are the same mix of young and old. Across from me are a young Asian couple probably in their early twenties. They spent the first half hour of the trip giggling. Their door is closed now, so I can’t tell if it’s not funny anymore, or if they are simply giggling behind the glass.

I think there is a family in the room in front of mine. Lots of coming and going from at least one of the kids. Maybe it’s the same kid. I guess I don’t blame him. For a kid, being stuck on a train for two and a half days seems like it’ll be a million years before you get to California.

I put in my dinner reservation for 7:30 this evening. I always like to eat at that time on the train. They start serving dinner at five in the dining car, but I’m usually just not ready that early, even with the earlier to bed mode you get into when traveling by train. Sounds like some good choices for dinner tonight as well. The salmon dish sounded good.

Damn, I’m usually pretty good at not forgetting things on a trip like this, but this time I did. See I’m shooting digital this trip, but I wanted to mix a little of the real old with the brand new. One of the first methods of creating a photographic image was to use a box with a pinhole on one end of it and a piece of film or a photographic plate on the other. This week I bought a little pinhole cap that goes on the camera where the lens usually goes. It’s funny because it makes the camera look like it’s just the body without a lens, but there is the smallest little hole in the center of the cap. And because it’s so small, you don’t need a glass lens to focus the image on the film plane. You need to make longer exposure than usual because the amount of light coming into the camera is dramatically reduced, but it really makes an image. And the image has a sort of other world look about it as well. And speaking of other world, the pinhole cap is now sitting in another world, on my desk at home, because I was playing with it this morning and forgot to put it in my bag. Oh well. There are worse things I could have forgotten. I have the camera, the charger and the real lens, so I can still shoot and make very nice photographs. I was just looking forward to turning back the clock a little.

The sky has turned into a charcoal grey sketch. Long sweeping strokes of charcoal. Rather devoid of color. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it.

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