Amtrak Adventure 2004 part 3… Pop Quiz!

Okay kids! Time for a rail adventure quiz! What’s the worst sensation to have when you wake up on a train heading from Chicago to San Francisco?

Motion sickness? Nope. Dehydration from the high altitudes? Nope. Give up?

It’s stillness. By that I mean no motion it all. You wake up from a sound sleep and realize you’re not getting tossed around in your little bed. You also realize that you’re not getting any closer to you destination. You have no idea how long the train has been sitting there. And you have no idea where you are. You look out the window and it’s pitch black. Maybe a tiny blinking light way, way off near the horizon, but other than that, no reference point of any kind.

That’s how I woke up this morning. It was 5am, a little earlier than I wanted to get up, but not too bad. It would give me a little time to head down to the restroom, wash up and get dressed before anyone else started moving on the train. Makes you first in line for breakfast when the dining car opens at 6:30. Not bad.

So I washed up, threw some clothes on and turned all the lights back off in my room to let my eyes get accustomed to the darkness again, thinking maybe I could see something that might give me a clue. I was pretty sure we had made it as far as Salt Lake City, Utah somewhere around 1:30am since Al and Nata, my dinner companions from the first night were missing from their room and that was their stop.

There should have been a stop in Nevada by this time, though. It’s too bad that the states aren’t red and blue like they are on TV during the elections results. Isn’t Dick Cheney from Utah? Definitely a red state. And then Nevada is blue, right? Any state with Las Vegas in it can’t be a red state. Half naked showgirls? C’mon! I knew I should have paid more attention to the big board on election night.

Of course the ground is covered with snow anyway, so I don’t know if I could make out blue or red even if the states were the color of their political leanings. But I was hoping we had made it to what I thought would be a blue state anyway. That means we wouldn’t be too far behind schedule.

5:30…. 6:00… still sitting there. I was beginning to worry that we might be experiencing another major delay like the fourteen hour delay the California Zephyr had experienced a few days earlier because of a blizzard in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Let’s see, if we were delayed fourteen hours, that would put me in San Francisco about 8am Monday morning. More or less on time for the first day of Macworld, but probably a little groggy. I would miss the dinner plans I had made with friends for Sunday evening unfortunately, but at least I would be there.

In the darkness, I started to wonder if it would be even longer. I really wanted to be in San Francisco by early Tuesday morning. You see, Apple nerds, and I’m counting myself as one of them, flock to San Francisco every January, much like the seals to Pier 39, to see our exalted leader tell us how our lives or going to be even more kick ass in the coming year. Steve Jobs, or The Steve, as I like to call him, gives a keynote address Tuesday morning and I have a press pass to get in this year, which would put me right up in front of the huddled masses, yearning to be free from the bland non-Mac world. Really, you’d think the Beatles had posthumously re-formed from the excitement in San Francisco the day The Steve speaks to us.

But as I sat in my darkened room on the motionless train, I grew concerned that the huddled masses might hear the words of The Steve without me… until… LURCH! The train began to move… slowly, but with each second we were closer to San Francisco than the second before.

At 6:28, I headed toward the dining car, where I might find some answers to exactly where we were in addition to a delicious breakfast. The dining car captain sat me at a table and within a minute, a group of ladies came in and were seated across the aisle, after a rather involved debate concerning who should have the inner seat because one of them was left-handed.

They too were trying to figure out where we all were and asked the dining car captain if he had any information. All he could tell us was that we were delayed in the night by a frozen switch and he really didn’t know exactly where we were. Hmmm. Well, that was better news than being delayed due to an avalanche near Donners Pass.

And I only bring up avalanche because when we passed through Denver and we all got morning papers, they said the snow was heavy enough for the avalanche warning to be “high.” So now we have a high avalanche condition to go along with our lovely Condition Orange or Burnt Siena or whatever the terror condition is these days. It’s a wonder we all get out of bed in the morning with all of our government provided daily frightening allotment, paid for with your tax dollars, I should remind you.

A nice couple about my age from Reno joined me at my table and the three of us, with my own sharply honed knowledge of western land formations and their much more useful local awareness, tried to figure out where we were as the sun started to peek up over the distant mountain range. The first question to be answered was, were we still in Utah or had we crossed over into Nevada? If I could have found a little cell phone service, I could have found our location on my fancy phone. But ironically, when you’re as far away from civilization as we were, this useful technological feature doesn’t work, just when you need it most. Oh well.

We were all hoping we had passed magnificent Elko Nevada which we should have made a stop at around 4am. That would mean we would be coming up on breathtaking Winnemucca Nevada any time. Of course, if we hadn’t made it to lovely and scenic Elko, we were at least three hours behind schedule, maybe more.

My delicious french toast (NOT freedom toast) arrived just as information was making it’s way through the dining car that we were indeed approaching the majestic and beautiful Elko Nevada. Oh, I kid. There’s not even a station in Elko. Just a length of chain-link fence that the passengers stand next to for, in this case, hours. It’s right next to Western Nevada Plumbing Supply. You can’t miss it.

So there it was. We were about three and a half hours late. As my Reno friends let out a disappointed sigh, I quickly pointed out that at least it was a fourteen hour delay. My belly was getting full of yummy french toast and I was optimistic. Plus, I knew I would get to see The Steve on Tuesday.

That is until an announcement came over the train’s intercom confirming for us that yes, we were three hours and fifteen minutes behind schedule, followed by a list of ETAs for the remaining stops. Okay, I thought. Not bad. “Unless,” the announcement continued, “the two areas of broken rails we were heading toward were not fixed by the time we got there. At which point there would be further delays.”

The overhead camera looking down at me pulled up into the air through the ceiling of the dining car and up and up still pointing down at the shrinking train as I screamed into the dark morning sky, “THE STEEEEEEEEEEEEVE!” You, know… like in the movies… when Captain Kirk yells up toward the sky, “KAAAAAHHHHHHNNNN!” Okay, I didn’t really yell that. But I’ve been on this train a while now, and your mind tends to get very imaginative this far into the trip.

But back to reality for a moment. A three or four hour delay is really not that bad when you consider that the trip is supposed to take more than 50 hours. What is that, maybe eight percent late?” A drop in the bucket really. As long as they get those rails fixed. And it’s Sunday, which means overtime for the rail workers who know they’re going to have to start paying off their Christmas credit card bills, and so they’re in a good mood to get the double-time and… well… I digress again.

I returned to my room and grabbed my laptop. After spending a bit of time on my room’s circuit breaker last night, Issac wasn’t able to get it working, so he let me charge it up in a nearby room that was empty for the moment. So I had no AC power, but at least I had a fully charged computer battery. A few clicks on the Energy Saver controls on the computer and I’d managed to double the battery time to almost four hours. Not bad. But I’ll probably scrimp a little and only include one image in this journal entry to conserve power.

As I discovered on last year’s Amtrak journey, one of my favorite experiences on board is eating with strangers at my table. I know that sounds a little weird, and I’ll admit, I’d probably not go for it back in Chicago, but on the train, it’s a great way to pass the time. You’ll remember that’s how Cary Grant met Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.

“I’m a big girl now,” she tells him after shrugging off the knowledge that he’s a fugitive from justice.

“Yes,” he responds in his characteristic rhythm, “and in all the right places.”

At lunch yesterday, I finally got a chance to really meet my Asian neighbors from across the sleeping car aisle. Their English was pretty entry level, but enough to have a limited exchange. Eddie and Yuka were traveling from New York to San Francisco by train and clearly were enjoying the sites. “Are those all…. cows?”, Yuka asked pointing out the window. I told her yes. “Even the white ones?”, as she pointed at the tan ones. Yep, even the white ones.

I told them I thought they were very brave to be taking a cross country trip and learning how to speak English along the way. Brave wasn’t exactly the word I wanted, but I was looking for an easy word to describe the concept of traveling in a country that, in my opinion is still a little awkward about dealing with Asian people who don’t speak english, even though Europeans who don’t speak english are somehow considered charming and exotic. I said I thought everyone should travel to get a better idea of the world around them, because it’s very easy to grow up in one city or one country and assume your way is the best way and everyone else is backward or strange.

And then, I just couldn’t resist getting a little political and mentioning that it disappointed me that President Bush never really traveled outside the United States before becoming president, a fact that is apparently well known in other countries because Yuka agreed, adding he didn’t even have a passport before the White House.

I said maybe we’d be able to vote him out of office this year, and they both nodded yes, and smiled. I’m not sure where in Asia they were from, because I’m too much of a round eye to know the subtle facial differences of eastern people, but as self appointed ambassador to anyone I meet from outside the US, I just like people to know that we don’t all agree with the policies of the current administration. I just can’t help myself.

Dinner turned out to be far less political. John and Amy were a couple from Sacramento, he a camera operator and she an accountant who had recently started their own film and video equipment rental business. They were traveling home after visiting Washington DC, New York and Chicago. John said he was never really comfortable in New York, preferring the cleaner and friendlier Chicago. They said they only spent a little time in Chicago, but really liked it and looked forward to a trip back, perhaps as part of a plan to visit all the major league ballparks.

…And we were off! I love talking about old ballparks and growing up loving baseball as a kid, and the three of us had a great time talking about owners and the new stadiums and minor league ball, because Sacramento has a Triple-A Oakland A’s team there. Surprisingly, John was a White Sox fan along with being a Dodgers fan, and we shared a hero in Hall of Famer, Carlton Fisk.

Because of our industry connection, the conversation turned to great baseball films like Bull Durham, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. And we talked about new movie technology comparing High Definition Television to Film. I think we were genuinely sad to see the meal come to an end.

And now, as we continue the journey toward California, we have only the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains and some broken rails between us and the seals of Pier 39.

In the Nevada Foothills,

Billy

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