Notes from a train trip past

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that this was the first year in a while that I wasn’t heading out to San Francisco on the train to Macworld. I love traveling by train. In a time when moments to yourself to simply stop and think are almost nonexistent, two and a half days on a train is an amazing luxury.

Here is my journal from my very first trip on California Zephyr in January 2003. I hope you enjoy it.

January 3rd, 2003…..

I’d estimate that I’m writing this to you moving at about 80mph. I’m about 10 to 15 feet off the ground. I’ve got my feet up and I’ve got a big smile on my face. I’m traveling west. Today is Friday. I won’t reach my destination until Sunday… maybe. I’ve been told that when traveling like this I need to be flexible. And that’s what it’s all about, taking my time and enjoying the ride. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m on the train. But not any ol’ Metra or South Shore or anything like that. I’m on the California Zephyr, and I’m traveling first class. My steward Julius has already stopped by to show me how everything works in my room, yes I said room. It’s a small room, but certainly big enough for a large man like me to stretch out, recline my seat, put my feet up on the seat facing me and shake my head at the idea of cramming myself into an airplane coach seat. I handed Julius a crisp twenty to set the tone and he’s been very attentive ever since. Great guy with a booming laugh. We’re going to get along just fine.

Besides a short ride to Minneapolis with my family when I was 11 years old, this is my first time on Amtrak. And when I was 11, I certainly didn’t have my own room. Nope it was a coach seat for eight hours. And I’ve ridden trains in Europe. They have great trains there, but I’ve never been in a sleeper car before. My only experience with train sleeper cars has been through the movies. North by Northwest is one of my favorites. There’s a great scene in Eva Marie Saint’s sleeper car when Cary Grant, who has been hiding from the police in her room, asks her if she isn’t a little afraid at the idea of being alone with a fugitive from justice. “I’m a big girl,” she replies matter of factly. “Yes,” says Cary in his signature rhythm, “and in all the right places.” You can see how a fan of the old movie classics like myself would have to take a long train trip sooner or later.

I was wondering what traveling by train would be like, not really on the train, but getting on the train. I’ve been in airports all over the world and there’s always a sense of urgency, or rushing or some other unpleasant emotion. Inching through the ever growing lines, cleaning the floor as you kick your bags toward the ticket agent a few inches at a time. Then there is the security. It’s really insane now, there’s no other way to describe it. Frankly, I’d rather take my chances with a few angry terrorists than go through the humiliating process of the new and improved search. Shoes off? C’mon. One idiot has a bomb in his shoes and then next thing you know we’re cleaning the security area floor with our socks. Airports are getting cleaner, but I don’t care. There’s still a better chance of me getting hit by a CTA bus than being on a hijacked airplane. The terrorists know it too and they’re laughing their asses off watching us kill the airline industry in the name of perceived safety. Planes are like anything else. If they really want to attack a plane, they’ll find a way. And it won’t have anything to do with shoes.

So I arrive at Union Station about an hour and a half before my train is scheduled to leave. I walk up to the baggage counter. Exactly one person is in line ahead of me. I check one bag. No “did anyone besides yourself pack you bags?” questions. Just a smile and a point to the direction of the check-in counter. Since I’m traveling first class, the check-in counter is through a set of doors that only people with sleeper tickets can access. I walk up to what only can be described as a maitre’d desk, no line, and hand him my ticket. He hand writes out my boarding pass and tells me to have a seat in the lounge. Now the Metropolitan Lounge is no spa or anything like that. The furniture is fairly mismatched and there isn’t really enough of it since there are two trains leaving at nearly the same time. So I pull up my briefcase to a vacant area and have a seat. Once the other train boards, I grab a comfy chair. They say that train travelers are friendlier than plane travelers and there is probably a reason for that. People on planes are pretty much in bad moods, just trying to get through the next few hours. Train people are in it for the long haul. They’re more relaxed and smile more. Is it because they know something the plane people don’t know? An older woman strikes up a conversation with me. That’s never happened to me in an airport waiting area. Before I know it, I can tell you she’s from Denver, is originally from Nebraska where her brother still lives, is afraid that Denver’s new billion dollar airport might feel the affects of United Airline’s bankruptcy because United uses Denver as a major hub and that she has been riding the train for about 15 years. And it’s not the creepy too much information kind of conversation. It’s just… pleasant.

A conductor walks around the room to ask who is on Train 5. I raise my hand when he is is nearby, he checks my ticket to make sure I’m where I should be and tells me they’ll be boarding in a few minutes. So I finish up my conversation with my friend from Denver and get up when they call the boarding time. And here’s yet another difference. There’s no “people on United flight 235 to hell in rows one through five can board now” nonsense, it’s just “people with tickets for the California Zephyr, please proceed to the boarding area. No fewer than four Amtrak employees help everyone navigate through a few passages to track 20. There I walk along the train until I find car 531. Even though I haven’t been on an Amtrak train in almost 30 years, I’m swept up in the spirit and somehow instruct a group how to identify the train car that matches their boarding pass. Amazing.

As I approach my car, a man who will later turn out to be my man Julius, looks at my boarding pass and tells my to go up the stairs and down to the end to room ten. Easy enough. I really don’t know what to expect. I’ve spent weeks trying to guess what my room will look like. I sit on the bus on the way home from work, which seems to me to be close to as wide as a train and try to figure out how big my room will be. I’ve seen the diagrams on the Amtrak web site, but you can never tell from those things. I figure since my room is one of the smaller sleepers, it’s probably not like Eva Marie Saint’s room where the narrow aisle is on one side of the train and her room is the whole other side. I’m guessing my sleeper car has an aisle in the middle with rooms on either side. I’m right. The best way I can describe my room is this. I’m very happy when I first see it. It’s really not much bigger than two large chairs facing each other, and there’s no sink or bathroom or anything like that. To have my own bathroom would have doubled the cost of my ticket. Not worth it. But when I travel by plane, I’m used to sitting in the smallest seat I’ve ever been in since elementary school. These sleeper car seats are roomy. As big or bigger than first class on a plane. Nice. As Julius explained to me, both facing seats fold down to become my bed. Once it’s down, it will pretty much take up the whole room. Reminds me of a room I once had on the Greek Island of Santorini. I’ve got another bed above my head, but I won’t be needing that one. I will be traveling to California, and I’ll be comfortable.

The sun is setting now and the sky is beautiful. This is what the plane people call flyover country. From 15 feet, I call it tranquil. Another gentleman has come by to take my reservation for dinner tonight in the dining car. I’ve chosen 7:45. I’m having the salmon. There will be two movies tonight in the lounge car. I haven’t decided whether I’ll catch the second one or not. I have three DVD movies that I brought with me that I can watch on my computer, but it seems wrong to sit in my room on the train all night. We’ll see how crowded it is. I suspect the second movie will not be as full. Did I mention that the sky is so lovely it hurts?

I’m curious to learn about train etiquette. I have a sliding door on my room that I’ve chosen to keep open. My neighbors across the hall, George and his wife whose name escapes me at the moment, have chosen to close theirs. And they’ve drawn the curtain. Call me an exhibitionist. When I walk to the dining car I’ll find out what my other neighbors are doing. I can hear the train whistle blowing up ahead in the distance. We’re passing through a small town as lights begin to turn on in the occasional farm house we pass.

I’ll admit I was working right up until the moment I left the house today. I was preparing some video for the Macworld Expo that I’m speaking at. Looking at the clock, wondering if the DVD I was burning was going to finish on time. More of that just-in-time-crap. It did and here I am. I’ll probably check it on my computer before I get to San Francisco, but for some reason I don’t feel like watching it yet. I still have some work to prepare before I get there, but I have three days. No need to rush into it now. I’ve actually got quite the technology set up here. I’ll be finishing up work on two Apple “switch” commercials I shot for fun. If you haven’t seen Apple’s switch campaign, it’s a series of spots where a single person on a white sweep talks about how they switched from a windows computer to a mac. Some of them are pretty funny. I decided to make one of my own talking about how I switched from the Avid computer film editing software that I’ve used for the last ten years to Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing software. I did it just for laughs, but apparently Apple wants to see it. Could be cool. I just have to do some color correction and general clean up work on it, and of course I’ll be able to do it all in my room. I checked before I got on the train and I didn’t even have to get a special power adapter. There is a regular ol’ AC outlet right in my room. Good. Because I have a computer, two hard drives and a digital camera that have to eat too. With this setup, I can edit the roughly 10 hours of DV footage I have with me. Sweet.

I also have to prepare a few things for my talk on Thursday. I’m on a panel talking about how you can use Final Cut Pro and DV to cut films and television commercials and whatever else you want to do. No longer do you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more to tell your story. It’s like the invention of the printing press. More voices being able to speak in the language of the day. I’m the vice president of the Chicago Final Cut Pro Users Group and it’s been a lot of fun, and a lot of work, but a very rewarding thing to do. I’m told Apple is going to roll out the red carpet for me because of my work as a big time film editor and my evangelizing of their product in my industry. We’ll see. I’m just happy to be speaking at MacWorld. I’ve been very excited about it for some time. I built a few extra days into my vacation, so I could relax a little after all the gear-head fun. I was originally planning to drive down the coast and visit some friends in Los Angeles. But about a week ago, I was looking at a map, trying to figure out where exactly I was going to drive when I spotted something on the map about two inches to the right of San Francisco. Yosemite National Park. I’m 38 years old and I’ve never been to a national park. I’ll admit that once I started traveling to Europe, I’d become a little bit of a snob about domestic travel. I’ve been all over the country, but mostly for business. This would be a great way to rediscover that there are some pretty cool places to visit without flying over the ocean.

Yosemite is like Ansel Adams’ backyard too. I figured that maybe it might be a good time of year to go. I’m sure it’s never really empty there, but it’s definitely off season. I love going to places off season. So a little more web research and I’m making my reservations. I’l be staying at the National Historical Landmark Ahwahnee Hotel, deep in the center of Yosemite Valley. I’m not a snow guy, in fact I really hate winter as a rule, but the pictures of this place, tucked under the shadow of a stunning snow covered mountain really have me excited. I’m really looking forward to unwinding after my exciting Apple week with a few days of hanging out in the great room near the fire and doing a little exploring of Ansel’s country with my best camera.

What makes it a little more exciting is that it can be a little dangerous this time of year. Now I know I’m a beginner of the national park in the middle of winter thing, so I’m not going to be stupid. I’ve seen the movie of the week where the people slide off the road and are trapped, never to be seen again. I’ve seen Misery. I have plenty of things left to do before I go. There will be no stupid solo trail blazing. But there will be some exploring, and I can’t wait. I’ll be seeing landscape I’ve only seen in beautiful black and white photos. And they’ll be black and white in person too because it’s the middle of winter. Trees heavy with snow. Mountains on a scale I’ve never experienced before. And a warm cozy room to dry off in at the end of the day. Now I’m not sure which of my two weeks I’m most excited about.

Speaking of cameras, one of the new features of all this security at the airports is that it’s almost impossible to get film through the checkpoints without having to run it through an x-ray machine. I usually put several dozen rolls in lead bags and run it through the carry on x-ray machine because it had traditionally been a smaller dosage of x-ray than checked baggage which I guess really gets blasted. If someone saw my lead bag in the x-ray monitor, they usually just asked me to open it up so they could see that it was indeed film. These days however, forget it. If they see a lead bag, they make you run everything through, making you take the film out of the protection. They tell you it won’t hurt the film, but x-rays are cumulative, and they’ve turned up the x-ray dosage as well. After they recently made me run unprotected film through the machine last May, I simply threw it in the garbage on the other side. If I’m going to go though the trouble of making a beautiful photograph, it’s just not worth it to risk shooting with compromised film.

Ask me how my film is on this trip. Go ahead. Ask me. It’s fine, because I didn’t walk through one security checkpoint to get to the train. You may call that scary, but I call it refreshing. I feel more like Cary Grant already. You think they made Ansel Adams run his glass negative plates through an x-ray machine? I think not.

Julius is riding me about working on my computer every time he passes, so perhaps it’s time to take a break. It’ll be dinner time soon anyway. Life feels peaceful at the moment.

from somewhere traveling through the night,


Janurary 4th, 2003…

Holy crap, it’s beautiful out here. I’m actually writing in the dark this time because we’re traveling through a six mile tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. I just came back from the observation lounge. It’s a tall car with windows floor to ceiling, including part of the ceiling. We’ve been winding back and forth slowly climbing the trail cut into the rock. I swear if there wasn’t glass in front of me I could reach out and touch the face of the rock. We are close. I’ve been trying to take a few pictures with a digital camera that Mark Johnson has lent me for the trip. They’re through glass and we’re moving pretty quickly at times, so we’ll have to see how I’ve done a little later.

Very interesting. The tunnel basically goes though the continental divide. It was starting to snow on the east side, but there really wasn’t much snow on the ground. But on the other side. It’s winter over here now. And it is beautiful. This ride just keeps getting better.

I woke up this morning a little before six and shuffled on down to the bathroom in the dark. Julius was already up getting everything ready for the day. He must not get much sleep.

Speaking of sleep. It’s taking a little while to get used to sleeping on a moving train. I was imagining a gentle rolling back and forth and a clickety clack that would lull me to a sound slumber. Not exactly. One of the differences between some trains in Europe and America is that Amtrak runs on tracks that belong to heavy freight lines. They don’t have their own tracks, so consequently, it can feel a little like the local lanes of the Dan Ryan after a long winter. When our train hits an uneven section of track at 80 plus mph, you feel it in your little bed. I feel sorry for the poor bastards on the lower level. But I did okay. I’m sure I’ll do better tonight.

Dinner was good last night. I sat across from a couple that had just graduated from college. He’s a writer who works at a Wide Cave National Park in South Dakota in the summer months. She is an elementary school music teacher. Cool to find arty folks on the train. Not really a surprise I guess. And just like in the movies, there was an Amish couple sitting across the aisle. Good skin. Must be that clean living. After dinner I walked back to the observation lounge and caught the last 20 minutes of E.T.. The little guy still chokes me up.

It’s hard not to just keep staring out the window at the mountains, frozen creeks and forests of bare trees and pines. Lunch is being served in about 10 minutes. I’m already hungry. I guess Breakfast was six hours ago. I walked down to the dining car a little after six in the morning and who did I find in the near empty car, but Bobbi from Denver who I met in the lounge in Chicago. Small train.

Back from lunch. Had a particularly good caesar salad and apple berry cobbler. The food is actually pretty good. And it’s nice to eat off of real plates. Sat with a retired couple married 50 years. They’ve had some adventures. Mig was on an old Dike Van Dyke quiz show in the 50s when TV was still live. Jim’s been all over too and they are heading back home to San Francisco. One of my favorite stories of theirs was the two of them battling one of those big forest fires when they were younger. They went to go volunteer to make sandwiches for the firefighters and they next thing you know they’re in the thick of it. They were great tour guides while we were eating because they have a little cottage at one of the stops we just passed. We’re basically traveling along the Colorado River from where it begins and it’s great to see it developing as we proceed. I’m taking pictures out the window again, but I don’t think it will do justice to what my eyes are seeing. We’ll see. The snow that was everywhere on the immediate west side of the Rockies seems to be gone now.

I’ve been noticing little sets of footprints in the snow along the banks of the river. A precarious balancing act if you ask me. Deer? Elk? Sasquach? Probably a little too dainty for him.

I’ve done no work since I got on this train. Amazing. Got everything set up, but been too busy enjoying the ride. Something occurs to me. This train trip is flying. Over half way there and I don’t want it to end. Maybe I’ll get some work done when the sun goes down and I can’t stare out the window anymore. Man, these mountain ranges are getting huge.

Julius is at it again. I gave him another twenty this morning after he made up my room. The guy works hard. I found three Pepsis (where the hell do you put the apostrophe on that one?) sitting on my chair when I got back. I asked him for one this morning and he’s apparently been hoarding them for me. I guess they go pretty quickly on the train.

Along the gorgeous Colorado River,


January 5th, 2003…

Well, in another hour or so, we’ll be pulling into San Francisco. What a great ride it’s been. If you ask me if I’d do it again, the answer is yes. Of course I’ll get to do it again in two weeks when I go home, but even beyond that. It’s been great fun. This has been everything that plane travel isn’t. And conversely it’s been nothing like plane travel has become. No long waits in security checkpoints, no feeling like cattle being herded to the slaughter. No buh-bye, buh bye now, buh bye. I have been waited on by the nicest group of people. I can’t say enough about the service. It’s true they’re holding some of the trains together with duct tape, but they make sure everything is perfect and so you don’t care. Really. It’s everything flying should be and hasn’t been for years.

I had breakfast with a guy from San Jose who’s been out of work for about a year now. It’s been brutal there. Turns out the company he owned back in the 80s painted all the original Macintoshes. Yep, apparently Steve Jobs didn’t like the color of the plastic when it came out of the mold, so Fernando painted it the color Steve wanted it to be. If you have an original Macintosh, you own some of Fernando’s work.

I slept great last night. Maybe I just got used to the motion, or maybe it was because I drifted off to sleep listening to my iPod. Whatever it was, I slept like a baby. Up at 5:30 in time to watch a few of the planets keep up with us in the last of the night sky. So many stars out the window. Speaking of stars, a woman sitting across the aisle from me at lunch writes astronomy software. She’s from New York. I’ve met more cool people in that dining car.

We’re really flying now. We’re a little over an hour behind schedule and it looks like we’re trying to make up some of it on this last leg. Right around the Utah/Nevada border we had to creep along at 10 miles an hour for a few miles because of a speed restriction by the freight line that owns the tracks. Lost a lot of time there. It’s really too bad Amtrak is at the mercy of the freight rails. If they had their own, the on time problems would probably be eliminated to a great extent.

Today we went through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Just as beautiful as the Rockies. Maybe even more so. We just kept winding along these snow covered ledges, cut into the sides of the mountains. It really was like all those Amtrak print ads you used to see of a train gliding through beautiful scenery. Where’s all the advertising now? I should really do something about that. I tried to take a few more pictures out the window. I hope they turn out. Unfortunately I discovered yesterday that all the pictures I’ve been taking are at a medium resolution instead of the high resolution I was hoping for. Oh well. They’ll be fine for the web and email or small prints. I’ll try to edit the best of them together and send them on in the next few days.

A guy named Fredrick just poked his head in my room to see my setup. He says he’s been walking past watching me work for the past few days. Yeah, I’m still the exhibitionist passenger. Most people close their doors or pull the curtains, but that seems so anti-social. I’ve got locks on everything though, just in case, but really, the people on this train don’t seem to be the thieving type. Better safe than sorry though . So I just did a demo of a portable editing system at 80mph. I love that.

Better start packing up my home. I’ve really grown to love this room.

somewhere between Sacramento and San Francisco,


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2 thoughts

  1. Nice writing Billy, almost like being on the train with you.

    Really made me want to book the next train out. I am not sure traveling with a 2 yo would be quite as peaceful. But you never know.

    I would love to see the stars from the observation car from the middle of the U.S. with no light pollution to block it particularly in August when the meteor showers are coming in.

    My Amtrack experiences have been briefer. A 5 hour trip to St. Louis that turned into 12 because of an ice storm which was a nightmare because the train was not equipped to handle the needs of the passengers for that long, though they did thier best, and my ride was desperate to leave St. Lois for Mobile to get ahead of the Ice Storm.

    And Commuter trips between DC and Baltimore when it was more convenient to fly out of Baltimore when doing talks at my annual meeting in DC. Nothing so sexy as Final Cut Pro in DV, but I did have some snazzy Arc View GIS maps on occaision to show off.

    You ever need to sell an old copy, just let me know we can work out a deal, one that will run on a G4. The 1/2 basketball….

    With PDF I have a lot of movie footage to edit and need something a little more robust though not necessarily HDV since I’m not shooting in that.

    I at least have this advantage, I did have the luck to drive both a CTA bus and TRAIN before this neck injury kicked in. (Been a year now and still no solution.)

    Yep, me and Rosemont Yards and 8 cars of glory. It was a short ride, but I done it. Woo-hoo. Drove one of the new low floor buses around the Chicago Garage campus and operated the lifts too. Ah, memories.

    If you want to see what I really did there, do a google search on my last name and my employer and most of my papers and talks will come up. I should do the same for you.

    Bet your list is longer. Have to admit to being a little jealous. Should have learned the editing skills. But have to admit, did a lot of good where I was.

    Back to the main point. I found your writing about the trip exceptional and fun to read. Now copy this post and delete it, I’ve got too much personal stuff in it. Revealed too many clues about who that Peter Guy is.

    Say, did you happen to read the Q section in the Trib on Easter? THe Challenge?

    Peter 3/28

  2. Amazing account
    I throughly enjoyed reading it and I am taking the California Zephyr soon


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