‘Twas not only cheaper ($214 round trip) but much less hassle - no shuttles, no parking, no lines, no security disrobing, no cramped seats - and about eight thousand times more interesting. True, it may have taken 18 hours but I’ve got more time than money these days so off I went.
Pre-trip, wondered if I should get a banjo, acquire a stick with a kerchief - perhaps rub charcoal on my face - in order to get hobo-ready. So, imagine my delight when the conductor of the California Zephyr made the the welcoming announcements over the intercom and ended with this:
“And if anyone is traveling with an instrument - banjo, guitar, harmonica, whatever - please come see me in the lounge. Don’t be shy.”Later that evening, a few musicians came out of the woodwork and took him up on the offer. A fellow near me played his base guitar and a handful of Amish girls showed up with their homemade harmonicas. It was quite the jam session. Now, when is that going to happen on a plane?
The passing countryside was so lovely - rolling green hills, quaint farms, small town, contented livestock - the backyards of America. With so many storms lately, everything was an intense emerald hue. Puffy white clouds dotted perfect blue skies over field after field of head-high corn. Later, we were treated to thunder and lightening - always dramatic over the plains.
The experience is vastly different than the shuttles, crowds, lines and tight spaces of air travel. You do not have to remove your shoesbeltsjackethat and such. You merely step on board, find a seat and settle in. The steady vibration and passing scenery make for ideal travel; it felt more like an adventure, as opposed to just being herded.
The freedom of mobility is a key selling point here. Not only do you have outrageous leg room compared to a plane - not to mention foot and leg support - but you are not trapped. Sit in your seat. Don’t sit in your seat. Take a walk. Sit in another empty seat. Whatevs. As long as you know where you are supposed to be at sleepy time, you’re on your own.
I met so many people - a couple of teachers on vacation from Sacramento riding across the country. He was going to see his 93-year-old mother for the first time in three years. A young mother with two young daughters, headed off to visit the grandparents; her husband is, meanwhile, riding his motorcycle, headed for the same destination.
On the ride home, I met man traveling with his wife and son. Although his job was secure (nursing home), he was worried about the economy. So many of his friends have been laid off at Caterpillar and he wasn’t sure that Obama could help.
Then there were the smattering of crazy people who had just completed Southern Iowa’s Ragbrai, the longest, largest and oldest touring bicycle ride in the world. After a week on their bikes, the group had toured across approximately 500 miles of gorgeous countryside, which was not always flat.
One Ragbrai couple told me that the cyclists were greeted enthusiastically by every small Iowa town they passed through. “Every single town would roll out the carpet,” she said. “One day, I ate homemade pie three times.”
On the trip home, I also tested out the dining car. If you are alone, you are seated with other loners. I ended up across from the Ragbrai couple and an older gentleman who openly missed the class and elegance of earlier train travel. He was hard of hearing so we all had to yell over our Spinach Lasagna. Still, we younger folks sat captivated by his stories of chandeliers and mahogany walls. When the meals arrived on thin cheap plates, he almost whimpered.
I met another older gentleman named Don, who lives in Dallas. He had been traveling by train for a few weeks alone, just seeing the country. You could tell that he was thirsting for adventure, despite being timid in the past, and was perhaps trying to make up for lost time.
On the trip out, I hung out a lot in the lounge, where seats - one, two and three together - faced outward to the passing countryside. People sat and talked quietly or read. There are also tables where families played cards or board games. One guy sat at his laptop, iPod buds stuffed in his ear.
I also hung out down in the snack bar area where Frank - the snack bar guy - ruled the roost. He was funny and playful and passengers loved him. When his break came, Frank held court had told story after story of life on the train.
So, I’m in the snack bar lounge and working on a presentation and I call out a plea to the general population: “Anyone good with numbers?”
The next thing you know, I am surrounded by folks of all ages, wondering who I am, what I am working on and why I am worrying about math when we are crossing the glorious Mississippi River, fer chrissakes. My favorites were two young boys - Robbie and Chad. They were polite, funny and amazingly self-aware. When we asked one of them his age, he giggled. “Well,” he said with a gleaming mouth silver with dental correction, “I’m 14 but I look 10. I’m short for my age.”
He seemed okay with this. “It has its advantages. Sometimes, it means I can still act like a 10-year-old and get away with it.” What a savvy little shit, I thought. I listened to him openly discuss how he hates his stepmother, step-siblings and vice-versa. Having been through that experience at his age, my heart hurt for him. “She’s really mean to me and calls me names when my dad isn’t around,” he explained.
I made friends with a truly funny couple sitting behind me and together, we were peppering the boys with questions. “What do you guys want to be when you grow up? I’m still looking for ideas myself.”
The young/old boy said, “I want to be a psychologist so I can help people with their problems. I’ve been through a lot and I think I could understand.” Dang. He seemed awfully mature for a short teenager.
Yup, no shortage of stories on the train. Hearing that whistle throughout the day and night pleases me to no end. When Johnny Cash sings, “I hear that train a’ callin’” I understand completely. It’s a pull, a real tug to the road and it promises all kinds of things you’ve never seen or heard or experienced before, plus a bunch of quirky characters. It’s irresistible.
Some folks may play recordings of ocean waves or babbling brooks to lull them to sleep, but I think for me it would be train whistles.