Riding the rails | AspenTimes.com

Riding the rails

Story and photos by John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Gazing out the rear, across the plains.
ALL | The Aspen Times

The trip did not begin on a hopeful note, to say the least.

My wife and I had opted to avoid the pandemonium of the nation’s airports over the Christmas holiday week, which we were to spend in Madison, Wis., visiting family, by taking the train instead. The vision was this: Hopping aboard Amtrak at Glenwood Springs early on a Saturday afternoon, we planned to be in Chicago by late afternoon the following day, where my brother would pick us up for the drive to Madison. Along the way we would experience a relatively relaxing and visually stunning ride through the majestic Rocky Mountains, across the unguessable vastness of the Great Plains and over the mighty Mississippi River.

The reality, however, turned out to be a little bit different.

First, the train arrived in Glenwood Springs at about 5 p.m., not 1:30 p.m. as advertised or even 2:30 p.m. as promised when we called to check. So, before we even set foot in our sleeper car, we were already three and a half hours late at the other end regardless of any intervening delays.

Plus, the eagerly awaited views on the way east through the mountains (I had seen them on a previous trip, my wife had not) would be cloaked in disappointing darkness. Luckily, it was a full-moon night, so if we turned out all lights in our “sleepette” cabin and pulled the hallway-door curtains tightly shut, we could see outside a ghostly version of the mountain vistas we had hoped for.

The same kind of scheduling foul-up unfortunately held true on the way home. The train left Chicago just a half-hour late, but was delayed by freight traffic clogging the rails across the plains and into Denver, and delayed even more on the trip through the mountains, with the net result that we arrived at about 5 p.m., again in the dark, instead of the scheduled 2 p.m.

Aside from the abject scheduling failures, though, the trip was a fine alternative to what a New Zealander we met on the train called the “cattle treatment” that characterizes airline travel in the United States.

Unlike the typically grumpy passengers on the sardine cans we call airplanes, rail passengers are almost universally friendly and eager to swap stories, especially at mealtime over shared tables.

At various points of the trip we chatted with:

– A microbiologist from California who is convinced that nuclear power will be the world’s salvation, thanks to his belief that nuclear fuel rods can be reprocessed and reused until they are down to a waste flow of roughly 1 percent of the original mass of the rods. He calls it illogical that we haven’t bothered mastering the reprocessing technology, which is more common elsewhere, due to fears of terrorist nuke thieves;

– A young farmer turned law school graduate from Nebraska, who still works his family farm on weekends and represents neighborhood farmers in their fight to hold onto their land in the face of intense pressure from out-of-state corporate interests;

– A Montana salesman of windows and doors for luxury homes, whose wife is expecting their first child and who is thinking about moving to her home state of Oklahoma because of the rising cost of land and everything else in Montana.

– A journalist from Colorado Springs, Colo., traveling with his adult autistic son to visit family in Kentucky, who publishes a weekly newspaper and a somewhat monthly magazine on black culture in Colorado’s history and development.

The talk ranged across the spectrum of American political and social life.

The window salesman decried efforts by environmentalists in Montana to push hunters out of the woods and reintroduce wolves and grizzlies into lands cleared of such predators a century ago by local ranchers.

The microbiologist was scathingly critical of the current Bush administration’s policies, domestic and foreign, and loudly wondered how we would survive the degradation of everything from water and air quality to the lack of availability of well-made goods and the huge burden of debt our nation carries thanks to the Iraq war.

The farmer-turned-lawyer was essentially accepting of the influx of corporate money gobbling up farmland in his state, but paradoxically saddened by the loss of individual family farms, which he said now control only about 50 percent of the arable land in Nebraska.

Crossing some of the plains at night on the eastbound leg, we saw considerable acreage in Iowa and, as we eased across an ancient trestle bridge over the Mississippi, watched two Bald Eagles fishing the frigid waters just south of the rail line.

On the train itself, the accommodations were a bit worn out, and the train ran out of food in Iowa. First an unknown number of passengers were told there was no more breakfast to be had, and then lunch was canceled until some beef stew was found that could be heated up and dumped on a plateful of rice.

On the trip back, we decided to ride a Chicago Transit Authority commuter line from the Illinois-Wisconsin line into Chicago’s Union Station. This two-hour run provided us with some entertaining views of the backside of several of Chicago’s northwestern suburbs, and was proof positive that rail travel, where offered, is a heavily used alternative to airplanes, cars and buses.

For the homeward leg on Amtrak, it was the Mississippi crossing that happened in darkness. And although considerable snow had been dropped by a passing storm during the week we spent in Wisconsin, none was falling as we whispered our way west. The train kicked up its own wake of blowing snow, however, that blended with the white drifts and fields further off. The mostly clear sky, with a three-quarter moon, allowed glimpses even at night of the seemingly limitless farming terrain interspersed with tiny, sometimes sad-looking hamlets with thrift stores, bars and pawn shops.

While the food was plentiful and fairly tasty for the return trip, we apparently had a born-again Puritan for a conductor. He repeatedly warned passengers that “this is a family-oriented train,” and any transgressions of his rather strict definition of proper behavior would be dealt with harshly.

Drink a little too much in the bar car and noisily let off a little steam? You’d be put off the train at the first opportunity.

Whether a consequence of drink or other causes, we were told more than once, cussing was not allowed, period, and the penalty was to be put off the train at the next stop. The same for trying to sneak a cigarette in an onboard bathroom ” off the train you’d go.

I asked if anybody had been kicked off, but was told that information was not available. I felt a bit like we were on a troop train bound for the front of some war, and the drill sergeants were getting in their last licks while they could.

As we left the plains behind, the Rockies rose from the snowy fields like a sugar-coated mirage, a vision that came upon us in the waxing light of a clear morning with just a hint of clouds to the west. But as the train labored up the hills and canyons into the foothills and beyond, the clouds closed in, and by Winter Park we were in a whiteout. Canyons and peaks were quite apparent at close range, but became vague and poorly outlined as they receded into the distance, and the snow was being whipped along in horizontal patterns.

We had heard tales of flight cancellations at Denver International Airport a couple of days earlier, and as the storm blustered its way eastward while we chugged westward, we were thankful beyond words that we had chosen to ride the rails.

I may never fly again.

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