Ed Colby: Tales from the rails
May 28, 2002
Linda doesn’t fly, but her sister Donna Lou won’t budge. That’s why we took the train to California.
Coach class was cheap. A sleeper is an extra 600 bucks, but we’re budget travelers. The cars were maybe 20 percent full.
The scenery was stunning, and not always what we expected. We left parched Colorado two weeks ago in a dust storm. The next morning we awoke in eastern Nevada, where the Humboldt River overflowed its banks, and snow lay deep in the Ruby Mountains.
The passengers, even New Yorkers, were mostly friendly in a folksy, Midwestern way. And why not? It was a train ride, not a plane ride. “Getting there” wasn’t necessarily a punishment to be endured. It was part of the fun.
And the staff? Amtrak employees could be friendly and helpful, if they were in the mood.
Linda likes to eat early, so at dinner, we were the first seated. When our server came to take our orders, Linda said, “You guys go first. I’ll order last.” She always does this. The waitress wasn’t hearing it. She said, “I’ll be back” and moved on to another table – all the other tables, as a matter of fact. I said to Linda, “She’ll have you trained by breakfast.”
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Linda and I both ordered the “Penne Pasta.” Linda took a bite. “Chef Boy Ardee would be proud,” she said.
We shared our table with a retired Danish couple. They ate steak. We looked out the window at grazing antelope, and the Danish gentleman said, “What are those?” When I explained, he said, “Can you eat them?” Later he chuckled as Linda probed with her fork at the Amtrak Signature Dessert.
If you’re ever on the train late at night, and you must eat, there is the lounge car. Just stay away from the microwaved White Castle cheeseburger mini-twin-pack. Also the “veggie” sandwich.
We might sound picky, but we’re really not.
What we are is quick learners. Nobody minds if you pack a lunch, so when we left Sacramento for San Francisco, on the second leg of our journey, we did just that. I prepared turkey sandwiches with fresh spinach on locally baked, garlic-and-sourdough bread, seasoned with Dijon mustard and a secret homemade sauce. Donna Lou packed fruit bars, apples and oranges. We left this lunch on her kitchen counter.
On the way out, Linda mentioned that there was no smoking car, and that was how we met the eavesdropping, barefoot little waif sitting next to us in the observation car. “I’m a smoker,” she announced, but we learned that what she meant was “I’d kill for a smoke.” She was barely 20. She’d been a student at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. She was moving to Santa Cruz to live with her boyfriend, for whom she pined. We never learned her name but referred to her simply as “the smokah from Naropah.”
At the station in Emeryville, Calif., we boarded for the return trip along with a most unusual couple. At first I took the slight, dark young man for a Vietnamese peasant, newly arrived in America. Seriously. He wore sandals, black pajama-style pants, an off-white muslin “blouse,” and a conical straw hat with a chin strap. But he was Caucasian. His striking companion, also Caucasian, wore a similar outfit, minus the hat. An elaborate tattoo climbed up her back and stretched across her neck. Her jet-black hair lay stacked in twin swirls on top of her head.
Linda threw them a glance and said, “Berkeley.” I said, “Princess Leah. Ho Chi Minh.” Linda said, “Ed, watch it!” She gave me a look.
The cars sway on the track, and you learn to bend your knees and rock when you walk – like a sailor. The sun sets and the moon rises, illuminating an alien world. You clatter through twinkling little towns, and you don’t even know their names. A stranger boards in the middle of the night. The conductor nods as he makes his appointed rounds. All through the night, the clickety clack. Always the clickety clack.
This is not efficiency. This is romance.
Just don’t forget to pack a lunch.
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