Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Exactly in that Order

ZEPHYR:  As found in the book “Headwaters of the Mississippi” by Willard W Glazer, 1901

“Other roads do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveler to stare at her, but the river steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion, silently creating and adorning it, and is as free to come and go as the zephyr.” Henry David Thoreau

The California Zephyr, Amtrak’s answer to the trains of yesteryear…….well actually, Amtrak’s train OF yesteryear if we were to get technical about it but that’s further along in the tale.

My master plan with Cousin Claire had been to very elegantly converge in Portland, amble downtown to Union Station, board the Eastbound Empire Builder and strike out for Wisconsin, alighting, again with some degree of bygone elegance, right in downtown La Crosse, Claire’s hometown and as well the genesis point for our mothers’ family as well.

Best laid plans. It bears repeating:

“Other roads do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveler to stare at her, but the river steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion….”

More like Nature does some violence to other roads, really.  A chance article in the Oregonian (yes, there are many reasons to still read an actual print and ink paper) a few days before our scheduled departure threw us into last minute disarray.  The Empire Builder, facing massive spring rains and winter runoffs, was underwater through much of North Dakota and not expected to be up and running anytime soon.  The river had, in fact, “stolen into the scenery” but NOT without intrusion.

Footnote: July 15…Empire Builder finally is back online

We leapt into internet and phone action and found a comparable Roomette on the California Zephyr leaving the Bay Area with almost the same departure and arrival times only ending us up in Chicago.  Booked.  Last minute plane for me to Oakland and off we go.

Boarding the train in Emeryville, CA was simple, efficient and strangely “foreign” in feel and look.  No security, to TSA, just a platform and our luggage and real honest to goodness porter!

Our cabinette, in the last car of the train, was something of a shock to us as we had taken the video on the Amtrak site at their word and were expecting a spacious seating are replete with lounging characteristics, foot room and stunning views.

It was scary small, even to Claire.  AT 6’4” I am somewhat used to having my space sensibilities challenged on a regular basis but at 5’ something Claire manages to navigate the world in a somewhat more spacious regime.  Even she had an expression of mild horror and dread upon her face as we both had the same thought simultaneously; “I’m spending the next 2 ½ days in this CLOSET with him/her???”

After stashing our  required, at-hand, necessities (and by stash I mean stuff into nooks and crannies, hang from bags slung on the walls and generally pack in about our persons like and Allied Van Lines moving van), we explored the rest of our new world and found we could adapt quite well.

We had an actual dining car with white linens and liveried staff, a domed Vista View lounge car with card tables and cocktails, a shower and bath just down the hall…our world was looking tolerable if not exotically challenging!

We settle in, negotiating the placement of our feet across the “aisle” by wedging them onto the others’ chair and snuggle in for the changing vista out our window.  We passed through the familiar territories of the Bay Area, Carquinez Straight, Suisun Bay and out into the central valley through Davis and into Sacramento.  The stops were brief, the narrative for the trip provided by our room attendant (things were looking definite up in this department) Dennis.  He kept us well prepped as to smoke stops and non smoke stops, snatched the newcomers and their belonging aboard and kept us very much on schedule.  In addition, Dennis was funny, bright, quick with the witticisms and handsome as all getout.  He had been on Amtrak fro 29 years! He is one of their treasures.

After chugging along through most of California we began to climb into the Sierras and the train trip began in earnest.  The scenery amped up, the cocktails went down and our general demeanor became one of travelers together on an adventure.  Magic!

The dining car was just as I had remembered an attempt at elegance while wobbling along over hill and dale.  Shared table led to interesting meeting with fellow travelers, their stories as reasons for training as varied as one would expect, from the fear of flying phobics to the couple who, having retired from 25 years with Amtrak, were training back to New York and boarding the Queen Mary to return home to England from whence they came decades ago.  One last train trip and a ship journey home would echo the exact way they had arrived in our country and made their way to Seattle, their home for the last 25 years.

And the REAL bonus, we discovered that our train fair INCLUDED ALL MEALS!!!  Now we were not just on an adventure, we had our selves a genuine, bonafide bargain!  Heaven!

Crossing the plains and the mountains via rail that I have ridden on the motorcycle so many times was a unique and visually stunning change, particularly in this year of extreme weather and extreme water.  From out eastbound direction, the tracks, in general, creep up alongside the rivers as they tumble down the path of least resistance. The passes they both spring from and edge towards are the lowest and easiest to navigate both for water and train. So as we clickety-clacked our way up we had a real up close and personal experience with the torrents of water that were racing down.  Many times the water was within 2’ of the tracks for mile after mile causing thoughts of erosion and trains tumbling into churning waters to briefly flit across the television screens in our minds eye.

But we made it across the Rockies, through Denver and onto the Great Plains, where we at last we met up with the water that had flooded the Empire Builder to the north and caused this diversion in the first place.  Downtown Omaha was flooded and we were diverted around it to continue our trek east towards Chicago.

There was one more night yet to endure. And endure we did, barely.  May I say for the record that our countries lack of spending on infrastructure is a travesty and we now know, first hand, what the results of this neglect can be.  Partly because of our cars last position in the train and partly because of our cabinettes position right over the wheels struts and party because we were on the top deck of the car but mostly because of the condition of the tracks, it was the night that would not end.  Even with the safety net (which looked suspiciously as if it could double for a sling, restraints and all) on Claire’s upper berth the sheer force of the back and forth slamming we took left us both literally black and blue by morning.  Imagine trying to sleep strapped to a roller coaster, flying along at 70mph over the worst of the curving slingbacks.  We were literally bracing ourselves with our elbows and knees and trying to nod off only to be flung into the opposite wall with such force as to cause expletives to be spontaneously spewed forth.  And not just us.  Up and down the corridor all we heard was people the same cursing braying from all on the train.  Ugly.  But survivable and survive we did with our positive attitudes intact to meet our cousins, Marty and Andy, in Naperville and begin the next leg of our collective journey home.

Today, August 2, 2011 would have been Mim’s 99th birthday.

4 thoughts on “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

  1. Robby, I was right back there on the train again….. yet full of anticipation as to what would happen next! It’s like a serial story in the newspaper. Love it!

    1. Wow! Thanks! And this was the edited version! I tend to have a whole lot MORE detail I don’t include because I bore even myself with it. 🙂

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