Friday, December 24, 2004

Cross-country Trail - Riding the Rails from Kalamazoo to San Francisco

A travel essay by Zinta Aistars

Published in Encore Magazine, November 2001 and online at coilMagazine in January 2002, again on River Walk Journal in Sept/Oct 2004.

The Amtrak train hisses, chugs, jerks momentarily forward, then settles into impatient stillness. People press down the aisle, carrying luggage, backpacks hanging over their shoulders, eyes scanning seats for an open spot. I hoist my bag, holding my sunglasses in my teeth, and keep close behind Joe, fellow writer and my companion on this journey.

We find two seats still open, but not together. A quick request for a trade with the amiable gentleman beside Joe, and we have rearranged ourselves to sit beside each other - and I am eager to hear Joe's response as the train shudders once again but remains at a steaming standstill.

It is because of Joe's white-knuckled dislike of flying that we have decided to travel cross-country by train instead of by plane. Boarding at Kalamazoo, our final destination is San Francisco. If our decision to ride the rails instead of skimming the clouds began out of a dislike for air travel, I was soon convinced this was the greater adventure. We have only one transfer - in Chicago. Following that, we will be riding number 5, the California Zephyr, across the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the desert, until we finally reach the Pacific coastline.

The train sighs, chucks, trembles, and at last jerks into motion, gathering speed. The train station on Rose Street in Kalamazoo is quickly behind us. We roll past Kalamazoo College to our right, Western Michigan University to our left, and Kalamazoo is gone, mere memory behind us.

The seats are full, many by students already having boarded in Ann Arbor. Many are Chicago-bound shoppers, planning to catch a train home again by end-of-day. Our journey, however, will require nearly three days before pulling into Emeryville, our end of the line.

"I hope the entire trip isn't this crowded," I voice my concern to Joe. People around us chatter with each other, across aisles, rearranging limbs and belongings, snap open newspapers, peer through dusty windows. A train attendant sways down the aisle, checking tickets.

One small town, another, another. Before the finish of the third hour, buildings and houses begin to come closer together, empty green spaces convert to brick and stone, and skyscrapers rise against the horizon. We arrive in Chicago.

A momentary break: we emerge from the bustle of the train station for a few hours before boarding the California Zephyr. The sun is blindingly bright, the air sears with heat. Light glimmers off the windows of skyscrapers, and the city streets pulse with life. We blend into and lose ourselves in this frenzied stream of life, for a short while only, before we reenter the station to board our next train.

What a pleasing surprise: the California Zephyr is a long train (13 cars) pulled by three locomotives with cars of spacious double tiers. There is also a dining car and an observation car that consists almost entirely of windows - sides and ceiling - for passengers to take in passing scenery. At the front of the train are several sleeper cars for passengers wishing the comfort of narrow beds and privacy on their ride westward - at a price.

Joe and I settle with a contented sigh into our seats. These will be ours both night and day. Similar to recliners, a bar extends for resting our feet, and there seems plenty of room to stretch out in comfort. Certainly this is more spacious than any seat on an airplane. Three days and two nights in these seats? Why not? Three days next to each other without the luxury of showers? Sure. Unable to walk away from each other for any length of time should we tire of each other's constant company? Hmmm. I eye Joe. He looks at me and winks. I smile. Undoubtedly, by the end of this journey, we will know each other much, oh much better than when we began…

I write in our shared travel log:

"Somewhere west of Chicago… with a passenger kitty corner behind me about to get backhanded if he doesn't stop sucking his teeth. Chicago just around the station was city garbage and mess, postage stamp lawns, dilapidated houses with boarded up windows - from the tracks we are seeing the underbelly and backside of the city. The farther we travel, the lawns stretch longer and wider, greener and cleaner. The windows are glass instead of board, and the houses sprout extensions and additions and expansions, telescoping themselves into suburbia."

As we near the Illinois state line, the train slows for a moment in Galesburg, yet another tiny town that might be missed by blinking too long. This town, however, has its claim to fame painted in large letters on the side of a brick building: "Hometown of Carl Sandburg." Nondescript. Not a feature worth remarking upon but for two slender white church spires spearing the sky. How could such an unremarkable town have bred such a remarkable poet? Perhaps it is just this nondescript quiet town that infused Sandburg's words with such a warm glow of home that seemed to apply to each of us, no matter where one resides.

During the evening hours, we cross the Mississippi and enter Burlington, Iowa. Joe snaps photos; it is his first viewing of this expansive river. Indeed, all of this countryside is new to his eyes. Having traveled widely most of my life, I enjoy watching my travel companion's enthused responses to all that he sees; it is almost as if I too were seeing the wonders of our country for the first time.

In our travel log:

"Thus far, a comfortable ride. This might well be an addictive style of travel. The passengers have withdrawn quietly into their own thoughts; only a few spots of soft conversation drift down the aisle. The train has been booked full since Chicago, and the few seats that open up at various small Midwestern towns immediately fill again. At each stop, our train attendant, a tall thin man in his mid to late forties named Curtis, makes his way adeptly up and down the aisle checking the tickets of new passengers. His walk, accustomed to the jolt and bump of the train, has a boyish bounce to it that we soon learn is reflected in his personality. Between stops, he leans against one seat, then another, checking on the welfare of the passengers in his car, telling stories of his own travels that stretch over two decades."

At dinnertime, we try out the jerk and sway ourselves. We amble down aisle after aisle, from one car to the next, making our seemingly drunken way to the dining car. When the train gives a jolt, we tumble in sudden intimacy against the nearest passenger, making quick smiling apologies, and then right ourselves to amble onward.

In the dining car, we are led to a table where we join another couple. Space is at a premium, so everyone must share a table. Passengers are called down to the dining car in rotating shifts.

Joe's entry into our travel log:

"Zinta and I are serenaded over excellent dinners and wine by Sweet Pea, the cook in the galley. Although dressed in Amtrak attire, the pewter belt buckle fashioned in the shape of a guitar was a dead giveaway of this young man's musical talent. He later informed us that he'd taken the business card - along with the compliments - of a young woman from California who had suggested he send her a demo. Perhaps we have met and been served dinner by the next Nat Cole!"

Our first evening darkens to deep night as our silver Zephyr winds, unstoppable, down the tracks. The moon bobs from one window into the next, down the length of all the cars, winking and blinking over nodding passenger heads. Baby Jordan, half a dozen or so chairs ahead of us, peeks over the high back of her mother's chair as if counting all our sleepy heads, her own bobbing along as if on a spring - until she sags against her mother's shoulder and drops off into dreams.

Joe and I lean into each other and I settle my weary head onto his shoulder. The train's rhythm is soothing and even. Clack, clickety, clack….

…until morning.

"Lightening sky as we slide even-paced over endless green Nebraska fields, sometimes broken by wheat yellow. John Deere tractors dot the landscape, patiently awaiting their drivers and the day's chores. Hay bales like Hostess Twinkies, secrets in their middles. Occasional small towns are silent. It's still early.

"The night was… no, not as comfortable as a bed, and my body feels a bit of crimping at the base of my neck and between the shoulder blades, but those are small discomforts easily paid for the adventure and discovery of travel such as this."

Facilities, I soon find, are not just bathrooms, much like the tiny cubicles found in airlines, but also a larger community dressing room with seats and two sinks and a wide mirror. I chat with the woman next to me as we do our best to freshen up, feet spread wide to keep our balance over the sinks. We giggle when the train jiggles and her eyeliner and my lipstick take an unexpected loop and curl at the end of the stroke.

Then, suddenly, we are stuck. Arriving in Denver, Colorado, Joe nearly pressing his nose to the window at sighting the first hint of Rocky Mountain crags rising up against the horizon, our train attendant announces the delay. It seems a ruptured sewage pipe in one of the cars has spilled sewage onto a section of a luggage rack. My eyes and Joe's meet instantly. Better not be… we both hiss at the same moment. But there is nothing to be done but climb off the train for a few minutes and stretch our legs, hoping for still clean laundry at the end of the line.

Denver. The mountains are just there, at arm's length. Joe's eyes are glued to the ragged and gorgeous horizon; it is the first time he has seen such mountains. Meanwhile I am lost in my own memories. But three years ago I traveled to this town with my daughter on our last mom-daughter vacation together, pitching our tent in those mountains, exploring this city and Boulder, just north of here and tucked closer into the foothills, where she would attend the University of Boulder-Colorado for her freshman year. I wish I could retrace our steps, wax a little nostalgic, but Curtis warns us to watch the time and not wander away, lest we miss the train as it heads for the mountains. We must simply gaze at the city from the edges of the station, tethered to the rails, forbidden to leave the station.

And then we are going upward, climbing, climbing, circling in loops, snaking in repeated circles, weaving our way up the sides of the Rockies. The air pops in our ears. We rise up to over 9,000 feet.

Joe's entry into our log:

"Magnificent! Never have I seen as much beauty as in these last 18 hours. If the trip up the eastern slopes hadn't already daunted me, the ride down the western slopes - through a number of gorgeous canyons - left me mesmerized. Reds, yellows, greens, and rock formations knit together in shapes and sizes more beautiful than any stonemason could have constructed. As Zinta described it - a cathedral - and I agree. One in which those who choose to travel only by air will never worship.

"We disappear and reappear from a series of tunnels. Traversed the third longest tunnel in North America, at just a little more than 6 miles; I hardly felt the weight of 2,500 feet of rock above us."

I find my one frustration on this train trek is my inability to bring the train to a screeching halt every time I spot a place, a trail, a riverside, a grassy patch where I would like to rest a while, or dig in and explore, or simply contemplate this wondrous country around me. The train's forward movement will not relent. I want to run and play! And yet I cannot. I have my own nose as flattened to the window as Joe's. We are both like frustrated, amazed, mesmerized, restless children.

Our second night folds black around us. The mountains now behind us, the desert on the darkening horizon, we curve our aching backs into our seats. A little grumpy, a touch cranky, we nudge and poke each other into more comfortable positions that do not exist. I hiss. Joe bites. I snarl. Joe growls. We turn our backs to each other and feign irritable sleep.

Morning finally arrives with a dull ache in my shoulder and a light throb that threatens a headache in my temples. We keep losing time as we travel westward, now three hours difference from home, and I am awake earlier than most in our car. This Utah pink sunrise is mine, mine alone, and I am suddenly cheered. All bites and growls of the previous evening evaporate from memory as I gaze blissfully at the otherworldly landscape of rose-colored Utah cliff sides and rock formations. Joe's soft, light snore beside me soothes me, and I am careful not to wake him.

"Bald sandy mountains rounded into gentle slopes, and ground that is often white as snow. Salt? In that tender pinkish light, it is nearly eerie. The slopes so pink, like baby flesh, flushed against the brightening sky. Tumbleweed bunches. No trees. Craggy shrubs, but few. Sand at times covered by stubble, blonde and fuzzed. An occasional old fence post. The morning is full now, flooded with sun. Utah has won me over."

The soft snore halts. My companion is awake, but grumpy. He ambles away sleepily, then brings coffee in two cups from the lounge, a cinnamon roll and blueberry muffin, but holds them out to me to choose.

A second day without showers. We are not pretty. I begin to reach up to smooth a silvery lock of hair fallen on Joe's forehead, but resist the tender gesture. Utah tumbles into Nevada, the desert grows ever drier, ever more barren, and our conversation reflects it. My ankles are swollen from sitting for so many hours. Maybe this whole idea was insane. What were we thinking?

I stare out at the Nevada flat nothingness. I am bored with this barrenness. It annoys me. It grits in my teeth. Ah, my Queendom for a tree! Just one. A single oak flourishing in that emptiness, a willow waving sensuously, a maple applauding its great leafy palms - just one to relieve my eye!

I have nothing to do as we pass through this monotone landscape but write my grumps into our travel log:

"Rough night. Didn't sleep well and brain buzzed and roiled through a series of whitewater rapids in my sleep, but woke to white endless sand. Perhaps it's the scenery of my travel companion I can't tolerate. We talk to pass the time, and somehow go from laughter and amazement and thrill….to spit and stutter and snarl. All kinds of sediment stirred up in me. Journeys. Travel like this is not only a journey across terrain, but simultaneously an inner journey as well. How long have we known each other? Not so terribly long. But we know each other now. Much better, certainly. With so many hours to pass, surely we have talked about everything that two people can talk about, backwards and forwards, and not all of it nice."

The train slows and comes to a stop. A station has appeared in the middle of the Nevada desert, springing up out of nothing. Suede hills roll gently in an arc around us. We have a moment to get off the train, breathe in the warming day, and stretch our stiff limbs. I follow Joe out into the day. We stand for a moment, lost in time. Our eyes meet. Then I am in the circle of his arms, all is forgiven, and wherever we are, I am home.

California invades us like a lush jungle after the dry desert. Palms, citrus fruit, luxurious flowers, drooping heavy on their stems. Towns grow into cities, and highways stretch longer and wider. By day's end, as the sun sets and melts, scarlet, into the bay, the California Zephyr nears the glimmering lights of San Francisco. I grasp Joe's hand and squeeze it, once again the excited child on the brink of discovery.

Well into our third day, two nights, by now nearly five hours behind schedule, we approach our point of destination. From field to town to city to mountains to desert to ocean, we have seen a little of everything. We have discovered the treasure of our own country's landscape, and have ventured into the landscape of each other's inner worlds and emerged - still friends. Friends with a shared, unforgettable experience.

"As after every journey I've taken in my lifetime - and there have been many and varied ones - I am reaffirmed in my belief that there is great value in travel. To remove oneself from one's usual routine, to detach from one's accustomed surroundings and experience newness, strangeness, and otherness - it challenges and stretches the spirit like nothing else. No one understands the very idea and feel of Home as the traveler does. And no journey is only a physical one. Equally or more valuable still, are the inner explorings that must occur on such physical journeys. It has been a fascinating and often revealing exploration of who we are as individuals and who we are in response to one another."

Joe holds my hand tightly as we hoist our bags back onto our shoulders and step out into the breezy evening air of San Francisco. "What do you think," he asks me, "about getting tickets for the sleeper cars on the way back?"

For more information about the California Zephyr, see


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