Day 11 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Salem, OR where I am at mile 4843 of this voyage. You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.
I awoke on the California Starlight this morning just shy of Dunsmuir, CA to find our train stopped dead. Tunnel construction on the mountains near Shasta Lake had us sitting unmoving for hours, as one giant freight after another occupied the tunnel before us. At last we found ourselves underway once more, but by the time that came to pass, we were five hours behind schedule.
(This is a good moment to note that passenger rail service in this country usually takes place upon tracks that are leased, not owned, by Amtrak, meaning that trains carrying actual human beings are put in the queue all behind ones carrying pig iron. Our rail system would be much more efficient, and be able to serve a much larger number of people, and with more efficiency, if Amtrak’s budget were larger, and if we, American taxpayers, ACTUALLY OWNED THE RAILS WE TRAVEL UPON.)
Interestingly, no one seemed too terribly disturbed by this. For one thing, the sidetrack enabled us to see by daylight what normally we’d pass by under dark of night– namely, Mt. Shasta for one (and, for the ladies, Mt. Shastina!), and Shasta Lake– the latter shockingly low as the drought years in California take their toll. I had breakfast with a couple from Texas who described the small roomettes (which I call our “coffinettes”) this way: “They’re so small you couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of ‘em without getting fur in your mouth.” And yet: they– and, really, everyone I’ve met, LOVES BEING ON THE TRAIN. Yes, we’d have been happier if we weren’t stuck behind all those freights. But this is the reality of train travel in this country, and it’s clear the Starlight, like the Zephyr before it, is full of people who feel that making this journey is one of the great adventures of their lives. Including the people who do it all the time.
I spent the day revising the work I’d sort-of finished yesterday at Big Sur. No fatal flaws yet, but lots of little stupidies. I sat in the “parlor car” in the afternoon– these 50+ year old cars have been refurbished, and exist only on the Starlight line– cushy seats, a bar, polished wood paneling, really like something from a more elegant era. I started talking with folks in that car at 3 PM and stayed until the “wine tasting” began at 4. And then I had dinner in the parlor car with the same group of people. Delightful. Someone asked me if I was the Amtrak Writer in Residence, and I admitted to it, and they were all over me– they’d read about the program, they’d read the blog, and so on. As a result of this program, they’d decided to do a month of business travel BY TRAIN. It all made me very happy: the conversation, the amazing vistas, the short ribs for dinner. This life is very tasty.
We’ll be arriving in Seattle too late tonight for me to see my friends, alas; I’ll scurry to the hotel and hunker down for a few hours before visiting North Seattle Community College tomorrow and teaching a class (!) Then my friend from college, Johnny C., will get me to King Street station, where I’ll step onto the Empire Builder tomorrow for the trip that leads across Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and home.