The train left Salinas half an hour late. On the platform, as darkness fell, we saw a shooting star. “Oooh, look at that” said a distinctly Brummie voice to my left, and it turned out there were a group of people from Redditch travelling to San Fran. Small world. Boarding meant encountering the roomette for the first time. Basically, imagine an area with two chairs with a two feet gap facing each other, bound by walls behind them, a sliding door to one side and a window on the other. That’s pretty much it, though in a model of efficiency various compartments and switches offered lighting, ventilation and storage options. There’s no room for luggage of any kind, so that stayed on the racks nearby. Scared of missing dinner (old habits die hard) I practically ran to the dining car. Turns out there was plenty of time.
In another model of efficiency, groups of passengers are put together to fill whole tables, so you usually end up with a random selection of fellow diners for every meal. On this occasion, I was bundled up with a Republican voter (and not shy to state this) from New Mexico (“They should build that fence and electrify it”), a stereotypical senior Jew from New York, and a goth from Portland. The goth had the miserable time, going stiff at every rightwing comment, sipping tea and eating a salad while the rest of us tucked into steaks. Perhaps her “Goodbye, hope to see you again” to the republican was not entirely sincere.
The rest of the evening was spent getting progressively more sozzled with a group of cowboys and fishermen. It was either that, or watch the movie in the 20 seat cinema downstairs, but IronMan wasn’t appealing. I *think* the foresome were two couples, but couldn’t entirely work it out. One was a Canadian who’d been fishing off Louisiana for the summer; one was a producer of TV shows about cooking. They wore cowboy hats and said cowboy phrases; beer flowed until the conductor closed the bar and turned off the lights. I went back to my roomette and considered how to make the bed properly. I’d already sussed, by accidentally stepping on the foot pedal, that the chairs slumped and came together. Bedding was located, which consisted of quite a good matress, a couple of sheets, and to be frank the most pathetic pillow I’ve seen in my life. No – calling it a pillow is a travesty against pillows. So I borrowed several towels from the racks outside and fashioned a more substantial pillow arrangement from them.
Then got in and lay down, becoming immediately aware of the train rocking. Would sleep actually occur that night. Yes; it happened just after the train left Sacramento. Surprisingly, I didn’t wake up until 7:30, somewhere in northern California (still), with the train ambling through a distinctly western landscape (picture below). A better nights sleep than in some hotels I’ve stayed in. Hopped in the shower (no queue) and found it pleasantly hot and fierce. Went straight to breakfast; dining table companions included a freshman on her way back to college (clutching her teddy bear), and an Amtrak consultant on his way to give a presentation on the future of the company (summary: healthy).
The rest of the day involved drinking coffee and watching the Cascade Mountains and their covering forests chug by. The train stayed for a while at a very small town where everyone appeared to drive a pick-up with a dog in the back. During the hour there I tried and failed to find a Wifi connection, and tried and failed to use the phone to ring the folks in the Seattle and tell them the train was going to be late.
Lunch companions were a talkative senior from Nebraska who was enjoying the scenery no end, and a couple from Seattle. I was the only one who didn’t say grace before lunch. He seemed to have an underlying anger about immigrants of all types, everywhere. She was more amiable, and talked about her trips to visit their daughter in Alaska. They both agreed that Sarah Palin was good, as she was genuine – what you see is what you get.
The afternoon brought with it the Amtrak wine tasting, which was good fun. Though surprisingly not that popular – despite four tastes, cheese and crackters being five dollars, much vino was swallowed by the small group there. It was here that I met a three tour Vietnam veteran, who was doing an epic train trip of the US and Canada for very personal reasons. Partly because of his connections, talk amongst the six of us in our area turned to the election. He said some rather dramatic things (two of which am sure would make the front page of major newspapers) that caused the rest of the carriage to go very quiet.
And that led on to Chicago. When the usual “Why are you travelling on this train?” came to me, two very conflicting opinions were expresssed about being in Chicago on election day. One camp decided it would be the “Party of the Century” if Obama wins. Another group opinioned that in that circumstance, Chicago would burn – which made me think, what would therefore happen to Chicago if Obama *lost*? After that – a short rest and a watch of more scenery go by. Then yet another meal. Food – hmmm. They do have a different menu for each meal on Amtrak, but healthy it is not. The specialty sandwich of the day (their spelling) turned out to be fried :-( Other healthy options had something nasty lurking in them too.
Meals are included in the price of accommodation for people in the sleeper cars, so I felt obliged to get what I could to maximise money’s worth. Unfortunately, the general unhealthyness, plus the utter lack of exercise opportunities, makes for inevitable weight gain. The train has a cinema, so why not a small pool, or at least a gym?
And, like this blog posting, it ambled on. Unfortunately Amtrak doesn’t own the track and therefore the trains have to wait and give way to freight trains. Which means that many train rides run late – like this one. So, 29 hours after starting from Salinas – and 37 hours for people coming from LA – the train stopped in Seattle where Alex and Theresa were waiting (probably nervously) to pick up the polar bear and take him back to their place. More on that later…