Riding the Rails: A Love Story

It’s Day 3 of my train trip from Chicago to San Francisco. I am covered in a fine layer of slime that is the result of spending 60 hours in Amtrak’s “deluxe” sleeper cabin. I’m not sure what dictionary the railroad used to define “deluxe,” but I suspect it was one written in a third-world country that considers cholera an acceptable risk factor in modern travel.

It’s Midnight, and I’ve been jolted awake by one of the sudden, mysterious stops that have put us 12 hours behind schedule. I climb over the netting designed to keep riders from falling out of their bunks, and make my way to my private bathroom. It’s a small, stainless steel room, like the type used to hose down inmates in an insane asylum.

I climb back into my bunk, and giggle. I’m filthy and hungry, trapped on a train in the middle of nowhere, with no idea of when or if I ever will arrive at my destination. And I couldn’t be happier.

I never have been camping, and refuse to stay in anything less than a four-star hotel. I love good food, good wine, and good company. Yet, in spite of all this, I also love Amtrak.

Once you board the train, time stands still. You are trapped for days with a weird collection of fellow travelers, bound by bad food, erratic scheduling, insouciant porters, and public-health threats. Like strangers marooned on a deserted island, you have no choice but to form allegiances, and figure out a way to survive together.

The typical Amtrak population can be broken down into four categories:

(1) The Amish

(2) Recently released convicts

(3) Senior citizens

(4) Socially-conservative Republicans

I gravitate to the Amish and convicts.

I absolutely am fascinated by the Amish, but, then, who isn’t? They want nothing to do with me, which only makes me love them more.

On this trip, I was smitten with an Amish woman I often found huddled in the corner of the observation car, hording snack food. She ate it compulsively, stuffing chips into her mouth while staring blankly out the window. When she finally ran out of snacks, I slowly pushed a bag of Fritos across the table, in the same way you would try to lure a suspicious squirrel with a chestnut. As soon as I turned my head, she snatched the bag, and scurried away.

The convicts, who are lots of fun, can be found in the bar car at all hours. Amtrak, they tell me, isn’t all that different from prison: same food; same long, pointless hours; same soulless martinets (they call them “screws”; I call them “porters”) who use their limited power to make our lives miserable.

We are supposed to reach California sometime tomorrow. This evening, when I asked an engineer what time we’d arrive, he said, “Your guess is as good as mine. What’s your hurry, anyway?”

Just as I was about to get on my high horse, and lecture him about what an important person I am, I caught sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. My hair was greasy, and sticking out at odd angles; I was dressed in a ratty T-shirt, holding a beer; and behind me, my new jailbird friend, Rusty, was shuffling cards, waiting for me to return to our gin game.

No one on this train knows me, or expects anything of me. No cell phone service. No Internet. For this brief, glorious respite, I am unreachable. Where in this world can you make that claim these days?

I ease into my club chair, and pick up my cards, saying, “You’re right. I’m in no hurry at all.”

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