Thursday, June 15, 2006

Travel By Train

When you travel someplace, people assume you are going one of two ways: by car or by plane. The car is time-consuming but interesting; you can stop at places along the way, you can get the food you want, and the bathrooms are usually better. The plane is fast but expensive and is, for some people, "a two-hour panic attack" (as expressed by Evil Rob.)

Buses are not to be thought of. You get the slow speed of a car— and usually even slower; you get the uncomfortable seats and bathrooms that are scarier than a plane's; and you get the recycled air of a plane as well. If you are minorly prone to motion sickness this is a recipe for disaster. And for an added treat you get to deal with the bus stations. I don't know why, but I've never been in a bus station that wasn't to a certain degree scary.

But nobody seems to think of trains anymore, which is a pity. Sure, if you're in a hurry, they're a bad idea, and because freight gets priority the timetables will often get screwed up to the point of absurdity.

A little side note here: Certain routes are more prone to delays than others. The Coast Starlight, which runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, has over sixty "wait orders", where a passenger train has to wait until a freight, on time or late, passes by. This makes that route prone to appalling lateness, as one setback sets off a cascade of delays. The Califronia Zephyr only has a dozen or so wait orders, and also has a few long stops of an hour or more built in to regain time if necessary.

But start adding up the advantages to a train route. Even with minor delays, a trip of two days or more averages out to the same timing as a car, since you don't stop for the night. The seats are far superior in comfort to those of a plane and many car seats, and you can stand up and walk around. The bathrooms are small but there's lots of them, and if the ones in your car are broken there's several others you can try. The cost, once you start figuring in hotel rooms, is actually cheaper than driving... at least if you don't get a sleeper. Since the sleepers run to six-foot-long beds, it's not really any better than coach if you're tall anyway.

And then there's the scenery. Oh, yes, there is scenery. And because you're not driving, you don't have to worry about looking and driving at the same time. Or worry about highway hypnosis. Or road construction.

Last Christmas we took the Coast Starlight up to Eugene. It was four hours late on a fourteen-hour run, so we spent about eighteen hours on the train starting at midnight. We decided that, cricks in the neck aside, this was a good way to travel, so we planned a trip over Memorial Day Weekend to Denver to see our friends. I was only able to get one week off, so we spent four days on the train, coming and going, to get three days of friends.

But oh! the scenery...

Time To GoSo the train was scheduled to leave shortly after eleven in the morning on Thursday. We'd packed pretty carefully. I had one small bag full of clothes and sundries, and one large bag full of books and food. Rob had one small bag full of clothes and sundries, and one very large bag full of pillows. On a train you are allowed two decently-sized carry-ons, not including purses or laptops. I had a purse, Rob had a laptop; neither of us had baggage to check.

Our TrainI should perhaps mention the food. They have a diner car, fairly expensive, on the train. They also have a café car, less expensive but still a little pricy, and the selection is not always what you want. So I went a little crazy at Trader Joe's and got three kinds of trail mix (with the Mango Ginger Go Nuts and a macadamia pineapple cranberry one being my two favorites), ginger cookies, and "dunkers", the latter being oatmeal cranberry delicious cookie things. I also bought little fruit juice boxes and bottled water, the latter of which we froze. Several Fuji apples made it into the bag, as did M&Ms and Jelly Bellys, the latter being my favorite ward against motion sickness. (Ginger, I should mention, is also superb against motion sickness. Pack ginger cookies the next time you take the small fry on a road trip. Or ginger ale, carbonation being helpful as well.) There were also breakfast bars of varying types, my favorite being Quaker Oatmeal Raisin Breakfast on the Go. Tasty and filling.

What I forgot to pack (seeing as we took an alternate driving route to get to my parents') was breadstuff. I had intended to stop at a favorite bagel place and have them slice (bread-style) a baker's dozen worth of bagels. I also found that I had a craving for cheese. Since I had the frozen water bottles (and a little sixpack cooler in the bag) I could have easily packed some cheese to nosh on. If you plan this kind of trip, pack a few veggies as well. Mini carrots and sliced red peppers and cherry tomatoes (VERY carefully packed!) or grapes... but the apples will always be good, and they're hard to smash.

Ahem. Anyway, our train did, in fact, pull up on time. As it only had to come from Emeryville (the Bay Area), this is not that surprising. Evil Rob noted that the cowcatcher had what looked like jerky on it... as the cowcatcher is designed to scoop animals up off the track and away from the wheels, it was apparently doing its job.

We boarded the train and lugged our bags upstairs. Yes, upstairs. Take a look at that picture. Passnger trains are two-story affairs, with nearly all of the seating on the upper story. The lower story is primarily for storage, bathrooms, and handicapped seating. All inter-car routes are through the upper story. And it seems that there is a certain consistency to the setup on passenger trains. The sleeper cars are up front, followed by the diner, then the observation and café car— more on that later— and then the coach cars. In the case of the California Zephyr, those were followed by a couple of cars that possibly contained supplies, but on the Coast Starlight there had been nothing behind, which meant that one gentleman with a film camera set it up out the back window with a delay, so it took a picture every half minute.

The Truckee RiverI wish I could see that film. Snowfall in the dark.

At any rate, the route between Sacramento and Reno has some volunteer docents from the California State Railroad History museum, and they give the history of the rail as you go along. The line between Sacramento and Reno is part of the original Transcontinental Railroad— at least the westbound. The eastbound has a detour in between Roseville and Lincoln where the track is newer and the grade more level.

The grand irony of the docents is that I already knew most of what they were saying. I know who Theodore Judah was, and I even know that sometimes he was referred to as "Crazy" Judah. He surveyed the rail line through the Sierras, and he was a proponent of running the line through Donner Pass— a pass that, mind you, was too difficult for the Donner Party to pass for five months. The final line tops out at over 7500 feet. I knew about the Chinese laborers, and the fact that they were usually healthier because they ate vegetables and boiled their water (for tea.)

In fact, I knew so much that I talked the ear off of a gentleman from Indiana. He had a habit of phrases such as "Is that right?" and "You don't say!" I'd be supplementing the history that the docents were giving us, and then I'd veer off into geology, and then I'd mention the very, very wet winter we just had. He found it hard to believe the depth that the snow could get in the Sierras. Sixteen and twenty feet is not only not unheard of, it's fairly common. Sierra Nevada does mean "snowy mountains."

Actually, Sierras Nevadas would mean "snowy mountains", but that's just trivial.

So I talked about Frémont and the Bear Flag Republic and the effect of the Gold Rush on the Civil War and, not incidentally, The Age of Gold, which is where I got all of that information in the first place.

And I talked about the water, and the Truckee River, which flows from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake and never reaches the sea, and the Humboldt Sink which the pioneers followed as it cut its way through the ranges of Nevada, only to dry up before it ever reached the Sierras.

Nevada LandscapeIn fact, even the mighty Colorado no longer reaches the sea, but that's because of human intervention and human needs, not natural ones.

Heck, I even got on to the Columbia River Gorge and Lake Missoula which cut it. And Lake Bonneville, of which the Great Salt Lake is the final remnant. And earthquakes and alluvial soil and far, far too many things. I talked at him for hours— usually I'm a better conversationalist, allowing the other person in more, but he seemed to want to listen to me talk. He was enjoying it, so who was I to balk?

Of course, by that time I was hungry and thirsty, and it was getting toward dinnertime, so we bid one another farewell and I went back to my seat. Evil Rob had never left his seat, but then, he had the window side. I got a drink and some money and bought myself a sandwich from the café. Then after a while I went back up.

The Sierra Nevadas create what is known as a "rain shadow." Literally, the Sierras are so high that the water-laden clouds rolling in off the ocean— California weather always comes from the west— dump virtually all of their moisture on the western side. Truckee is moist, but Reno, less than an hour's drive to the east, is desert.Mountain

Sagebrush.

You know, the West.

It has always amused me that the West was east of where I grew up.

I should mention at this point that Nevada is an infuriating state to drive across. Some states are boring drives, flat and featureless. Some are endurance tests— Wyoming on Interstate 80 springs to mind. Those states you cope with. But Nevada... Nevada has something special. Nevada has range after range after range. And when you're travelling along the east to west route, you cross virtually every one.

It's like you're stuck in an infinite loop. Flat, rise, small pass, downgrade, flat, rise, small pass, downgrade, sagebrush, sagebrush, sagebrush, have we been here before? And at night, it's nothing but darkness with occasional neon.

Sunset Over WinnemuccaIt's not that it's not pretty. There's some beautiful country there. But repetition dulls the effect.

I eventually got tired of staring out the window and went back to my seat with my book. They had a "smoke break" stop at Winnemucca, which is in the middle of the state of Nevada. The sun was setting, so I took the opportunity to get out, breathe some fresh air, and take a few pictures.

And finally, as the train rumbled its way across Nevada and, ultimately, Utah, it was time to face the prospect of sleeping in a coach seat. They recline further than airplane chairs, and have leg supports like recliners do, but they do not spread out flat. We'd discovered that a large seat becomes less comfortable when you are trying to wedge yourself in.

Enter the big bag of pillows. We had one king pillow and one standard pillow each. I have since heard that a neck pillow is invaluable for comfort purposes, and I suggest that a night traveller pack a small foam mattress so as to smooth out the bumps of the segments of the seat. We also discovered that using your bags to bridge that last bit at your feet is good... or at least, Evil Rob discovered it, since he hogged them all.

I would also suggest that you try to pick a short seatmate. Two tall people get in each other's way.

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