Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Amtrak: Aboard The California Zephyr

My Mother lives on the Easter Island of the North American Continent. 

Grand Junction, Colorado, just over the Eastern border with Utah, is a city of 60,000 situated in a region of about 60,000 square miles of inhabitation. I’m not kidding: As you enter I-70 the direction signs tell you “East to Denver” or “West to……..um, ‘Utah’, I guess”.*

Isolation is all fine and dandy, especially if you already live there and are retired. But for those of us wishing to travel there, Grand Junction offers a variety of unappealing choices:

Taking a plane is a four-dimensional thrill ride of frustration, wherein you fly over your destination, all the way to Denver, and then take a prop plane back across the state to the Western border. ‘Prop’, for you readers under 80 means that the plane is equipped with propellers, instead of jets. Propellers, like when aeroplanes landed in fields instead of on runways. And up until a few years ago the local airport was indeed called “Walker Field” - watch out for that tractor, and don’t hit the scarecrow!

Prop planes have a cruising ceiling of 10,000 feet, and this run goes all the way through the Rocky Mountains when they are at their tippy-toppy pointiest, which means your plane will be slaloming around various peaks and ranges on your way back through ground that you just flow over a couple of hours before.

A sleek, small metal tube that is loud and buzzy and takes you to various peaks? Its like traveling inside a vibrator.

And a roundtrip will cost you a climactic $1,000. Easy come, easy NO.
The journey of a 1,000 miles begins
with a single Selfie.

Hymie the Hybrid is getting up in years, so that means I would have to rent a car and keep it full of gas. $650, plus unknown quantities of twizzlers, slim jims, High Fructose Corn Syrup laden ‘waters’ and other gas station oddities that sound appealing when you’ve been driving for way too long. Been there, DONE THAT.

Take the bus? Its only $500 roundtrip, but it takes 29 hours to complete the journey and your chances of catching some communicable disease enroute is 110%.

So, fine, Amtrak, you win. AGAIN. Until there is a stagecoach line or a hot air balloon service available, the train is still the most sensible way to get to Easter Island, Colorado. 

$300 bucks roundtrip, and you have the freedom to stand up, walk around, and flee from that guy who wants to share the armrest (and his skin rash) with you.

Getting to the part where you start

The journey began SIX YEARS ago.
Ah, but I don’t have an Amtrak train station in my little seaside town. And neither does San Jose. And neither does San Francisco, or Oakland! Geezooks, Am I going to have Admiral Karen drop me off in Salt Lake City or something?? Nope. Here’s what you do: You leave your spacious, comfortable, non-smelly house at 5am and you walk downtown, carrying your backpack and messenger bag. Catch the ‘connecter feeder’ (squint and it looks just like a bus), which takes you to San Jose. 

Board the CalTrain, which takes you all the way through the South and East Bays, through Oakland (non-stop, thank god), and Berkeley and drops you off at the Amtrak station in Emeryville, named after the guy who invented the little rough boards you use to shape your fingernails.

The Caltrain is reliable, speedy, clean, roomy and the Wifi is strong and free. I had a corner booth for four all too myself for the entire trip. This is what writers call ‘foreshadowing’.

Where the ‘connector feeder’ (BUS) dropped me in downtown San Jose is called Diridon station, and I used the free Wifi to find out what the hell a ‘Diridon’ is:
  1. The beautiful Italian renaissance revival station is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  2. The platform was used in the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” (1964) where it subbed in for Hartford, Connecticut.
  3. A Diridon was a terrifying Jurassic-era carnivore with 3 wings and a separate mouth on the back of its neck.
Diridon Station. Not pictured: Any Diridons (thank god).
(from wikipedia commons)
Amtrak’s Emeryville station is NOT on the National Register of Historic Places. It looks like the rec room at a trailer park, minus the ‘rec’. Nevertheless it held quite a wide assortment of people, from blonde Norwegian families, to darker Middle Eastern families. From Norskas to Burkas.

Near the end of the layover in Emeryboardville the Station Master gave a speech to the entire crowd in the Rec Room. It was basically, “How to board a train” and it included this classic truism: “if you are traveling between Sacramento and Denver, try to be on the left side of train, so you can see Donner lake. If you are traveling between Denver and Chicago, sit anywhere, as there is absolutely nothing to see on this leg.”

Mmmm.....Hot Dog Smoothies......
The Station Master then concluded his speech with an appeal for us to write to Congress about how much we love Amtrak and how they should keep funding it. The subtext of this, of course, was to keep his Union strong and healthy, even at the cost of the quality of the train ride. 

For it is embarrassingly clear that Amtrak’s trains are museum relics; antiquated diesel belching anachronisms that are kept rolling somehow precisely because they require so many employees to operate. Any updates in equipment would result in a faster, cheaper, more environmentally friendly railroad, but would do so at the cost of some jobs. And modern Unions are all about the quantity of those dues coming in, rather than the quality of the finished product.

The American railroad system is a feeble, gray-haired laughingstock compared with any train system in Europe. The bemused expressions of the Internationals as they boarded the 50 year old ‘living history’ railroad cars would not last long.


The California Zephyr is a double-decker train. The upper story is for passengers, and the lower deck is
He'll be along to take my ticket,
right after this smoke break.
for luggage, bathrooms…….and handicapped seating. And having ridden in this particular rodeo before I knew that you didn’t have to prove your feebleness in order to secure a lower seat. You just have to indicate your preference when you buy your tickets.

When the conductor came by to punch my ticket he found me and two other folks occupying the 12 roomy seats down there. He smiled, handed my back my ticket and said: “And you sir, know how to travel.”

I logged on to share my smugness with my peeps, only to find there is no WiFi on this line! Oh. My. God. I may be forced to converse with actual humans in literal meatspace. (*high-pitched shrieking)

Theres only 2 things to do on a train (well, there’s 3, but I was traveling alone), and I wasn’t tired, so I headed to the dining car, A/K/A the ‘feed pen’. I enjoy being herded in with other hungrials and assigned booths with strangers, like the odd number riders on a roller coaster.  Its a total crapshoot who you’ll be eating your Denny’s reject food with, but I like gambling.
Here is a visual representation of no Wifi.

Lunch on day 1 was with Eric and Irene, a lovely retired couple from Fremont, who were on their way to a family reunion in Fairfax, Colorado. 

And then there was Carlos, who was a lone stray, like me. He was off to play video poker in Reno. Carlos paid for a sleeper compartment for a journey that started at 9am and will end at 4pm. Hmmm. He was very intense, very patriotic, and very sure of his gambling abilities, because, after all he’s “been practicing online”. Eric and I nodded slowly and glanced at each other simultaneously at this. Carlos missed the moment and continued rambling: At videopoker.com he’s even a “gold circle VIP member” for which he pays a $80.00 a year. Total bargain, in case you were interested.

Eric and I nodded slowly again at this. Oh, Carlos. America is NOT the greatest country in the world, and you are about to learn why.
Eric and Irene (with permission)

Eventually I left Eric to listen politely to Carlos while I chatted with Irene about her careers with the Environmental clean-up departments at various universities and consulting firms. She was the person who coordinated the digging up all of the old gas stations and fixing the leaky connectors. And removing all of the contaminated soil. And had to charge the Mom & Pop owners so much that they were forced to abandon their business, because the people who owned the property before them installed the tanks as cheaply as they could with no thought of the long-term impact to future generations.

Still think this is the greatest country in the world, Carlos?

Irene was of  recent Chinese descent and was eager to get to the viewing car to hear the narration about the Trans-Continental railroad, because, after all, “My people built it!” 

So I told her my two favorite little factoids about our respective ancestors: The Irish laborers versus the Chinese:
  1. Death was very common on both the Westbound and EastBound ends of the Trans-Continental project. The difference was on the line pushing West, Irish wakes lasted 3 days on average (not including hangovers), whereas the Eastbound Chinese held funeral ceremonies that lasted about 3 hours. Then they put away the incense and got back to work.
  2. The Irish on the Union Pacific line drank anything they could get their hands on, and when that ran out they drank the nearby river water and got all kinds of unpleasant nasties, and died like flies. The Chinese on the Central Pacific Line meanwhile, boiled the river water……for tea. 
After lunch, which tasted like it had been made with the unboiled river water, I retired to my row of seats for an extremely unchiropractic nap.

Mr. Methhead
I awoke later to a conversation between my other two compartment mates: Mr. Methhead, seated ahead of me, and the Cranky Old Fart across the aisle. I was confused as hell at their exchanges, and it took me a while before I realized that both of these gentlemen were fast asleep. 

I need to take the potato for a walk.
Can’t trust ‘em.
And then 
My God what is this
Sounds like Sonny Bono
You need to put down the spear, honey
Who was he to say that to me?
Leslie Ann Warren
Velcro. Those bastards!

Hard to face Mecca on a winding train.
And on and on and on. It was Glorious. Eventually the conductor woke the Cranky Old Fart and moved him back to his assigned seat upstairs. Mr. Methhead slept through all 25 hours that I was with him, except at every single stop that allowed a smoke break he would suddenly leap into consciousness and dash out the open door. 

Evening Activities on the California Zephyr

We climbed steadily through the Sierra Nevadas in the afternoon. The most interesting thing I heard in the compartment (aside from the unconscious banter), was when a young Muslim woman wearing traditional jilbab and hajib veil stepped shyly into our compartment, saw the big, open space where a wheelchair would fit and asked us: “Excuse me, may I pray here?”

We passed Donner Lake, which is now the site of an extremely ironic picnic area. I made a note of this on my phone, which insisted on correcting ‘Donner Party’ to ‘Dinner Party’, which just seems excessively cruel. 

Obligatory blurry shot of Dinner Donner lake.
Every one of the 1,030 people on the train leaned over to the left to take blurry, lurching photos of the lake, because the primeval pleasure we hu-mans experience upon seeing water remains to this day.

At Reno a phalanx of Oldsters made their creaking, groaning way slowly onto the Zephyr, and filled up the rest of the seats down in the lower compartment.

Me? I stayed up in the Observation Car, even though there was nothing but Nevada (and eventually Utah) to see. Can it still be called the ‘Observation Car’ if there is nothing to observe? East of Reno this should be called the ‘Sorry, the Scenery Isn’t Working’ car.

Sighing, I returned to my seat and found bedlam. The Cranky Old Fart had returned (temporarily) and
Sorta blurry shot I got of the Truckee River.
every other seat was filled with Seniors. And ALL of them are talking, loudly, simultaneously and doing nothing but bitching about their ailments.

There was still something to be thankful for, however: The aisle seat next to my window one was empty. The little paper tag above said “OMA”, but OMA was nowhere to be seen. 

My lunch of mystery meat cake was still baffling my stomach’s assault team, so I was opting for a later dinner. What to do? I tried to read, but the Senior Squawkers were in full lather by then.

Sheesh. These are the kinds of neighbors that boost the sales of headphones. Hey! What a great idea! I whipped out my earbuds, plugged them into my laptop and spent a blissful 90 minutes away from the whining, complaining and harping AARPers.

Movie sign! “Night of the Lepus” in which Janet Leigh and DeForest Kelley earnestly battle killer bunnies and manage to keep straight faces, unlike the viewing audience. A classic. Thank you, Rifftrax.

Way to SIZZLE the route, kids!
The Feed Pen was still open at 7:30pm, but was only seating reservations, of which there appeared to be none. I was shooed out of the empty dining car, however. Confused, I waited a few minutes, watching the small army of food service workers (remember, everything on Amtrak is designed to take as many people as possible to do), sit around and ‘lean on their shovels’.

Oooookay. I took the plastic staircase down to the snack bar and got a microwaved hot dog and took that back to my seat, where it tasted like it had been living under my seat for a few weeks. 

Night brought boredom to the Senior Piss and Moan Squad. I guess they had finally exhausted their tales of infected bunions, hemorrhoids, those liberal loonies in Washington and these kids today with their fax machines, hula hoops and baggy pants. PAH!

Not that these blue hairs were technophobes. Far from it. When they grew tired of complaining to each other they all whipped out their cellphones and called their families and began rehashing their complaints to them. (Well, all except Cranky Old Fart, who now had no one to bitch with, but who nevertheless continued complaining, to the General Cosmos, I guess.) 

From the info guide. I guess Amtrak doesn't
have many proofreaders amoung its staff.
I began to think that Mr. Methhead was the smartest person in the car.

I fled back to the ‘Sorry, the Scenery Isn’t Working’ car and watched the new sliver of moon rise over the Mars Manned Mission Training Area. A whole perch of Jurassic Diridons would have looked perfectly at home in that blasted landscape.

At 11pm I cautiously made my way back down to my seat, and had good news and bad news waiting for me, amidst all of the slumbering seniors. The bad news was that OMA, my seat mate had finally materialized. And he was 350 pounds of snoring goo, all over his seat and mine. Jabba the Butt.

The good news was that the Conductor had thrown Cranky Old Fart back upstairs again, and his seat mate had gotten off in Elko. This left the first pair of seats, the ones that front the empty wheelchair storage area, completely empty. 7 feet of flat area is pretty much the Holy Grail here in steerage. Score!

I didn’t have a pillow or a blanket. Just a hoodie. But hoodies are as handy as towels in these situations, and so it became my pillow, blanket and eye cover, all in one.

My bed for the evening.
My lullaby that night occurred when I rolled over and put my ear to the floor of the lower compartment. Beneath me I could hear the trains steel wheels sing every time the train entered a turn. The friction against the iron rails sets up a ringing overtone, which is then joined by other wheels on my car, and other cars, which create lower harmonies the farther away they are from my set of trucks.

When the curve deepened or lessened, the pitch lowered or rose in concert. It was like listening to an industrial orchestra of theremins.

At 2am the Zephyr stopped in Salt Lake City and I was woken up by Mr. Methhead bolting for the door so he could frantically smoke 4 cigarettes simultaneously.

Morning is broken

Dawn found the train climbing through Central Utah, on the final stretch to my destination, Grand Junction. I stumbled to the potties, feeling surprisingly sore from sleeping on the metal deck of a train car. Morning ablutions complete I transferred the rest of my baggage from across OMA to my new home across the aisle.
Your hands need to be free to stabilize
yourself, so you learn to kick the doors.

Then, off for my morning Constitutional. And its amazing how instantly adaptable we hu-mans are. 20 hours into this ride and I was already subconsciously at home inside this swaying, squeaking, segmented tube: Up the stairs, turn left, kick the door, into the next car, kick the door, pass two hundred people, kick the door, into the next car, kick the door, now its the Observation Car (the scenery was working again), downstairs, buy M&Ms and 7-up.

Back up the stairs, hang another left, kick the door, into the next car, kick the door, No we’re not serving breakfast in the diner car yet, damn, retrace your steps all the way back to your seat. Eat your M&Ms.

And on the way aft, or forward, you pass a few hundred sleeping people. Day or night on a train, people are desperately trying to catch some shut eye, sitting up, in a public place. 

Its horrible to look at.

Humans did not evolve to sleep sitting up, so in our natural slumbertude we slouch and splay and jut in all sorts of uncomfortable and unattractive ways. Walking through this is like walking through the storage room of a wax museum for folks who have fallen off of tall buildings and then rigor mortis set in.

Not a whole lotta much going on out there.
And me, that morning, I felt like they looked. 

I returned to the Observation car, where the scenery machine was broken again. The plains of Eastern Utah have been featured in exactly none works of literature, cinema, painting, sculpture, or dance. They might make an appearance in some cowboy poems, but not the funny ones.**

It looks like the back of a jigsaw puzzle. The picture on the box is pretty and interesting. The other side of the completed puzzle though is just gray, and that’s what Eastern Utah looks like: fractured and monochromatic.

But I wasn’t hanging out in the Observation Car just to watch the traffic on nearby I-70 pass us by (Dang but American trains are slooooow). I was here because the car is adjacent to the Feed Lot car, and breakfast is always first-come, first served.

Observe the observation car going into a tunnel,
(or maybe its a time-slowing wormhole!)
And yay! I was first in the door for chewy pancakes and elderly sausage! Woo-hoo! My roulette turn of dining companions this time landed on a Father and Son duo who were rabid Railroad Enthusiasts.

The son was at that stat-happy age between kindergarten and girl fixations when all he wanted to do was memorize and categorize things, like, say, the stenciled stock number of every single passenger, freight and tanker car we passed. Which he proceeded to do so, blissfully, at full, spazzy volume.

Dad was quieter, perhaps just in self-defense, and appeared to be having a lengthy, inner-question-and-question session about the spinach frittata he had optimistically ordered. 
  • What - are - you?
  • (poke with a fork)
  • Is this really a spinach frittata?
  • Come to think of it, just what the hell IS a ‘frittata’ anyway?
  • (poke - poke)
  • I mean, is this good? 
  • Is this what this is supposed to look like?
To me it looked like the kind of thing that a cat would blithely leave behind, right on the side of the bed where your feet first hit the carpet.

The Colorado River! Almost there!
Dad spent the whole meal chewing undercooked bacon like it was bubble gum and having a staredown with his main course.

I was more annoyed by Junior than I was amused by Dad, but the alternative was returning to basement steerage and listening to the Squawking Seniors rehash the same complaints to each other, because they had forgotten everything that had bitched about yesterday.

Easter Island, Colorado couldn’t come quick enough for me.

The California Zephyr (named because it rolls through 8 different states on its journey. Wait. Huh?) chugged into Grand Junction only 30 minutes late, which is some sort of record.***

I was starving by that point. Starving for loved ones, for room to walk without having to kick a door every 85 feet, for real air, for relief from the endless whining about Senior troubles (although Mom IS 74, and has some legitimate beefs), for customer service that wasn’t half-assed, and mostly - I was starving for some good food.

If you want one picture as to what is wrong
with Amtrak - here ya go.
When the Zephyr squealed to a stop I was right behind Mr. Methhead in barreling off the train. And Mom, bless her heart, took me directly to lunch.

At Denny’s.

Angus McMahan

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The adventure continues HERE!

*One Interstate direction sign simply gave the distance to the next interesting feature West of Grand Junction: The interchange with I-15, which apparently is 273 miles away. Wheeee!

**Not entirely true. The San Rafael Swell, which is visible from the train, doubled as the planet Vulcan in the recent Star Trek movies. So there you go.

***One time my Mother’s East bound Zephyr rolled into Salt Lake City 36 HOURS late, but she didn’t mind because she got a marriage proposal out of the deal. And that’s all she would ever say about THAT story.


  1. Ang,
    Next time you contemplate a train trip, let me know and I'll show you how to hop freight trains. Can't say it's be better but wouldn't be any worse.

    1. I'm sure the food would be better!