Rail life drama: moving times on Amtrak
Words by April Siese
Train travel in the new millennium is just as revelatory as drifting off to sleep on a cargo ship slowly floating down the Mississippi river. It's revelatory in the way that you can pretty much transport a full cargo container or more of your belongings for free with the purchase of a single railway ticket. Sure, you can pay for more and even go so far as to ship your car, but for those on a tight budget and aching to see the country, that generous weight limit of 150lbs is ideal.
Being a young person without a car or limitless budget, I found myself moving across the country from the Bay Area to New Orleans by embarking on two full train routes: the hidden gem that is the California Zephyr (that I'm pretty sure the Red Hot Chili Peppers never sang about) and the historic City of New Orleans. The two converge in Chicago, the literal epicenter of the U.S. Once I left the Bay Area, I had about four days to get from California to Illinois.
Anyone experienced in any type of travel will tell you that public transit generally operates on Bullshit Standard Time. Under BST, broken promises of departure and arrival times are the norm. Unexpected delays act as BST's calling card, as predictable as they are arbitrary.
What transpired between the border of Nevada and the outskirts of Chicago was an insurance salesman's wet dream, running the gamut of travel insurance claims: medical emergencies, fights, track issues that included waiting up to forty-five minutes for freight trains to pass, impassable floods, and the type of apocalyptic Midwestern storm that forced our conductor to leave his post and chainsaw away a felled tree.
The medical emergency stopped the train around Sparks, Nevada, a city that Amtrak describes as “a twin city with Reno, the border between them purely political.” Though I can't imagine any locals getting asshurt when you say the Nugget Casino is in Reno when it's really in Sparks, the semantics may have prompted a passenger's heart palpitations. About an hour later, we were back to skating through the rest of the state.
Not to be outdone, Utah decided that it would take a more violent approach towards delays in the form of a fistfight. The details I'd obtained were only second-hand accounts in a dining car that served bison meatloaf in accordance with themed meals corresponding to your location. Score one for Nevada for having the lengthier delay and add some bonus points for the bison meatloaf, which was delicious.
What truly took the meatcake, (or meatloaf, if you will and you really should) was the great state of Wyoming. When I said apocalyptic storm, I meant the type of rains that make Judeo-Christians question God's sanity, hoping he didn't forget he pinky promised us no more floods to wipe out humanity. Thunder rattled the train and lightning was just sparse enough to remind passengers that there's a whole lot of nothing in Wyoming.
Our pace slowed to increments well under the speed limits of a school zone, eventually culminating in a lengthy stop for that felled tree. It may come as a shock but there is the occasional nature in Wyoming, though apparently only near areas where it can potentially obstruct passage.
Amtrak personnel took explicit care in mentioning the conductor's forays into the lumberjack world, proudly announcing his plans to chainsaw the tree. It's not like he carved it into a brooding bear but he at least got it off the tracks.
I eventually arrived in Chicago a full nine hours later than expected and with the promise of a free hotel stay, courtesy of Amtrak, to one of the seedier sections of the city; not that it mattered given the time of day. At 1:30am, even a houseboat straight across Lake Michigan could be considered pretty shady.
Doing as the natives do, I ordered a deep-dish pizza and fell asleep to the sports channel. As exhausted as I was and as ready as I was to unpack my bulky suitcases in my adopted home, the journey wasn't quite yet over. Not by a long shot.
(Part Two to come next issue. Sign up for updates HERE!)
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