Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sleeping on a Train

"In the morning I came awake as I always do, like a man trapped in a car going over a cliff."
-- Russell Hoban, The Medusa Frequency

It sounded like a good idea – taking the train from the bottom of California to the top of Oregon. I have the time and the scenery alternates between lovely and imaginative in a surrealistic kind of way. Between Richmond and Oakland, there are miles and miles of trackside graffiti, some of it displaying a sophisticated use of color and line, and some of it clearly violating the Sponge Bob franchise copyright.

Only it takes a long time. The first leg, from San Diego to LA is just over 2.5 hours. The trip from LA to Portland is a nice round 30 hours. Together, the trip is, let’s see now, wait for it: too damn long. And that’s not counting a layover of several hours in the gorgeous art deco station at LA. The experience is spoiled a bit when armed police demand to be shown tickets in order to prevent beggars and homeless people from living in the nice comfortable chairs in the nice heated station. Only the police don’t prevent it, managing instead only to keep the desperately poor people moving and sleep-deprived and a bit cranky.

The accommodations in what is disingenuously not called steerage are tantalizingly almost comfy. Although the seats provide more foot room than first class airline seats, and although they not only recline to about 45 degrees they also include an occasionally functional shelf under the seat designed to lift up your lower leg at a 30-degree angle, they don't promote an optimal sleeping experience. The idea that with the seat reclined and the footrest thingie raised is that you get to attempt to sleep stretched out in a zig and then a zag, a bit like sleeping on three steps of a narrow padded staircase.

The seats take away in width what they give in length. They also lack a center arm, acquainting you with your seatmate perhaps a bit more than would be desired. When you try to sleep, you find yourself snuggled up against a stranger close enough to smell the beer he/she had in the billiard room or whatever they call the car with the bar.

Then there’s the other passengers sleeping in the same room: the smokers making a stampede to the doors when station stops are longer than 30 seconds, the lurching drunks, the fussing babies, the kicking toddlers, and the sprawling sleeping teenage girls whose untidy luggage in matching plastic grocery bags migrates to the center aisle while they fling the stray arm or leg out to snag the wary traveler.

And don’t get me started on the restrooms. In fact, competent Amtrack staff manage to keep the restrooms mostly tidy, if a bit under-ventilated. Too bad passengers seem intent on bathing (or perhaps doing their laundry) in the miniature sinks while managing to spray water throughout the tiny compartments and not bothering to wipe it up. Perhaps such careless behavior is prompted by the signs on the mirrors saying Clean Up After Yourself without using the word “Please”. How rude, am I right?

In the end, apart from discovering that I am too old to enjoy the adventure of spending two days and a night on trains with strangers, I found my faith in my fellow travelers renewed. People are generally kind, tolerant, and quick to aid one another. An older man saw me taking pictures out the window and stopped by to advise me of an approaching photo op. A younger man saw me struggling to place my suitcase in an overhead bin and quickly did the job for me without even being asked.

A guy in the café car told me the small bottles of red wine were chilled adjacent to the white (!) but would be warmed up just right by the time we made it to through the five intervening cars to the last car we both occupied. I had the perfect lunch. A grandma with a small child shared a sympathetic smile as she saw me cringe away from my zaftig seatmate during the dark of an almost endless night.

And best of all, the gentle swaying of the train, accompanied by the squeaks and rattles and bumps is one of the most soothing experiences in the world.


Martha in Michigan said...

I love Arlo Guthrie's City of New Orleans, a “new” folk song in which “the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.” I have ridden on two of the Amtrak routes long enough to deserve poetic names. (The ride I have taken several times between Detroit and Chicago is rather pedestrianly named the Wolverine. I did discover this month that Business Class is really worth it!)

In 1994, with the prescience that my older child’s high school graduation heralded the irreversible loosening of nuclear family ties, I planned a grand adventure — our first, last, and only real family vacation (visiting relatives does not count).

The California Zephyr took us through the Rockies to Grand Junction Colorado. The girls say the spectacular views from the upper-level lounge car with clear bubble roof are their strongest memory of the trip (making the Grand Canyon later seem a bit ho-hum). Recall that they were raised in the glacier-scraped flatlands of SE Michigan and had never seen any mountains except the worn-down Alleghenies before.

We wandered the Four Corners area in a rental car for a week (Mesa Verde, Arches, Glen Canyon, Grand Canyon, Wupatki, Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon, Petrified Forest, Great Meteor Crater, etc.), and the Southwest Chief took us from Albuquerque back home.

We had two "roomettes" on the lower level (less fighting for the bathrooms there) across the aisle from one another. The two facing seats in each turned into bunkbeds for sleeping — not especially capacious but (with window shades and aisle curtains) a lot more comfortable, quiet, and private than your experience. It also gave the girls the illusion of their own private little compartment for their exciting adventure. They were 12 and 17, probably the perfect ages for such a thing.

I’m not sure I need or want to do it again, but I’m really glad we did it once. Bet you're glad you gave it a shot, too.

Les said...

My first Amtrak experience is more or less remembered fondly, mainly because they served me alcohol two years before I was legal. Although the bathroom you describe sounds like the one on my trip.

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