Public Comment

AMTRAK in the Spring By MAYA ELMER

Friday December 24, 2004

When the winds blow from the south, when my bedroom curtains billow inward over the open window, I hear the train whistles bouncing their way east from the bay shores, from way down below in the flatlands of Berkeley. I hear the whistles of Thomas Wolfe’s train in You Can’t Go Home Again. I see him looking out his window in the dark of night, I see myself looking out at the prairies and watching the lights of the farmers’ houses flash by.  

I want to be on that train, too. It’s like being on it—and yet, up here in bed, at the same time.  

The allure of the wind-brought image became reality. I was on my way to Chicago on an Amtrak sleeper-train for three slow-time days and two nights—starting with the California Zephyr which spun its way north from an Emeryville departure at 9:30 a.m. on an especially blooming Tuesday, April 20, 2004.  

I settled back against the sleeper car seat, eyes glued with avid curiosity, to look at the “backyard” of the East Bay territory I have only known from my 20 years of driving north on I-80 by its “frontyard.” The perspective had been jarred loose, and I searched for the familiar.  

The conductor came by to collect my ticket; yes, just like in the movies. I took a break from gazing outward to pay attention to the details of my temporary cubicle: the toggles for lights, and for the car-lady, a.k.a. “help me!” I slid the heavy compartment door back and forth a few times; it would give me total privacy when I wanted it. A coffee urn stood in the vestibule between car; and of course, the toilet. It was just one compartment away from mine—reassuring for night time visits. If you are as old as I am, you’ll understand the interest. If not, believe me, just you wait. Had I mentioned that all the important sleeping-car arrangements were on a second floor along with the dining car and lounge?  

Curiosity drew me back to the view unrolling before my eyes. The train was about to cross the Carquinez Straits—using the old train bridge. I was fascinated at how the engines appeared first to drive into a curve and then to meet the span head on, dragging our cars along behind.—Lo! There was the Mothball Fleet!! rows and rows of grey-ghosts floating in the bay to my right. Did the day-trippers to Reno lift their eyes from their mystery books to appreciate the ships’ existence in their present, their historical past? 

Shortly before the whistles rounded up for Sacramento and Old Town on the banks of the Sacramento River, a voice announced over the PA system that lunch would be served at noon sharp in the dining car, two cars behind. So I began the routine of lurching down the narrow aisle three times a day for meals; balancing from window to stateroom-wall to the rhythm of the swaying cars.  

“How was the food?” was the first question friends asked me on learning of my train trip. Goes to show the primeval interest hasn’t been genetically modified. The menus were great; sometimes the implementation stumbled; I forgave the dry salmon and the tough lamb shanks however; the vegetables and sandwiches were top notch. But after all, food came with the price of the ticket: food and lodging and the train trip itself all for the price of a three-day stay in a classy hotel. Couldn’t beat that.  

The best part came in the dining car: within the space of an hour, to define to three strangers who we were, where we came from and where we were going. And why we were on a train instead of a plane. Imagine my surprise to find that most of the train-trippers were terrified of flying: “Oh, are you really?” I looked doubtfully across the table at the chic blonde woman from North Berkeley who presented herself with a sophisticated air. She met my doubt head on, and laughed a bit ruefully, her eye brows pulling together slightly. “Yes. That’s truly so. Once I even took the anti-fear classes the airline offered; but it really didn’t work. I get panic attacks when I board a plane”  

The blonde turned to all three of us at the table and continued, “Yes, I’ve just learned to live with it. My husband and I have planned a two-week vacation in Paris where I’m to meet him in…” she glanced at her watch-calendar, “in 12 days. And believe it or not, I have reservations on the QE 2, the night our train arrives in New York City.”  

“Well, why did you take the train?” I was asked by the young 40-ish New York couple who had attended a wedding in San Francisco. After I saw them smooching on the platform at a long stop, I suspected THEY were the wedding pair.  

A simple answer: As I slow down in my life, so I want to travel slowly, arrive slowly; I want to smell the roses before the petals wither.  

By 3 p.m. of my first day, the train began climbing into the Sierra and I banks of manzanita in bloom, their “tiny apple” blossoms casting a pink haze over all. The dogwood trees, blanched white-white, huddled amongst the evergreens. Suddenly I was aware of a silence as the train rose to float past tree tops dusted with snow. There was no chuk-a-chuk of the wheels remembered from bygone train travel. A mystical feeling grew in the silence. 

“The rails are welded together,” said my across-the-aisle neighboring traveler in explan-ation as she noted my interest in the change of sound. A woman of 60, a county administrator, writer of a book, whose volunteerism developed into a professional life. Her hair pulled back from a lovely face, ended with a long braid which reached to her waist. I recognized a high achiever-though modest. She was the type I’d love to interview for a story.  

The Zephyr then curved itself around Emigrant Gap, Soda Springs, and Norden. All the names which figured in my ski-days. At this altitude light snow had settled on the earth and between the rails; which curved on ahead of the train like twin black magical snakes through a forest and around the rising hills. Small solid patches of snow hid in the woodlands. Nostalgia gripped me; my heart turned over at the recollection of images—for a moment how it was:  

I am there. At the top of the slope I pose, teetering and shifting my weight. The cold air like a feather on my cheeks. The sun like a warm palm on my forehead. I shiver; I just push off the ridge and slide my skis downward, sidewise.  

Trees flow past me; it is not I flowing past them. My poles, my arms like wings and knees in a crouch. Flying through the air, although grounded to the can I do—be—both?—the spurt, the spume of frosted air spins past me.  

Schussing straight down; then to pull up smartly noisily crisp in a quick jump on the pitch of the ski edge. The solitary joy of conquering .  

I grieve again, for the times past, but for only a moment. The train—and life—goes on.  

The only time I found myself angry and ready to proselytize my companions on the train about the necessity of writing our Congressmen to vote for more $$ for the Amtrak system was when the fancy toilet–gimmickry broke down. The passengers in this car would have to use the one in the next car . Imagine , dead-of-night, having to push open the doors, one for each car; and between the cars, waltz over the connecting plates ,catching fearful sight of earth moving beneath. Then to repeat the process to return to the berth.  

Thank goodness there was time for exchanging tips on marketing stories to magazines with the writer from Orinda, Calif., as the train stretched itself over the Rockies, on over the plains into Chicago; time to gently turn aside the approaches of the Seventh Day Adventist couple; time to accept the gifts of books as another traveler finished reading them. One after the other.  

Thank goodness there was time to get acquainted with the fat man whose thighs poured over the edge of the dining car banquette, with the doughy legs of the little Pillsbury man who s joining the annual reunion of submariners in Milwaukee.  

I warmed to him instantly. “My first husband, Bill, and I had spent two months in Manitowac, where his sub, the Kraken, had been built,” I offered to the conversation. Manitowac, Wisconsin was just north of Chicago by an hour or two. The ex-sailor’s face gleamed at my recognition of his journey. Memories again. The launching of Bill’s ship sidewise into the harbor’s waters; the heavy thuds with the drumbeat of music, as the timbered grids were knocked away by sledge hammers. The tsunami of a splashing wave when the ship fell off and then righted itself. I had kissed him goodbye, with love, sadly, and with misery when he, on the Kraken, had floated down the Mississippi River and ultimately to war in the Pacific. I didn’t tell my mates at the table how I wept when I read how the ship had to dive deep into the shallows off of Singapore to avoid gunfire, being stuck in the mud for hours.  

I, safe in a steel girt train and not in a covered wagon, finally arrived in Chicago where this story “from sea to shining sea,” “This Land is My Land,” and, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies”—all these clichés-in-song—had become a reality for me.