My alarm goes off. I’m in a deep sleep, dreaming about my sister Melyngoch coming back from her mission and wanting to go on a crazy hike involving a lot of waterfall crossings. I get up, and pack my last few things. I have a large suitcase, a small one, a backpack and a small bag. Also, two other train necessities: a pillow and blanket. Since I’ll be flying later, I’ve been careful not to bring too much—one of the advantages of train travel is that the luggage limits are rather more generous (not to mention that they don’t come with extra fees), and it’s tempting to over-pack.
A friend who’s kindly offered to give me a ride to the train station comes by, and we carry my stuff out to her car. Bizarrely, she has to scrape ice off the windshield. This is not California weather. We head for the familiar Amtrak building. It sounds fun to get on a train and go somewhere, she says. I completely agree. I started taking the train to Utah for the holidays a few years ago. I did it the first time simply because it was cheaper. But I found it so much more pleasant than flying that ever since I’ve been doing it whenever I can.
I check my suitcases, and settle down with my carry-on items to wait for the train. I have a variety of things to keep me occupied, including a Zune loaded with music, Buffy episodes, and games; my laptop; and three novels. (I don’t plan on making it through them all, but selecting novels to try is a tricky business, and I want to have back-ups in case the first one doesn’t work out.) I also have a stash of food: bagels, dark chocolate m&m’s, Chex mix, and a sandwich from Quiznos.
The Zephyr is here. I follow a line of other passengers up the stairs to the upper level of the car. This stop in Emeryville is the first one on the line, so we have our pick of seats. I hunt for one with a plug—there usually seems to be one per car. I’m in luck; I find it, and the seat isn’t taken yet. This means I can freely use my laptop and other electronic toys, without worrying about limited battery life. I stash my bags, and take off my shoes (I always feel more relaxed without shoes, though I’ll have to put them back on if I decide to wander the train later).
The conductor comes by to collect tickets and put destination tags above our seats. I look at the ones around me: Salt Lake, Denver, Grand Junction. The trip from the Bay Area to Salt Lake is just about the right amount of time, I think; long enough to enjoy the ride, but not so long that I start to get stir-crazy. In the car ahead, there are people who are riding the Zephyr to the end of the line in Chicago. They’ll be on the train for days.
I text my sister Elbereth, who will be picking me up early tomorrow, to let her know that I’ve successfully made it on to the train and we’ve departed. I look out the window for a while as we go north along the bay, enjoying the hypnotic view of the water. Once we turn west and head toward Sacramento, I decide it’s time for a morning nap. Sometimes it’s inconvenient to be short, but at times like this I’m glad of it; at five-foot-three, I can curl up on the double seat without too much trouble.
We arrive in Sacramento, the last major stop before Reno. Thus far, we’re right on schedule. I wonder how long that will last; most of the train trips I’ve taken have gotten me to my destination a few hours late. It doesn’t really bother me. If speed were my priority, after all, I’d have taken a plane. And I like the more relaxed atmosphere; people on the train aren’t as likely to be rushing frantically to their next appointment.
The bit from Sacramento to Reno is my favorite part of the trip. They usually have a tour guide on board who shares information about various historic sites as we go past. I’ve heard it several times now, and I don’t pay much attention anymore. Though I always find it a bit haunting when we go by Donner Lake to think about those people stranded in the cold, all those years ago.
We’ve reached the Sierras. I look out the window at the trees coated in white. As has become somewhat of a personal tradition for me, I break out the Christmas music, turning on some Mannheim Steamroller. This is my fifth year in California, but I still have a hard time feeling Christmas-y among the palm trees. But here, riding a train through snow-covered mountains and evergreens, I feel like I can finally glimpse Christmas on the horizon. When we go around curves, I can see the front part of the train through my window. It might not be the Polar Express, but there’s something irresistibly romantic about the image of a train going through the snow.
People are heading to the dining car for lunch. I’ve never splurged and bought a meal on the train. It’s not only the cost that makes me reluctant to do so; in order to make the most efficient use of their space, they make you sit with two or three other people. I shudder at the thought of spending a meal making small-talk with people I’ve never met; that’s perhaps even worse than visiting teaching.
A train employee comes by handing out pillows. I’ve brought my own, so I wave her along—but the guy across from me signals to take one anyway. I do so, and hand it across to him. He cheerfully thanks me, and asks a few questions about what I do. I hesitantly confess to being a doctoral student in theology. The hesitancy has to do with the difficulty of explaining just what theology is—I’m surprisingly inarticulate when it comes to answering that question—and the fact that admitting that I work in the area of religion often provokes long conversations. If I’m feeling talkative, it can be interesting. But at the moment I’m just wanting to relax in my own space. Fortunately, he only tells me a bit about a religious program he recently saw on television, and then wanders off.
I put my feet up, and lie back in my seat. Pat-a-Pan is playing on my Zune. The rest of my life feels a bit far away, like I’ve entered into a kind of peaceful limbo. Somehow in this in-between space, the various life stresses weighing on my mind don’t seem so relevant. And the slow forward movement of the train feels soothing.
As we get close to Truckee, I decide to go to the view car, which has large windows and seats facing outward. The people on either side of me both have fancy cameras. They start a conversation about cell phone service, and which companies have more coverage. Though I’m glad for the intermittent cell service, which allows me to keep my sister updated on the train’s progress, I actually find it somewhat liberating to be away from phone and internet access for a while.
The small mountain town of Truckee is a familiar sight. I have a vague memory of first seeing it at the age of five, when my family moved from the Bay Area to Utah. My dad drove the U-haul, and my mom drove our old blue Plymouth Valiant. We kept in touch with CB radios. There were five of us kids at the time; Eve, the oldest, would have been nearly nine, and Elbereth was not yet a year. The trip took three days. I got carsick and spent the first day throwing up. I liked the second day better, as once my stomach settled down I was allowed the occasional privilege of riding in the truck. This was something which three-year-old Kiskilili was dying to do, but she was deemed too young. At one rest stop she was allowed to eat her breakfast in the truck, and afterward she refused to get back out again.
We’re coming into Reno. The scenery changes quite drastically as we come down out of the mountains and into the Nevada desert. I return to my seat. It’s already getting dark; I remember that it’s getting close to the shortest day of the year. I think the trip is timed well; you’re in daylight for the most scenic part of the journey, and then in darkness for most of Nevada. I’m feeling a bit drowsy, and decide it’s time for another nap. The guy across the aisle warns me not to do it, because I won’t be able to fall asleep later, but I reply that I’d might as well get some sleep while I’m tired enough to do it.
I wake back up, and see that it’s quite dark now. It makes the inside of the train seem cozy, though looking out at the darkness always makes me feel a bit melancholy. I indulge the mood for a while, and put on some slow music. Then I decide to try out one of the novels. It’s an engaging read, but after an hour or so, my mind starts to wander, and I decide to switch to Buffy episodes.
We’ve made it to Winnemucca, a town I’m familiar with from numerous road trips following I-80 across Nevada. Last year I remember them coming across the intercom at this point, alerting the one person who was going to Winnemucca that it was time to get off. I hoped that whoever it was got the message. Fortunately Salt Lake is a long stop, and they always do a good job about coming through and waking you up before the train gets there.
Several summers ago, Kiskilili and I spent two months in Germany, studying at the Goethe Institute in Schwäbisch Hall. We took the train up to Berlin the weekend of the Fourth of July. We planned to have a look at Wittenberg on our way back. But we didn’t realize just how brief the train stop there would be. When it pulled into the station we grabbed our suitcases and headed for the doors, but didn’t manage to make it off the train before it started moving again. As a result, we had to backtrack, and because of the hours lost, we ended up spending that night in the train station in Nuremberg, trying to doze in uncomfortable chairs while waiting for the earliest morning train back to Schwäbisch Hall.
We’re in Elko, thirty minutes ahead of schedule. We wait there for a while, giving people a chance to get off the train and stretch their legs. I look outside at the frost and the people bundled up, and decide I’ll stay inside where it’s warm.
It’s now officially quiet time. The lights are turned off, and the people around me settle down for some sleep. I am, as predicted, wide awake. I keep working on my laptop for a while, but worry that I’m annoying the people around me by keeping my reading light on. I could go back to the lounge car, but decide to instead lie down and close my eyes and see if I can drift off.
No sleep yet; I’ve been alternating between closing my eyes and playing with my Zune. I see the glittering casino lights of Wendover in the distance. I look at my cell phone, and see that it’s switched over to Mountain Time. We’re almost to the Utah border.
When I was a sophomore at BYU, I took a road trip with my roommates to Wendover. One of them had just turned 21, and she wanted to celebrate by doing a bit of gambling, now that she legally could. I was a law-abiding 20-year-old, so I didn’t try out the slot machines. Instead, I wandered around and looked at the casinos with fascination.
We’re crossing the Salt Flats, though it’s too dark to see much. Last year, with the third Pirates movie still fresh in my mind, I remember texting my sister that I’d made it to World’s End. I could imagine the Black Pearl stranded there.
I’m somewhere between wakefulness and sleep when the conductor comes by to let us know that we’re coming into Salt Lake. I can see the silhouetted buildings in the distance. We’re a good forty-five minutes early. I call Elbereth, who answers on the third ring in a voice that’s not quite awake. I’m impressed that she’s answering so soon; she’s a deep sleeper, and I thought I might have to call her multiple times. I gather my things, using my phone as a flashlight to doublecheck that I haven’t left anything behind. We pull into the station, and I carry my various items downstairs and off the train. It’s icy cold.
Along with the other passengers, I hurry over to the small station. It is bustling with people, who wait restlessly in small plastic seats. A girl is playing on a Nintendo DS. She hands it to her mother, and in a patient tone instructs her how to use it. A young woman mentions to the man sitting next to her that this is her first time taking the train. You’ll enjoy it, he says. I think so, she replies. Another woman looks around at the crowded room and comments to the woman next to her, who says people don’t ride trains anymore? I have to go briefly back out into the chill to collect my checked suitcases, and drag them inside. The passengers who are boarding here give their tickets to the conductor in exchange for seat checks, and head out into the night.
Elbereth and Kiskilili, who flew into Salt Lake the evening before and spent the night at Elbereth’s apartment, arrive to pick me up. We’re all pretty tired, but we talk enthusiastically as we pack up her car, the chatter of sisters who haven’t seen each other in months and have a lot of caching up to do. I’m happy to see them, and looking forward to some sleep in an actual bed. But when I turn back and look at the darkened train sitting on the tracks, waiting to continue its journey, I’m a bit sad to be leaving it behind. It makes me smile to think of it heading eastward, into the daylight.