Riding the Rails to California

Enjoying alternative forms of travel, I’m on the Amtrak California Zephyr from Denver, Colorado to Berkeley, California to attend the annual Waterside writers conference.

I’m still on the train as I type this in, just pulling into Sparks, Nevada (a suburb of Reno, little cousin of Las Vegas, where I’ll be at the end of the month). So far, the train ride has been enjoyable and quite interesting. A different class of people ride the train than fly, and that’s what makes these trips so fun and different.

In my daily life, I tend to socialize and spend time with other people in the same socioeconomic class (SEC, as the census folk call it), and I bet you do too. Much of our social life is defined by the extended social circle of my daughter’s school, and as a non-traditional (Waldorf) private school, there’s a different SEC and different type of people attracted to that community than Joe and Jane “Sixpack”.

This can be good and bad. The good is that the people here on the train are engaging and quite different in beliefs and experiences than the typically self-important yuppies I’d encounter on a busy plane flight from Denver to Oakland, I’m sure. On the other hand, there are odd birds too: for example, the older couple in the room adjacent to mine refused point blank to mail a postcard for me – I can’t imagine something more innocuous, but they got quite cranky “nope, no, sorry, we can’t do that.” Yet they’re detraining here in Reno and going immediately to their hotel, about 50 feet from the station, where they could just hand it to the concierge. It’s puzzling, really, and I don’t get how people can be so socially awkward.

Of course, I have been reading my Tarot books (I bought “Tarot as a Way of Life” and L- found her long-lost copy of “Tarot on Ten Minutes” which I also brought along and hope to read) and since many of the people on the train seem to be relatively conservative Christians, perhaps that’s part of why the neighbors rejected my postcard to my kids? I mean, hey! I didn’t ask them if they wanted a reading or anything. 🙂

Anyway, back to the train journey itself.

One consistent theme that I hear on the train is that people (mostly older white couples) don’t want to see America lose its cultural identity. Not much talk about Iraq, the war, George W. or even 9/11, but more talk about the apparent loss of the ‘melting pot’ of America, where government pamphlets are produced in 15 languages, rather than expecting immigrants learn English to be effective and, dare I say, productive members of our society. As it happens, I agree with this sentiment and am also saddened to see that the American reaction to ongoing foreign immigration (especially from non European nations) is to break into a thousand shards, each a tightly clutched mirror of the original culture, language and heritage of the immigrant community.

There’s also a sense of camaraderie on the train that’s fun; by opting for a slower method of traveling, we are all united in our “difference” and it makes for easy and pleasant conversations with people. Except the couple in the next room, I guess.

Anyway, the trip is phenomenally scenic and boring at the same time: the edges of the trip are wonderful, starting with the breathtaking views of the Rockies as the train winds around the Boulder Flatirons and into the tunnel area where we pass through 24 different tunnels in fairly quick succession, culminating with the 6.2 mile long Moffet tunnel. It’s about fifteen minutes of dark, dark, dark.

The tunnel is quite an engineering accomplishment, actually, and there’s a story behind it and eccentric millionaire David Moffet, a turn-of-the-century railroad visionary. Based in Denver, he apparently sunk his entire $22 million fortune into the construction of a railroad through the Rockies, and died broke before it completed (with progress slowed by the Union Pacific construction team, actually) but that, well, that’s another story.

After leaving the Rockies and getting to Grand Junction, it’s the dull and never-ending high desert scrub of Utah and Nevada. Once we hit Reno, though, it’s gorgeous again as we travel through the Sierra Nevada mountain range into California, past quaint Truckee, beautiful Lake Tahoe, the fabled Emigrant Gap of pioneer days and into Sacramento. Gold mining country, with lots of history and scenic vistas. Then a quick couple of hours later I’ll be in Emeryville/Berkeley and meeting my pals Susan and Wanda for dinner.

I can’t wait.

One comment on “Riding the Rails to California

  1. Dave: I found your web site looking for information re: the California Zephyr that my wife and I will travel in Sept. I am a CPA by profession with numerous accomphishments and degrees. I was also a blugrass fiddle player who traveled with a band through the South playing show dates. Through this medium, I met real “mountain folk” and could pierce their extreme reticence because they could identify with me through the music. These folk are the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. I could literally write a book about them and their customs. Your comments about train folk
    vs. airlines types reminded me of my “mountain” experience. I’m 64, so I could also write a disertation on how airlines passengers have changed since I first starting flying in 1961. And it’s not for the better. Enjoyed your comments.

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