From A Moving Train
We’ve been traveling across a small corner of America, clocking 1600 miles, 2575 kilometers, idling away 48 hours, riding two slow trains, peering out countless dirty windows, creeping closer to that place we once called home.
We boarded the train in Green River. Take my advice and don’t go there without a compelling reason. That’s the town, behind the sign.
And here’s the train station.
Nobody’s there. It’s all boarded up. There’s an asbestos danger warning sign on the door. At a nearby gas station the guy answers my disbelief with “yup, that’s the station, but don’t worry, if you have a ticket the train will stop for you, people get on that train every day.” I’ll bet they do, escaping from Green River.
But what train? The departure time comes and goes, no sign of a train. Fortunately for us there’s one other person at the station, waiting to pick up her arriving boyfriend. Even more fortunately for us, she has a cell phone and so does he, and thus we learn that the train will be 2 hours and 45 minutes late. If she hadn’t been there we’d have been standing on the edge of the desert with our legs crossed, afraid to even go searching for a bathroom in case we might miss the day’s only train.
Waiting in the twilight, kept company by swooping bats, we are very glad to see the train coming. We cram ourselves into our tiny sleeping compartment and surrender to train time. Once aboard an American train, time no longer really matters. You’re going to be late and that’s all there is to it. If you can’t cope with that, you fly. We toss and turn, rock and roll, in our little berths, dreaming about France and the TGV that always runs on time and travels so fast you can’t even see the scenery you’re passing.
We awaken in Nevada. I decide that even though the dirt on the windows and the blur of our progress will mark the pictures, I’ll show you our train trip unretouched and in the raw.
Nevada is huge and empty. We cross it for hours.
We talk a lot about the pioneers, how they crossed all this in wagons, or walked. Coming from Europe, this moonscape must have bowled them over, just as it now does us.
People do live out here, but it has the look of a precarious existence.
Inside the train something extraordinary happens. The conductor picks up a passenger’s guitar and begins to play and sing. He’s very good, with a clear pure baritone and some original songs that deserve to be hits. We keep him playing for a long time, until the crew changes at Reno,
where two volunteers from the California Railroad Museum come aboard to narrate the journey along the historic railway into Sacramento. One of them picks up the guitar, and holy smokes, he’s even better than the conductor was, finger picking and singing the blues like nobody’s business. We agree that this could never happen on a French train, and thus we conclude that yes, Virginia, there really is an America and we are in it up to our ears.
We finally reach California and travel along the Truckee River through
the cute little town of Truckee, which I used to visit often in a former life. It looks impossibly exotic to me now, rustic beyond recollection.
We cross the Sierras at Donner Summit, past Donner Lake, where many pioneers perished as they struggled to reach the coast.
There’s still a lot of snow up here in mid-May,
but it warms up quiclky as we drop down toward the Sacramento delta.
Arriving in Sacramento, where we have a 9 hour layover before boarding our next train, we pay homage to the past at the train museum,
and to the present at an Internet cafe where we appear to be the only people over 25, before having dinner with an old friend whom we haven’t seen since our wedding, almost 14 years ago. Finally, after midnight, we crawl aboard the train that will take us north and fall asleep almost before we start moving. I don’t even wake up during the two hours we’re stopped somewhere behind a broken-down freight train, and so in the morning I’m surprised and delighted not to have missed
the beautiful Mt. Shasta, normally passed in the night by northbound trains.
Crossing into Oregon I’m reminded again of the early settlers, the unimaginable hardships that they faced,
my thoughts underscored by the snowstorm that descends upon us as we cross the Cascade summit.
Spring awaits us below, and as we get closer to leaving Oregon we begin to imagine what we might find at “home,” just one more state away.
We come into Washington as the sun is setting. Our very long journey is almost at an end. Are we ready?