The Golden Age of Rail Travel
by Peter Shelton
Jun 24, 2009 | 860 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print

The conductor, Bruce, looked at our tickets. “So, you’re going to San Juan Capistrano.” Bruce’s pants were sagging. His beard migrated down below his Adam’s apple. “Do the pigeons still come back every year to Capistrano?”

Ellen and I were so tired we weren’t sure he was making a joke. The swallows come back to the old Spanish mission at San Juan Capistrano every March 19th. There’s a song about it. Kids get out of school for a field trip to go see it. I did that as a kid.

Bruce was just trying to cheer everybody up. The Amtrak train we were taking from Albuquerque to Southern California had been three hours late getting to ABQ. Then, after we got settled in our seats, word came that they were changing out locomotives, and we’d be stopped for another hour plus. Finally, 9 p.m., stir crazy before we’d moved an inch, the eight-car caterpillar chugged out of the station.

Bruce had been up 24 hours straight, ever since the train left Chicago the evening before. “You going to visit the parish there in San Juan?” he asked. “The mission?” I queried, straight man again. “Yeah, the mission. If you go, say hello to Rabbi Rosenberg for me.”

The golden age of rail travel passed a long time ago in this country, well before the Santa Fe Superchief with its elegant Pullman sleepers and white-tablecloth dining devolved into Amtrak. My dad still rhapsodizes about cross-country journeys in the 1930s, Negro porters attending to your every need and the rocking clickety-clack as you fall asleep somewhere in the middle of a continent that had yet to dream up freeways.

I must have slept a little bit overnight because I missed the one scheduled smoke stop at Flagstaff, which would have happened around three a.m. There’s no smoking on Amtrak now, which is a good thing. So, they announce a stop where smokers can get off briefly and have a cigarette on the platform. Five minutes max, the voice on the PA droned. Don’t wander too far. Listen for the “all aboard” or we’ll leave without you.

All of the onboard staff seemed to have a weary shtick. Rosemary in the dining car cultivated a Big Nurse toughness. She said something about her seating schedule being thrown off by the fact the train was “a little tardy,” which elicited some guffaws from a nearby table. “That’s not funny,” she shot back, and glowered at them for a full 10 seconds. Later, when her dour waiter confirmed that another table had left without paying, she demanded, “What did they look like? I’m going after them!”

Dave, in the snack bar, had the most laconic intercom voice. “This is Dave downstairs in the lounge car. I’m going to keep the snack bar open, what’s left of it, for another half an hour. I’ve got one ham-and-cheese left. Oh no, wait. I don’t. Well, I’ve got chips and cookies, so come on down. Wear shoes. Bring money…”

Walking back to our seats we threaded the gauntlet of our fellow travelers splayed out like Katrina victims on the Superdome floor. Feet and arms and an occasional sleeping head jutted out over armrests into the aisles. Insomniacs played solitaire on ghostly laptops. Fathers and sons twined together under blankets brought from home on the awkward, partially-reclining chairs. Bodies assumed seemingly impossible contortions around ice chests and overnight bags. Ellen and I did our fitful best with pillows the size of paperback novels.

In a fuzzy dawn somewhere around Needles, Dave announced he had coffee. We stumbled our way to the snack bar where we got the last two cups. Dave had only one small coffee urn, and he had to shut down while he made another pot.

We huddled at a table warming our hands on the paper cups. The air conditioning had been turned up high all night. When I asked Bruce about it, he said he didn’t like to fiddle with it because then someone would complain about it being too hot.

A voice on the PA gave details about connections in Los Angeles. Because we were now five hours late, passengers with connections on the Coast Daylight to Seattle would have to take a bus to Bakersfield and then race to catch up with the train at Martinez.

We sat with a lovely, calm, white-haired woman who had been on the train all the way from Philadelphia. A veteran, she made the roundtrip every year to see family. With a Buddha smile she said simply, “If you need to be someplace on time, you don’t take the train.”

And then she loaned us her cell phone so I could call my brother to let him know we’d be a little tardy.

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