No, not that kind of training, as in preparing for the Boston Marathon, although this kind does have in common with that one the idea of forward motion. To clarify, I’m talking today about the Amtrak variety of training. More specifically, today’s reflection will deal with our recent trip from Emeryville, California (i.e., Oakland, in San Francisco’s East Bay) to Denver. Here’s the context. Cedar, our housemate Phil, and I had been at a conference on the University of California campus in Berkeley. To save time not to mention wear-and-tear, we flew out but decided it would be fun to take the train back in order to enjoy the lovely scenery between the northern California coast and Colorado’s front range. A major difference would be 36 hours on the return versus two-and-a-half on our flight. Moreover, we would be sitting up in coach versus the luxury of a night in a compartment. The cost difference between the two was a factor of five, and as retirees, we just couldn’t afford the greater comfort. Moreover, by the time we booked our trip, the sleepers were no longer available anyway...
My experiences of taking cross-country trains were all from my childhood and youth. Until he started flying in the 1950s, my dad was an inveterate train guy. And as a long-time grain merchant, he would go to trade conventions and other business meetings around the country four or more times a year. We also took family trips from New York City to Miami or from the City to Chicago or the West Coast. Since Dad was reasonably well-to-do, we always had sleeping accommodations on trains like the Twentieth-Century Limited or the Super Chief. I remember meals in the dining car and reading, playing games, or looking out the window from the club car, while the adults drank cocktails and traded stories. I also remember the friendly porters, all elderly black men in those days, who—if you put your shoes out in the hall at night—would polish and return them by morning to just in front of your door. I would sometimes hang out with them in their little lounges and listen to their stories of people and places as they traveled the country—gripping stories for the elementary-school me.
That was then. The California Zephyr didn’t quite live up to its name. Although it left on time, we arrived in Denver three-and-a-half hours late. Phil told us the joke about a man who tried to commit suicide by tying himself to the Amtrak tracks and ended up dying of starvation. True, trains were now double-deckers, the observation car had giant windows, and the food in the dining car exceeded expectations. The porters in 2023 were mainly jazzy black females of a certain age, although the busy conductors were still mainly white men. The physical condition of the cars, meanwhile, left a lot to be desired. The toilets reminded me of those I had seen at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp; paint was peeling; my tray table kept falling down; and once the P.A. system failed to announce sign-up for dinner, with the result, until the error was realized, that we were kept from eating in the dining car. The scenery however was phenomenal, and the weather gods totally cooperated. My 83-year-old back hurt after a semi-sleepless night, but all in all we survived. The moral of the story is thus that taking a cross-country U.S. train is like life itself, part good, part bad, but the main thing is you get somewhere in the end. So, go, Amtrak, and here’s to life!