Sunday Morning ~ Whistle Blowing~ Aboard the Lakeshore Limited
Mwendera mwana salema. ~ The one who visits his own child does not get tired.
~ Chewa proverb
February 13, 2022
The whistle blows often and I love that sound. It’s not a honk nor a wail; it’s more of a long soft howl. I find it beautiful and reassuring. It says things are moving; people are moving. It’s letting everyone know to stay clear, we’re coming through. What a great way to travel.
My train odyssey started after another great week of skiing, finally experiencing the iconic Alta, a mountain way more challenging than I expected. Definitely not for sissies. With tired legs and a goggle tan we left Park City Thursday afternoon when my brother took me into Salt Lake City to see the sights before dropping me at the train station. The sights ended up limited to the Mormon Tabernacle and visitor center as everything else was closed, including the public library. We’d visited Salt Lake City before on a summer camping trip when we were kids and I remember thinking then it was a strange city. I’ve gotta say, I got the same vibe all these years later. It’s very quiet.
The tours at Temple Square were led by young international women on a “mission” and the few facts they relayed about the buildings and culture were outweighed by unsubtle proselytizing. It was all very handmaids tale. The guides vastly outnumbered the tourists and were dressed similarly in calf length dresses and short black boots with ankle socks. They wore flags on their lapels depicting languages they spoke and all clutched the Book of Mormon in their right arm. They wandered in pairs, quietly talking to each other unless they had a few people to guide. They were sweet, passionate in their faith and love for Jesus Christ. The script did not vary. The first question they asked was what religion we were as if the answer would complete their lives not satisfy a curiosity. I answered, “Catholic. Practicing.” My brother said, “Raised Catholic.” They nodded sweetly and we moved on. The buildings were impressive and lovely but the Temple is covered in scaffolding as they are doing a huge renovation to make it earthquake-proof. An excavation under the building to insert tubes will allow the huge structure to roll and absorb the shock. It’s impressive the digging going on under such a building. I hope they know what they’re doing. The sign says when it is finished it will be the safest place in Utah when the big earthquake strikes; no one in that building will be hurt. We extricated ourselves from the tour guides to walk to the top of the visitor center where we had a view of the city ringed by mountains. Gorgeous. Quiet.
The California Zephyr heading east gets in to Salt Lake City at 3:30 a.m. which is rather inconvenient for passengers boarding at that location. I was picturing a big old train station with carved wooden benches, warm and wild, just like the west; a place I wouldn’t mind hanging out for a long wait. But reality didn’t quite jive with my fantasy. The train station was a pre-fab, small, grey, one room building with plastic seats located at the track and not open until 10 p.m. when the west bound train goes through. There’s only one train a day going west and one going east. I guess a comfy artistic building would be a bit of a waste.
So, not wanting to keep my send-off party in the city too late, I got dropped at the Greyhound Bus terminal, near the unopened train station, at 6 p.m. and had a mere nine hour wait for the train. That station wore the shabby outfit similar to other Greyhound stations, but was warm and dry, if not clean, and I was on an adventure. I’d overpacked so had a lot to carry but it’s hard with skis and gear. I had a large duffel bag plus a ski bag and two good sized carry-ons with stuff I’d need for three full days on a train. It was cumbersome getting into the station and my companions were worried. They wouldn’t dream of traveling like this and couldn’t understand my desire. I assured them I was fine, waved goodbye, and lumbered in to wait for more than half the night. I was a teensy anxious about having to use the rest room and lugging all the gear into a stall–– the hardest thing about traveling alone––but otherwise was happy to people-watch and read. My solitary activity lasted all of three minutes when a guy wearing plaid shirt, jeans, and a stetson, plunked his bags down and asked in a hearty voice, “Hey, are you taking the train?” I told him I was but needed to wait in the bus station because the train depot didn’t open for four more hours. “I know!” he said, “I figured with the skis you’d be an interesting person to talk to for awhile!” He then settled in for a long and very entertaining wait. Four hours flew by. I thought about when I met George at the train station in Berkeley, then thought, hey, I think this is the same train! It originates somewhere in California. Well, there was no romance starting in Salt Lake as a good portion of the talk was about him and his new love. Fourteen years divorced, he was now in love again and I was the lucky recipient of details. (Divorce stories always take up a good chunk of time and I can keep up with the best of them.) The guy was hilarious, grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and after retiring from the three businesses he started, was driving an eighteen wheeler. And could he talk! He was heading west to pick up a truck, leaving at 11:30, otherwise his stories may have gone on until doomsday. He talked about the eighty-eight marathons he’d run and when I said, “Oh, I’ve only run five.” He replied, “That’s ok! I ran five one month!” Then took off his hat and laughed uproariously. He told me his appendix burst after running his last marathon and was very sick with sepsis. When he recovered, his hair had gone completely grey. Then he looked at me and asked, “So what’s your excuse?” then slapped his knee and doubled over laughing. We passed four hours like this. At ten we made our way out to the Amtrak building and by the time he boarded the westbound an hour later, I felt like I’d been to a Broadway show.
The next several hours were not as entertaining. There were five of us waiting for the 3:30 train and one was an older vet who could not figure out the pre-covid check-in on his phone. I told him if he put his mask on correctly I’d try to help him since I’d had no trouble with it that morning. He grudgingly put his mask over his nose and I went though the process I’d used. But since he’d not booked his ticket on-line there was some glitch and it didn’t work. I recommended he call the number they gave him and that provided an hour’s entertainment listening to him yell at the poor minimum wage earner on the phone, “No! I don’t want to take a survey! I’m trying to do this covid thing and you are making it too hard! I’m sitting in the train station in Salt Lake!”, blah blah, on and on, yelling at them until they’d hang up on him and he’d turn to the room and say, “I don’t want to take a stupid survey!” Then he’d start the call again and say the same thing. I was walking around the room stretching my legs and the third time he called I told him, “Don’t yell at them! They don’t care! Just take the survey, you’ve got nothing else to do!” There was a guy traveling to Iowa to visit family for the weekend, a construction worker doing a job in Utah, and our eyes met and we laughed. He shook his head and put his pack on the floor to rest his head for a nap. I checked my big bags through to Albany, and relieved of them, rested my head on my carry-on bag and dozed. Our train was over an hour late arriving and finally at 4:45 a.m.we boarded the east bound train and I fell dead asleep in my seat. I vaguely remember looking at a sunrise that might have been a good photo, but went right back to sleep until well after it was high in the sky.
Waking and feeling more rested than I expected, I made my way to the dining car to see about getting breakfast, to learn that the dining car was reserved for only those with a sleeping berth. That was a bummer. So back to the cafe car to get coffee, then back to my seat, to settle in to the little nest I’d made for myself. The scenery started getting very gorgeous. We were just north of Bridges National Park and the sunlight on rock formations was stunning. Mid-morning I went to the observation car which has a domed glass roof. The light and views were incredible. The only drawback was the obnoxious drunk railing against the current administration as he and another couple emptied an entire bottle of Jameson’s. Plus they had their masks off and it was pissing me off. I was hoping they weren’t going all the way to Chicago. I went back to my seat for awhile, then as we got into Colorado and the scenery really took off I went back to the observation car. By then this little trio was either relocated or kicked off the train, I’m not sure which. They were gone though, along with an announcement from the conductor that anyone not wearing a face mask would be removed from the train and not necessarily at a station. Also, language and behavior must be appropriate. Apparently, mask-less drunk people at 10 a.m. spewing racist theories wasn’t part of the ticket purchase agreement and I’m glad they enforced the rules. The observation car was so much more pleasant after that. In fact, it was glorious.
The train winds through the Rocky Mountains where roads don’t go. I marveled at the engineering feat of laying these tracks. I thought of the workers and what it must have been like to build such a system. The train follows the Colorado River and is some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. We saw lots of elk and big horned sheep dotting the hillsides. I sat content with my knitting while the landscape rolled by and thought about what a gorgeous country this is. I was deep in conversation with two sisters from New York, when it started snowing hard. They were getting off in Winter Park, about an hour before Denver and were concerned about the two miles they had to drive to their condo. I wished them well as the sun was setting dark grey and shades of white. On the train we were warm and dry and moved along without a care, wind howling, and snow accumulating. I’d brought food and drink so was well prepared for the evening and couldn’t have been more content.
I slept well on that train. The seats in coach are large, recline well, and with two side by side, make a nice little bed. I’d brought a blanket and little pillow and having been awake much of the night before, was sound asleep by 9 p.m. The soft rocking of the train was lulling and I slept right through Nebraska and a good part of Iowa.
Arriving at Chicago’s Union Station around 3 p.m. I had six hours to wait for the Lake Shore Limited to Albany. I checked my bag and went out to walk around, covering over seven miles in a few hours before making my way back to wait for my connection and defrost. Man was it cold there! There was a bar in the station and I nursed a hard cider until boarding time.
Departing at 9:30 p.m. I read a bit then slept but the seats weren’t quite as comfy. It’s much more like a commuter train and when I do this segment again I think I’ll get a sleeper. I woke up outside of Erie, Pennsylvania in white-out conditions and, as I write this, am grateful to be traveling by rail. Driving on the highway through similar conditions on this stretch of road two weeks ago was stressful. Even though the snow was not accumulating much, it was messy with poor visibility. It’s a delight now to not be gripping a steering wheel.
My view as I pass Buffalo certainly make me appreciate the term “other side of the tracks.” The housing difference is remarkable depending on which side of the train you look.
I’m getting motion sick writing this so will wrap it up when I get home…
Addendum: It’s now Tuesday and having been safely deposited in Albany, collected my luggage, and drove to my daughter’s for Super Bowl and a night visiting the grands. The final leg to Maine was yesterday afternoon and now I can check another one off the bucket list: a cross-country train trip. Loved it. Highly recommend it.
Love to all,