riding the rails 14

It was still dark as I made my way down Bush Street to the pickup point for the bus back over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville.  People used to warn me about going out after dark or walking through certain sections of town.  Now I fear those who did the cautioning, more than the ones I was warned about, who ninety-eight percent of the time are just victims, who’ve been left out in the cold.  If you have nothing, you technically should have nothing to lose, although you can still be fined for sitting down on the sidewalk and if you need to go to the hospital, may never pay back what you owe.  Walking through the financial district, between the dark skyscrapers, there were figures sprawled out in nearly every doorway, often with nothing but a newspaper for a sheet.

Even though I was using google maps, things still got a little confusing when I was a few blocks from the pickup point.  There was no street sign on a pedestrian path I was being directed down and I began to panic.  It didn’t look like the same area I’d been dropped off in the day before.  But, no, there it was, the multi-colored statue, human figures standing on top of each other, or something to that effect.  With some relief I noticed a handful of other people waiting with luggage.  I was still nervous about getting to the train on time.  As far as the two sections of the Rail Pass that I’d lost, I figured I’d just try to get ahold of customer service at a later time and explain what had happened. 

There was some confusion when ten minutes before the pickup time a bus rolled up.  The driver claimed to be there for an earlier pickup time, however, and most of us still had to wait for a second bus.  There was a woman in a handicapped scooter that I’d noticed when she arrived in a taxi.  The man she’d been with had been on crutches.  They’d got into a big argument, and she’d blown her top at him, her shouts echoing through the streets and getting everyone’s attention.  Now he hopped on the first bus, and she sat facing a wall.

After all that fretting, when the bus arrived it only took twenty minutes to cross the Bay to Emeryville, and I ended up with two hours to kill.

The California Zephyr runs between the Bay Area and Chicago, a distance of some 2,438 miles.  It has a reputation of being one of the most scenic routes in the nation, crossing both the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, and passes through California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa, and Illinois.  For the third time in just over a week, I’d be traveling between the West Coast and Chicago, but as long as I was going somewhere and didn’t need to get off the train anytime soon, that was fine by me.  The trip was scheduled to take 52 hours.

At 8:30, the Coast Starlight arrived, right on time, just as it had the day before, and I kicked myself for changing my ticket and losing those two sections in the process.  On the other hand, I had another big city under my belt, and was scheduled for New York, DC, and Miami, so there’d been some experience gained, even though much of it had been hellish enough to rival Dante’s tour of the Inferno.  Possibly worse, in that he’d had a guide who knew his way around, while I was just out winging it, falling into every pitfall and trap along the way.

About ten minutes before the Zephyr arrived, they had us go out on the platform and gather in groups.  All those riding coach were supposed to form a line at gate C.  When it did pull in, however, the line got jumbled as the passengers jostled to get close to the door.  When I got to the bearded conductor, he scanned my ticket three times and it didn’t go through, which gave me a surge of anxiety, even after he nodded for me to get on anyway.  It seemed to me there’d been a lot of glitches with my reservations so far, and now I worried that the connections I’d lined up in Chicago, New York, and DC, wouldn’t go through.  What was I thinking heading to New York City anyway?  The very idea of just showing up at Penn Station after dark made me worried sick.

We started off traveling in the same direction the Coast Starlight had traveled the day before, past Martinez and Davis, with a stop in Sacramento.  From there we headed east, however, towards Nevada.  Some guy, a modern-day meth hobo, of sorts, had gotten on the train with a skateboard, guitar, hooded sweatshirt, wearing, for some reason, a COVID mask.  He was very vocal in his appreciation of them letting him take the train instead of the bus, very vocal, in general, and when a girl came wandering down the aisle, looking like she didn’t know where her seat was, he shouted and motioned to her that there was room next to him.  Then the train whistle blew, and we were off.

There was no time to get comfortable.  A few minutes later I received an automated call from Amtrak, letting me know that my train to Miami had been cancelled once again.  That didn’t come as a surprise, but was too much information to process.  At this point the only option would be to take the Crescent to New Orleans, if I didn’t wish to get stranded in DC for two nights, but that was very much like trips I’d taken in the past.  If Amtrak wasn’t going to Florida, perhaps Greyhound was.  I’d have to look it up later.

As we got into the foothills of the Sierras, things began to look interesting so I went up to the observation car to get a better look.  The meth hobo had tromped up there a while ago, with his guitar in one arm and skateboard in the crook of his elbow, and now I discovered him, totally collapsed in one of the seats, his mask pulled down under his chin, offering his guide services to an elderly couple too polite to just ignore him.  He knew something about everything.  The geothermal activity in the region.  The Gold Rush.  The Donner Party.  When they showed interest in hearing more about the Donner Party, he made a joke about us becoming the next Donner Party.  That was finally enough to send them back to their seats, while he just looked over at me and shrugged.

We were north of King’s Canyon by now, and the views of the pine-covered mountains were spectacular, what you would take a train trip hoping to see, pristine wilderness.  It was like this for the next two hours, from Colfax to Truckee.  A couple next to me in matching National Park T-shirts and Tivas, went from one side of the car to the other, pushing their phones right up against the window, while a local guy with a professional camera had hedged his bets on the left side of the train and didn’t budge.  He’d been right.  As we approached Lake Tahoe, a string of small lakes appeared in the valley far below that made everyone who hadn’t been sitting on that side get up and try to squeeze in.

The California Zephyr passes through twenty-nine tunnels, and we passed our third or fourth while I was on hold to speak with an Amtrack agent, trying to get back to them about the cancelled train to Miami.  After ten seconds in the darkness, the phone went dead.  I’d have to wait until we got out of the mountains. 

Soon after passing through Truckee, the eastern slopes of the Sierras give way to the high desert of Nevada, and a sudden and shocking change of scenery takes place.  It now looked like we were traveling through a gravel parking lot.  A lot of people were getting out in Reno, the meth hobo for one, who’d been kicked out of the observation car and taken his guide services back to coach. 

The platform in Reno looked like a concrete bunker.  There was nothing to see, so I took the opportunity to get back on the phone with Amtrack, confirming that the Silver Star to Miami on the 6th had indeed been cancelled, and that the other reservations I’d made were still good.  Needing to come up with a backup plan, with no time to think it over, I went ahead and booked the Crescent from DC to New Orleans on the same day I’d been scheduled to travel to Miami.  I then booked passage on the Sunset Limited, traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles the day after that.  It felt like a mistake, but I figured if worse came to worse, I could go with my original backup plan and take the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego and then head to Mexico from there.  As soon as I got back on the train, however, I read that service on the Surfliner had just been suspended indefinitely, as well.  It felt like things were falling apart all over.

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