riding the rails 15

A group of five chatty Mexican businessmen had gotten on the train in Winnemucca, and were traveling to Salt Lake City.  They were in high spirits and seated all around me.  Fortunately, there was no one next to me, so I laid my head down as soon as it got dark, and tried to escape my situation by shutting my eyes.  After passing through Elko, there were no scheduled stops for the next four hours.  Gradually, thing began to quiet down.

When I awoke to the gray light of day, we were just outside of Green River.  We went around a curve and I could see the locomotive and other cars bending into the purplish, low clouds on the horizon.  The trip had been full of discomfort, but also full of scenes of rare beauty.  If it had mostly been a disaster so far, it had also been a strangely, photogenic one.

The couple with the matching National Park T-shirts were in the observation car when I went up to get a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich.  We’d run into each other enough that if we were going to talk it would’ve happened by now.  My impression was that he’d served as some kind of mentor in the past and that a relationship had developed from there, since he was considerably older, but that could’ve been way off and was none of my business.  He was showing her once again, how if you press your phone right up against the window, you can avoid the glare.

I went back to my seat to study the train schedules.  I was not happy at all with my itinerary, now that the Silver Star to Miami was out of the picture.  I was scheduled for one night in New York City, one night in Washington DC, and one night in New Orleans, before heading back west on the Sunset Limited.  That was no good at all, especially since the Pacific Surfliner had just been suspended, and it had been my backup plan to take it to San Diego, then head to Mexico. It did occur to me that I might be able to hop off the Sunset Limited in El Paso and cross over into Juarez from there.  Seeing that the train stopped in El Paso in the early afternoon it was possible, but I’d been in that area a few years earlier, so the idea didn’t excite me.

On Hostelworld, I found a place in New York that was only about a mile from Penn Station, then another in DC that was about the same distance from Union station.  They weren’t cheap for shared accommodations, but way better than I could do otherwise.  Being unemployed for years now, with my financial situation what it was, the last thing I needed to be doing was taking a tour of big cities in America, yet, lo and behold, on the circus rolled.

A woman sitting in the aisle seat, two seats ahead on the other side, had been helping people with information since she’d gotten on the train.  We got to talking and I found out she was traveling on a Rail Pass as well.  So far, she’d done some of the regional routes in the Northeast and was returning from a trip on the Empire Builder, very similar to the one I’d just undertaken.  She’d been a free spirit most of her life, a retired educator who’d spent a few years working for Americorps in Alaska, and was now just traveling across the country, visiting friends. 

After we were done talking, another woman who was sitting a few seats back and had overheard us talking, came up and wanted to ask me a few questions about my lifestyle.  I said I wouldn’t recommend it.  It was something she’d been dreaming of doing her whole life, however.  Now she was married and her and her husband had a small business that had been impacted by the pandemic.  She’d just been visiting in relatives in Utah and was on her way to Colorado where they were hoping to make a new start.  Still, she’d always felt like a bit of a gypsy and wondered what it was like to be riding around the country with nothing to tie you down.

First of all, I assured her that I wish I did have something to tie me down.  It was true that I’d been seduced by the nomadic lifestyle at an early age, but there are pros and cons to every situation in life.  I’d always imagined that I’d find that magical place, fall into the right community, meet the right girl, and have kids and settle down, just like everyone else.  The trouble is that I’d never found that magical place or any kind of community.  Perhaps, I’d been sabotaged by romantic ideas about what life could be, but mostly everywhere I went the things I was asked to do were unimaginative and repetitive, and I’d done them mostly in isolation.  The songs I’d written and albums I’d recorded hadn’t reached anyone.  Living as an artist might have worked for others, but it hadn’t worked for me.  So, I’d burned everything to the ground and become a wandering spirit.  It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but was within my control, and, yes, I still did get a kick out of it after all these years.  It was a terrible way to live, but the best I could do under the circumstances.

She thanked me for my honest response and took the business card I handed her, the first, and last, I would be handing out on this trip.  If a traveler doesn’t have someone to tell their story to, then what do they have?  I should have thanked her for listening.

The conductor passed through, announcing that our next stop would be in Glenwood Springs and that eighty people would be getting onboard there.  He asked us to clear the seats next to us if we were traveling alone.  The train would be full until we got to Denver.

Glenwood Springs is a popular weekend trip from Denver, with hot springs, caves, and adventure parks, so that made sense.  It was the perfect time of year for a weekend getaway.  When we arrived at the station there was a large crowd, ready to board the train.  The side of the observation car I happened to be sitting on had a phenomenal view of the Colorado River and the high mountain bluffs that tower over it.  The leaves on the trees had started changing to yellow and red.  Enclosed in glass, there was something to see from every window.  It felt a bit like traveling through a dream, that for a short while wasn’t a nightmare. 

A half hour later, the view had switched to the other side, which was good timing as I’d just returned to my seat, finding I still had it to myself.  The conductor had warned us that this stretch of the river was known as Moon River, and we found out why when the first white-water rafters we passed stood with their backs to the train, dropped their shorts, and grabbed their knees, drawing chuckles and squeals of surprise from those who were now in on the joke.

Although I have family and friends in Denver, I’d recently seen most of them, and since our stop in Denver was only going to be a half-hour, I hadn’t bothered telling anyone I’d be passing through.  Coming out of the Moffat Tunnel into the foothills, however, with the lights of the city glittering below us, I decided to call my old friend Riley and just say hey.  Back in the day a half hour layover would’ve meant trying to coordinate a quick joint and a beer, but he was living on the outskirts of the city and that was no longer the order at hand.  He’d always been sensible and had done well for himself, managing the house, wife, kids, and career, while still playing in a band, while I, on the other hand, had played the fool and was having a hard time putting on a brave face these days. 

It was good to talk to him anyway.  I brought up the time we’d tried to score some pot in Oregon and the guy had ended up tossing him a brown paper bag with a pair of binoculars in them.  I said he’d tried to justify it later by claiming to have gotten some good use out of them on a camping trip.  He denied that ever happened.  That didn’t stop either one of us from laughing even harder.

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