Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Train

We rode to the Amtrak station before the sun woke that next morning. Checking our baggage and getting on the train went smoothly until we realized we didn’t have our car assignment. We scurried back to the ticket counter in a frenzy only to make it back to the train and learn that the engine was experiencing problems, delaying our departure. At least we didn’t get left behind. After a bit of waiting we were rolling down the rails in what was my first real passenger train experience. Though we were a little bummed to not be pedaling the rest of the way to the west coast, we were equally excited to experience the journey on the tracks.

As our train began to climb the Rockies we saw an ever increasing amount of snow. Between the elevation and the white world closing in around us I became quite thankful that we were in the comfort of a climate controlled, engine powered vehicle. Our trip to the top of the continental divide culminated in the Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2 mile shaft bored through the mountain. After ten minutes of darkness we arrived at the other side of daylight to witness a true winter wonderland. Trees and mountaintops lay snuggled deep under thick blankets of snow. It’s worth mentioning that we were only at 9000ft, 2000ft below Monarch Pass, the route our bicycle route would have taken us. Brrr! Our subsequent drop in elevation found us in a series of gorgeous canyons alongside the Colorado River. From towering walls exceeding 1000ft to brilliant red sandstone that gave Colorado it’s name (Colorado means “colored red” in Spanish), we were delivered to Utah by way of these spectacular canyons.

By this time we had familiarized ourselves with our fellow passengers for better or worse. Most all the people on the train were fantastic company and seemed to be enjoying the experience as much as us. One adorable little boy befriended Joe - more specifically Joe and his Iphone. The little dude not only provided conversation for Joe but also an abundance of photos and random train video clips. I reckon that’s what happens when you set an eight year old free with a camera phone for a toy.

As daylight was lost we retired from sightseeing and tried to get some shut eye. Easier said than done perhaps. Sleeping on a train with the constant rumble of the tracks isn’t too easy - luckily we each were able to sprawl out and take up two seats, making it possible to get comfortable enough to snag a few hours of rest. As we dozed the train kept on a rollin’ past Salt Lake City and the Bonneville Salt Flats. We awoke just outside of Reno, luckily minutes before the overly-enthusiastic and exceptionally irritating 8am wake up call provided by the cafĂ© car attendant. If my waking moments came under the power of her voice I definitely would have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, er… reclining chair. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so bothered by the morning announcement if the Amtrak folks didn’t insist on overheading you the status of the dining car every ten minutes. I guess since food is the only thing they have left to sell you once you’re on the train that they push it pretty hard. This along with the fact that the food is drastically overpriced to the point that you wouldn’t buy it if you weren‘t constantly hounded to do so. We opted to pack PB and J supplies on the train rather than pay 25 dollars for a marginal chicken dinner. In one attempt to kick the PB & J routine I assembled a Frito/mayo sandwich.

In Reno we stopped at a station and were joined by a couple railroad museum tour guides. These folks pointed out notable landmarks and explained historical tidbits regarding the creation and use of the railway. I asked one of the tour guides if he had ever spotted hobos hitching a ride aboard a freight train on the other set of tracks headed east. He verified that he had and to my surprise went on to explain that he had hopped the rails for many years of his life. “Up until about ten years ago I recommended that everyone that was interested in hoping a freightliner go ahead and do so,” he said, “but after 9/11 things got a bit more tricky - now there’s minimum jail time if you’re caught.” This fact might be enough to deter Clanc and I from jumping into a boxcar one day, but I doubt it.

As we began climbing once more, this time up the Sierra Nevadas, we entered the state of California. The snow atop these mountains rivaled the display found on the Rockies - simply beautiful. Upon making our summit at Donner Pass the tour guide recounted the story of the Donner Party and their doomed trip from Illinois to California. I’m glad that we weren’t faced with a similar situation, I’m not sure who would have survived by resorting to cannibalism among the three of us. The thought didn’t sit well, especially since I tend to do pretty poorly without eating.

Before long we arrived in Sacramento and eventually Emeryville, the last stop on the line. From here we had to take a 20minute bus ride over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. We were happy to be getting off the train having spent the last 35 hours on board. We were not happy to deal with the less than helpful Amtrak staff and bus driver. They almost failed to load our bikes on the bus and were downright rude when we enquired about the bus stop closest to our final destination. We ended up jumping off at the first stop which was the Ferry Building, nearly getting into fisticuffs with the driver as we disembarked. Not the best welcome to San Fran.

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