Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Train Trip Live Blogging! Part I

My Train!
I am taking the California Zephyr (nice name) to Denver. It will take about 34 hours. While I've taken a number of long-distance overnight trains in Europe (and even Russia) this is my first in the US. I actually want to go to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but while this train passes through Iowa, it would take me six hours via transit to go the hundred miles from the closest Amtrak station to Cedar Rapids, and I just didn't think I could bear it. It would also take another 14 hours to go from Denver to Mt. Pleasant, IA, and would require another night sleeping somewhat upright on the train. (Losing one night of sleep I could face. Two is a little more daunting.) But this has the fortunate result that I can visit friends in Denver I haven't seen in a while and then fly from Denver to CR.

My journey starts at 6:55 when I leave my house to walk to the bus stop. I take a Muni bus to the Castro and Market station, then take Muni light rail to the Embarcadero Station. Walked to the Amtrak waiting/bus boarding area just to the south of the Ferry Building. Got there early. (Little traffic early Saturday morning.) The Amtrak indoor waiting area is a bit grungy but there's no reason to go in if you already have a ticket. Am told I can take the 7:30 bus if I want instead of the 7:50. But for some reason things are chaotic. Everyone wants on board the 7:30 bus. Rumors of the 7:50 bus not working. And as I sit in my seat waiting for the bus to depart, the driver has a discussion with an attendant helping passengers board. He asks questions like, "Where's the brake?" and "How do you close the door?" This does not inspire confidence, but he manages to get us on the freeway, across the Bay Bridge and to Emeryville without mishap.

Emeryville  Station
The Emeryville station is nice and fairly clean. There's even a cafe/snack shop that sells Peets Coffee/Tea. Quite a few people in the waiting area. Turns out most of them are waiting for my train. Lots of retired folks. A few young adventurous types.

My car
Train is very long (!) and two levels tall. At 8:45, It pulls up well past the station. Sleeping cars in the rear. (Not me--quadruple the price. I am far too cheap.) Am directed to the Denver car. (Didn't know that everyone going to a given destination is grouped on the same car.) I keep walking and get on a car that has about six other people. (Can probably hold close to 50 upstairs alone.) Will be lovely if it stays this empty, or if at least the seat next to me stays empty. I haul my bag up a very narrow set of stairs to the second level. Have a nice big window, great view. My bag, which fits in airline overhead storage bins, does not fit in the Amtrak overhead storage bin and so it is at my feet. Luckily there is generous room between seats on this Superliner train--perhaps triple what you get on a standard airline economy seat. I half expect the conductor to yell at me about my bag, but none of them do. The conductors are very pleasant, but I overhear that they are concerned about the guy sitting two rows up from me who seems not entirely with it. (Drug-addled? Cognitive issues?) I agree with their assessment and am hoping he's harmless. The train pulls away precisely on time at 9:10.

View north
We are stopped at Martinez. Out the window I see lots of people getting on, although none seem to be boarding this car. I am paying $124 for this ride to Denver, which is roughly comparable to what airfare would cost, although you have to consider paying for 36 hours of meals as well. I have packed my first lunch, but there will still be a dinner, breakfast and another lunch to get. I am hoping the train won't be dreadfully late getting to Denver so I don't required another dinner as well.

California delta
I have chosen a seat on the right hand side. Since we're going east, this means my view is mostly southerly, (although I can also see across the aisle) and since we're passing through the California delta, it's mostly of fields. It's different than the freeway where the predominant views are of asphalt and other cars. Being up so high offers a nice sweeping view of terrain.  Seems like the train horn blasts often. Car is air conditioned.  The train lolls around on the track sometimes, and there are more vibrations than on an airplane. In general the roominess means it's more pleasant than driving or flying, the only downside is how slow it is! If in the US we had train speeds equal to slow European trains (not even the fast ones!) this train would zip along at 110-120mph, and I could get from the Bay Area to Denver in 12 hours. 12 hours is way better than 36. 12 hours means not having to sleep upright all night.

What I see at Davis
But that's still in the future. There is an electrical outlet next to my seat. My husband has given me a gadget that gives me access to wi-fi. I have hopes of getting some writing done, but I find I'm quite interested in the views. People walk by, on their way to the snack car behind this car, I think. Arriving Davis. This trip has a utilitarian function as transportation, but it is also for research for my next book. I have 36 hours to absorb the sights, sounds, rhythms, and light of train travel across America.

At Sacramento. Quite a few people getting on car. Most everyone is over 65 or under 30. Quite the bimodal distribution. A couple who must be close to 80 sit down behind me. Another couple bearing many tatoos and two small children sit down in front of me. I feel old and young at the same time.

Woman across from me is traveling with a full size bed pillow. (I suspect she's done this before.) Baby in front irritable. Senior citizens behind jerking my seat to lower their footrest.

On our journey now for two hours, we pull away from Sacramento on time at 11:09. Many hopes this will keep up.

The adventure continues!  See Part 2 here.


  1. Hi, Karen! Happy T-RAILs! I am hoping your journeying on the in-famous Zephyr is a better experience than that had by me and Kiva! Love these descriptions, so far! Wish we could at least say hello and provide a home-cooked meal while you are in the Denver area! Looking forward to more of your writing! Stephanie

  2. Thanks! If you read part 2, you'll see that we've hit a spot of trouble. Remains to be seen how it will work out. (Hopefully infamous is not an adjective I'll apply to the ride, but I'm only nine hours in.) I'm only in Denver a day, but it would be good to cross paths again, sometime soon!