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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Train Trip! Part 4

I’ve decided this train barely works for transportation but is fabulous for sightseeing. And I don’t think it can be fixed. The tracks follow the Colorado River too closely. To fashion a train that can go over 30 mph will necessitate a different route, probably one with more tunnels, one that doesn’t follow the river, one that can maintain some straight lines.

The route of the California Zephyr from Salt Lake City to Denver is truly breathtakingly gorgeous. (And it wasn’t chopped liver in California or Nevada either.) I highly recommend it. I can’t imagine any cruise being any more beautiful. Just have no expectations of getting anywhere in any sort of time frame. I would guess in ten years there will be a high speed train from San Francisco to Chicago that will take 20 hours (12 from SF to Denver), but it won’t be nearly as pretty. I expect the California Zephyr, left to us by our nineteenth century forebears, will remain as a tourist sightseeing lin
e, just as some scenic highways still existed after the interstate was put through.

The assistant conductor noted the wildlife we might see from the train—heron, deer, egrets and black bears. Evidently they’ve seen black bears three times in the last month. I’ve seen heron, deer, Canada Geese and various river rafters performing the mooning ritual, but no bears. I’d like to see a bear again—it’s been a while. Viewing one from inside a train seems a nice vantage point.

If I were to do this trip again, I’d bring more food to eat. The food on the train is expensive, carbohydrate heavy, and not much better than adequate. (But unless I brought a cooler, 36 hours is hard to manage?)  But the views, the views. I am told we are climbing up to a 9700 foot pass where, after a 6 mile pitch black tunnel, we can see a stunning drop down to a gorge below. I am hoping we get there when it is still light.

We had to stop 15 minutes in the middle of nowhere and wait for another Amtrak train to pass. What’s up with that? We are now scheduled to arrive at 10pm, 3 and ½ hours late. I hope my friends in Denver are checking the train arrival status because at present I am out of service and can’t contact them.

Of the 36 hours of this trip, an entire two have been motionless, devoted to smoke breaks that have not benefited me one whit. Worse, I can smell cigarette smoke right now on my car. (Someone is sneaking one somewhere.) What is it with smokers and trains?

Daylight fades. The light and scenery are so beautiful out, this is a tragedy. I can’t believe there’s three more hours to Denver. On google maps we appear so close, it should be just a hop, skip and a jump. We drift along in the golden sunset at our luxurious crawl, and now we stop to let a freight train go by. (Seriously, the amount of stopping is ridiculous.)

Train travel has its own rhythm, its own life. Everyone on the train is part of a system, our fates intertwined for the duration of the journey.  This era of American train travel known as Amtrak will eventually give way to something that works a whole lot better, but in the meantime, I recommend seeing America in this entirely unique, if at times frustrating, fashion. There is literally nothing like it. I’ve driven across the country multiple times. While driving has its moments of beauty and epiphany, this is like an extended meditation.

Oh my goodness. Huge full moon has just popped up over the horizon. Maybe darkness will have its consolations.

Train Trip! Part 3

Gorgeous Utah (an iphone camera can't do justice)
The train is now 3 hours and 26 minutes delayed. The electrical debacle of yesterday evening cost us 3 hrs or so, but we haven't made it up with shorter stops at the stations or faster speeds. Instead we've lost more time. Most of our journey is literally at speeds of 30 mph.

Why am I in a hurry? After all, this is Amtrak. Many people are on vacation, choosing to take an Amtrak tour of the US instead of, say, a cruise to Alaska. They have all the time in the world. (They are also in private sleeper cars and eat every meal in the dining room.) The poor slobs in coach, well, you should have known what you were in for.

The thing is, rail can be electrified. Airplanes cannot. Cars can be electrified for short distances, but for long distances, they will be expensive energy gobblers, and it will be a long time before both our electrical grid and average household finances can support large numbers of them. In the medium term, electrified rail is what we're going to have. I know most people can't imagine this. This is why we, as a nation, won't deal with the reality that is pretty much baked into the cake (via climate change and peak oil) until it slaps us in the face.

An achievement indeed in 1869
Europe, China and Japan have invested in train infrastructure, and as a result their trains go four to eight (yes, eight!) times faster than ours. It is possible to have trains that substitute for plane trips under a 1000 miles rather well, but with the exception of the northeast corridor from Boston to Washington DC, our trains poke along like the Civil War just ended and Ulysses S. Grant is on board smoking his cigar. Hey, I have nothing against nostalgia and I love Ulysses S. Grant. The problem is, nostalgia doesn't create viable transportation, and we will soon be wishing our train lines weren't quite such a relic of another age. Train travel at 100 mph would be a piece of cake if we weren't so placidly accepting of rail infrastructure that hasn't been updated since Eisenhower got the grand idea to create the interstate highway system.

More gorgeous scenery
The good news is that the scenery in Utah is phenomenal. Magnificent. Stunning. Didn't see much of Salt Lake City because it was still dark when we got there, but ever since the wide-sweeping views drenched in clear, golden sunlight have been glorious. And there's plenty of time to soak it in as we coast by at 30 mph. (Okay, we may be at 40mph right now.)

Sleeping in coach was by no means comfortable but slightly better than I'd anticipated. I brought a neck pillow. (Good.) I wish I'd brought a lightweight, easy-to-pack blanket. Pretty much everyone had two seats to sleep on, and it was interesting to observe different people's reclining strategies. For me it was one of those sleep for an hour, wake briefly to reposition, go back to sleep for an hour nights. Got six hours of sleep. Could've been worse. When I woke for good, it was still dark and there was a huge orangey full moon in the sky ready to set.

Place to take the kids
The young couple with the little kids got off in Salt Lake City. Though the kids slept well all night, I fear the earlier delay tried the patience of their parents beyond their reserves. Per hour spent, traveling with children on a train is easier than on an airplane (room to move, room for them to lie down and take a nap, stuff for them to see out the window, able to walk them around, go hang out in the lounge car) but having to get through so many more hours is challenging. Little kids are cute, little kids are wonderful, little kids are so much work! I have to say I'm glad I'm through with that part of my life.

Okay, I should give Amtrak its due. We've made up half an hour and now are only 2 hours and 50 behind schedule. And we may actually be going 45 mph at the moment. We're still on the flats of Utah. The long climb into the Rockies is ahead.

The adventure continues!  See Part 4 here.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Train Trip! Part 2

Oak trees of the foothills gradually give way to pines of the Sierras that give way themselves to the high desert of Nevada. The seniors behind me left and were replaced by a twenty-something couple. Kids ahead took a couple hour nap. They are getting off in Salt Lake City at 3 in the morning. I'm guessing I'll notice them go. The baby (maybe 4 four months old?) has blond hair that sticks straight up and a fabulous baby grin.

The train filled up quite a bit before Reno but is now emptier again. I have my two seats steadily to myself and have been able to get some writing done. At Reno the conductor announced a "fresh air" break. What this meant was it was time for everyone to rush outside and smoke a cigarette. So much for fresh air, but I imagine if you're hooked on cigarettes a long ride on a non-smoking train is rough.

We crawled up the mountain to Truckee at 25--30 mph tops. And now that we're in the flats of Nevada we're going maybe 55 or 60 mph. Part of the reason we went so slowly through the mountains is that there were lots of curves. Basically the rail infrastructure in the Sierras is not all that different from what was built by Chinese laborers with pick axes and a little dynamite a hundred and fifty years ago. The entire 1,907 miles of the Transcontinental Railroad was built in six years. (Six years! With no power equipment!) In the last sixty years as a country we've spent trillions building flat, straight highways with bridges and other structures galore to smooth things out. The same is not true for our railroads. They still have the curves. In 1950 it took 49 hours to get from San Francisco to Chicago on this line. Now it takes 50. We have made no progress at all.

Made a reservation to eat in the restaurant at 5:30. There are two sittings, one at 5:30 and one at 7:15. Am hoping food is edible.

Our train has stopped absolutely in the middle of the desert because we've somehow picked up debris between our wheels and they need to clean it out. Or examine it. Or something. At least they gave us an explanation. However, the train is dead still and all power is off, which means all air conditioning is off. Oy, oy. This is the kind of delay that makes trains late.

It is very quiet. There may be few things quieter than a dead train in the middle of the Nevada desert.

So it is not debris. Some kind of power cable blew out in the baggage car (perhaps due to debris?) and that's why the power is completely off in the rest of the train. They have to take the locomotives and baggage car off the train and do various adjustments (put the baggage car last?) and then we will have power. Dinner is delayed until the power is returned. We are in the middle of nowhere--not like there's a place to get spare parts. But they say they can fix it. It is 5:30 and still light which is fortunate. This place seriously looks like one of those old western movies where bandits make the train stop in the middle of nowhere so they can then sweep down on the train and rob it.

Waiting for cowboys
Now Union Pacific wants us off to some siding so that they can get through. (We've created a rail traffic jam!) We are coasting without electrical power due to the electrical cables being kaput. Getting warm in the car. A little tiny voice comes out of the PA system since there is no power to amplify it. I look out my window and expect to see cowboys and Indians any minute. Adventure, although perhaps not exactly the kind I wanted. We will see if the power comes back on before the batteries on my gadgets run out. I might actually have to crack a book. I suppose if things get really bad we can get off and walk.

The adventure continues!  See Part 3 here.

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.