Wednesday before last I finished my last final, for Geology 118, at about 9AM. I walked out of Greg Hall and toward the crowd and just kept thinking to myself, “Done, Done! DONE! DONE!!”
It’s one thing to be done with a final. It is another to be done with all your finals, and thus with your semester. It is another thing to be done with your last semester, about to graduate. It’s another thing to be done with the last formal education you have any immediate plans for for the rest of your life.
Saturday, 15 May
After relaxing and packing and otherwise casually enjoying myself and trying to tune the car, and visiting Chicago one last time, I woke up Saturday and remember driving over to Piccadilly and fitting two kegs of beer into the back of the Volkswagen – one Honey Brown and one Ice House. Throw in another 100 lbs of ice and you have yourself a party, if you count the propane fillup, and all the food and other stuff gathered by Scott and Chad, and the legwork done on getting the hot tub working, on the part of Scott and Oleg.
Before taking off for Piccadilly, Dad and Gwen arrived. After getting the kegs set up and Mom, Grandma, Uncle John and Jessy arrived from Chicago, we headed over to Foellinger for Humanities Convocation II. A relatively small ceremony by U of I standards, but still probably lasting at least an hour, each of us from several majors, most notably English and Rhetoric, taking our turns to strut across the stage. Everyone was in a good humor.
Upon returning home, some friends of Chad had already arrived and the grilling was beginning. Scott started out strong on the grill, making much food as he had prepared to do. As the night wore on Tunji, Goth Dan, Brijeet, Jay, Tim Skirvin and all the Allenites, ‘toly and Morris and Anne Nowinski and Rene and others showed up. Vern rode the nookie van down from Chicago and Mark Meyer and his girlfriend showed up. What started as a nice cookout got better as the hot tub opened up, and the less inhibited folks, almost exclusively my friends, tried it out. The sun went down, Beth came by, beer in a hot tub … ahhh …
Sunday, 16 May
… and we woke up the next morning … Adam had slept on our couch, and I believe he and Scott were hung over, the hot tub having a dehydrating affect which improves the punch of alcohol. About one in the afternoon we finally got up and going with Chad and Christina over to I think the place is Merry Anne’s. Good breakfast food. In the afternoon Beth came by and we took a walk together and bid some goodbyes. The day was good and slow and lazy, and included the Simpsons going to Japan, which I found hysterical and over the top. Plus a rerun of a good, classic X-Files.
Monday, 17 May
My bike rack and other car parts arrived via UPS in a pretty timely fashion. The last bits were packed in boxes, the rear seat folded down, computers in the way back, under boxes and boxes and blankets. Bike rack and two bikes, one being Erik Gilling’s, on the back. Passenger’s seat held junk food, monitor on the front seat floor, covered by a blanket. Dad and Gwen arrived from Chicago and thus did we hit the road, eventually finding our way up to 80 West and driving on through Iowa until the wee hours when I started feeling punchy and we pulled over in a small town in Nebraska. I slept across the front seat, wrapped in a sleeping bag, legs resting out the driver’s window. Dunno if Dad got a picture of that or not.
So in the wee hours did Gwen wake Dad who woke me. She hadn’t heard from Desi and wanted to get back by CO as soon as possible. It was like 0430h or somesuch, and we pulled away from the small town in the early morning dewy air. As we sped towards the highway I saw a deer kick up, its white tail flying along. A little ways down the road we had breakfast, and kept driving through the day, stopping mostly at truck stops like Sapp Bros. Gwen was shopping for an Angel to replace the loaner that was riding on my dashboard. Figured anything that helps me West, including heavenly intervention, can’t hurt.
Later down the road I checked on the monitor, and found that it and several other items had suffered heat damage. You know how Beetles don’t have heat? Mine does! Entire canisters of deodorant had vaporized, my electric shaver had melted, blowing out some battery acid for good measure. The plastic on the front of the monitor adopted a cool Salvadore Dali affect, as Dad described it … hrmmm, well, we cleared off the passenger seat floor, moving the monitor to a position under the bonnet, and the junk food rested on a clothing box which held my cup holder well. On the road again …
Come the afternoon, we stopped at a town that claims to be Buffalo Bill Cody’s home town. I remembered the gift shop from a previous trip out West. The racism tends to bother me, but then I’ve been going to University of Illinois, where the appropriation of Native American culture is a recurring topic of controversy. Not much farther down the road it was time to part company. Dad and Gwen rode their interstate into Colorado and I continued down 80.
Later that evening, I stopped in Chappell, Nebraska. After getting gas, Lucy stalled down the street, and wouldn’t start again. I walked over to a Bar and Grill that was decorated with cattle brands and had a generous taco / tortilla combo plate and a Coke. Back to Lucy, the rest did her no good. It was too late for a mechanic, and I took the sleeping bag and tent over to a nearby campground, which was unmanned.
Later in the night I shifted in my sleep, and found the sleeping bag zipper was broken, splitting down the seams. It started getting colder, and colder, I became uncomfortable. I took a walk back to town, stopped in a bar and inquired about a nearby hotel. Got directions, down the street about five blocks, never found it. Ended up sleeping in the car, this time curled up with the windows shut.
Wednesday, 19 May
I awoke the next morning, and there were two mechanic’s shops within a block and a half. Neither were yet open. I retrieved my tent, and they were still closed. I hunkered down with Lucy as I had the evening before, and for lack of inspiration of what I could do, did a valve job. It was, after all, morning. Well wouldn’t ya know it but she started? Back on down the road!
I puttered along, Lucy less than entirely happy and me suspecting I might have bunged something with the valves. Got out of Nebraska and stopped for gas in Wyoming, with my eye out for a mechanic. No mechanic where I stopped, so I figured I’d stop further down the road. Lucy stopped a few hundred feet from the gas station, and called a tow truck.
Got towed to one place that wouldn’t handle Volkswagens, and then we ended up, with no additional mileage, at Collins Automotive, a shop that specializes in older vehicles. We were greeted by a surly old guy with s short white beard, who said I couldn’t work on the vehicle on his property, if only because they believed that at their shop, it was their quality work. He said also that they normally did appointment work, and could maybe get to me tomorrow. I rode on up to the Holiday Inn on my bike and splurged the $75 to stay there that night. My idea was that he was the prototypical grumpy old sysadmin type of personality, and that by acting meek and staying out of his way, his curiosity would take over, and he’d get to my car a lot earlier than he’d let on.
Like I said, I splurged on the Holiday Inn. Unfortunately their pool was closed, but I got a nice thorough shower and cable TV. Between being alone on the road, the car insisting on failing ever since parting from Dad, the frustration of the night before, the crappy progress that day, and the crochety old coot of a mechanic, and the clean, air-conditioned quiet of the Cheyenne hotel room, and the lack of anything to read, I suddenly felt horribly lonely. I came near tears, read a few passages from the Bible – bless them Gideons, and then screwed myself down, my macho side reminding me that there had been those heading West before me that faced far worse obstacles, and that there was really nothing preventing me from getting to CA on time, whether my Wagen died or not. Nothing to be too upset over really.
So I watched the latter part of that movie where Richard Gere is framed for murder in China, grateful that the very ending was not the cliche I feared it would be. Some more TV, and dozed off to sleep, snug as a bug, as it were.
Thursday, 20 May
I knew those guys would tackle the car, so I headed downstairs, ate a liesurely, if expensive breakfast, and headed back to the mechanics.
Car was good. The bill was impressively modest. Timing had been way off.
Took off down the road, Lucy purring away. Slowed down for the construction that is ever-present throughout Nebraska and Wyoming, then sped up again, speed climbing and … dead.
Walked a few hundred feet back to the construction site, found a manager with a cell phone, called the shop, got some advice, walked back.
Advice no help. Walked back to the construction. The guy with the phone was gone, but another guy in a little car with a cracked windshield gave me a ride back to the repair shop. I offered him a few bucks, as he said he’d been inquiring about a badly-needed job with the road crew, he declined. The grumpy old man of the day before was far more hospitable this time, and when his coworker, Bill, another old guy with a short-cropped white beard and kindly demeanor, who reminded me an awful lot of Uncle Bill McConeghey, returned from lunch he drove out to Lucy in his pickup truck. I’d only made it a few miles down 80. He couldn’t get her started either, and so I rode in Lucy behind a tow strap back to the shop. Not an easy thing, but by riding the brakes I got the hang of it.
Where yesterday I’d gotten a single grouchy old man, today I got a pit crew swarming around Lucy. The two older guys and another in his forties named Bob, they puzzled over why she didn’t start – she had gas and spark. A little exploratory surgery, and the coil was found questionable, and the points and condenser were bad. A coil from an old BMW parts car, and other quick replacements later, tightening down the distributor, and Lucy was happy. After extensive test-driving, I managed to finally get her to start dying again. A little adjust to the carb idle on Bill’s part and she was golden. More test driving and we took off down the road.
And things were good.
And I drove.
And I drove.
Near midnite, I was nearing Utah. Not long later I suddenly lost power, as if I had lost a cylinder. DAMMIT! I got into a truck stop and decided to nap until the morning when I’d do a valve adjustment.
Well, I couldn’t sleep. Part of it was the generator in the truck I had parked next to to avoid the flashing lights of the truck stop, and part of it was restlessness from a sound sleep from the lazy night before. Around 0200h I got out, set up the flashlight, and did a valve adjustment. She was a little warm and the valves were mostly pretty happy. Well, putting things back together the flashlight suddenly went out. Weird. Walked to the store and the bulb looked okay, bought some batteries. No go. Returned and picked out a nice-looking maglite. The lady at he counter suggested that the Coleman four-pack of flashlights was a better deal. Okay. I hadn’t been doing so hot lately so I got the four flashlights, hoping they might start breeding, maybe.
Had enough light to get the bikes back on and secured to the rack with bungee cords. And I was off.
Still, she wasn’t the happiest bug in the world, and it wasn’t the valves, and it couldn’t be the timing, I didn’t think. Could it be the altitude?
While I had time to think, slowing to 45 and shifting in to third up them mountains, crossing the Utah border, I thought about heat, and altitude, and thin air, and burning fuel, and warming up and eventually hypothesised that between the thinner air and the cold night air and the middle-grade fuel I had been treating her too, she just wasn’t firing on her cylinders with the power she wanted. Next fill up it was cheap gas, 85 octane if I remember correctly. She started perking up.
Drove through Salt Lake city about 0400h, getting a little lost because of their shutting down I-80 and having a poorly-marked detour route. The sun was coming up as I crossed the salt flats. I pulled in to one of the few fueling stations along the way, a makeshift truck stop which had a gas station, a small store, and a restaurant around back built from two trailer homes. I wanted to keep going, but my body didn’t. Two hours of sleep at the gas station, sitting upright in the driver’s seat, head leaning on a pillow.
Saturday, 22 May
Around 0800h and 0900h I had some eggs over easy and toast and orange juice and coffee in the restaurant. My bill came to less than five dollars. I think I left six or seven, because it was more pleasant than the overpriced meal I’d had in Cheyenne two mornings ago, and I hadn’t eaten breakfast the day before, just a cup of coffee at the truck stop.
On the road again. Wondering if that white stuff on the ground was snow or white sand or salt. Farther west, there was water, but it was still, probably because of its brackishness and probably because the desert is not a very windy place. It shined like a mirror, and was a very nice picture, reflecting the sand and the sky. Surreal. I wanted to stop and explore, but I wanted even more to finish my journey.
Stopping for gas, I encountered a large group of folks my own age travelling in a caravan of vehicles. As I added another quart and hypothesised that maybe they were a church group, one of the ladies asked had I come all the way from Illinois, and that she had a squareback that she didn’t trust very far at all.
I had indeed, I told her, breaking down only a few times, and that it was kinda boring without a radio.
That’s right, no radio. I tried to score one off of Andrew Ho, who it turns out is also coming out this way in the future, but I couldn’t get in touch with him fast enough before leaving town. Besides, the early Wagons had no radios. Heh …
I asked what her group was, and it was from some college tracking some bird … If memory serves the college was Carleton and the bird was the Peregrine Falcon, but I could just be making this up.
And on we drove, leaving Utah, spending much time in Nevada. Boring armpit of a state.
Reluctantly crouched at the starting line
Engines pumping and thumping in time
The green light flashes, the flags go up
Churning and burning they yearn for the cup
They deftly maneuver, and muscle for rank
Fuel burning fast on an empty tank
Reckless and wild, they pour through the turns
Their prowess is potent, and secretly stern
As they speed through the finish, the flags go down
The fans get up and they go out of town
The arena is empty, except for one man
Still striving and driving as fast as he can
The sun has gone down and the moon has come up
And long ago somebody left with the cup
But he’s striving and driving and hugging the turns
And thinking of someone for whom he still burns HE’S GOING THE DISTANCE! HE’S GOING FOR SPEED!
She’s all alone, in a time of need
Because he’s racing and chasing and plotting a course
He’s striving and driving and riding on his horse
He’s going the distance
He’s going for speed
He’s going the distance …
That song was on auto-play in my head for a long time. Cake, The Distance. Good song. Ask me for the mp3 some time.
At first I was afraid I was petrified
Kept thinkin’ I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights just thinkin’ how you done me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along …
Ahhh, yes Gloria Gaynor did it well, but then again it’s Cake’s performance that just sort of haunts me.
You know, Nevada is like four hundred or so miles across. I crossed it in one blur, noting the gas getting progressively more expensive as I approached California.
Slowly did I approach Reno. And drove through Reno, and crossed the border, and was asked if I had any fresh fruit or vegetables on me. Nope, just junk food, and you know it was downhill straight through the Sierra Nevadas, or whatever the heck they are. I got 30 MPG. It seemed fitting that my mileage should increase nearly 50% upon crossing the California border.
Around Davis the odometer flipped. I managed to pull over and get pictures with the digits halfway across the line.
And as it was getting on in the evening, and it was on the way, I got off I-80 at San Pablo and tried in vain to find MikeyA’s place, maybe a suprise and a meal.
You know … there be hills in San Pablo. The biggest difference, I thought to myself, was that California has hills. And since they mark not only with traffic signs but with copious pavement markings, driving takes on a three-dimensional aspect. Nothing like pulling away from a stop sign in second gear. There were a few awful scraping sounds as Lucy’s loaded rear end found pavement to scratch against.
Anyway, I found a pay phone and Dana gave me instructions on how to find the liqour store Mikey was workin’ at that night. Found the place no problem and gave Mike a good suprise. He and Dana proved again to be gracious hosts and I communed with their couch another night.
She looked twenty two, or possibly forty three. Some women are inscrutable, in this manner. Her short black hair curled in a laurel around her head, a pearl necklace, and a comfortable, wool-looking black suit, modestly revealing the top of her chest.
She was chatty, as I took her order, hanging out with four going-on-middle-aged female companions, the young bachelorette of the group. When prompted about salad dressing, and presented with the standard answer – ranch, bleu cheese red wine basil vinagrette honey mustard thousand island soy ginger mild curry … and french, she asked about the french, and I allowed that it was the only dressing on offer not made in-house. She touched my shoulder, and told me that she wanted tangy. French, indeed.
At meal’s end, as the five women began the protracted negotiations over how to settle the bill, a heady peace conference that involved, tangentially, the use of a caculator, my tangy librarian friend offered me an envoy in the form of her credit card. This I dutifully swiped, and returned, in accord with my own diplomatic protocols, with a pen, and a “Thank you, Mrs. King.”
There was giggling, as she explained that she was the only single woman at the table. As I answered something like “Well, that’s too bad for the guys,” I was already kicking myself because the most appropriate answer was “Then you must give me your phone number.” Curse my propriety! And on my second-to-last, nothing-left-to-lose day on the job!
Having missed a great opportunity, this attractive lady became my quarry. I conducted my waiterly duties with a sense of her location in the restaurant, a buzzard casually awaiting the potential carcass. This was easy enough to do, as the lionesses of the table picked over the dismembered bill, wrestling over its appropriate apportionment. It was a reunion, of sorts, and there was no hurry to excuse themselves.
Bill paid, table cleared, there was no further reason for me to visit their table, nor any reason to visit them as they lingered on the porch. As they broke up, I saw her heading towards the back. After a moment, I realized that it was time to empty the recycling. This made a loud crashing noise out back, as my new friend turned to wave. Back inside, I figured it was high-time to fill the ice bin, which requires a few trips to the back of the kitchen, a few chances to linger casually at the kitchen door.
Just as I was finishing with the ice bin, a woman appeared in the kitchen, and gave me her friend’s phone number. I accounted for my timidity by explaining that I was actually heading out of town for a very long time, come Sunday, but definately, thank you very much for the number. You can give her mine …
A great friend will wander past the scary dumpster and in to a hot, noisy kitchen to pimp you out to the cute waiter.
After waiting at Kaiser for my shot, between lunch shift and dinner, and receiving only Hepatitis B, because they were out of Hepatitis A, though I could come back next Wednesday, except that I would be on the train for Chicago, come Sunday, I dropped by home and explained to Janet that normally I’d wait a couple days to call a new number, in accord with the wisdom espoused in the movie “Swingers” but that, in a couple of days, it wouldn’t do any good, you see. Ahh, but have you any plans for this evening?
After an evening working the “middle off” shift, which closed with my new friend munching on our delicious stuffed mushrooms, and our delicious meatball sandwich, it was too late to flirt with ballroom dancing, as she had suggested. We settled instead for the late-night cinema of super-spy Vin Diesel dancing around Prague, holding hands, as we awaited the movie’s credits, which awarded us with a cool techno soundtrack and wacky computer-generated visuals for us to make out to.
I negotiated our way back to her place, a tangential piece of this negotiation involved the flipping of a coin, which suggested that among embarrassing venues, hers was the randomly fair alternative to mine.
I didn’t get much sleep that night. Janet appreciated my lack of urgency as I repeatedly fumbled over her body with hands and mouth. In the wee hours of the morning, after some hours of comingled snoozing, we awoke, and talked, and made appropriate use of a contraceptive device. After a shared shower, we ate breakfast together at a nice place on California Ave. I had a lot to do before getting to work at four PM. The first order of business was three or four power naps upon my own futon.
I didn’t want to spend the time and navigation to drive to REI or Mel Cotton’s, and Yahoo! told me that there were two luggage stores on El Camino. The first had a few specimens of what I wanted. The Asian immigrant who ran the place took me to the back and pointed out a few of the “convertible” packs, which means carry-on style bags with concealable straps, so they can transform in to functional backpacks. The idea is that a subdued carry-on style bag and decent clothing work well on planes and trains and particularly at customs, who find the backpacking hippie types way more interesting, but I can still schlep the thing on my back across town all day on public transportation without killing myself.
He had a few promising candidates, but none of them really sang to me. I ducked out and tried the next store, just up the street. They had one single bag of my description hanging up on the rear wall. The salesman was less interested in showing it to me than I was in hanging out in his store. As I walked out, a guy in a red backpack that basically looked like what I was trying to find crossed in front of me. Huh? Where’d he come from? Strolling casually about, I thought he might be trying the bag out from some secret stash. I followed him a few dozen feet, it was clear that he was on his own, but he had what I wanted! “Excuse me, sir …”
He was carrying his laundry. He bought the bag a decade back in Japan, where he’d been teaching English, and yes indeed his bag was a thoroughly wonderful thing. It had two sepereate storage areas, a day pack that came off of it, shoulder, waist, and sternum straps, and a pair of metal braces that gave the back shape, but that could be removed when it had to fit in to a train locker.
“I don’t know where you could get one around here …” He tried to figure out its moniker, but the only sign of product identity was the crosses on the zipper grips and the bag’s red color. “Victorinox,” I opined, “the Swiss Army Knife people.”
I though I’d give the quiet Asian merchant’s store a second look. This time, I wandered to his back room and looked for red. I found a squarish duffel bag with concealed shoulder straps that connected to rugged, concealable, metal hooks. I tried to determine if the shoulder strap could serve as the waist strap that the bag ought to have had. Nope.
You see, I had figured bag selection as something that I could do at my liesure in Chicago. But at the last minute I decided that in order to get my room cleaned out thoroughly I’d need three piles – things that were going with, storage, and Goodwill. Well, the best way to guage that first category is to actually pack, so I grabbed the bag.
An array of colorful shirts, purchased from a closeout bin at drugstore.
Mary came by to help. This was invaluable. She fawned over the bag, which was big and functional and modest and Swiss – “You will not look so American,” she exclaimed. “With your height and blond hair, you may even pass for Swedish, or Swiss.” While I realize the advantages of not being associated with my nation’s International Buffoonery, masquerading as a not-American never struck me as important, because I remain one patriotic SOB. I took her observations as flattery, though: the harder I was for an observer to pin down, the more of a sexy International Man of Mystery I could be!
In a few hours, we transformed my room in to the three piles I have described. Mary took the monitor and several peripherals that went with the desktop I’d given her to test out earlier in the week – hers had fried and she desperately wanted a system to write with. The car was loaded with storage boxes, and the futon that Dave and Rebecca had expressed interest in. Fully laden, with the AC turned on high for a hot California afternoon, I could feel the trickier handling as I pointed the wagon’s prow toward San Jose.
Dave helped me back up his driveway and unload. Dave was half a week into being layed off. Rebecca and Mary chatted, and since it came up that their car was still broke, Dave had been working on it as I drove up, I offered them the car, over which Rebecca seemed particularly ethusiastic.
Rebecca, Mary, and I stopped for gas. Rebecca paid for the gas, so I grabbed us each something to drink. Back on the highway, I noticed there was now something wrong with the car – when you push the petal down very far, it merely revved – no extra power. Rebecca explained that it was probably her fault, as her car broke just the other day and look, her cell phone just died too. I wasn’t about to freak over it because the car still mostly worked, even at highway speed.
We packed the last of my stuff at the house, and loaded the car with the Goodwill pile. I bade Brian a long good-bye, and the girls and I journeyed up to Palo Alto, where the Goodwill sits across from work. I bade goodbye to the girls at the Goodwill, leaving them to unpack the car because I was now an hour ten late for my shift. Their plan was to take those few minutes unpacking, in the unlikely event that I should be fired for my last day’s tardiness – this was not to happen, though, as I set my shiny new bag in the break room and Rebecca drove back to Mountain View where Mary had left her car at my now-former place of residence.
Just a few days before, I had dragged Mary along to a BBQ that Dave and Rebecca held for me as a little “Bon Voyage.” I was a little apprehensive that Dave and Rebecca’s less-than-super-clean house might offend Mary, but that is not how Mary is. Instead, she and Rebecca totally bonded, as each found a new good friend. So when I left them at Goodwill with my car, possibly ready to go kaput, I knew that since Mary and Rebecca were together, that Rebecca would do okay with the car. You’re in Good Hands.
It was a slow, relaxing, folksy evening at work. I chatted it up with a few parties, not necessarily mentioning my trip. Jessica and Lisa appeared, and shared an ice cream treat that I brazenly served without recording the sale, thus stealing $3.50 in goods and services from my boss. They were rightly jealous, and lingered over my pretty red bag. I showed them the goodies of plane tickets and Passport. Yum!
That night I was scheduled to work ’til close. I finished my last table at fifteen ’til, and gave Janet a call that I’d be done pretty quick. She was, for her part, a shower away.
As Lola departed, a colleague interpreted for me that she wished me well on my trip. We hugged, which is something that Lola and I don’t do, because most of the time she thinks I’m pretty unsettlingly loco, and I think she’s too low-key. All the same, I felt a sympathetic vibe from my migrant compañeros at the idea of wandering in foreign lands.
I’m the lucky one.
I made the modest gesture of tipping out double to my colleagues on my last night. This meant, for example, an extra $10 for Lola. The less you have, the more you value.
I made my second theft ever from the restaurant of a side salad with french, which Janet had requested on the phone. I also defaced the white board announcement in the break room proclaiming that server uniforms consisted of “black pants, black shoes, black socks,” to read, “lack pants, black hoes, black cocks.”
Janet showed up, and I presented her with her salad and expressed, once again, my gratitude for her strangerly generosity. That night, the only bed I had available was that of a woman I had met the day before. A woman in a long black skirt, slit high in the back. We had previously agreed that she had a great pair of legs. As I followed her up the stairs to her apartment, it was as if all that I could count on was the bag at my back and the woman whose fantastic calves led me up those stairs in the cool, dark night.
The train starts out at Emeryville: a modest bus terminal just north of Oakland. The Capital Corridor trains stop here as well as the connecting buses from San Francisco and other towns not served directly by Amtrak’s trains. An hour or two later, and the California Zephyr is in Sacramento. From here, we press East along the original route of the Central Pacific into the Sierra Nevada.
The Central Pacific was surveyed and championed by Theodore Judah, through the Sierra Nevada, as the first leg of what would become the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad, once joined with the Union Pacific, which built East from St. Louis, to Promontory, Utah. It was built to accommodate the rail technology of the mid-nineteenth century. This means wide curves and grades of no more than three percent. As we traverse high fills that reveal to us ever more striking views of the valleys below, punctuated by the next tunnel through the next mountain, we also encounter the occasional highway, that is less concerned with gentle grades and bends, and thus less exposed to fantastic views.
The longest tunnel on the line, two miles through a mountain, stalled the Central Pacific’s progress out of the Sierra Nevada to the flat desert wasteland of Nevada for nearly two frustrating years. Teams of Chinese laborers worked around the clock, pounding drills into the granite, until they got a hole appropriate to fill with black powder. Evacuate, light the fuse, boom, go back and clear out the pieces, and start drilling the next hole. Sometimes progress was as slow as six inches a day.
The tunnel was drilled and blasted from both ends, and another team was sent up over the mountain to blast a vertical shaft, from which two more teams were lowered into the mountain to work, spreading progress across a total of four tunnel facings.
The railroad was at first skeptical of Chinese laborers, but many of the Irish and other Easterners they hired had a tendency to wander off to the coal mines. So, the railroad hired fifty short Celestials to see if they were any good, and they proved most excellent. Despite their small size, they were hard, steady, intelligent workers. They took the wilderness and rough weather with better health because they boiled their water to drink as tea, and instead of drinking whiskey, preferred the relaxing vice of smoking opium on their day off.
We also passed through the last few concrete snow sheds. Many miles of snow sheds were built along the line because the terrible winter blizzards had a nasty habit of tearing out long sections of hard-won trackwork, necessitating not only repairs, but delaying work at the end of the line, which depended on the track to deliver needed material. Of course, these original wood snow sheds had a tendency to catch fire from the original, wood-burning, steam locomotives.
I believe a paramount frustration of building the Central Pacific was that all of the engines, rolling stock, and iron rails had to be shipped from the factories of the East Coast, carried across the jungle isthmus at Panama, and shipped thence up to Sacramento, where they could finally be unloaded, at three or four times their original cost. It was this same voyage through the Panamanian jungle that granted Ted Judah the yellow fever that killed him before the railroad could be finished.
Abraham Lincoln had also been a long-time proponent of the Transcontinental Railroad, promoting it first as a lawyer, then a lawmaker, and finally as President. It was an assassin’s bullet that denied him his dream of some day seeing California.
I missed whatever scenery Nevada had to offer, as I sampled the expensive, high-quality dinner offered in the dining car. As table space is limited, each table is filled with four passengers. This makes mealtime a nice chance to socialize with fellow travellers, though the majority are from the expensive sleeping-compartment section of the train, which gets free meals as part of their accommodations.
I took every other meal in the dining car, as the prices were not too much higher than what I’m used to in the Bay Area, and I figured that since I’d scored my ticket with an Internet discount for only $60, that it was not unreasonable to make up a little of that difference in the dining car.
I stretched out across two coach seats at night, changing my clothes the next morning in one of the larger “changing room” bathrooms. Sprawled across a pair of coach seats is not the greatest way to sleep, especially at my height, but then it is not like you have really demanding days on the train, which tend to consist of naps between bouts of scenic appreciation, reading, and visits to the snack bar or dining car.
My Canon S100 Digital Elph ate more than half my pictures from two seperate CF cards. This is insanely frustrating. I know I’m not somehow deleting pictures, because the screen flashed white and suddenly told me that I had twenty pictures left, instead of the three or so I’d thought I had. Grr! For some reason, it erases all the pictures I took, and then gives me room for a fraction of the pictures that the card can legitimately store. Canon’s frustating tech support can only conclude that I somehow delete my pictures on purpose.
Grrr, I had to rant. Maybe someone has experienced and solved this?
We had a station stop in Grand Junction, CO. I was able to purchase a baggie of juicy, locally-grown grapes, a baggie of trail mix, and a Klondike bar. Mmmm, yummy breakfast. Lunch was a swiss cheese burger in the dining car. Dinner was the last of the buns I had claimed during my two previous visits to the dining car, the rest of my grapes and trail mix, and the remainder of the container of rice the woman seated behind me offered. Yum!
Next time I bring sandwichs.
The trip down from the mountains into Denver made the day beautiful. At the last station before Denver, I wanted to just get off the train and dig the beautiful town that was nestled in a verdant bowl surrounded by forests and Mountains. It looked like a paradise to me. After that, we continued our trek across the top of the world, until we hit the winding track, back and forth, down the valley to the handful of skycrapers in the hazy distance, that marked Denver. Back and forth, back and forth, the train traced its winding way down the grade. We passed deer, along the way, who munched on their grass a few feet away from the train, unoffended by the loud, shiny, metal, diesel-powered thing that we were.
Breakfast in the dining car. You gotta get up early for that. This is probably the easiest meal to skip. You aren’t missing much. No three-dollar pancake and egg slams there.
After a couple of days on the train, I am not the only passenger that passes the time dozing. What better to do in a dark, quiet cabin that is gently rocking back and forth? This morning in Nebraska I caught sight of a Mountain Lion pacing us at great speed along the tracks. Maybe it was a Cheetah, because then I saw a tiger prowling past, and a zebra walking out of a pasture gate adjacent to the tracks. Circus? Zoo escape?!
The mystery was settled, to my satisfaction, upon waking up and seeing the real Nebraska landscape.
There were a lot of fascinating old towns, rusting out along the line through Iowa and Illinois. I wanted to step through the window and touch and feel each one. I’d heard there was a drought this year in the midwest, but I was suprised to see the corn so low, and tan.
Rolling green hills of hay and history
The living dream of our peasant forefarmers
Ancient telephone poles overcome by trees and ivy
Brave maize weather drought for harvest, the soy grow low
One hundred thousand barns, some new, others frail with age
But still useful, and used
M i s s i s s i p p i
Now we are in Illinois
It wasn’t long after I saw the skyline and noted to anyone who listened that the station was only two blocks from the Sears Tower, that I was off the train, had to ask for bearings, and grabbed the L home to mom, field-testing the luggage on known public transit.
I have been doing far less exploring of Chicago than I had intended. Wednesday I went to scope out Internet Cafe’s in my neighborhood. I found a nice place on Clark Street where I was the only customer. There was a pretty little garden with a fountain in the back. I had a sandwich and a go at the Chicago Reader, which is a truly magnificent publication.
Afterward, I thought that I was darned near a high school friend whose number I had failed to pull from my archives. Okay, well, let us explore. I found her house and wrote her a letter, not expecting her to be home so early in the afternoon. The letter told of what had happened since I got layed off last year, and I sealed it in the envelope that came with one of the cool Chinese-motif cards that I had in the pocket of my jacket. I couldn’t find any great place to leave the letter, so I rang the bell, figuring an elder family member might be around to receive it.
The friend in question was home. I coaxed her out for a walk, where we got to check out the Loyola campus. The weather was beautiful and my camera’s battery went kaput just as I tried to capture the beauty of Lake Michigan on a clear day. We rounded around back towards Sheridan, where we stopped at a nice, unwired cafe, which I totally dug. I had a meaty sandwich, chips, and a cookie for about $5, then dropped another $2 on a smoothy, while my friend went for some ice cream. A nice place to talk.
I walked home from there. Back on Clark I encountered a Chicano vendor offerig sweet corn on a stick to patrons at a Latin social organization. I grabbed one myself for $1.25, and as he slathered it with mayonnaise, butter, hot sauce, salt, I was reminded of home. Home in California. I thought it interesting that in my Home in Chicago a Mexican vendor should remind me of Home in California. I guess three years at 3,000 miles is sufficient for a touch of diaspora.
I got to meet up with Vern and Sharon by Belmont on Thursday evening. At an old EnterAct hangout called Cesar’s, Vern downed a large, a mega, and a large margarita. Sharon had but a single large, the smallest size they offer, and I had to chase my large with a mega, just to represent at Vern. We also ate dinner, as the waiter tried to flirt with me. Unfortunately for him, I know how waiters operate. Instead, as I admired the various pretty women around the place, I saw this one guy, out on a double date with a hot chick, was wearing a tee-shirt that enumerated the top ten reasons why his company was a great place to work.
Being, as I am, a recovering nerd with a budding sense of fashion and dating propriety, and a wanna-be author, and in posession of a couple of postcards, and pretty freaking sloshed, I wrote him a postcard, addressed it to him, placed a stamp on it, and left the postcard on his table on our way out the door. The postcard in question featured a black and white photo of a baby with a bar code tattooed on his rear. It seemed horribly appropriate, as the baby metaphorically symbolized innocence branded, which totally captured tee-shirt man.
Afterwards, we hung out on a street corner, sobering up. I went into the Walgreens to piss, and on my return, was informed that tee-shirt man had walked by, and expressed seemingly genuine gratitude at my action. It is probably just as well that I missed it, because I’d only be able to blush all the more, which, considering my inebriation, would have been overdoing it.
Instead, I was checking out a girl in a car at the streetcorner, as she seemed to be checking me out. As the car peeled away, the driver leaned over and yelled “DANNYMAN SUCKS!”
“I think that was Blake,” cried Sharon.
Blake was a former colleague of ours at EnterAct, though colleague is too strong of a word. Insane lunatic would better capture his professionalism, as we had known it.
I’ve completed my third International Call of the day. The first I received from Germany, where a highschool friend is with the foreign service. He has a spare room in Frankfurt, from where I’m flying to Amman. “My wife loves Amman! It is totally beautiful! Only five days?” It sounds like I shall be well-prepared for the Europe to Jordan transition.
The second I placed to BMI, my carrier from Heathrow to Amsterdam. I’ve pushed the flight back a week, so that I can visit Duncan, a former work colleague who lives in London. The first time I contacted BMI, the guy didn’t know what to do with my ticket, and became flustered. Okay, let him go and contact Airtreks, who said it shouldn’t be a big deal, here’s the “fare basis” – a “date change” will cost 25 GPB or 40 Euros. This time, as I listened to the quaint beep-beep of a British ringtone, and pressed four, and got connected right up to a real live operator, who was ready to help me find the “fare basis” on my ticket for me, I got everything squared away with no trouble.
I’ll not be flying on September 11. Well, I’ll arrive at Heathrow on September 11. I guess that’s good enough for Patriotism. I’m flying out of London on the seventeenth.
The third call was a voicemail message to the aforementioned friend in London, explaining that maybe we are best off making whatever arrangements are necessary via e-mail.