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 don’t narrate my life any more, whether for good or for ill. Well, maybe . . . I should try a weekly update. This has been working well at work, anyway.
Saturday, 21 November
On Friday I took Mei out to dinner, since we were going to not see each other for most of a week. We went to an Indian place up near the Kips Bay theater, where we then saw “Where the Wild Things Are”. I think the first time I saw that book I was impressed with its style, and so my Mom thought I liked the story and read it to me a bunch, but I always thought Max was kind of a spoiled brat. At the end of the movie I mumbled to Mei, “if my son pulls that crap he is not getting any chocolate cake.” When asked if he’d get any dinner, I responded that I wasn’t so sure. I wonder if the kid might have some blood sugar issues such that missing dinner may be a bad move.
Saturday morning, Mei was up early to go to work. I slept in a bit, and treated myself to brunch at Teddy’s, which served me two eggs, fried potatoes, Canadian bacon, rye toast, fruit salad, orange juice and coffee for $8.25. Now, Cheryl’s has some tastier food, so I’ll take Mei over there, but if it is just me, I stick with the cheaper, hearty meal.
I went home, washed the dishes and relaxed a bit, until around 1400 when I rode up to Penn Station to catch the 3:45 to Chicago. Now, a plane would have been faster and cheaper, but now that I live in New York, I can “afford” the relative luxury of a train ride home. The train was pretty full, and a guy named Don sat next to me. I got the modem working on my laptop and caught up somewhat on Internet reading. At Albany they took our engine off the train and shunted a series of cars from Boston onto the front. This was exciting to me, so I shot some dark, blurry video from the passenger area.
I treated myself to dinner in the dining car. Lamb shank, half a bottle of wine, dessert, coffee, and conversation with a cute college couple who were switching to the California Zephyr in Chicago, arriving in Emeryville on Tuesday to enjoy Thanksgiving in Santa Cruz. Robin the Film major and Miru the Art History major. They’re both minoring in Making a Living.
Despite ample legroom and a glass of Scotch from the Cafe car, I tossed and turned a great deal. (more…)
Today marks the completion of the 40th trip of this body around the local star. A momentous milestone for the resident being. I spent the weekend with my wife and son, riding the train down to Santa Barbara and back, a pretty little beach town where we visited the zoo and ate ice cream together.
Most likely, I’ll be around another 40 years, or more, but really: who knows? Every day I wake up with my health and my loved ones is a blessing.
The trip has been good. Tommy did pretty well, and the scenery along the way has had a lot of that intense emerald green the dry parts of California get after some good winter rains. The view along the coast near Santa Barbara is worth the long train ride.
I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for my friends. I am grateful for my job and ability to earn a living. I am grateful to be living at what honestly seems to be a very promising time in the history of our species. Life will not always be so great for this being, and in time, my life will end. I am grateful for the time I have had, and the time I have yet, and that I get to experience a little part of our collective adventure.