Arts & Culture / Mosaic / September 29, 2010

Revelations on the rails

The train departed at 6:55 P.M. from Union Station, just in time to catch the sun setting behind the Los Angeles skyline—a mix of light and steel through the grimy windows of the Southwest Chief. This journey from my home in California to Galesburg, Ill. took 40 hours and almost 2,000 miles—time and distance spent hearing glimpses of passengers’ lives and viewing the country from the rail.

The Southwest Chief is a two- level Superliner train comprised of coach cars, sleeper cars (first class), a baggage car, a dining car and a lounge car with the café and snack car below the lounge. This was my second time on the Southwest Chief going from L.A. to Galesburg-the first time being before winter term. I almost forgot how the world looked differently from the upper level of a moving train. As the Southwest Chief passed Vernon, CA, an airplane looked motionless in the sky.

The coach attendant walked through the car and a woman near me asked him when the train was going to arrive in Flagstaff. He mumbled his reply, “In the morning,” and continued walking. The woman, who looked to be in her mid-60s, turned to me and said, “What did he say?” I repeated what he said and afterward she told me she was going back to Flagstaff, AZ after visiting her son and grandchildren—the first time she had seen them in 10 years. I couldn’t imagine not seeing my parents for a decade, but I could imagine how happy she must have been to see her family again through her frail smile.

A little after 30 minutes in the coach car, I went to the lounge car where there were seats facing windows which reached from the floor to the ceiling and had table booths in the back. There were a few people in the lounge car. I sat staring at my reflection superimposed onto the dark scenery. Passing through San Bernadino, there were stretches of unlit desert save for the highway where a steady stream of cars were reduced to lights chasing each other. The older women behind me were conversing in Spanish, exchanging jokes and stories. A boisterous young group of people in the car were playing cards in the back corner.

I brought my own means of entertainment on the train in the hopes to fill some of those 40 hours. I had a notebook to write in, a Creative Zen mp3 player, my laptop with episodes of “The Office”, “Psych” and “Firefly”, a Nintendo DS Lite with games and a borrowed copy of World War Z. After spending hours in the lounge car reading and listening to music, it was almost 12:30 a.m. and thought I should finally condition myself for a normal sleep schedule. When I went back to my seat, the person who sat next to me was sleeping on my seat. I took my belongings and went to another coach car to sleep.

Like my previous experience, sleeping on the train was not very pleasant. The coach attendants gave passengers thin pillows and many passengers brought their own blankets—which would have been helpful because the car was chilly. I woke up many times throughout the night. During one of those times, the train stopped to make way for cargo trains, which, as they passed, sounded a haunting wail. It possessed a most unusual musical quality and was unlike anything I had ever heard even in Galesburg.

At 6 a.m.., I woke up to the rust-colored earth and green desert vegetation of New Mexico. There was a glare in the left corner of my glasses as the sun was rising. During that night and early morning, the Southwest Chief sped through Arizona. Slowly the train awakened as the man in front of me yawned and stretched his arms above the seats saying, “Oh, man!” and the girl across sat up, still covered by her blanket. An elderly man walked toward the front of the car on his way to breakfast, almost making it to the door when the squeak and jolt of the train caused him to sidestep. After regaining his footing, he said to the man to his right, “I felt drunk for a moment.”

Leaving the desert of New Mexico for the mountains of Colorado, the Southwest Chief went through a tunnel, blacking out almost everything for a minute. Through the intercom, the person manning the snack bar under the lounge car said, “Have I ever told anyone I was afraid of the dark?”

To save money, I brought my own food and drinks for the trip: tuna lunch packs, Chex Mix, juice boxes, water, fruit snacks and other non-perishables. On the second night I was tempted to buy a cup of noodles for dinner, but I thought that would be a premature start to the stereotypical college experience. Instead, I bought a really sad excuse for an Italian sub sandwich. Buying any of the “hot items” in the snack car meant it would most likely be microwaved and therefore it was no surprise that the meat and cheese looked really pale, as if the soul of this sandwich had been sucked out. It was only edible after spreading on mayonnaise, mustard and three packets of pepper.

Choosing how to pack things was also important as I had all of my toiletries in one small case, which made things easier because the restroom on the train, as you could probably imagine, was really cramped quarters. The restrooms were located in the lower level of coach cars, which included a changing room with a restroom connected to it. I found it strange that there was a fold-up diaper-changing table located directly above the toilet—that’s how news headlines are made. When using the restroom on the train, make sure to keep your cell phone in a secure place because loose pockets could mean almost dropping it in the toilet—not that I would know, of course. I also discovered the cheapest (in both senses of the word) death-defying act you could pull: trying not to swallow your mouthwash while the train is rumbling up and down.

It was nighttime during the long stop in La Junta, CO and during the smoking break, someone was walking around the track barefoot. A man in a white cowboy hat boarded, sitting in the seat in front of me. Shortly, he conversed with a man travelling with his wife in the seats diagonal from him. They found out that they both knew a man who was a rancher. A few moments later, the man diagonal said to the man in the cowboy hat, “Why are you going to Kansas City?” He answered that he was going to see a friend who has cancer. “Might be my last trip,” he said. Through the night, the man in the cowboy hat did not sleep, instead choosing to leave his light on to make sure he would not miss his stop, keeping ever vigilant for his friend.

After traveling through Kansas, in the early morning the train arrived at Kansas City, MO, where an Amish family boarded—a wife and husband who sat in front of me, next to the man in the cowboy hat and their two sons sat diagonal from them. I felt a bit sacrilegious when I peeked up from behind my DS Lite to get a glimpse of the Amish man as he got up from his seat. After a bit, I realized that though the Southwest Chief has outlets so that people could have the comfort of their electronics, I was glad the train did not have Wi-Fi. There is a certain old-fashioned charm of riding the train and Wi-Fi would most certainly ruin it.

Cutting through Iowa, there were a few gasps from passengers looking out the window as the Southwest Chief crossed the Mississippi River. I smiled as the train passed a sign saying, “Welcome to Illinois: The Land of Lincoln.” An hour later, we arrived in Galesburg and I stepped off the train, keeping with me those revelations from the rail.

Sheena Leano

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