Wednesday, April 27

amtrak

~19:30: I’m on the California Zephyr, right about where the rail line intersects all that crazy refinery shit in Commerce City. More specifically, I’m in the bar car, drinking a beer, with my laptop charging and a comfortable seat and a big window in front of me.

The train system in the western part of this country has its pathologies. The main one is that it mostly doesn’t exist, and where it does exist, it mostly doesn’t work as a means of travel for human beings who need to participate in society. You want to spend airplane money to be in transit for two days and risk delays longer than the travel time involved in many entire trips? Take a train! (Maybe they’re getting better though. This one was in Denver a good 45 minutes before departure and left the station on time, miracle of miracles.)

Beyond that, well, I’d been here five minutes before I formed an opinion about which dude is most likely to get (more) grotesquely wasted and be kicked off the train in the middle of the night somewhere in Western Nebraska to sleep it off in a local drunk tank. Hanging out in this car is definitely going to get me into at least one awkward conversation tonight. Going back to my seat is likely to do the same.

~20:43: And ok, let us not bullshit one another: Transportation in America is broken in a series of important ways. As far as I can tell, with the very qualified exception of established rail corridors in coastal zones, trains are not going to save us from this fact, or even do much to mitigate it. At least not until “trains” are fleets of linked robot vans rolling down designated lanes on interstate or something.

With those things out of the way, I really love long-distance passenger rail. When this thing does work, it’s this glimpse of an America you could fall in love with if it were an enduring configuration of facts beyond the weird little windows of time-on-the-train.

This train is carrying young Amish (Old Order Mennonite? some plain-dressing Anabaptist modality) couples with babies, Black people from St. Louis and Chicago, white hippies with dreads, happy-go-lucky travel-addict retiree types, board game nerds, definite alcoholics and possible junkies, that inevitable pairing of some-kind-of-nebulously-religious person and attractive European tourist where you can’t tell if they ever met before the train but you can tell they’re going to wind up in bed within 24 hours, and a couple of people from Utah bound for a tobacco pipe convention. (I know about this last because I shared a table with them in the dining car and ate a steak dinner. And was it a good steak dinner? Well, it was at least marginally better than anything I ate in Las Vegas the last time I was stranded there, and it beat all hell out of the weird starchy potato crackers they give you on airplanes now.)

~21:07: It won’t surprise me if the Deadheads in the crowd break out an acoustic guitar and start pissing off the crew in earnest before long.

Anyway, my point is this: If somehow you’ve got the time to kill, Amtrak in America west of the Mississippi can be a pretty good time. Hell, even when it’s a bad time, which is not so far off from likely, it can be an experience you will come to value.