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Thursday, June 3, 2004 12:51 pm

California or bust

Eat and nap, eat and nap; eat and nap and look out the window. . .
Photo courtesy of Bette Jo Smith

Friday. Two-twenty in the morning isn't my usual time for writing stories; ordinarily my head is on the pillow and my eyes are closed under my sleep mask. But here I am in the forlorn Kansas City railroad station, waiting, waiting, waiting for the train to arrive -- so far, two hours late.

Our big train adventure west began at 1 p.m. on a recent Thursday in Springfield: Pack the bags, drive to the station, get on the train to Kansas City. Arrive there at 9 p.m., hang around until 12:30 a.m. Friday, get on the California-bound Southwest Chief and into a comfy bedroom, and away we go.

It all worked out until the "get on the Southwest Chief at 12:30" part. My husband and I discover in Kansas City that the big old Chief has had engine trouble in Chicago and needs repairs. It finally rolls out two-and-a-half hours late after getting several transfusions and lots of bandages in the Chicago train yard.

The Springfield-to-Kansas City journey was thrilling. I love trains -- the smell, the mournful whistle, the clickety-clack of the wheels, the scenery flashing by. Mostly I love seeing vistas not usually noticed -- old decaying warehouses being slowly devoured by vines, truck yards, the back yards of small-town houses. The yards are usually filled with broken chairs and old swing sets and bikes in various stages of assemblage and rusted garden tools. Riding the train is like walking down an alley -- you get to look at the undersides of places, not the usual spiffed-up street views. Even ugly streets such as Harlem in Chicago, filled with billboards and neon, are meant to be seen. Views from the train are of hidden things. Chambers of Commerce don't have slick color pamphlets featuring piles of tires or the city dump or the rusted-car graveyard. These scenes are, in a way, more exciting than malls and flowerbeds and decorative street lights and office buildings with bronze reflective-glass façades -- there is a real, gritty, depressing, monochromatic beauty to them.

The train pulls into Kansas City at 3 a.m. -- our wait has been a mere six hours. But when you travel, you either roll with it and look at everything as an adventure or else spend lots of time crabbing and whining and saying "Never again" and composing irate letters to CEOs in your head. We chose to roll with it.

9 a.m. Friday. Kansas is even flatter than Illinois. But the flatness has always held such beauty for me, a child of the prairie. I was enthralled with the greenness and flatness of Holland, too, the first time I was there. The leaden Kansas sky makes the winter wheat look Day-Glo green.

Our sleeping car offers a shower, and I take advantage of it -- pretty good, with lots of spray. A man opens the door as I'm drying off. He is much more dismayed than I. We're all friends on Amtrak, I tell him, as I duck past him in the corridor. He looks sheepish.

Another thing I love about the train is its coziness and sense of security. We have an economy sleeper that, even though it is approximately the size of a double-decker coffin, makes use of every square millimeter of space -- bunk beds at night and a neat, tidy little room by day with places for cups and a fold-down table and clothes hooks and diminutive bins for teeny pieces of luggage: a place for everything and everything in its place. The cozy little room makes you feel closed in and tight in a comforting, cocoonlike way, and the train itself generates the same feeling. No worries about nosediving out of the sky to a fiery death -- you glide smoothly along, watching America go by from inside the nest.

"Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer ..." Fresh carnations on the table, white linen tablecloths, china plates -- reminders of the good old days of trains. I order a Gardenburger because every time I travel west and see the gargantuan herds of cattle, I temporarily become a vegetarian. I want to dash up to their pens, unlock the gates, and tell them to head for the hills before they get ground up. But after being home for a few days, I revert to my old meat-eating ways. It's a lot of work, being a vegetarian -- maybe it would be easier if you had a cook.

3 p.m. Heading into the mountains. The train creeps along, the three engines struggling to drag at least 20 cars up, up, up -- the big engines that could. Now there are aspens and rocks and hairpin curves. We are already three-and-a-half hours late. At this rate, our scheduled 8 a.m. arrival tomorrow in Los Angeles will be in time for dinner. However, what goes up must come down, so maybe we'll make up some time when we descend. I remember that our lunch friend told us the trouble in Chicago had something to do with a leak in the brakes -- I hope the leak got plugged, because I feel us gathering speed as we head down.

Eat and nap, eat and nap; eat and nap and look out the window; eat and nap and look out the window and read -- these seem to be our primary occupations as we settle into vacation mode and train rhythm. Ordinarily I walk more than two miles a day and pay a fair amount of attention to eating healthfully and try to read things that are halfway enlightening, but so far I've walked only to the dining car and back and eaten mixed nuts and cookies and cheese crackers and Fannie May candy along with regular meals. (My slimmer-than-me husband always packs snacks for the masses.) My reading material is A Thousand Acres, an overrated potboiler. Who gives out these Pulitzer Prizes, anyway? Why do people equate mawkish trash such as The Bridges of Madison County and A Thousand Acres with art? Oh well, at least A Thousand Acres, with its self-indulgent whining and vapid dialogue, helped me pass the time in the Kansas City railroad station.

It's been gray all day, but now, in the distance, near the horizon, I see a little blue sky and some white puffy clouds. I imagine they are emanating from California, the promised land, and think how the settlers must have felt the same thing as they laboriously clawed their way west. No wonder people still gravitate west: Some of that promise is still there for them -- just look at any of those slick Hollywood lifestyle magazines for proof.

4 p.m. Oh, oh! The train has stopped completely and there is no town in sight and no mountains to climb and no siding to be gotten onto to let a freight go by. What's wrong? I think of the Donner Party. Let's see, how many miles a day would I have to walk to guide everyone to the desert or a highway before snow sets in?

6 p.m. The novelty is starting to wear thin -- our backs are breaking from sitting and the New Yorker, my usual reading staple, seems too hard to comprehend. I feel as if we've been held captive on the train for several years. People outside our door are crabbing because the showers in their deluxe rooms are ice-cold, so they have to come downstairs to where we riffraff stay and use our communal one. "We pay top dollar and then there's no hot water," they sniff. Just shut up and take a sponge bath, people. I close our door. Maybe my testiness is due to pre-dinner low blood sugar, but I don't see how, considering our obscene consumption of fat and sugar all day. Around 8 we'll stop in Albuquerque long enough to refuel and put on mail -- I'm looking forward to walking around to get the kinks out even though they've announced that it's only 30 degrees there and I'm wearing sandals.

9 a.m. Saturday. Yes, sleep does indeed knit up the raveled sleeve of care, as the Bard told us. After nine hours, interrupted only momentarily each time we stopped (no more lulling rock-a-bye-baby motion), we wake to a cloudless sunrise in the Mojave Desert. No cars or houses or cattle or roads -- only rocks and scrubby bushes and sand and distant buttes, all tinted orangey-pink. We might as well be on the moon or on Jupiter.

Noon. Everyone seems more optimistic today -- after all, we're almost there (only four-and-a-half hours late), and Amtrak gives everyone a free lunch of sandwiches and chips and soda in the lounge car. It's a small gesture but a smart one that seems to turn many pinched, pursed lips to smiles and laughter. An almost partylike joviality takes over during the last few miles.

Someone asks my husband how he's liked the trip. He pauses and says he'd have to think about it in retrospect. I guess I'd have to agree -- we've heard several people say they take train trips only every two years so that they have plenty of time to remember the good and forget the bad. Pretty good reasoning, I'd say, although I'd probably only wait a week or so before deciding to go again.

Just can't shake the rhythm of the wheels and the smells and the thrill.

Amtrak connects more than 500 destinations in 46 states. For schedules, fares and information, call 800-USA-RAIL or visit www.amtrak.com.

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