Fast across the windswept plains of Nevada, traveling snake-like in its calm embrace, steams the Californian Zephyr. The stuff of legends, in 2016 she continues to defy her critics and captivate her admirers. She is no ordinary train. With a lifetrack spanning over 2, 438 miles (3,924km), the elegant locomotive drifts from open Oakland, California to Calamity Jane’s Windy City, Chicago, on the banks of Lake Michigan.
It was onboard the Californian Zephyr I saw the New Year in. This experience reminded me of an interesting New Year’s custom they have in Sri Lanka. On the evening of last day of the year, apparently, every window and house in Sri Lanka is drawn open. This symbolizes the departure of the old year and the welcoming of the new. Riding the Zephyr during New Year’s for me bore a resemblance to this custom: the inexorable choo-choo powering forwards scattered the bygone year across the Utah salt plains, whilst coasting into an exciting new era.
For a three day train ride, my time aboard the Zephyr passed surprisingly quickly. Whilst sipping chilled apple juice in the comfy observation lounge, we watched the snow fall in the splendid Sierra Nevadas, eagles dare in John Denver’s Colorado Rocky Mountain High whilst elk gathered in wildered bemusement at the galloping iron horse. Almost everyone I met was outgoing and willing to stop and chat. I cant say whether this was a microcosm of American hospitality in general or whether such amicable behavior was a survival mechanism that is seen when humans are forced to interact with each other in a particularly restricted environment. Since I have been riding the rather stern and serious DC metro for two weeks, my bet is the latter. Either way, I really got my fix of human connectedness over the three day train saga.
One group of sojourners I have fond memories of was a group of young 20-somethings that spoke with soft, genteel voices and, as we would say in Australia, smelled of hard yakka. They were old order Amish from up state Indiana. I learnt that each of them easily worked a 60 hour week, whether that be on the farm ploughing the old fashioned way with a team of diligent arbeitspferden (work horses) or putting the final touches on an RV in a factory in Elkhart. Yet their countenance did not appear weary and worn,instead they smiled with contentment. Dissimilar from their contemporaries, they were not selfishly submerged in a psychedelic trance of ipod listening, ipad lunging and iphone lounging. On the contrary, they sat in neat rows on the upper level lounge playing Rook, a family card game, chuckling like innocent children when a break through in red or green cards was reached. Occasionally, one could sound out a smattering of Pennsylvanian Dutch here or there, when they felt it was appropriate to speak their 17th century tongue without drawing too much attention. My short visit with Ervin Schrock, who invited me to visit his farm sometime, with Norman, Raymah, Grace, Lavern and Kevin, was like I had joined the Dr. on a Tardis trip back to a simpler and more holistic era when technology took a back seat to human interaction and deep Rook-inspired belly laughs.
If an author ever runs short of character ideas, they should book a seat aboard the Californian Zephyr. The number of fascinating people I met, each with their own quirky style, accent, humor and behavior could rival Debrett’s guide to the peerage of Great Britain. There was my seat mate Robyn, who was on a 15 day train journey, circumnavigating the US in search for new ideas and inspiration; Colchee, a woman from Chicago whose ninety year old mother, she assured me, was well known in Illinois, and rubbed shoulders with Obama and Rev. Jackson; Tom the lower level lounge attendant whose PA system voice bore a striking resemblance to Rev. Lovejoy from the Simpsons and who could forget Tad, the self proclaimed ‘bootlegging redneck’ from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who was more robot than man, having been run over by an excavator last year. Tad dwells on a diet of noodling (catching fish with his bare hands), fixing moonshine like the “good ‘ol days” and attending a restaurant chain associated with the onomatopoeia of owls, whose waitresses, Tad assured me, “th’all reel pruety”.
As the Zephyr chugged its way into Union Station, Chicago, vivid nostalgia came over me. This had been my home for the past few days and the meeting place of life long friends. I had laughed until I cried, cried until I laughed (at how expensive the dining cart bills) and overall had the time of my life.
Take my advice: take the train.