Delay on the Zephyr
On getting stuck in Grand Junction with the Amish and no Doritos.
Between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2010, I rode the US cross-country Amtrak train four times.
From Chicago to SanFran, it is poetically (ambitiously?) called the California Zephyr. The New York-Chicago section has the more subdued name of the Lake Shore Limited.
Four days and three nights each way.
$238 in coach class - that’s just a seat, no bed - from SanFran to New York (via Chicago). And I went back again.
I took lots of notes, some of them on an empty Saltines box when I ran out of notebook.
Here is a short excerpt around Day Three of an East-West journey, sometime in early spring 2010:
Just managed to get hold of a schedule.
I asked two Amtrak employees, the conductor and a carriage stewardess what time we get into Reno and none of them could tell me. Nor could they direct me to this schedule, a smudged copy of which I found downstairs in the snack car.
It says we’ll be in Reno tomorrow at 8.36am, after stops in Green River Junction, Utah at 6pm this evening, followed by Salt Lake City at 11.05pm and then Winnemucca, Nevada at the seriously uncivilised hour of 5.40am tomorrow morning.
I suspect it’s always somewhat uncivilised in Winnemucca, Nevada.
Perhaps this is unfair and Winnemucca is a hotbed of cultural expression, deep in the desert of eastern Nevada. Who can say. Not I, because it will be 5.40am in the fucking morning when we go through it.
We are being delayed in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Expected delay up to two and a half hours. Union Pacific rail line maintenance right up ahead. Holding pattern until at least 6pm.
Kill Me Now.
Make that an 11am arrival in Reno tomorrow. Maybe.
God damn it all to hell. I must watch my tongue. They’re a god-fearing bunch, this train-riding lot. Amish, mid-westerners, Utah Mormons. The occasional hippie thrown into the mix, not god-fearing but almost definitely moralistically vegetarian. Like the couple in front of me who were trying to find a place for their hand-carved didgeridoos or the chick with the glasses and braids doing watercolours in the snack car.
Fuck it. I am neither Mormon nor vegetarian so I curse the delay, lavishly, around a mouthful of canned tuna.
I get off the train in Grand Junction just because. What else am I going to do.
I need to call Carson, my friend in Reno. There’s only one payphone in the station and it is broken. I get in line to speak to the conductor, behind an Amish gentleman from Pennsylvania. He too is inquiring about the payphone.
“Are there any others? I need to telephone somebody back home in Pennsylvania.”
He pronounces it like ‘telephooone’ and ‘hooome’ and sounds very very Canadian. I don’t know if that’s a trait of all the Pennsylvania Dutch or just this guy.
Anyway, the conductor tells him there are no other payphones and seems amused at the very idea of an Amish guy wanting to use the telephone. Chuckling and shaking his head as if to say “well, now I’ve seen it all, right here in Grand Junction, Colorado.”
Then it’s my turn and he tells me the same thing but an old lady listening in says, “Here hon, I have unlimited minutes, use my cell.”
I thank her profusely and she creases her leathery face in a smile of wonder. “I thought everybody had themselves a cellphone these days.”
Everybody apparently, except me and the Pennsylvania Dutch. And at least they probably know how to milk a cow. I’ve got nothing, no cell phone and no fresh milk either.
Carson doesn’t answer. I leave a message and head outside.
The placard on the station says “Grand Junction, elevation 4578, population 28,000”. Underneath that, there is a red-and-white plastic sign that says “For Sale: Commercial Historic Train Depot, 9,547 square feet”.
This is unbelievable. One of the main stop-off points on a trans-continental railway, not a shop or a concession, but the entire grandiose neoclassically-ambitious station itself, sold off for parts like it was a junked car.
This is the logical (make that illogical) conclusion of privatization. What happens when the government decides it can leave key functions of the country in private hands.
And the private hands say, cool, no thanks.
Also, there is no way this town has a population of 28,000. I’d be surprised at 2,800 to be frank. I go outside the once-glorious, now totally derelict, depot. There’s a pawn shop opposite the street and a closed restaurant. The pawn shop has a book called ‘None Left Behind: Saving New Orleans Pets’ (that I wish with the benefit of hindsight I had bought). The only thing I want at the time, the engagingly titled Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the English Language, is $19.99 and weighs 12 lbs. I leave the pawn shop.
On my return to the depot, I discover there is a gift shop. For those who want to commemorate their trip to Grand Junction. I am not such a person but I do want food and water.
I am likely to be disappointed. I go up to the cashier with 3 bottles of water. She is asthmatic and wheezy, with one of those oxygen tubes hooked up under her nose.
“Is there a grocery store anywhere nearby?”
She is conspiratorial and hushed.
“Yeah, three blocks that way, City Market. They have a deli counter. Just be careful, cuz they say 2 hours but you know this train could go at any minute. But you’re young and fast, why don’t you leave the water here and you can come back for it? Water’s cheaper here.”
“Do you really think I have time?”
“If you hoof it.”
“I’ll hoof it, thank you very much.”
I hoof it.
As far as the corner, and then it starts to rain. I look up and see the lights of City Market hovering in the middle distance and then look back at the train, squat, grey, stationary. As misleadingly placid as a shark, waiting to rush off into the night the minute I’m out of earshot of the whistle. I scuff despondently back into the gift shop.
“I thought better of it, it looked too far.”
“Smart girl. Do you need anything else besides the water?”
Yes. I need a deli counter and a fresh fruit aisle. I need a sourdough bagel and caviar cream cheese. I need a chocolate cupcake, some grilled eggplant and five shrimp dumplings. Instead, I buy a bag of pretzels. There is nothing else worth considering, although they do stock four different flavors of pork skins (garlic, barbeque, cheesy, and sour cream and onion, since you asked).
The total comes to $5.75, cheap for pretzels and 3L of water. I hand her a $20 bill. She hands me back a quarter, then 4 ones, then a five. Then she is flustered, remembers I gave her a twenty and hands me a ten as well. I know her mistake immediately but I just smile, wish her a nice day and walk out quickly.
Outside, I feel momentarily elated, this whole bag of stuff for 75 cents! I could get back on the train now and she’d never realize!
Then I am overcome with guilt. But it’s not really guilt, more like a strong blinking red light feeling of Whoa, this is really Not Right. Her oxygen tube, the plastic For Sale sign. This derelict dying little depot that can’t even get it together enough to stock Doritos. I look at the money again and go back.
Back in the gift shop, she is embarrassed at her mistake and flutters her hand at me as she takes the $5. She wants me to go away, not to say it so loud that everybody hears and the other cashier looks over.
“That’s a good girl right there,” another customer says to her as I walk out again quickly.
Hot with shame. I am such a fraud.
For being overly-concerned with my own bad karma, my hasty Good Deed to fix it.
For not being subtle, hushed and conspiratorial as she had been.
For expecting and wanting to hear her grateful and relieved words of thanks.
What a phony.
And I never even made it to the deli counter.
I trudge back onto the train in a dim frame of mind.